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Handmade carbon delivers the feel


Chris Davidson -
Hailing from Peabody, Massachusetts, this handbuilt carbon bike offers some fine craftsmanship and a unique ride quality, as Chris Davidson discovered.

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Parlee is not the largest manufacturer of carbon bikes - its 2006 annual production is estimated to be 350-400 frames - but this small American builder prides itself on a process of truly hand building a carbon bike from the ground up. While factories on the other side of the planet produce thousands of carbon frames for various brands (see another manufacturer's comments on this topic), Bob Parlee builds a unique carbon structure. The entire process from start to finish is overseen by one individual and, even in the carbon frame world, Bob Parlee has some unique ideas about what is best way to do carbon.

Parlee's frames use round carbon main tubes exclusively, custom-made for Parlee in the US, along with wishbone stays that are molded in-house. Much in the way higher-quality lugged steel frames are constructed, the frame tubes are precision mitered for full tube-to-tube contact and joined with carbon fiber lugs which are also made by Parlee.

The components are assembled without glue and the joints are then wrapped with carbon cloth. The entire assembly is cured in Parlee's custom pressure jig which uses flexible inflation elements that not only minimize voids but also allow for custom geometry. Parlee takes pride in these unique construction techniques that are all developed to get around some of the common limitations of carbon frame construction.

Other elements of the frame include custom 6/4 titanium dropouts and BB shell made for Parlee by Paragon Machine Works in California. Smaller items like the carbon fiber and titanium cable stops and water bottle bosses are custom Parlee creations.

My large Z3c test bike came with slightly compact [7 degree sloping top tube] geometry, although the standard Z3 is also available with traditional geometry. Minimal red and white decals covered Parlee's now-signature clear woven carbon finish. Traditional paint is available as an option on any Parlee frame, but I was happy to see all the carbon work visible, and the round tubes were a refreshing contrast to the varying multi-shaped tube configurations seen on many current carbon frames.

Parlee is a framebuilder exclusively, leaving dealers and consumers to spec out the frames as they see fit. Our Z3c test frame retails for US$3900, and came with an impressive parts package from Shimano, Reynolds, f'izi:k, Chris King, and Maxxis. A Dura Ace groupo did the dirty work; the carbon bar, stem, carbon seatpost, carbon fork, and carbon clincher wheels were from Reynolds; Maxxis provided Columbiere 700x23c tires; and the entire package was finished off with a f'izi:k Arione saddle, Salsa skewers and King headset. While Parlee did not provide a total price for the package, a Z3c spec'ed like this one would be upwards of US$6,000. Full custom geometry is also available for an additional US$700. The complete package weighed in at 16 pounds dead even.

The Ride
Usable rigidity (Stiffness when climbing, sprinting, powering the flats, etc.) The Parlee really delivered here. I was very impressed with the rigidity of the BB when standing on climbs and while sprinting out of the saddle. While some carbon manufacturers cite the multi-shaped tubes as a way to add stiffness, I would not want to add any more rigidity to the round-tubed Parlee. On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being very flexy and 10 being a track sprint bike, I would rate the Parlee a 7.5: very impressive for a road bike and not lacking in this area.

With stiffness sometimes comes a harshness that detracts from the bikes handling. With that in mind, the Parlee never felt harsh in its directness; rather there was a unique feel. I was very aware of the feedback from the road, yet did not suffer from it.

Responsiveness, handling, agility (Ability to chose a line, maintain it and do it effortlessly) The Parlee was very responsive, so much so that comparisons to a steel bike come to mind. Under braking, cornering and descending, the bike felt very dialed in to the road and my steering inputs. The Reynolds fork deserves mention here as well. It is solid and its properties seem well matched to the Parlee frame.

To date Parlee has equipped approximately 70% of the frames that they have sold with Reynolds forks, and the Ouzo Pro felt like it was constructed by the same hands as the frame. Together the frame and fork left me in no situation where I doubted the harmony of their responses to road conditions. To improve a little on the feel of a steel frame, the Parlee frame and Reynolds fork seemed to remove the resonance of a metallic frame without removing much of the valuable feedback (in other words, strong signal to noise ratio).

The combination of properties that this bike displayed in a variety of riding conditions made it stand out from all other carbon bikes that I have ridden.

Comfort (Ability to put in long miles without undue fatigue) Those elements of comfort from long miles in the saddle that are related to the frame and fork were excellent. Comfort is not solely a measure of the frame, however.

All the rider interface parts need mention as well; with this bike the components added a measure to the comfort rating. I really like to see f'izi:k's Arione on bikes I get to test. While I don't ride an Arione on my personal bikes, I never have any trouble warming up to one on a new bike. It has been my experience that very few others that try an Arione have negative reactions.

On this specific bike, the saddle augmented the long-term comfort. The carbon Reynolds handlebars had both a pleasing ergo bend to the bar and unique shape to the tops of the bar that added to the comfort. While many bar makers now have a bar with plenty of flat area on the tops, the Reynolds bar had a more triangular shape to the tops, feeling more like a traditional bar, but adding greater relief for the hands.

Another part of comfort is the ease and confidence in which the pedaling takes place. The Reynolds carbon clincher wheels/Maxxis tires made the bike feel fast in all conditions. Team Healthnet presented by Maxxis relies on the same combo for its 100+ wins a year, so this combination is proven fast repeatedly. It was refreshing to ride carbon race wheels, but still have the ability to stop and change a tube quickly when that inevitable flat tyre came. The two bolt carbon Reynolds seatpost and the four bolt aluminum stem proved easy to setup and held their adjustments with no hassle. Finally, Salsa skewers are always a pleasure to use, so I was happy to see them securing the wheels. The trustworthy nature of these parts was reassuring every time I rode.

To summarise, I never got off this bike thinking that fewer miles would have been better.

Mechanic's report
Riding bike is great fun, but someone has to work on them. I get to work on plenty of different bikes, so here is my take on what your mechanic might have to comment on given the Parlee.

Water bottle bosses - These are a Parlee custom creation and Bob Parlee prefers not to ever place a hole in a carbon tube if it is not necessary, so the bosses are threaded extensions that stick out from the tube. I see the point of preserving the frame tube, but I had trouble getting the nuts to stay tight on my cages. This problem is not unfixable, and Parlee is reported switching to stainless Nylock nuts for 2007, but I didn't happen to have a nut driver on one of the rides I was on, but in the group I was in we could come up with all the different size Allen keys from 2 to 6mm.

This choice makes the Parlee unique, and unique is not bad per se, but in some situations different leaves you stuck.

Chainstay bridge - This small carbon bridge between the chainstays left a perfect little shelf for road (and off-road) debris to built up. And it did the more I rode the bike. The front derailleur cable runs through this area, so in time this may prove to be problematic for the average rider. I felt like I always had to spend more time scrubbing this area to get it clean when washing to bike, so I felt like I always need to re-lube the front derailleur cable as it goes through the BB cable guide. This point proved to be worrisome if nothing else.

Non-replaceable dropout - Bob Parlee likes the strength of a solid 6/4Ti (titanium) dropout, citing better drivetrain performance. Point taken. I prefer a replaceable hanger such that a little 'get-off' does not necessitate a return trip for the frame to the builder. There are good arguments on both sides of this issue, but it is worth noting.

Press-in headset - I really like this option. Far too often today's frames come with a particular internal headset combination, I know that I have options with a press-in headset. I don't think that I will have to every deal with problems with the Chris King headset installed in this frame; they typically outlast everything on the bike. But I sleep better knowing that options exist.

Front derailleur clamp - This frame used a Shimano clamp with a braze-on front derailleur. This is the universal solution. It also lets you adjust for situations outside the normal (ie-compact crank, 56 tooth chainring, etc). Again, flexibility is a good thing.

Parlee takes a unique approach to constructing a carbon frame and this handmade process has some advantages and differences over other methods of carbon bike production. While you will not see Parlee supporting an entire ProTour team soon, his bikes have been ridden by the best riders in the world.

The Parlee I rode contained some really unique ride characteristics that can be appreciated by all who ride bikes. The Z3c was very connected to the road and provided all of the feedback from moving over asphalt at high speed, with a distinct feel of confidence and a lack of harshness. This combination of a stiff yet direct feel has escaped all the other carbon bikes I have ridden so far.

Parlee has really unique presence in the this respect, with a liveliness that mimics some of the best steel frames I've ridden. Perhaps it is the method of construction with the Parlee, where the carbon is continuous from the tubes to the lugs, which provides the added qualities. Maybe it is the added manual labor in all the hand done touches in the creation of the frames.

Whatever it is, it is worth investigating a Parlee. The weight and the stiffness are impressive, but the road feeling is difficult to describe. I have no reservations in giving this bike my highest recommendation as the ride of the Z3c was truly remarkable.