Schlitter Freestyle Review
I got the opportunity of a lifetime to test ride a Schlitter Freestyle. I’d seen photos of John Schlitter’s new bike and read Jonathan Garcia’s review. It sounded promising: a bike with John’s sensibilities for comfort and handling (read: lively-yet-stable and all day comfortable), capacity to dress it out with state of the art componentry, and available in virtually any color you want. Not that color matters when you're plunking down big money for an awesome bike, right? OK. It does. The Freestyle definitely got my attention, so I got in touch with John to see if, just maybe, I could escape rainy coastal California and venture down to Florida for a test ride.
What ended up happening wasn’t just a test ride - it was the whole Schlitter Experience. John hornswaggled me into not just test riding his bike, but test RACING it for 12 hours - at Sebring – as part of the Battle of the Brands. There was a certain logic to that - for my purposes I definitely need to know that the bike is going to work for long, hard days. And the time frame worked well with my schedule. But, sitting on the plane, it was all starting to sound a tad, well, arrogant: I was going to just hop on a dual 700 bike that I’d never seen before - after years of riding only 451/700 bikes- and learn a new format, and race it hard for twelve hours two days later. This bike had better be good!
John set me up with his red demo bike. He had been peppering me with questions about x-seam, crank length, and the like in the days leading up to the fitting and when I got to the shop the bike was fairly dialed. Over the next two days John refined the fit a bit, and by Thursday before race day the Red Menace was in beast mode. (I had to name it something, right?)
The Freestyle has a level deck for seat adjustments. The boom is nearly level, too, and both of them adjust. That means you have the possibility of more than one fit at a given x seam. Want more weight over the front wheel? Move the seat and boom forward. Want a more spacious cockpit? Move everything back a little bit, see how you like it.
Unsure about fit? Or just want a second opinion? ASK JOHN. And if you can get down to Florida for a personal consultation, do it. John is a master of the details that go into getting fit “right”. At Sebring there were over 40 recumbent racers. Every one of them who had been fit by John (quite a few, and not nearly all of them on bikes that say “Schlitter” on them) was relaxed, comfortable, and happy on the bike. High praise. The spec on my demo Freestyle was modern and functional: sleek, tapered road fork, modern wide deep carbon section rims fitted with 28mm tires, disc brakes, SRAM Force crankset, and an SRAM Force/Eagle double drivetrain with GX grip shifters. I'm going to set my bike up with thumb shifters because that's what I'm used to, but the grip shifters worked flawlessly once I got my brain consistently twisting them in the proper direction. His J bars have gotten a slight overhaul since the last ones I bought (for my Encore 20): they are a bit longer. My body geometry has often made shin clearance and good reach to the bars nearly mutually exclusive, so the extra length benefits me a lot. I'm a J bar enthusiast – they give me good clearance, good comfort, and good sight lines.
The stock seat is made by Performer. It’s a pretty decent seat. John can order you a different seat if you'd prefer, or you can bring your own - but if you don’t have a specific taste in seats this one is a reasonable starting point. John set it up with a filter foam pad. Individually I wouldn’t have picked either of these (I’m more of a Ventisit gal, for one) - but they work well together.
John’s personal Freestyle is currently spec'd a bit differently - the main differences being a wider fork (Whiskey #9 CX, if I recall) and 38mm tires. And it’s green. He also threw on some panniers. He’s been talking to a customer who is interested in racing the Trans America on a Freestyle, and John wanted to test out a potential setup for that. Bonus for me: he’s lugging the spare tubes, tools, and pump. The frame is ready to accept racks, bags, and fenders. It gets me thinking about touring, and I like that a race-ready Freestyle is just a couple of tweaks from being a fast, capable touring machine without making serious compromises.
BUT HOW DOES IT RIDE??? John designed the bike to be comfortable and fast. It delivers. For the “but it's ALUMINUM? How could you go backwards after racing a carbon Encore?” doubters – it is first and foremost a comfortable bike. The rear strut placement keeps my back and shoulders from being jackhammered – which wasn't much of an issue on the Encore, actually, but in the past I've ridden carbon stick bikes where it really felt like I was being pounded because the rear axle sent every bump straight to my shoulder blades. John has designed this bike so that the struts connect to the chainstay well in front of the axle, which damps the force quite a bit.
It is also not a heavy bike. I didn't weigh mine specifically but with decent light components my build will be in the same weight range as my Musashi and my Encore – 24-25#. Aluminum is a pretty light material. When I've ridden “the lighter, the better” bikes, I've had to make compromises, too, in comfort and durability.
The 50” wheelbase is a couple inches longer than my Encore 20 (but actually almost exactly the same wheelbase as my partner Bill's). Why so long? The Freestyle's slightly longer wheelbase is John's secret sauce for comfort and stability. Much longer and you'd start to sacrifice speed and nimble handling. I'm not an expert on bike design, but after riding this bike there's no denying that John is.
The feel of the bike is everything that I love about my Musashi, but a bit better, and likely a bit faster, too. I'm sitting IN the bike, not perched ON it, with every joint relaxed and supported. Good sightlines, and every move the bike makes is a direct expression of my wishes. Sort of like being in the cockpit of a finely-tuned racing machine. It hits me: “Well, that might be because you ARE in the cockpit of a finely-tuned racing machine!” Even the headrest rocks, though John had to make several modifications to get it just perfect for me.
The first 11 or so miles of the Bike Sebring 12 hour are on the historic Sebring International Raceway. How many people get to “test ride” their bikes on an actual race track? I'm feeling incredibly lucky. I've raced this track before, but the last time was in 2010-2012, on a Carbent. I remember Larry Graham's advice to me at that time: you can pedal EVERY corner on this track at speed, no problem. Because this is a test ride, I'm starting out a little conservative, but – heck yeah. I can lay this bike into a tight line in the corners and pedal through with some power. I'm sure that running wider tires has at least something to do with the improvements, but cornering was impressively good.
Along the rest of the 12 hours, I also had the pleasure of observing that the bike is very stable in high winds, even with relatively deep section rims (50 mm or so, I didn't measure exactly), and that it maintains its stability in relatively low speed climbing (on that one “hill” that Florida gave us, over and over). Toward the end of the race, all of the racers were moved to a 3.6 mile loop to get a finishing mileage. I knew based on when I started – with a bit under 30:00 to go – that I was going to get 2 laps done. With two turnarounds in each lap, 3 was not going to happen – so I was free to play with whatever speed I wanted. I did the first at pace that I knew was going to leave me plenty of time to finish #2 even with a mechanical – fairly quickly. I left myself something like 17:30 to complete the last lap, and I knew that I could decide to either loaf, or turn on the afterburners. I figured that this was finally time to lay down some power on what straightaways there were, just to see.... Power transmission is really good. Like really, really good – enough that I was able to knock :30 off the previous lap time and move up a full position in the overall standings in the last mile or so.
I ended up with 225.2 miles for the 12 hour event - enough for 17th overall, 3rd female, 4th recumbent, and 1st female recumbent. On a test-ride bike that I had only "met" a couple of days before. Those results speak volumes about the bike. Either it's incredibly easy to learn, or the world better watch out because there's a ton of upside as I learn how to be even more efficient on it. Or - since it's a Freestyle - why not both?
If you've read this far, it's likely no surprise to you that I hauled out my credit card and placed an order for a new Freestyle first thing when I got home. And color? In the end, I chose the same red/black scheme that I'd test rode. All of the “stock” colors that John has put out are gorgeous and vibrant – but of course to keep with the “Freestyle” theme you could have...almost...anything. I decided to cut through my usual “analysis/paralysis” and go with something that was gorgeous and matches my Red Pearl Racing team colors.