Factory Tour: Parlee Cycles, Part 1 – Inside Look at How They Make Custom Carbon Fiber Bikes
Bob Parlee started off building boats, including high end carbon fiber racing boats. During 24 years of doing that full time, he tinkered with some bicycle design work on the side. Unable to sell those designs to others, he gave the shipyard the heave-ho to pursue other businesses, including bikes. He also had a 30 acre oyster farm, but a blight that hit the northeast killed his million-plus oysters just before harvest. He called it quits on that and focused 100% on custom carbon fiber bicycles.
He set up his first shop in an aerospace prototype manufacturing company that had all of the carbon fiber building equipment. It was just a little 12′ x 12′ office, but it gave him access to the machines he needed, and they relied on Bob’s growing expertise in the material to troubleshoot their own projects. He built his first 30-40 bikes there. Parlee Cycles then moved to a 4,500 square foot facility in Peabody, expanded to 6,000 before moving to their current 14,000 square foot building in Beverly, Massachusetts, in summer 2010.
Here, they do custom carbon fiber bicycle manufacturing, prototyping and more, including making their own small parts for their bikes. By most standards, it’s a very small operation, but for cycling nuts it’s an amazing showcase of how composite bicycles can be made. There were a few things we couldn’t photograph and can only talk about in generalities, but for the most part, they gave us a free pass to ask anything and document the process from start to finish…
HISTORY & MODEL LINEUP
On the left is Parlee’s first carbon bike, which became the Z1. Bob Parlee made the tubes out of military surplus in 1999, and he just acquired the very machine that he used to make them. While he’s not planning on making their tubes in house (they’re currently made at ENVE), it will allow them to do more prototyping and testing.
Their first consumer bikes didn’t really start shipping until 2001, and the Tyler Hamilton bike was made in 2002. Tom Rodi, director of sales and marketing, says Parlee’s background is custom bikes and that’s all he did from the time they started in 1999 until 2007, when they introduced the Z4.
The Z1 is the top of the line and has individual seatstays with Parlee’s carbon brake arch. The Z2 and Z3 use a monostay. The Z4 in the background (red on black) was their first production bike but has since been replaced by the Z5.
Z5 is the stock bike offering now and has a carbon monocoque front triangle with the stays wrapped and bonded on after the front comes out of the oven. It’s built in China but uses a similar molding process as their custom bikes, except that the whole front end is built at once. As you’ll see further down, it’s Parlee’s molding technique that helps set his bikes apart. The Z5 has separate seatstays like the Z1. Unlike the custom bikes, it gets a tapered headtube.
Z5 is split into standard, SL and SLi. Main frame layup is the same, weight savings come from using an ENVE 1.0 fork (versus 2.0), carbon seat clamp (versus alloy), titanium water bottle bolts (versus stainless). Both models’ brake mounts and shifter cable stop inserts are titanium. More weight savings comes from giving it a matte clearcoat rather than paint. The latter saves about 100g, most of the ~150g difference. Ben says the ride quality is similar between the two, and there are no rider weight limits on this or any of their bikes. Average frame weight for the SL is 800g.
The SLi is set up for electronic with wiring ports that’ll work with either Campy’s EPS or Shimano Di2. Battery mounts are able to be bonded on for either system, or you can leave it without if you’ll be using Calfee’s PowerPost or want to wait for Shimano’s own internal battery pack.
THE CUSTOM BIKE STARTS WITH A FIT
Parlee works with independent bike shops that put an emphasis on fit, and they recommend getting a professional fit even if you’re ordering one of their stock bikes.
“Getting fit is one of the best things you can do,” said Roni. “It prevents a really expensive mistake if you buy the wrong size bike, and we all know someone that’s done that.”
For my test bike, Parlee brought me to Dean at Fit Werx in Peabody, MA. Their process starts with an interview about my current bike, riding style, any comfort issues and peculiarities I may have. That’s followed by body measurements for inseam, femur, torso, arms, shoulder width and a few others to do with hips and feet.
They use a Serotta fit bike, and it’s set up using both the body measurements and my current bike’s setup, then initial angles are captured along with a visual appraisal. Using video capture and software that measures leg, hip and arm angles, settings on the size bike are tweaked until things are in the right range. The last bit of fine tuning is more subjective and based on feel, trying to get your weight evenly distributed on hands and sit bones. Once that’s looking and feeling dialed, the Computrainer is turned on to check power balance and to see where in the pedal stroke the power is being laid down. This part’s more for pedaling technique than adjusting the fit unless there are physiological imbalances that can be corrected by fit. They may prescribe stretching or pedaling drills to help smooth the pedal stroke out and make the rider more comfortable, which can be particularly helpful for newer riders. For racers, the fit can also be tweaked to maximize power output, sometimes at the expense of absolute comfort, and they may spend more time getting fit in the drops and the hoods. It really depends on your goals. Dean says for most people, getting them comfortable in the hoods leads to good overall positioning when they’re resting on the top of the bar or the drops. If necessary, cleat position is also tweaked during the process.
Fit Werx charges $375 for a new bike fit and $200 goes toward the new bike. Getting fit on your existing bike is $275 and includes them setting it up based on the measurements. When it’s all said and done, you get a USB stick with a graphical position template, images captured from the session and all measurements. I’ll show my measurements in a future review of the Z5.
If the fit’s done to order a new Parlee, measurements are plugged into a design template to determine custom frame measurements or help build a stock bike with the right size components and positions. Parlee takes the info and measurements and lays them over a frame template and can show you what it’ll look like on screen.
With 12 stock sizes -six frames run XS through XL, each with a Standard and Tall option- chances are good you’ll end up not needing a custom bike. Talls have a 25mm taller head tube above the top tube, which means fewer spacers. Oh, and the stock Z5 frames are actually lighter than the full custom Z1.
About 6cm drop is what I ended up with, which Dean said is just slightly more than average yet still looks flat compared pro bikes. They said they see racers using about 10-11 cm when it’s slammed.
Parlee’s building is laid out in four main sections. Above is the cutting and finishing area. Tubes are cut on the right, and small bits are molded on and frames sanded smooth on the left. Massive air handlers and vacuums keep the air clear of carbon fiber dust.
On the other end is the assembly area, both actual frame assembly and finished bike assembly. Through the doors on the right are the offices, and the paint booth and warehousing area is in the basement.
Frames are put together in one small corner of the room.
Once the fit process is done and the bike is designed in the computer, tubes are selected. On the left are tubes of varying thickness and diameter for each part of the bike. Once they’re pulled for a particular bike, they’re grouped together in a box. Each of these boxes of tubes will become someone’s custom bicycle. All of the custom bikes are tube to tube construction. This lets them mix and match tubesets, change the angles and build a truly custom bike. This construction also let’s them swap in different bottom bracket molds to fit customer preferences.
Parlee’s tubes are made by ENVE. Tubes are hand selected for each build. Surprisingly, the thinnest walls aren’t necessarily the most compliant. Roni says the seat tube on the left would be for a 120lb rider even though it’s the thickest tube. The one in the middle would be for 180lb+ rider and the right side is their SL tube.
From there the tubes are cut to the correct length and angles. After that it moves to the assembly station.
Carbon comes in huge rolls from Toray or Mitsubishi, two of the largest suppliers. It must be kept in the freezer because at room temp the pre-impregnated resin would start to cure after a day or so. To start using it, they’ll pull it out and let come just up to room temp before laying it up.
They have a company in VT precut “kits” for their frames and ship them ready to use. It’s more cost effective that way because the parts are always the same, making the process very repeatable. That, and the machine used to cut them is one of those million dollar plus machines that needs to be running 24/7 to pay for itself (the company cuts carbon for other industries, too). The box above contains the precut pieces for each junction on one bike.
All of the parts and pieces then move to assembly. A jig is adjusted to the correct angles and measurements, then the tubes start getting wrapped together. At room temp, the prepreg carbon sheets, most of which appeared to be unidirectional for this particular bike, are very pliable. Parlee’s expert builder, Rommel (above), wrapped them with amazing speed, warming them with a heat gun periodically to mold everything smoothly into the corners and joints. Once each junction was built up enough, he would take a razor and trim the edges slightly to give it a smooth finish.
A wrapped headtube before and after the razor.
The layup schedule is strictly defined. While Bob himself doesn’t do much of the bike building anymore, he defines the initial spec and oversees new designs and construction methods. Roni says the layup schedules used on the custom bikes were “reverse engineered” to develop the stock bikes, too, which they say gives them a very similar ride quality to the custom jobs.
Once the lugs are created from all the small pieces, they’re enclosed in aluminum molds with custom captured silicone rubber molds between the frame and the alloy. I wasn’t allowed to photograph these, because they’re part of Parlee’s secret sauce, but I can tell you about them:
There are a number of lug molds, and because the inside part of the mold is silicone, it lets them move things ever so slightly. The effect is an infinite range of angle adjustments so the bikes are completely dialed to the customer.
They make their silicone molds in house, and the design and construction of them is proprietary. The silicone is then placed inside an aluminum mold, and as they’re heated the silicone expands and places 360 degrees of pressure on the joint. This differs from standard metal molds that are only squeezing in one direction as they’re pressed onto the frame. This process is in lieu of vacuum molding, and Roni says this method is better for complex shapes like tube intersections. It also means they don’t need a giant autoclave vacuum oven. Each alloy mold is only around one junction, and it’s computer controlled to heat at the correct rate to the correct temperature. Because the different molds are different sizes, they have to be individually monitored. Parlee says it also lets them build with more exact geometry because if the entire jig went into an oven, there’s a chance it would warp slightly and the frame could come out misaligned.
Parlee chose this method from the beginning because it allowed the minimum amount of material to achieve the strength and stiffness he wanted. The side benefit is that there’s very little wasted material. As you can see above, the frames come out of these molds very smooth with minimal excess resin. This means less finishing work is required, and no “cosmetic” layers of carbon or patching and painting to add weight.
At present, custom bikes are only offered with straight steerers because the various tapered headtube designs would make construction a bit too challenging given all of the different angles presented when trying to join the lugs and tubes with a varying angled tapere tube. They could run the 44mm oversized headtube, but Ben Corbalis, one of their inside sales managers, says they can already make their bikes very stiff up front with layup schedules, and combining that with an ENVE fork gives them the right stiffness to weight ratio.
When it’s all said and done, most custom bikes end up between 1,000 and 1,100 grams. Semi-Custom frames start at $5,900 to $6,900 and go up depending on options. They offer semi-custom with Z2 and Z3 where you choose from 22 stock sizes, but tubing and finish are selected for the rider and minor tweaks like headtube length can be made. Full custom starts at $6,900 to $7,900.
THE SMALL PARTS
Another nice feature of Parlee’s custom bikes are the molded on carbon fiber parts made in house. They’re molded on after the frame is complete, not riveted or drilled into the tubes, which would require the tubes to be reinforced. The result is a lighter, stronger bike with some really nice looking bits on it. The brake bridge (above, left) is handmade in house.
Water bottle mounting bolt (left) and cable stops are also made in house.
His custom designed dropouts are titanium. Parlee uses titanium where metal is contacting carbon because he says it has the best adhesion when bonding. The only spots you’ll find aluminum or steel are on removable parts like a seat collar.
Once the frame is assembled, cured and the small parts are bonded on, it’s time for paint. Or, at a minimum, their lightweight matte clear coat. Above is a Z5 that’s sanded and prepped for a custom paint job. Roni says custom paint is one of their fastest growing segments of the business as dealers like having a “stock” bike but customers want to be able to customize the look. Custom paint typically runs between $450 and $900. Their online configurator is a good way to waste time.
Paint can be as simple or wild as you like. I walked past some frames that looked brilliant only to find out they were just half way through the process. Oddly enough, they happened to be working on three blue bikes on the day I was there, so I could see various stages of the paint in different painter’s prep booths. Above, after a few base layers, the logo masks are applied before the rest of the frame gets taped off.
This one looked shiny and done…but it still had a few coats to go and was being sanded down in preparation for the next layer.
Once the base colors (if any) are done, frames are masked off to paint the logos. No decals here. Even the stock matte clearcoat finish on the Z5 SL gets painted logos in a faint metallic gray. Once logos are done, a final clear coat or other finishing coat is applied and they’re off to the drying room. Built-to-order bikes with some color and base options are included in the bike’s price. Custom logo and paint start at $450 and can go way up from there. Their most expensive paint job could top $4,000 if you get crazy and get components color matched and all that, but the custom configurator will top out at $900.
Once paint is complete, the bikes go back upstairs to be assembled with the parts if necessary. If not, they’re boxed up and shipped to the bike shop for customer pickup.
The entire process is pretty cool. And it’s quicker than you think. Corbalis says each custom bike typically takes 30-40 man hours and that they produce five to ten per week.
QUALITY CONTROL & MORE
Every Z5 that comes in is pulled out, weighed and inspected. The standard Z5 comes in already painted, the Z5 SL and SLi (above) come in unfinished and are clearcoated in house.
This one was a standard medium size and weighed in at 780g. Note the Di2 battery mount on the bottom of the chainstay. It’s bonded on after frame construction just like the custom bikes, minimizing weight and preventing the mounting bolts from actually piercing the frame. Just like the custom bikes, this keeps it lighter and stronger overall.
Carbon fiber seat clamps adorn the SL models, but they all have full carbon dropouts.
Looking at the Z5 models, their wide range of sizes and considering they weigh in lighter than even the top end Z1, begs the question: Why go custom? Even Parlee admits most of the time, once a cyclist gets fit and the numbers are input, most riders fall very close to a stock size. My own measurements were able to get within a couple millimeters of the key X and Y points Parlee looks at. Most of the time, they’re trying to get riders comfortable with a 80-100mm stem depending on height.
Parlee says some custom bikes are for riders that have different proportions that just can’t get comfortable on a regular bike. They had one on the floor built for a woman that’s under 5′ tall that we’ll feature separately…I thought it was a kid’s bike, except it was full carbon with Lightweight tubulars! The other part of the custom business is riders that just want their bike to look a certain way. Perhaps they don’t like the extended headtube of the Tall Z5s or they want an integrated seatmast. I suspect Parlee wouldn’t be terribly offended if you “settled” for a stock bike, either. Their business grew a little more than 40% last year, largely on Z5 sales.
Above is the Large-Tall Z5 bike they fit me to for a long term review. I’ve put close 80 miles on it already and it fits like a glove. I’m looking forward to many more.
Now check out Part 2, where we take a look at some prototypes, new models and other cool projects!