Bike Test: Felt AR vs. Parlee RZ7

TIME FOR AN AERO FIX?

THE BRANDS

Bob Parlee has made a swath of performance machines. His first claim to fame came by designing high-performance sailing boats for the America’s Cup Series. Parlee took his knowledge of carbon craftsmanship and applied it to two wheels in 2000. In recent years, Parlee has adapted disc brakes and wider tire clearance across most of his offerings. He even added the Chebacco, a gravel bike, to his road and time-trial-focused catalog. Last year Parlee teased a concept aero road bike at the Sea Otter Classic. The concept frame turned heads with its aero fairings and sleek lines.

Felt has revamped its drop-bar catalog over the last few years by adding disc brakes to their VR road bike and by releasing big rubber, gravel options in the form of the Breed and Broam. For 2020 Felt upgraded their AR, the aero road frame many manufacturers like Trek, Cannondale and Specialized used as a target to beat when designing their own frames. Felt upgraded the AR in three key areas—aerodynamics, functionality and performance.

THE FRAMES 

Felt

Felt’s intention with the AR was to improve the aerodynamics to meet the needs of modern road riding. The previous frame featured classic airfoil shaping throughout, and new for 2020, Felt used truncated, D-shaped, airfoil-shaped tubes. The new tube shapes are designed to perform better in the most common wind yaw angles while maintaining performance overall.

“For 2020 Felt upgraded the AR in three key areas—aerodynamics, functionality and performance.” 

The rear of the seat tube flares out in a patented design Felt calls “Fish Lips.” Huh?! Its purpose is to encourage smooth airflow across the tires like the spec’d 25mm Continental Grand Prix 5000s.

During the development process, Felt asked AR owners what they wanted to see upgraded and, not surprisingly, disc brakes were a top answer. For 2020 the AR has gained flat-mount disc brakes on the frame, and Felt will no longer make a rim brake-compatible frame. This now allows the frame to accept up to 30mm tires.

The addition of disc brakes means the AR now has thru-axles as well. Thru-axles not only give the frame a clean and aesthetically pleasing look, but they improve ride quality as well. 

Parlee

Parlee focused the design of this concept bike, now named the RZ7, around aerodynamic efficiency and on-road compliance all the while keeping weight savings in mind. A size-medium RZ7 frame has a claimed weight of only 870 grams. Parlee uses a proprietary design of truncated airfoil-shaped tubes called “Recurve,” and they’ve found that it offers better performance at the most common angles wind hits the frame, as well as bringing some weight savings. 

A big talking point of the RZ7 are Parlee’s own Speedshield disc brake fairings. While they can be criticized as dead weight, the fairings and hardware used to secure them add less than 26 grams to the build. However, to adjust the front brake caliper, the front wheel needs to be removed in order to loosen the 4-gram front fairing to access the Allen bolts on the fork. We didn’t do a round of independent wind-tunnel testing to find the effectiveness of the plastic bits, but Parlee claims they smooth airflow around the unique shape of disc brake calipers and are intended to save more watts. However, we can tell you they do add a unique look that’ll be sure to strike up a conversation on a group ride. 

The aero integration continues to the small details, like the hidden thru-axles on the drive side of the frame. A countersunk hole hides the ends of the thru-axle and presents one of the most streamline drive sides of any frame we’ve seen.   

Another draw to Parlee is their custom paint program that can be had on any bike in their line. Parlee says, “Getting a bike finished the way you want has become a signature for us.” For a logo color change, you’re looking at around $300, while more elaborate, multiple-color designs creep upwards. 

THE PARTS 

Felt

Felt offers the AR as a frameset and in two build options: Shimano Ultegra Di2 or mechanical, both with Ultegra hydraulic disc brakes. While these aren’t the typical top-tier choices most manufacturers offer, Felt says they plan on offering a Dura-Ace Di2 build later in the future. The AR is spec’d with race-ready 52/36 chainrings paired with an 11-30 cassette.  

The cockpit is a fully Felt experience provided by Devox, Felt’s in-house parts brand. The 42cm handlebar has a flat-top design with bar tape reaching one-third of the way across from the hoods. The handlebar is internally routed to hide hydraulic lines and shift wires to the stem. A massive AR stem swallows the wires and lines as they are routed to the frame. Don’t fret, unlike other modern aero bikes with proprietary cockpits, the AR still has a standard 1.25-inch steerer tube, which means the frameset is compatible with nearly any standard stem. The gated steerer tube spacers make adjusting stack height on the fly difficult, but for those that know their number, once the steerer tube is cut to the proper length, the spacers can be forgotten about. 

Felt updated their mid-split seatpost and sleeve that originally debuted on the previous AR. The split design is intended to reduce road vibrations at the saddle, as well as save weight. While the weight savings are minimal, the compliance enhancements are appreciated. 

A set of Reynolds AR58 wheels keep the aero intentions of the Felt obvious. The 58mm-deep carbon rims are tubeless-ready and feature a 19mm internal rim width.    

Parlee

Fittingly, Parlee’s top-end build is centered around a SRAM Red eTap AXS groupset. Thanks to its wireless design, SRAM AXS gives any bike a clean look. Parlee ups the clean-looking aesthetic higher with internal routing that has less than 5 inches of lines visible. The 46/33 chainrings are paired with a 10-33 cassette for a 1:1 granny gear ratio. The cassette increases by 1 tooth from the 10- to 15-tooth gears, which offer a smooth shift intended to improve cadence efficiency in that range. This offers a wider range of gears than a traditional compact chainring setup, and the low gears are easier for climbing, but top-end speed will require a higher cadence to be reached. A pair of 160mm rotors add more stopping power (and a bit of weight) than the 140/160mm combo on the Felt.

“Parlee focused the design of this concept bike, now named the RZ7, around aerodynamic efficiency and on-road compliance all the while keeping weight savings in mind.” 

A pair of tubeless-ready AR41 Reynolds wheels are paired with Vittoria Corsa 2.0 tires and, as their name implies, the 41s are 41mm deep. They feature a 21mm internal rim width. The Felt and Parlee require tubeless valves and sealant for a quick tubeless setup. However, only the Parlee’s tires are tubeless-compatible. 

Focusing on the front end, the seamless integration of the cockpit is impressive. Parlee’s hallmark oversized 31.8mm carbon handlebar is paired with a massive Parlee carbon stem. Unlike the Felt, the Parlee has an oversized 1 1/4-inch steerer for added stiffness. A plastic cover on the stem seamlessly hides the stem bolts (and hydraulic lines) in the rear of the stem, and it pops off for easy on-the-fly adjustments. 

THE RIDES

Felt 

“Fast” is the easy description of the AR’s ride; it feels fast. It’s short 98.8cm wheelbase, 25mm tires and semi-compact drivetrain skew the Felt towards the aggressive side of modern aero performance.

Aided by the massive stem and the beefy fork, the front end of the Felt is impressively stiff. This makes out-of-the-saddle efforts feel responsive and efficient. Power transfer responds immediately through the cranks to the rear end. The compact rear end is stiff as well. The AR is one of the stiffest bikes we’ve ridden. However, don’t mistake all of the stiffness as a takeaway from the compliance qualities. 

From our first ride at the launch of the AR, the planted and stable ride quality stood out. The rolling farm roads around Ojai, California, that are more often than not rarely maintained, offered a rough testing ground for the AR. There, the bike proved to us how much aero bikes have improved in the last five years. 

Descending, the AR is agile and responds quickly in tight corners. The bike likes to lean over, and the AR goes where you point it. This isn’t the most confidence-inspiring ride, however; it is exciting, and it feels fast. 

Climbing feels efficient. Efforts respond directly to the pedals; the stiff frame and wheels are to thank. Rolling at 18.3 pounds, our size-56 frame is on the heavy side for a $6500 bike. However, the power transfer is so efficient that it almost negates the extra weight. Compared to the 16.75-pound Factor One and the 17.12-pound Parlee RZ7, the efficiency bonus from the stiffness of the frame was a welcome reward for some riders.    

Parlee

Bob Parlee’s extensive knowledge of frame design paired with the SRAM AXS components and Reynolds wheels create a refined ride quality in the RZ7. Our experience on the RZ7 garnered some nods from the pickiest test riders we have. On paper the RZ7 appears to be an endurance-oriented aero bike. The 99.8cm wheelbase paired with the 73.15-degree head tube angle creates a relatively responsive ride. What impressed us most was how responsive the RZ7 was set up with its 28mm tires. 

Cornering the RZ7 hugs the chosen line and begs to be leaned over in sharp turns. On our local winding descent, we were able to lean further into apexes, which allowed us to hold our speed. We were able to record top-10 segment times consistently and even earn a Strava KOM on the segment that was previously attained on a BMC Timemachine Road (RBA, March 2019). 

“Both of these bikes are able to handle 30mm-wide tires, which is the max offering from most big manufacturers…”

Head-to-head against the Felt AR on this segment, the Parlee consistently finished ahead when pushing the same power. The 28mm tires inspire confidence similarly to the handling of the 3T project build on page 38, but the 21mm rim width of the Reynolds ARs prevent the tires from ballooning as wide as the Pirellis on the 3T. The Parlee’s Vittorias measure to 30mm on the rim. This keeps the overall ride quality smooth with an added sense of control when compared to 3T.

Our favorite road groupset of late is the SRAM AXS system. Its major benefit comes while climbing. The 1:1 gear ratio allows a higher cadence than offerings from Shimano and Campagnolo. This makes holding speed up steep grades easier for us, especially on days we aren’t feeling our best. While the Red-level group on the RZ7 is expensive, SRAM’s mid-range Force components have the same gear range at about half the price.

Hard efforts are aided by the stiff cockpit. Rocking back and forth on the handlebar, there is no noticeable rotor rub from the fork, which is often a knock on disc brake bikes. Top speeds are reached in the 46-10 gear, which left us spinning out around 36 mph. While it’s fast enough for most situations, the Felt has a speed advantage on downhills and in sprints, thanks to its semi-compact gearing.

The 28mm tires opened up fire road riding. Wait, why bring an aero bike on the dirt? Well, it’s fast and, hey, they do it in Europe—just look at some videos of Spring Classics like Strade Bianche. The RZ7 can tackle the dirt and small rocks better than its narrow-tire competition. We found ourselves passing mountain bikers with full-suspension bikes and full-face helmets on the climbs. On the same roads on the Felt, we were moreoften jostled around and noticed much less compliance.              

THE VERDICT

Felt and Parlee’s offerings forge their own paths in the modern aero bike market. The Felt has a race-proven pedigree with wins from Rally Pro Cycling’s squad (page 86), while the Parlee looks to capitalize on the enthusiast that is looking to save as many watts as possible. Both of these bikes are able to handle 30mm-wide tires, which is the max offering from most big manufacturers, but the Parlee has the advantage with clearance for 2mm more rubber on top of that. 

In a world not bound by money, we would buy both bikes until a better one is released, but if we had to choose one to ride every day, it would be the Parlee RZ7. It’s all-around compliant handling makes it ideal to meet the needs of modern road riding. It’s geared for the steepest climbs and handles better than the Felt on curvy descents. However, the Felt AR is two-thirds the cost of the Parlee with nearly similar handling characteristics. We would opt for a set of 28mm tubeless tires instead to close the compliance gap.

FELT PUNCH LINES

Built-in stiffness, designed compliance

Race-ready; the pros use it

Clean, simple aesthetic

PARLEE PUNCH LINES

Planted cornering is an understatement

Geared for the climbs

Color customization to make it uniquely yours

FELT STATS

Price: $6499, $3499 (frameset)

Weight: 18.3 pounds 

Sizes: 48, 51, 54, 56 (tested), 58, 61cm

www.feltbicycles.com

PARLEE STATS

Price: $9699, $4899 (frameset)

Weight: 17.12 pounds

Sizes: XS, S, M (tested), L, XL 

www.parleecycles.com

FELT GEAR

Helmet: Giro Aether

Glasses: Rudy Project Defender

Jersey: Ale Gravel Joshua

Bib: Ale R-EV1 Agonista Plus

Socks: Road Bike Action

Shoes: Giro Empire

PARLEE GEAR

Helmet: Giro Synthe 

Glasses: Tifosi Aethon

Jersey: Bontrager Velocis 

Bib: 7Mesh MK3

Socks: Fitter

Shoes: Specialized S-Works 7 

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