The Six-Month Test: Fuji SST 1.3

If you thought you knew Fuji, think again. This muscly all-arounder might just be one of the most underrated race bikes on the market.

    Photo: Aaron Gulley

The Cycle Life

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Fuji is one of those bike brands that is easy to overlook. Despite the fact that numerous pro continental teams have ridden their bikes with great success, including NetApp-Endura, Champion Systems, and (now defunct) Geox-TMC, the company is often associated with budget bikes and older steel models.

In the last few years, the company has been trying to change that. And under the direction of Senior Product Manager Steven Fairchild, who came from Jamis, they have been rethinking and rebranding with considerable success. The Altamira SL, a superlight climber, garnered excellent reviews when it was launched last year, and the company’s Norcom Straight, released earlier this spring, gives them a credible high-end triathlon entry.

The SST 1.3, the company’s flat-out race bike aimed at sprinters, proved to be one of the big surprises of our test year. It exceeded the expectations of every single rider who tried it. And given the bike’s distinctive, out-of-the-box design, it made us fundamentally rethink our impressions of Fuji and eager to try more of the company’s bikes.

THE FRAME
We chose the 1.3 because it uses the same exact high-modulus frame as the top-end 1.1 but sells for a much more reasonable $4,200. The frame is built from brawny, oversize tubes and is distinguished by the triangular T-shape of the top tube and the stiffening rib that runs the length of the down tube.

The bottom bracket area, built around BB86, is enormous and connects to equally strapping chain stays, and the seat stays have a thick, wishbone-style design for even more rigidity. Additional nods to stiffness include the oversize tapered head tube and the airfoil-shaped seat post. All said, the SST 1.3 is built for maximum power transmission and big, strong riders who exert lots of force.

That’s exactly how it felt on the road, too. The front end is iron stiff and direct, and our biggest testers detected zero flex in the bottom bracket, even on full-gas, out-of-the-saddle sprints. All that stiffness made the bike shine not just on flats and rollers but also on tricky descents, where we could push as hard as we wanted into turns and never have to worry about losing the line.

More than once while plunging down the swooping, technical descent off Ski Santa Fe on the SST 1.3, I dropped friends who ordinarily have no problem keeping my wheel. One niggle: though we appreciated the tidy looks of routing the cables internally, the design proved sub-par as the cables tended to slap noisily around inside the tubes, especially on rough descents.

Unlike many stiff bikes, however, the Fuji is not bone-shatteringly rough. It’s confident and responsive but still surprisingly smooth, especially considering the medium-profile aluminum wheels (more on those in a minute). The balanced handling and comfort enough for longer days in the saddle make it an excellent all-around road racer, with a predisposition toward bigger riders and sprinters. Willowy climbers will likely find it a bit overpowering, though it’s not at all heavy at 16.3 pounds for a size M/L (56).

The flashy graphics were the bike’s only polarizing feature. Many testers loved the brash looks, which are accentuated by the color-matched wheels and cockpit bits. But a few wished for a more muted option. 

THE COMPONENTS
The parts pick on the SST 1.3 was nearly as good as the frame. We are increasingly fond of electronic shifting, and Ultegra Di2 packs the biggest bang for the buck. It’s just as quick and reliable as the Dura Ace group, and the weight penalty is small considering the huge price difference. As for the battery life, which some detractors list as cause for steering clear of electric, we charged exactly twice in nine months of frequent riding and never came close to fully draining the system.

For those who like to have the latest innovation, it might be worth waiting for a 2014 version of the SST 1.3 now that Shimano has released Ultegra 6870, the second generation of Ultegra electric that adds the programmability and plug-and-play customizing options of Dura Ace 9070. That launch, however, also makes it a good time to find a deal on existing stock.

We already like Rotor a lot for their fit-anything approach to components, and we’re even more convinced now that we’ve ridden their cranks, which power the SST 1.3’s Shimano drivetrain. Several testers commented that this one of the stiffest cranks they’ve ever tried, and it’s a super high quality pick at this price point. Feelings were mixed, however, about the 50-34 chain rings up from, as most agreed that this compact setup was a little bit anemic for a bike that’s made to sprint.

Fuji’s in-house brand Oval Concepts parts were the other component high point, especially the 910 carbon handlebars. The tops have a subtle back-sweep and oval-shaped profile that just feels good in the hands, and the compact drop had us riding in a tuck as comfortably as in the hoods. These were, simply, some of the most comfortable bars we’ve ever ridden, and more than one tester wondered about purchasing them after market to install on their personal bikes.

The only letdown was the Oval Concepts W535 wheelset, which rode nowhere near as fast and flash as they look. These aluminum clinchers might be fine for training, but they felt lifeless when we had to accelerate fast and a bit ponderous in the corners. They are nowhere near the caliber of the frame, but of course that’s partly what makes the SST 1.3 more affordable. When we swapped the wheels with a set of Shimano C35s, the bike really came alive. 

THE BOTTOM LINE
The SST 1.3 flies in the face of cycling’s current push toward specialization—and we like that. It’s one thing for the pros to have a quiver for varied conditions, but if you’re like us and need one bike that can do it all, the SST 1.3 finds a happy balance.

It isn’t as feathery as a dedicated climber, but it’s pretty darn light and much more confident in all conditions. It’s not as slippery as an aero frame, but it has some concessions like the seat post shape and it seems to hold speed just fine. And while it’s hardly as compliant as, say, the Domane, it’s also surprisingly supple given how stiff and efficient it is. It’s a bike that you might never have thought to purchase, but if you do, you won’t regret the decision. 

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