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Lowdown: Parlee Z-Zero.
Thanks to Matt at Red Lantern Cycles in Menlo Park, California, I was given the chance to test ride another super bike, the Parlee Z-Zero. The Parlee Z-Zero is the top-of-the-line nearly $8000 offering from Parlee, a boutique bike brand out of Massachusetts. Parlee's have quite a reputation; they are held in very high regard by bike shops, publications, and riders. In fact, on one ride, a fellow stranger cyclist shouted out "Nice bike!" (that doesn't really happen to me). And another said, "Wow, that's a Parlee, they're quiet coveted". My neighbor saw the bike and noted how the subtle "Parlee" decal radiated of the otherwise subtle frame and said "That's cool!" Like it's predecessor, the Z-1, the Z-Zero is one of the few carbon frames made right here in the USA. Most carbon bike frame production has been outsourced to Asia where bike brands can capitalize on lower costs and higher volume production. But counter to mass production, each Z-Zero frame is custom made. And though they have 32 "stock" frame sizes, each Z-Zero is uniquely made for each rider; a complete CAD drawing is made in advance detailing out the frames measurements; a customer can work with Tom Parlee to alter certain measurements to get the exact ride characteristics the customer is looking for. Because of the customization, limited volume, and time-consuming build process, while the list price for the frame ($7899) is pretty steep, there likely there isn't that much mark up to it. It is just very expensive to build custom carbon frames without the volume to bring costs down.
So despite the high cost and excellent reputation, how would it ride?
It's remarkable how you can get a feel of a bike fairly quickly. You can get a good sense of the feedback from the front and back of the bike. How fast it handles and how fast it accelerates. Riding the Parlee, I was reminded of my Cervelo R3 (I think the R3 is one of the most revolutionary bikes of all time - combining light weight, hill climbing ability with it's massive top and down tubes, comfort with it's tiny seat stays, and reasonable price). The "around the block road feel" was this:
But how would it feel on an actual ride?
Build-wise, the Parlee featured 11-speed Dura Ace mechanical with oversized (35mm) bars/stem from Deda, an Enve seat post, and fantastic looking 47mm deep Corima Carbon tubulars. The shifting was flawless and the handlebars/stem felt stiff and confident. Wheel-wise, while I am not a fan of tubulars, these wheels braked confidently and felt very fast -- but I brought along a can of sealant in the advent of a flat when I rode it. Additionally, the frame I tested was the "tall" version; it features a longer head tube for a more upright position. In fact, it is 2.5CM taller than the "normal" frameset. This extra height is meant to be more comfortable and upright though not as aerodynamic. Initially I was a bit disapointed as I didn't see the need for this extra height. But read on to see how this affected the bike's performance.
On the tech side, this bike is really an engineering marvel. In the past bike tubes were called "lugged" - where the tubes were inserted into sleeves (lugs) to join up the tubes; this is a practice that was started with steel frames. The downside of this design is that it is the lugs can add extra weight and the joints can even be a bit clunky looking. The benefit of lugs is builders can create a wide variety of sizes to suit any build. At the same time, carbon fiber bikes are increasingly made via a different technique called "monocoque bladder moulding". This basically means creating a template shape and then forming the carbon around that shape. The bladder moulding helps reduce imperfections on the inside of the tubes. And the monocoque - or "one piece" design allows the ability to create a frame with little excess weight because the lugs (joints) essentially are just a part of the frame. The downside of monocoque design is it is very expensive to set up these "templates". To this end, with moncoque frames, frame sizes are generally limited because of the set up cost associated with creating the "templates".
Parlee chose to skip the monocoque route and iterated on the lugged frame methodology - so they can really fine tune and accomodate any size. They call it "the third generation". Using extremely close tolerances, they essentially mate the joints with the absolute minimum of carbon wrap and epoxy. Additionally, they even use carbon, instead of alloy, for the dropouts and bearing races, further reducing weight. Yet, in a nod to the "monocoque" design method, Parlee does bladder mold the main tubes to reduce weight and imperfections on the inside of the tubes. If you look at the pictures, the joinery is truly amazing. There is no excess waste on the tube junctions. The bottom bracket, in particular, is a seamless blend uniting the seat-, chain-, and down-tube begging the question "how did they do that?!"
So how did it ride?
I got to ride this bike for several weeks. Each time I brought it out, I looked forward to it. The acceleration was immediate and the bike felt really connected. The Corimas were fantastic; they braked extremely well, didn't screech under braking, and they seemed very fast.
On one very memorable ride, I took the bike out to ride with my triathlon team. We did a tough 8-mile climb called Page Mill road. The bike felt incredible; acceleration was almot effortless. I was surprised to finish the climb first. At the top of the climb I waited for my teammates. A bunch of us were instructed to go on ahead of the rest of the group. Unfortunately, my shift/brake lever was a bit loose so I held back to tighten it up. Those other teammates had left without me -- so I'd need to chase them, and now I was about 1 1/2 minutes down. And they were on tri or aero road bikes, riding together... I put the hammer down and went for the chase. Finally I caught up to 3 of 4 of them; they were turning off to do a descent. The leader did not wait. Chasing, I was able to PR my descent; the bike felt comfortable and in control. The Corimas had excellent braking, likely the best carbon wheels I've tried. At the bottom there is an abrubt turn then an uphill time trial of about 10 minutes. While the other guys were on TT/aero bikes, I was the Parlee. Though the more upright bar position wasn't that aero, it allowed me to sit up and breathe more deeply. This climb is odd; it is steep enough in that in most parts you need to spin in the small front chain ring. It then opens up in sections where you can go to the large front chain ring. So it taxes you and your bike to use both low and high cadence pedalling. The Parlee was remarkable in that it responded really well to both techniques.
In any case, the result? I caught and passed everyone! And set a PR on that up hill TT. Truly impressive considering they were on TT bikes.
In fact, at the end of the day, I had 8 "Strava segment PRs" on the ride.
As for the bike, not sure if it was the super-rigid Corimas or the frame itself but I found the frame "more responsive to feedback" than the initial around the block ride. The bike seemed to transmit every texture of the road. And while it was very responsive it did beat me up a bit; I think wider tires might help this out. Additionally, though I was concerned about the toe-overlap it didn't really affect the ride and descending felt very confident—meaning it wasn’t twitchy.
The Parlee reminds me of a Porsche 911. Maybe not the most flamboyant shape but purpose-built and refined over years and years to offer exceptional performance. And like the 911, it is very expensive. Cost aside, if you are looking for a great handling bike and want to set PRs on the climbs, the Parlee Z-Zero would be hard to pass up.
Again, many thanks to Matt at Red Lantern Cycles for this test ride!