The world has known Parlee as the leader in custom carbon bike production since the day Tyler Hamilton rebadged his custom Parlee carbon frameset to seem like a Look in the 2002 Giro D'Italia and Tour de France. I remember thinking: that Parlee must be god damn incredible. Flash forward nearly 20 years, and I finally have a Parlee to call my own, a Parlee Z1 carbon frameset painted in metallic pink by the high-tech Massachusets workshop. Who is Parlee? Well, they are named after Bob Parlee, a man who has risen from carbon innovator to industry stalwart, just recently racking up another major advance with the recent 2016 Eurobike Gold Award given to their new Parlee TTir disc-brake time-trial/triathlon bike. Whoa. Back to this Z1, the pink beast in question was built-up for me, Blacksmith Cycle's fearless leader Mike Yakubowicz, certainly no Tyler Hamilton, for better or worse. Keep reading to learn more about Parlee, the bike above, and what makes a custom Blacksmith Cycle bike so special. Oh, and for those customers who are not local, we design and ship bikes around the world every week, from California to Singapore, so don't hesitate to get in touch. I do hope you enjoy this pink Parlee's story...The Specs
Brake Pads: Lightweight carbon by Swisstop
Chainrings: Praxis Lava Forged 50/34
Chain: Shimano Dura Ace
BB: THM BB30 Ceramic
Pedals: Mavic SLR Ti
Cages: Arundel Mandible
Bartape: Fizik Performance 2.5 mm classic perforated
Skewers: Tune DC-14 Carbon
Top-cap / spacer: Tune UD carbon / Tune magnesium
OK, before we get to the frameset, the guts of the bike, let's discuss some build choices that might stand out to #thoseintheknow:
- Up front the ENVE 2.0 fork sets the current standard in quality, comfort and stiffness. I was happy to forgo today's typical tapered or 44 mm front end for a bit more comfort and aerodynamics that the narrower 1,1/8" size offers, not to mention the classic look.
- Ultegra Di2 may seem a touch mainstream for this bike, but the truth is it works flawlessly, plus...Shimano will be releasing the new 2017 Dura Ace Di2 group in early 2017. So, um, we'll see what happens. Yes, I can be a slave to new technology.
- The only moderate complaint I have with Ultegra-series groupsets is the weight. So, let's sub in a Dura Ace chain + cassette, and then, drumroll please...Cue THM Carbones, the German lightweight carbon specialists, who provide their Clavicula SE crankset and Fibula brakeset, adding some bling, and lowering the weight by well over a pound. Marginal gains, but the result is a very light package that gives nothing away in terms of real-world durability or performance, upgrade prices aside.Those Wheels
Ok, let's get to it and discuss those wheels. Lightweight provided their "old" Gen III Obermayer tubulars for this shoot, some of the lightest 50mm+ carbon wheels ever produced. To be clear, these are not my usual everyday hoops. But they also happen to be uber-stiff, and do indeed add class to almost any build, with the knowledge that they are made by hand in Germany. For some that's no big deal, but for me, there is a quality and ethos to handmade products that I relate to. With the announcement that Lightweight are adding a new manufacturing process to produce, ahem, cheaper carbon wheels [at $4,000 USD] with robots, these entirely handmade Gen III wheels have an even greater meaning to the traditionalist in me, who imagines Lance Armstrong or Jan Ullrich purchasing wheels out of the back of a Audi hatchback before the start of the 1999 Tour de France. Lightweight now have an even lightweightier 2017 Meilenstein Schwarz Ceramic carbon wheelset, priced at a not-even-the-slightest-bit-unreasonable $6,700 US. Are they worth it? Those are still made by hand, jaw-droppingly lightweight, ride incredibly smoothly, and are simply among the finest cycling products ever produced in the pantheon of "engineering meets art" undertakings. Unfortunately for Lighweight, with carbon wheel technology improving across the board, and trickling down to smaller brands, there are tons of awesome options for high-performance wheels that don't require a mortgage. Just check out our own online wheel store or wheel sale page to see some of what's out there.
And since we're looking at them, let's examine Vittoria's incredible new Corsa+ Graphene tubulars, in the rare Anthracite side-wall option: smooth, fast, grippy and durable as they come, pretty much the perfect tires. Wow, that was easy. Continental may be a bit tougher, Challenge more for the classic crowd, and Dugast for the artisans, but the new Vittoria tire range is hard to beat for overall quality. Oh, and tubulars themselves? I still dig em. Call me old fashioned, but lower weight and better ride quality never go out of style. How do I ride without support, I hear you ask? With a can of Vittoria Pit Stop or Effeto Mariposa Espresso Tyre Sealant, and for longer rides, a pre-glued tire under the saddle, plus a Silca chuck and Co2 canister, or Impero Pocket Pump. No biggie. Then again, tubeless options are also looking appealing these days.The Carbon(e) Touch
THM Carbones was mentioned above but are worth touching on again. They are a small team of mad scientists in southern Germany who produce only lightweight carbon components - forks, brakes, cranksets, and soon to come, their Eurobike-announced 85-gram carbon stem. Yeesh. They were actually recently purchased by the Vroomen-led 3T Cycling outfit, and also announced upgrades to their Fibula brakes to take 30 mm tires for 2017, a welcome addition. Their Scapula CT fork is quietly the best carbon fork on the planet, though cost keeps it out of reach for most. So let me keep it simple: the strength-to-weight ratios on the THM components pretty much destroy anything else on the planet [maybe AX-Lightness excepted]. They are also expensive. Very expensive. But cutting edge beauty costs money, and the 30mm carbon-spindle and intricate spider on the Clavicula SE simply makes me swoon, not to mention the choice of glossy or matte finish on all of their components. Are there other fantastic after-market options in both categories? Hells yes. Cranks? How about FSA, Praxis, AX-Lightness, not to mention the awesome stock units from Campy, Shimano and SRAM. All nice. And brakes? What about EE for starters, probably the best alloy brakeset on the planet, plus AX-Lightness again, oh, let's not forget TRP and all the big boys. So there are tons of great options these days, but after over 15 years of extensive carbon engineering, the finest ultra-light components now offer a measure of reliability never imagined when we used to drill out our parts to save weight. Thankfully those days are over. When I was 18 my Bianchi XL EV2 weighed 18 lbs and the local bike shop owner almost crapped his pants when I noted this. A few years (or decades) later we are down to 14-15 lbs with not too much effort. More on weight and its perceived gains later.The (Seemingly Endless) Options
Frame geometry, build list, color choices...those are only the beginning of the custom bike checklist. Next, BB's, chainrings, cassette ratios, and cable routing all need to be determined. But don't let a custom design seem daunting, as each choice enables the rider to access his or her perfect build combination. With proper guidance, those decisions become clear. In my case:
- Press Fit bottom brackets get a lot of heat, but the truth is that the newer alloy BB's offer solid longevity and creak-free riding. We remain big fans of simple threaded BSA (or ENG) BB's, and the newest T47 bikes do impress, but a simple PF30 or BB30 setup should not scare people anymore, with the bottom brackets themselves having improved so much lately. Offerings from Parlee, Praxis, Wheels Manufacturing, Enduro, Chris King and more all give peace of mind to any build. On this bike I opted to stick with the THM steel bottom bracket, since the German brand prefers the unique interface its bottom brackets offer with the delicate carbon cranks. Ceramic BB upgrade is an option in PF30 from THM, one I did not opt for. Take from that what you wish ;)
- The Praxis chainring range offers perfect shifting in a package that is lighter than any of the stock options from the bigger brands. They produce their rings in "Clover" Shimano style, and new "Buzz" style, both made in the USA. 50/34 compact was the easy option for my creaky knees, while a 28-tooth cassette gives me all the gear range I need to tackle Toronto's flat-lands or Colorado's climbs, should I get so lucky.
- Cable routing: This is a tough one for some people, who believe internal now equals modern, period. Well, I will just come out and say it: external brake routing is the fucking shit. Smooth modulation, easy cable changes...who really gives a crap if you have to see or touch your brake cable every so often. Plus, the internal Di2 wire routing gives the clean look I was after, without any degradation in shifting performance. Just the perfect combination of old school and new wave tech.The Cockpit
Parlee introduced their new cockpit - carbon handlebar, stem and seatposts - several months ago, well documents by many sources. They were designed after years of building / equipping some of the world's nicest carbon steeds, and the execution is impressive, as it should be to match their range-topping prices. Parlee's Carbon 31.6mm Zero-Setback Seatpost was the choice for my preferred seat-angle and pedal stroke, so that's where we went, painting it pink and leaving about 15mm exposed for range of height adjustment, and to show off a little carbon. This number also comes in a setback option, and while it was light and strong during my early testing, the clamp itself did involve patience in set-up to avoid marring the sexy paint. Easy compatibility with steel and carbon rails is a relative rarity in today's market. Parlee's Carbon 35mm Compact Handlebars were the obvious match, available in 40, 42, and 44 mm widths, I opted for the middle option and these bars have simply impressed, jumping to the top of my list in terms of design, shape, stiffness and comfort, certainly matching today's finest offerings from ENVE, Deda and the rest of the best. The oversized 35mm swept-back tops add stiffness and work very well for larger hands, while the extended drops provide a comfortable perch, and can be cut down to preference (I left mine at full length, as shown). Though perhaps a bit bulky for those with small hands, the bars otherwise felt fantastic for long days and offered a variety of great hand positions. Parlee's Carbon 35mm stem was the final piece, and in this case, unlike on the post, the reverse angled bolts work fantastically to afford the user easy access for adjustments while also maximizing the strength of the stem design, eliminating the need for threads in the carbon. Smart stuff. Overall I've been thrilled with the performance of this setup. ENVE do set the proverbial bar quite high in the component world, but Parlee have very impressively managed to match or even surpass them.The Perch
Saddles are an unbelievably personal choice. Over the years I've ridden San Marco, Selle Italia, Prologo, Tune, Brooks, and many more. Ouch. Personally, I've seen our customers have major success with the Fizik saddle range. I rode an Arione in University, an Aliante R1 for several recent seasons, before moving over to the Aliante 00 seen above this past year. Fizik recommends their saddle range based on flexibility, and while I am indeed the perfect example of an agin rider moving in the proper direction throughout their range, I also feel it is of limited use. More important is general width, shape, and pelvic slant and anatomy of each and every rider. The Aliante, or Bull range, offers the most "slope" and padding of any Fizik saddle, while this 00 carbon model offers the lightest weight in the range, with a Mobius carbon rail and full carbon 3-k weave shell. Cyclingtips just did a wonderful review of the Fizik Aliante range, and it is worth mentioning that for 2017 Fizik will now be offering 2 widths in each and every saddle model. Great news to my bike-fitting ears. Also exciting is the added announcement that Fizik will also be debuting a new range of bib-shorts to match their saddles. Say what? Whether this is a gimmick or something revolutionary remains to be seen, but we'll keep our eyes out for any test opportunities for this could-be-cool system integration. And one last note...if you are uncomfortable with your saddle, please don't give up. We have an extensive saddle test program at Blacksmith and it is, believe it or not, free of charge. Because no one - man or woman - should have pain where it hurts the most, especially while trying to enjoy a beautiful ride.The Little Details
Here are some subtle build notes that are examples of some details that help separate Blacksmith Cycle builds from your run-of-the-mill-high-end-stock-road-bikes:
- SLF Ceramic Pulley Wheels - Stronger, Lighter, Faster R910 - better longevity, better shifting, plus watts saved for a compelling combination
- Tune DC-14 skewers - 33 grams for incredible weight with solid closure, cousin of the AC-14, but there are new models coming soon, just announced at Eurobike
- Tune Bobo headset - about half the weight of a Chris King NoThreadset with clean looks, now available in multiple sizes and colour options...though we still love CK!
- Tune Di2 battery holder - uses a silicone plug to snugly position the internal battery in the seat-post of any bike with a 27.2 or 31.6 post, ending any rattling worries
- Tune UD carbon top-cap - stealthy matte appearance matches Parlee's carbon UD bar to near-perfection, while the glossy Tune logo matches Parlee's pink paint
- Tune Magnesium spacer - a single 1 cm spacer made of magnesium for ultra-low-weight, also signifying that this bike fits like a glove...#slamthatstem is now an option
- Shimano Di2 Satellite Climbing Shifter - extra shift location for climbing pleasure, as a former Campy guy, I like being able to shift from the tops, even without the thumb lever
- Parlee Carbon FD clamp - the world's lightest front derailleur clamp, made entirely of carbon, and yet still stiff enough for the power of a Di2 motor...impressive.
The Right Design
With any bike purchase come a plethora of questions: BB type, chainring and cassette ratio, crank length, not to mention bar width, stem length, seatpost setback and many more. Simply put, our philosophy is that the KEY decision or ingredient to any bicycle is fit or geometry, followed by important considerations such as ride quality, budget, aesthetics, and of course the desires of the rider in questions and the type of riding in mind. This is perhaps the best value a great bike shop can give you, as proper consultation and analysis brings out the ideal design - a combination of attributes perfect for the rider in question: stability, handling, ride quality, stiffness, fit and many other factors. That elusive combination of proper consultation, fit and design - not to mention a bike shop and builder that can execute custom bicycles from the ground up - creates the ingredients for success, or better yet, perfection. Or at least that is what we strive for.
The perfect bike for me? I'm a 35-year-old who has ridden road bikes since I was 16. I'm probably a stronger rider now that I have ever been, but my body - my neck, back, hip, and knees, no longer have the stamina for the raciest of bike positions. Plus, years of test-riding have led to preferences for bikes that trend towards the smoother/stable/comfortable/lightweight side of the spectrum, as opposed to the ultra-stiff-racery-crit-bike-aero-crowd. I'm also only 160 lbs, so while I am 6'2", I'm not a mega watt producer in any way. A few years of riding metal bikes - shout-out to Cherubim, Mosaic, No. 22, Stelbel, and all our titanium and steel artisans - have also led me to value comfort for long days in the saddle. Oh, I should also mention that I am a weirdo when it comes to fit. I love a bike that is a tall in the front end, shorter in the top tube [which helps with my massively long legs], but NOT an endurance bike, meaning I demand something that still retains the handling & raciness of a GC bike. We get this sort of request very often, in fact. So, how did the Parlee deliver? In every way.The Report Card
Custom carbon bikes, from the likes of Argonaut, Festka, Scapin (their Ivor is handmade), and of course Parlee, are truly the pinnacle of bicycle design, offering a convergence of technology and personalization rarely seen in the engineering world outside of cycling. Ask any editor from any major website or magazine, and the brands listed above come to the top of their short lists of dream bikes. And I now fully understand why. A custom carbon bike, fully executed for one customer's needs and their's alone, is the true benchmark for which to judge any bicycle, from any brand, in any material. Let me describe why in four categories, while also offering a look into the mind of a bike shop owner and bicycle lover:
- Ride Quality vs The WorldTour: The non-tapered front end and stock UD tubing [as opposed to SL or XS] combines ride-quality smoothness and stiffness in a near-perfect balance for my 6'2" 160 lb frame. The Parlee offers a totally sublime combination of composed silence over rough roads, while still providing sufficient stiffness/punchiness in a climb or sprint, a balance that is hard to describe. The Z1 rivals the vibration absorption of the best that steel and titanium can offer - it is in the category of the smoothest carbon bikes I have ever ridden, with its primary rivals being an Argonaut Spacebike and Colnago C40/50/59 - while providing a frameset weight that no metal bike can achieve. Oh, and having ridden a few carbon bikes in my day, I'll say that lugged bikes are usually the smoothest around, in spite if their relatively un-modern nature. Throw in stiffness and agility in spades - due to the Parlee's large BB junction and short-ish spec'd chainstay length - and this Z1 is an all-rounder capable of any ride condition or terrain ahead. Is it aero? No? But I've already discussed that I am a non-racer, so I don't really care that much about the clock, tending to value comfort and quality over stiffness and aerodynamics. The Parlee is still more than willing to mix it up when my legs are up to the task, but it is otherwise totally composed and quiet.
- Uniqueness vs Matte-Black: I first saw this Metallic Coral Pink paint in a chip-book that Parlee sent me in advance of paint, which was in itself impressive. When I asked Tom at Parlee to send me photos of the particular pink paint we ultimately chose, he answered: "We've never used it. Go for it. Looks awesome." It surely is. Parlee stepped up and executed this baby to perfection [3 paint renderings later] with a painted Parlee carbon stem and 31.6 zero-offset post to really finish off the look. Parlee's paint has an amazing shimmer in person - they suggested glossy instead of matte, to show off the sparkle - and even my stealthiest of customers have appreciated the look of this new pink panther in person. Shout-out to Prince, whose recent death inspired the Blacksmith crew to dub the look of this Parlee as #PrincePink in a note of reverence to the incredible artist and basketball player. Thanks are also in order to the phenomenal Parlee crew for getting this scheme so right, with UD carbon weave poking through at the logos and inside of the fork and chainstays. Simply marvellous.
- Custom Design vs Off-the-rack: Here is where a custom bike can really improve upon a stock setup in potentially meaningful ways. We design a CAD drawing alongside our builders for every single custom bicycle we build at Blacksmith Cycle. What were my design needs? Well, every bike I have ever ridden had a spacer stack, setback seatpost, and shortish stem - all to accommodate for my super-long legs and bad back & neck. This Parlee improves upon every previous bike in five meaningful fit directions:
1. Shorter top tube (55 cm) and raise-the-roof 220 mm headtube allow for a reduction in reach and increase in stack that are found on some endurance bikes, which match my needs, and all-but-eliminate my need for spacers for the first time ever (!);
2. Ultra low bottom bottom bracket height aids in stability for ideal rough-roads performance, and also lowers center-of-gravity on my already-tall 83 cm saddle height to keep centre of gravity reasonable;
3. Specific top-tube-slope allows for ideal combination of my personal aesthetics, stand-over height, and most importantly, seatpost exposure, vital for ensuring a proper balance of flex and rigidity. Also the best proportioned bike I have ever owned;
4. Custom angles are also nice: head angle set at 72.5 degrees, my personal favourite for stability with a touch of spark / seat angle set at 73 degrees for my ideal knee-forward-of-foot position [thanks, Retul] on a zero-setback post / head-tube considers my choice of headset option and fit flexibility for my ideal saddle to bar drop;
5. Chainstay length of 410 mm and fork clearance for 28mm tires ensures versatility and comfort with modern wheelsets, while also snappy enough for club-ride feistiness, a personal departure from more endurance-oriented machines.
- Weight vs What's Important: Our last category is really an excuse for a broader discussion: Let me say it loudly and clearly - weight matters very little for most cyclists, even at the amateur racing level. All the data says so, sorry, #weightweenies. Yes, this bike is super fucking light. And yes, I should really keep my mouth shut and try to sell expensive carbon bikes. Lightweight wheels and THM components plus the impressive weight on the Parlee custom Z1 tubing help keep overall weight at 14.1 lbs with pedals. For what is basically a size 56-tall, that is pretty damn low. But for me that's just the cherry on top of this build. The truth is, if for whatever reason, money, timing, whatever, I could choose only between a stock carbon bike (read: typically aero, light and a bit on the stiff side) or a custom steel or titanium bike (read: non-aero, comfortable, perfect fit and ultra durable) I would choose custom metal e.v.e.r.y. time. But that's me. Bikes from the likes of Cherubim, Mosaic, Stelbel, No. 22 and others are truly inspirational in my eyes. Yes, if I were racing, then bikes from Storck, Scapin, and of course Bianchi, Specialized, Cervelo Cannondale, Giant, Trek, Pinarello, and our own Parlee Altum or ESX would all be on my short list of massively stiff aero monsters or superlight climbing specialists to consider. But I am not a racer, nor do I pretend to be, which leads me to prefer the ride, value and life-long quality of metal. However, budget aside, a custom carbon super-bike that combines the custom fit and ride quality of steel or titanium with the low weight and stiffness of the leading monocoques, is why the latest carbon bikes from Parlee, Argonaut, Festka, Scapin and Passoni, are, simply put, among the finest offerings in the entire industry [with great reverance to high-end titanium, and stainless steel which remain a credible comparisons in terms of ride quality].The Final Summary
First, a caveat or two. For those of you looking for a Major-Mag-like review, my apologies. Telling you that I set Strava records, rode Ventoux, that this bike climbed like some scalded animal, that a designer told me it was 10% stiffer than the last version, or that a computer says it is 8% more aero...it's all silly, really. And this is from a guy who has seen inside the industry and ridden more bikes than seems imaginable, or at least normal. But in the end, don't trust my word. My needs may be entirely different than yours, for one. Read reviews, come talk to us, in person, by email, or over the phone (or any local dealer of similarly high-end bicycles, for that matter), but most importantly, use us as a go-between to send your ideas, dreams and questions to our bike builders...that is really the best way to dig for the most reliable and cutting-edge information you can possibly discover about bikes, and they'd be happy to talk about your dream project. I will also on behalf of boutique frame builders, that a fully custom bike can only be judged by the person for whom it was designed, full stop. Not some random person jumping aboard for a quick rip. Not even a pro rider. So just add that to the list of reasons that reviews, and even test rides (dare I say), can be of limited value, in spite of the fact that we all love them on some level.
Also, if you are hoping for reliable reviews of many of our boutique brands (and others), know that many publications are more accustomed to the usual product cycles (and budgets) of bigger brands, in that they logically have better access to test bikes (and organized media events) than the individual one-off pieces built by smaller boutique outfits, though Parlee is one of the exceptions. Some major Mags are pushing hard against that trend, which impresses the hell out of me, and let me clearly say that this state of affairs involves no accusations of impropriety at all, as most magazine writers and editors are phenomenal people, ranking as some of the most down to earth and knowledgeable and honest in the entire industry. It's just that bikes from smaller firms are unique in the overall marketplace, and in the media review world, which is both a perk of ownership, but also involves a fair amount of trust with both the bike shop/fitter/designer and the builder/brand.
The Bottom Line: With this all in mind, I suppose I can't be fully trusted to speak for every rider. But I'll say that this Parlee Z1, aimed for my individual needs, seems almost unbeatable in the realm of the modern bicycles. The Parlee benchmark has now been raised by the even lighter and stiffer Z-Zero, but the Z1 is still uncorrupted after all these years, offering the smoothness, customization-capability, and simple looks of the finest metal bikes, with the modern technology and low weight of carbon, all the while wrapped up in a lugged package that results in a truly inspiring ride quality. What I imagined while watching the Tour nearly 20 years ago as a youngster can finally be confirmed - Bob Parlee, this bike is god damn incredible.
Final Blacksmith Rating:
I love driving it, it is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.
[Thanks to Jeremy Nathan of lifeisabeautifuldetail.com for the tremendous photos, to Adam of CycleExif.com for the continued support in showing off some of our finer Blacksmith Cycle builds, to Jesse James for the always-perfect build, and for the Parlee team for making this dream bike happen.]
President / Fitter / Designer