The Flanders Forte is a fun bike to ride. It's nimble and quick and has really flickable, precise handling on even the roughest or loosest of surfaces, which makes it the perfect weapon for cyclo-cross racing or high-speed blasts on the gravel tracks.
- Pros: Hugely responsive to any input, loads of tyre clearance to make it more than a CX bike
- Cons: There are a lot of logos...
Flanders Cycles originated in Flanders (unsurprisingly!) and its history spans four decades, testing and developing bikes under some of the toughest race conditions throughout Belgium, Europe and Australasia.
It's now based in Australia, after distribution was taken on by Paul Redenbach, who rode for its pro cyclo-cross team over in Belgium before returning home to Melbourne. He and the team down under have since developed their own new frame designs and taken the brand to a new level.
The Forte frameset was developed in conjunction with and tested by two cyclo-cross teams, Flanders JBlood and Kern Racing – and it shows.
A mixture of the aggressive geometry with its low front end and stiff, exciting frame shows its competitive upbringing. It loves to be ridden hard and it's so responsive to whatever input you give it.
This Kern Racing build comes in at just 7.8kg, which means it's absolutely brilliant for climbing. Taking it to my local twisty woodland trails was an absolute hoot as I carved my way around and bunnyhopped over tree roots and holes.
With a 71.5-degree head angle the steering is quick off-road without coming across as hugely twitchy, yet it manages to be beautifully direct. Even when you are losing traction on soft mud or small gravel into a bend, you can keep the power on as the slide feels so predictable and you know exactly where your front wheel is going to end up.
This makes for fun descending too, and on the wide, swooping gravel tracks around my way, where you can touch 50mph while hopping and swerving around rocks big enough to wreck wheels, the Forte was an absolute scream.
Its riding style reminded me of the carbon fibre Canyon Grail, a bike that I absolutely loved. The Forte has that same grin-inducing ride as you flick the handlebar this way and that to avoid the carnage.
Things can feel a little more intense on the Forte as it has a firmer ride than the Canyon, and without the same levels of shock absorption of the Grail's cockpit and seatpost it can feel like the obstacles are coming at you that little bit quicker.
I'd put the Forte's ride style more like that of the excellent Vitus Energie CRX, which makes sense considering they are both 'cross bikes as opposed to the gravel bias of the Grail.
However, if you are out for a longer stint and don't need the added pressure of flying by the seat of your pants then the Forte can deliver here too.
The network of gravel byways near me stretch for hundreds of kilometres and most are wide open with swooping bends thanks to being owned by the military and designed for the movement of troops and tanks.
Even with the relatively narrow 32mm Panaracer Gravel King SK tyres fitted, the ride wasn't harsh so you can tap out a rhythm for ages without fatigue or discomfort, and you can cover decent distances without issue before opening the tap when you get to a fun bit.
If racing is your thing then all of this adds up to a great bike for turning up at your local CX league. With masses of tyre clearance, mud clogging isn't a huge issue and the way it responds to hard efforts means that accelerating through the bunch or pushing out of slow bends never gets boring.
The whole ride is all about fun and an impressive reward for your effort.
Frame and fork
This latest edition of the Forte is created from a uni-directional carbon fibre monocoque that's had a bit of refinement to the layup over previous models. In this 54cm size the frame weight is a claimed 980g with the full-carbon fork coming in at just 380g. Not bad for a frameset designed for the rough abuse of gravel and cyclo-cross racing.
The front end has a 1 1/8 to 1 1/2in head tube for added stiffness under steering loads and those from the disc brakes. The tube is only 145mm tall too, which shows how race-orientated this thing is.
Like a lot of frames these days, especially race ones, the Forte follows a familiar theme.
The tapered head tube leads into a large diameter down tube which has a mix of round and flat edges as it heads down to the bottom bracket junction.
Purists may not be too happy to see a press-fit bottom bracket, but after plenty of wet, muddy rides I haven't had any creaking issues.
The chainstays are tall to provide plenty of material for stiffness, while remaining narrow for good tyre clearance.
The top end of the frame is more svelte for comfort, with the top tube narrowing as it travels back towards the seat tube.
I like the way the top tube blends into the seatstays, which are slender from a side-on profile to allow some flex.
The whole thing is finished off with a tough-wearing paintjob and while I picked up on the amount of logos in the 'cons' section above, I do appreciate that this is a race livery where branding equals advertising. There are various colourways available.
The frame has full internal cable and hose routing which thankfully is positioned well enough that you hear no pinging or rattling when riding on rough ground.
Ours has a 1x groupset but there is a mounting point for a front mech if you'd prefer a double setup.
As you'd expect, the disc callipers are fitted flat mount style and there are thru-axles front and rear, although with a 15mm/12mm bias rather than the more common 12mm front and rear. Worth bearing in mind if you are speccing wheels and you have to pay extra for adaptors.
It's a race bike, so there is no provision for mudguards or a rack, and I like that approach. While many bikes are becoming a bit of a do-it-all mix, I still like to see a division between pure performance machines and all-rounders.
I've mentioned that tyre clearance is pretty impressive and here you are looking at room for around 42mm tyres. This doesn't restrict the Forte to cross racing, which limits tyres to 35mm, and gives you the option for more volume to take on longer gravel rides.
The Forte is available as a frameset only option for £1,049 or you can go for a 'rolling chassis' build which includes the frameset, Parcours Paniagua wheels, Deda Zero 1 handlebar, stem and seatpost plus Road & Ribbon bar tape for £1,519.
Our build is based on the one that Team Kern ride, which is the Deda Zero 1 setup with a SRAM Rival 1x, hydraulic brake groupset with 160mm front/140mm rear rotor spec and a Prologo saddle.
The wheels are deep-section carbon Parcours Grimpeur Discs (separate review to come) wearing those Panaracer tyres.
It's a good build that works really well together and SRAM, just like Shimano, has a way of delivering very similar shifting and braking right through its range regardless of price. The gear changes are crisp and the braking is impressive once the discs are bedded in, which really suited the way the frame and fork behave.
However you build this bike up, the frameset is an impressive heart so it'll be a blast whatever.
I compared the Forte to the Vitus Energie CRX earlier and you can get one of those with a SRAM Force groupset for just £1,899.99, but we are talking mass production compared to the smaller scale model employed by Flanders.
At £1,049 for a full-carbon, race-ready frameset weighing just a claimed 1,360g, I'd say that's a pretty impressive outlay. The Flanders feels really well built and the carbon layup gives a very good ride feel, especially when it comes to stiffness versus harshness.
The rolling chassis isn't too far off the mark of something like the very good Forme Monsal Rival at £2,600, giving you nearly £1,100 to spend on a groupset.
If you want a race-inspired bike for cyclo-cross with the tyre clearances needed for gravel, then the Forte is a very good choice – especially if you want a frame that lets you know everything that is going on beneath those tyres.
A lightweight, hugely responsive frame for cyclo-cross racing or day-long trips on the gravel
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Flanders Forte
Size tested: Medium
Tell us what the frameset is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Flanders says, "The Flanders Forte is a culmination of countless months our R&D department and race development program have invested. Resulting in some major changes from our previous model. Including a refined carbon lay-up shaving 200g and a new monocoque fork which has shaved a further 100g while maintaining stiffness and ride quality. Our 54cm frame weight is 980g and fork is 380g. Other major changes include switching to flat mount callipers which make for better braking and weight saving. We stuck with the 160mm rotor up front to maximise braking power while decreasing the rear rotor to a 140mm to increase control in slippery conditions. We have adopted thru axle 100x15mm front and 142x12mm rear to increase lateral stiffness and because of the safety benefits. Complete internal cable routing makes for a clean design and will maintain optimal gear shifting in adverse condition."
The frameset works for those who want to race or enjoy a spirited ride away from the tarmac.
State the frame and fork material and method of construction
Frame: Uni directional monocoque carbon frame, full carbon monocoque fork, fully integrated gear and brake cables, tapered head tube (1 1/8 ' – 1 1/2'), 160mm front and 140mm rear disc brake rotors, 100x15mm front axle, 142x12mm rear axle, maximum 40c tyre clearance, race refined geometry
Frame Sizes: X Small (49cm), Small (52cm), Medium (54cm), Large (56cm), X Large (58cm)
Frame Colour: Race Team (Turquoise/Grey), Kern Team (Orange/Black)
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
A great example of well-thought-out carbon layup finished with a tough and durable paint job.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
Its race-orientated geometry suits those who like an aggressive ride. Full table and details here.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
It is absolutely spot on for a race style frame with a low front end and stretched-out top tube.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Yes, there are more comfortable gravel bike out there, but this is primarily a cyclo-cross race machine with a good compromise between stiffness and comfort.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
Yes, loads of stiffness at the front end and around the bottom bracket.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
A large down tube, BB area and chainstays deliver plenty of stiffness for excellent power delivery.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively neutral or unresponsive? The lively side of neutral.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
The handling is quick and very responsive, which makes the bike fun and easy to control on loose terrain.
How did the build components work with the frame? Was there anything you would have changed?
It's a good all-round build. The gearing and braking worked well with crispness as the chain skipped across the cassette while the stopping power is awesome. The wheels help bring this build down to an impressive 7.8kg build which gives the Forte a real spring in its step.
How does the price compare to that of similar products in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?
A lot of the CX/gravel bikes that come in for testing are a full, off-the-shelf build so it's tough to gauge, but for the weight and stiffness of the Forte I wouldn't say it is overpriced.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? Yes
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
It's a stiff and responsive CX-cum-gravel frameset that is loads of fun to ride thanks to its light weight and great handling.
About the tester
I usually ride: This month's test bike My best bike is: B'Twin Ultra CF draped in the latest bling test components
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: time trialling, commuting, club rides, sportives, fixed/singlespeed
Stu knocked out his first road.cc review back in 2009 and since then he's chucked the best part of seventy test bikes around the West Country, a couple of them quite literally! With three alloy and two steel bikes in his fleet he's definitely a metal man (that'll be the engineering background) but is slowly warming to that modern carbon fibre stuff along with fat tyres & disc brakes.
It's not all nostalgia though, after spending the last few years in product design Stu keeps banging on about how 3D printing is going to be the next big thing and he's a sucker for a beautiful paint job too.