Only a short time ago, flat-barred road bikes were a breed apart. Once the personalised steeds of streetwise couriers, these mutant machines mixed and matched parts from road bikes and mountain bikes to offer the best of both worlds. Splicing the speed of one with the riding position of the other turned out to make a whole lot of sense, and it wasn't long before manufacturers were lining up to offer their take on the formula.
In fact, the flat-barred setup appeals to many. You might be an older roadie looking for a more upright, comfortable riding position without too much loss in performance; a commuter who enjoys a fast turn of speed on your ride to work, as this same geometry offers an improved field of view through traffic; or indeed anyone new to cycling - flat-barred cockpits, with their improved braking and easier shifting, plus the visibility bonuses, are more confidence inspiring. Lastly, they're also a bridge to those heralding from an MTB background - a familiar riding position only with a slicker, faster ride.
Tapping into the appeal of the inclusiveness of the setup, there's now a whole range to choose from. Giant's FCR1w (£650) is another bike based on a road bike platform, part of the new women's specific series and aimed at the sports market.
The FCR1 shares the same Aluxx butted frame as the women's SCR, in their 6000 series aluminium alloy. Geometry hasn't been tweaked for use with flat-bars, and as such has a shorter effective top tube than when used with drops. It is not, however, an overly short reach to begin with and is actually the same dimensions as the men's FCR frames (the women's ones get shorter stems). Welds are smooth in the main triangle and the back end has reinforced looking seatstays. There's a single eyelet for mounting a rack or mudguard at the dropouts, but there's hardly any room between the mech and tyres for a 'guard. A rack goes on more easily, however bear in mind that this is a road frame, not a touring or even a hybrid frame, and the wheels supplied aren't suitable for heavy loads. The forks are carbon composite with an alu steerer and there's plenty of clearance for a mudguard between the fork and tyre. Mini-Vs and eyelets on the fork legs and crown make attaching the front 'guard far easier than at the rear. The pearly white finish on the frame and fork has a cool and appealing look - never mind the sorts of conditions it'll face in a rainy season of riding - and wins points for style. Two bottle mounts easily fit full sized bottles in the 50cm frame.
As the frame is borrowed from the road line-up, the FCR1 has an easy reach with flat bars and a very upright position. The bike tested was one size larger than I would normally ride in a compact frame, but even so, top tube length was not an issue. It was only the lack of seatpost showing and height of the front end that was noticeable. There are wide bars too - nearly 23in with the bar ends - which is good for visibility in traffic, but could be shorter for narrower shouldered women and ducking through tight city alleys. Aimed at the fitness and training market, the improved control and positive feel of braking and steering on flat bars still outweighs the disadvantages of facing the wind with wide arms and an upright posture. The FCR1 is quite light and lively to ride and has certainly a road bike rather than hybrid feel, even with the 28c rubber. It rolls along smoothly, has ample gears for climbing and you get good leverage out of the wide bars. The controls are well within reach and the brake levers are less fatiguing to use than STIs for smaller hands. There's plenty of power from the Tektro mini-Vs, though modulation is less than perfect and feels especially 'grabby' on the front rim. Toe overlap was not an issue, and overall the bike cornered predictably and handled sharp, fast city riding as well as hilly, country lanes.
Giant have gone out of their way to make the FCR1w look good. It has coordinated paint from frame to fork, a matching white saddle and slick silver cable housing. They could easily have got away with standard black, but the result is a look that's a bit special. The headtube is long with an internal headset for continuity of style, a small stack of spacers and a short stem to keep the bars close and high. Performance-wise, the saddle is a comfortable and sporty women's design. Along with the 170mm cranks and 90m stem (165mm and 80mm come on the smaller sizes), these are the FCR's only female specific concessions. It's become quite standard to see a carbon fork and post on a bike at this price, which must help its smooth feel on pocked roads - also thanks to the wider tyres. The 105 rear mech is a highlight, however the mixed drivetrain was a bit fussy when shifting and needed more attention to keep it running efficiently. It's a standard (30/42/52) TruVativ triple chainset paired with a mid-range SRAM 12-26 cassette. The front mech is Shimano's flatbarred series R443 and there're 9- speed R440 levers. Tektro linear pull mini-Vs and levers work well with this set-up and give more 'guard clearance. Giant's own comp alu bars and stem finish off the kit.
The Xero XSR 3s are a case of style reigning supreme. With 20 and 24 paired spokes front and rear, they look like fast road wheels, though they're neither really lightweight nor robust enough for hard commuting. Hubs are Formula's, with easy-to-service cup and cone bearings. They take a suggested tyre width up to 28mm - like the Kendas that are fitted - and down to 23mm for faster rides. The Kendas roll quicker, once up to speed, than their width might suggest and the extra cushion of air smoothes over bad roads, as well as mixed surface cycle lanes without trouble. However, the minimal spoked design is not ideal for curb hopping or pothole hits over the long term - best to keep these wheels on the ground.
Giant's FCRw isn't that women specific, but it's still a solid upright position and performs well for new riders looking to break into cycling as a form of gaining fitness. The lack of rear clearance for a mudguard is a shame, especially as it has eyelets drilled out. Overall though, it's lighter and quicker to ride than a hybrid and with 28mm tyres, strikes a good balance between comfort and speed.
Kona Phd Latest and lightest in Kona's stylish flat-barred lineup, features Easton Ultralite Race tubing, Aksium wheels, FSA Gossamer triple, Conti Ultrasport 23c tyres, rack and 'guard eyelets too.
Trek 7.6 FX WSD With 700x32c wheels, the 7.6 is good for city and light rough stuff, while still having the look and feel of a flat-barred road bike. There's clearance for mudguards too.
Genesis Day 03 The classic flat top boasts sleek looks, lightweight aluminium frame and fork, Shimano Tiagra triple, R500 wheels and rack eyelets - all without worrying the bank manager.
Trek Soho Hit town in style: Avid BB7s for all-weather breaking, single chainring for minimum maintenance faff or cost, rubber frame protectors, upright riding position and there's even a thermos for your skinny latte too...