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by Matt Wikstrom
April 7, 2016
Photography by Matt Wikstrom
Parlee has a reputation for high-end custom-built carbon fibre frames, but in recent years the company has turned to Asian manufacturing in order to expand its catalogue. The Altum series comprises three models (Altum, Altum-R, Altum Disc) that were introduced last year. In this review, Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom takes a looked at the lightest version.
Bob Parlee made his way into the bicycle industry after a long career (27 years) building sailing boats. While there may not be an obvious link between the two, boat-building provided Parlee with extensive experience in a variety of crafts (such as woodwork) along with early exposure to carbon fibre (during the ‘80s).
With experience as a touring rider and then a racer, Bob started developing a few designs for bikes and components during the ‘90s, but after failing to capture the interest of an established manufacturer, he started experimenting on his own.
He was immediately attracted to carbon fibre for its scope and freedom, and after so many years of custom-building boats, it was inevitable that Bob would gravitate towards bespoke framebuilding. He built his first prototypes for the Z1 in 2000 and by 2005 he was shipping his frames (Z1, Z2 and Z3) around the world.
In 2007, Parlee wanted to create a more affordable frameset that benefitted from his thinking and experience without the company having to undertake actual manufacture. To this end he found an Asian manufacturer to create the Z4. The experiment was a success as new buyers discovered the brand.
While the Z4 has been retired from Parlee’s catalogue the company continued to expand its offshore manufacturing strategy. There are now four models in this category: the Altum series, ESX, TTiR and Chebacco. As with the Z4, there is no option for custom geometry, and while pricing is lower than Parlee’s custom-built models, none of these bikes can be considered low-budget offerings.
There are three bikes in the Altum series: Altum, Altum Disc and Altum R. The bikes essentially share the same geometry (the only notable variation is longer chainstays for the Altum Disc), so the major points of distinction lie with the materials employed. Thus, the Altum is stiffer and lighter than the Altum R and with a ride quality designed to appeal to race-oriented riders.
For this review, Parlee supplied an Altum frameset with carbon seatpost, stem and handlebars.
As mentioned above, the Altum is made in Asia according to Parlee’s specifications using high modulus carbon fibre. The company describes the Altum as a direct descendent of its Z-series frames, and takes over from where the Z5 left off.
Parlee offers buyers its own carbon stem and bars with an oversized 35mm clamp to go with the Altum.
In engineering the new frameset, Parlee employed FEA to help them trim excess weight. At the same time, they enlarged the diameters of some of the tubing, especially at the headtube and bottom bracket junctions.
A PF30 bottom bracket was selected to suit the larger tube diameters as well as providing ample room for threading the wires for electronic groupsets. The headtube makes use of an integrated headset (1.125-inch upper bearing; 1.25-inch lower bearing) in conjunction with a tapered fork steerer.
The Altum uses standard rim brake callipers, a 31.6mm seatpost with an integrated clamp, and a braze-on front derailleur. Parlee has fashioned the front forks and rear stays to provide enough clearance for 28mm tyres and all cables are internally routed with interchangeable ports to suit mechanical and electronic transmissions.
There are five frame sizes on offer for the Altum, as shown in the table below:
All frame sizes share the same chainstay length (410mm), bottom bracket drop (70mm), and fork rake (43mm). Buyers can fine tune the stack of the Altum by choosing one of Parlee’s flex fit headset caps that adds another 8/15/25mm to the length of the headtube.
Overall, the geometry is race-oriented but the head tube length and stack of the frame is quite forgiving. For more information, see Parlee’s detailed geometry chart.
The Altum makes use of an integrated and hidden seatpost clamp to great effect.
The Altum defies traditional road frame styling with a 9° sloping toptube, hidden seatpost clamp, internal cable routing and a curious “hunchback” behind the stem. The overall design is clean and simple though I expect the hunchback and the massive down tube logo will polarise opinion on the appeal of this bike.
There is just one stock finish for the Altum (matte black) however buyers can pay extra for a custom paint job, which is carried by Parlee at its workshop in Massachusetts, USA. The company provides a choice of 25 colours, three schemes, and two finishes that can be viewed using an online configurator. Alternatively, customers can work with one of Parleee’s staff designers to create an original design. Pricing for custom paint starts at AU$550/US$450 and increases depending on the complexity, with a lead time of 2-4 weeks.
The medium frameset sent for review weighed 845g without bottom bracket cups while the uncut fork weighed 364g. The bike was assembled with Parlee’s own carbon seatpost, stem and handlebars, to which Campagnolo’s 2015 Super Record groupset and Bora Ultra 35 wheels were added for a final weight of 6.47kg sans pedals and cages.
Buyers can use an online configurator to experiment with all of Parlee’s options for a custom finish.
Assembling the Altum was a straightforward process. The seatpost was a smooth and precise fit for the frame, as were the headset and forks. Parlee provided its own bottom bracket cups for the Campagnolo crankset that have very tall collars for a sure and firm fit in the frame.
There are generous openings in the top and down tubes to help with internal routing. Parlee has designed clever panels that click into place that provide all of the necessary ports for the cables. Interestingly, the rear derailleur outer cable housing runs the entire length of the right chainstay to seat in a cable port below the bottom bracket.
Parlee’s carbon bars have a compact bend and extended drops that can be cut to suit individual needs. The clamping area is 35mm in diameter that marries up with Parlee’s carbon stem with rear-facing bolts.
Parlee makes use of interchangeable panels that clip into the frame to provide internal routing options for electronic and mechanical groupsets.
The Altum frameset retails for AU$5,999/US$5,500, which includes the frame, fork, headset, seatpost and choice of top cap (8, 15 or 22mm) for the headset. Buyers can add the carbon handlebars and stem for an extra US$375 (~AU$500) and US$325 (~AU$430), respectively. For more information, including details on local dealers, visit Parlee.
The Altum is the kind of bike that takes some time to get to know. Quiet and reserved, it doesn’t try to dazzle the senses. The Altum simply gets on with the job of serving the rider in the most effective way possible.
One thing was immediately clear, though: the Altum is a well-made carbon bike that has been built to capitalise on the strengths of the material. It was stiff and light with the kind of strength-to-weight ratio that can only be achieved with composite materials. In today’s market, this is far from unique, but the effect is no less pleasing.
The bike’s low weight was a clear advantage on any climb, but the Altum was just as eager to attack any other terrain. As discussed above, Parlee worked hard to get the frame into lightweight territory, but there’s no sense that other aspects of the bike were sacrificed in order to achieve that goal.
The Altum has some very clean lines that add to the sculptured finish of the bike.
The overall ride quality is quiet and well mannered. Like a well-insulated vehicle, the Altum was largely impervious to sound and vibration and there were many rides where I hardly noticed the bike at all. There were times I found myself longing for a little more feedback, but I know there are plenty of riders who prefer the quiet.
There came a point though, when that insulation started to fail. My regular test routes take in a variety of road surfaces, ranging from glassy bitumen to craggy chipseal, and it was the latter that unsettled the Altum. The bike’s smooth, muted ride was lost to an excess of chatter that seemed out of proportion to the magnitude of the stimulus.
Interestingly, swapping out Parlee’s carbon stem and bars for alloy parts alleviated some of the chatter on rough surfaces. A lot of carbon handlebars normally act to dampen vibrations from the road, so I have to presume that the oversized diameter of Parlee’s carbon bars played a big role in transferring extra chatter to the hands.
There’s only one Parlee logo on the Altum but it’s a big one.
Wheels and tyres can have a profound impact on the ride quality of a bike, so it’s worth noting I spent most of the review period on low-profile alloy clinchers fitted with tyres that had an effective width of 25mm at a pressure of 80psi.
I expect these wheels and tyres added to the tranquil ride quality of the Altum on even city streets, but they couldn’t tame the chatter from rough roads. Clearly, this is not a bike for those riders that enjoy epic rides over varying road surfaces unless they prize a stiff chassis.
That Parlee offers a second, more compliant version of the frameset in the Altum R is something of an acknowledgement that the Altum will be too stiff for some riders. Indeed, Parlee describes the Altum R as “the right choice for riders seeking the perfect balance of performance and comfort on all types of roads”.
The steering and handling of the Altum was very sound. I was able to negotiate every corner as I pleased and I was never troubled by any uncertainty in the bike. However, I was rarely aware of how well the bike was performing, because it always seemed to be receding from (or evading) my senses.
I took one ride on the Altum with Campagnolo’s Bora Ultra 35s and found that the wheels were almost too light, such was the impact of the wheels on the agility and responsiveness of the bike. This was the moment when I understood that there was a well-honed race chassis hidden beneath the quiet, reserved veneer of the Altum.
During the course of the review, I suffered several instances of toe overlap after stopping for traffic. Given more time on the bike, I expect that I’d alter the way I set my pedals while waiting at traffic lights, but without that conditioning, I kept trapping my foot behind the front wheel. I expect this will be a turn-off for some buyers, especially those considering small frame sizes, but I was never troubled by it while I was on the bike.
According to Parlee, “the Altum represents the culmination of everything we’ve learned from more than a decade of handcrafting the world’s finest carbon fibre road racing bikes.” The result is a bike that is stiff and light and offers a well-tuned ride that rarely overwhelms the senses.
I find it fascinating that a company like Parlee, which has established its reputation on the strength of its custom handbuilt frames, has embraced Asian manufacturing for a significant portion of its catalogue. It’s a move that has helped the company increase its production capacity, so that it can reach more buyers, but rather than expand into lower pricepoints, Parlee have opted to remain focussed on the high end of the market.
I can’t help but wonder at what Parlee could achieve for a frameset at a lower pricepoint, but ultimately it’s a futile notion. The Altum is not a bike that has been designed for the mainstream, and indeed, it only strengthens Parlee’s identity as an exotic brand.
Parlee offers a choice of three heights — 8, 15, or 22mm — for the headset cap.
Parlee makes its own cups to suit Campagnolo Ultra Torque cranks.