Bob Parlee, founder of Parlee Cycles, was in London recently for a ‘meet the maker’ soiree at Bespoke in the City, one of the high-end shop’s three branches in the capital housing a fine array of the Massachusetts manufacturer’s dazzling handiwork.
Parlee’s a man, much like many of the bike makers we have met over the years, with a fascinating backstory and a history of designing and studying improvements in all kinds of areas before settling on carbon bikes.
Ski poles, for instance. He’d noticed the noise coming from the poles of downhill racers hurtling by. There must be aerodynamic improvements to be made here, he thought. His hinged aerofoil idea never came to fruition, but it’s indicative of the mindset these kind of people have. There is always a better way of doing something. Why not give it a go?
He’s the first bike builder we have met to have dabbled in oyster farming, mind you – another area where the inquisitive mind of Parlee sought to make changes. However, a blight that swept the length of the Northeastern seaboard wiped out that particular business venture and Parlee vowed “never to rely on Mother Nature again” in his future dealings – which, considering he had spent more than 20 years designing carbon fibre racing boats, was a bold statement.
Boating’s loss, however, was cycling’s gain, and what started with a solitary frame built from military surplus carbon back in 1999 has grown to a range of some of the finest custom carbon machines money can buy.
We recorded a conversation with Bob Parlee for our podcast and include some snippets of conversation below, interspersed with photos of the camoflage and zingy orange paintjob on this eyecatching Z-Zero.
On the public perception that “steel is real” but carbon fibre is off the shelf
“I never understand that one because if I am going to build a steel bike, I have to go and buy that from somebody else. I can’t make that steel tube. I can’t design the characteristics of that steel tube to make it do what I want it to do, but I can take carbon fibre and, by how I lay it up, what direction I place that in the tube, or the diameter of that tube, or the modulus of the carbon fibre, I can control that whole process. So to me, it is a real art. There is a science with that design, but it’s as much art; this intuition that you have.
“You look at a bike and it’s like a truss frame essentially, like a bridge. It’s very strong vertically, but it’s very narrow when you look down on it, so the loads in terms of performance, in terms of the effort that you are putting into the bike, can be manipulated with carbon fibre so that it has greater torsional strength, and also tune it so it has more vertical compliance, so you can create a smoother or more comfortable riding frame, but not lose any performance.”
On testing a Parlee for a day and not wanting to give it back…
“That’s the fun thing for me in this industry as that’s the kind of comment I get from customers: they ride the bike and then they are sold. I love that kind of feedback. I can’t just build something for the sake of building it, I want to build a great bike for my customers. I want them to fall in love with their bike.
“I spent close to two years just building tubes and seeing how they bent and how they reacted. My first bike that I built, I used to ride 30 miles to work and back and my first impression was: ‘Great, it hasn’t broken yet! It’s a rideable bike.’
“Descending on that bike, there was no wobble. That was one of the things that really set me off: racing on metal frames, you get into these wobbles and the guy next to you is in one too. And I knew I could design that out of the frame. It did everything I wanted it to do.”
On seeing riders with totally the wrong bikes
“It’s interesting. I was in the ski industry for a long time and I did a lot of work with making boots fit properly. But I also worked in sales and I would have a customer come in, and I knew the guy was never going to race, he was never going to be putting a race ski to its limits. And I would say to him: ‘Buy this ski. You are going be a lot more comfortable at the end of the day. You’re going to feel like you can ski all day long and have a lot of fun. Whereas this race ski is going to wear you out and, if you make mistakes on it, it’s going to exaggerate those mistakes.’
“I think buying a bike, there is a very similar mentality.”
On building traditionally-shaped frames
“When I first started building bikes, I wanted round tubes and straight lines. The reason for that is that carbon fibre is easily manipulated, but if you manipulate it in such a way that there are creases or folds, you are losing structural quality, so I try to keep my frames as simple as possible – straight lines.
“Since then, we have gone to ovalised tubes and now, because of disc brakes, we have to do a little shape in our chainstay and seatstay, but I keep those lines to a minimum: I want them as straight as possible. My shapes have to make sense to me. I feel that making difficult shapes compromises carbon fibre.”
“Carbon fibre, if taken care of, will probably have a better lifespan than steel or aluminium. The problem with carbon fibre is impact. In terms of repeated bending, carbon fibre doesn’t mind that; it can take it and not degrade. For me, that is something I have to live with, but take care of that frame and it will last. The ride quality and the performance that I can get out of carbon fibre outweighs that.”
On the future
“I don’t see thermoplastics working right now in a frame; I see carbon fibre as the optimum material. We still use the same carbon fibre we used when I first started building frames, but how we use it has changed somewhat. People have started talking about graphene and nanotubes and that type of thing, but at the moment… We keep our eye open in this kind area, we try new materials and new systems, but we are still basically doing the same thing we were doing right from the beginning.”