As an owner of many nice bikes, Sydney-based rider Peter Howie is insistent on one selection criteria: Each new bike has to be noticeably different than the last. Coming back from a separated clavicle, Howie’s custom Mosaic just didn’t fit him the same anymore, and so, the quest for the next perfect bike restarted. There was already a very light Cannondale CAAD12 Disc, a Spooky, and the Mosaic in the fleet, so why not try a carbon bike again?
I caught up with Howie and the bike’s builder, Zak Smiley of Skunkworks, at the Makers Show in Sydney, this past weekend. Shot in a gloomy inner-city alleyway, the custom Parlee is a contrast to the beat-up commuters, rubbish bins, and old cars that fill the gutters.
Why Parlee and why custom?
Options for full-custom carbon bikes may not be plentiful, but the breadth of choice is growing. Amongst those options, many of which have popped up within the last handful of years, there’s the veteran, Parlee. Having been in operation since 2000, it’s hard to argue with the experience the Massachusetts-based carbon frame maker has earned.
“I haven’t had a carbon bike in a long time,” said Howie, who is now an ambassador for the Parlee brand. “I’ve known Zak for a while and he’s had a couple of Parlees, and he’s always been a raving fan. I did my research; I really like the fact they make their own tubing. They’re still a relatively boutique operation, but operating at a larger level than a lot of others.
“What motivated me to get another custom bike is that when I had the Mosaic built, I’d had an injury, a separated clavicle, so when I had the bike fit, I felt like I was more recovered than I actually was. I love the bike, but it’s a little too upright. There were a few things that came through in the fit because of my lack of flexibility at that stage. Through the learnings of that, I knew what I wanted. The things that worked really well, I wanted to replicate, but also fix the issues that were there in the last bike.”
Having owned a number of custom bikes, Howie holds some expensive experience. “That’s the challenge with custom. You’ve really got to be comfortable, and I guess the challenge is how long you ride; your position changes. Especially after an accident, and an injury, it can completely change your position on the bike.
“I guess the thing with custom is being honest. A lot of people try to get the bike that they think they want, rather than get the bike that actually suits them. I know what my strengths are, and I know what my weaknesses are on a bike. I’m not a climber, so weight was really never a first priority with it. I wanted something that was stiff, gave me good power transfer, but really was made for longer rides, with a degree of climbing, but I’m not going to be taking it to Europe.
“It was made for Sydney riding, doing Four Gorges [an iconic Sydney loop involving a number of climbs through the Ku-ring-gai National Park] and stuff like that.”
In Howie’s case, knowing his geometry, the type of bike he wanted, and then the maker, the bike came together quickly. For Parlee, 80% of their current business is in stock bikes, but it’s the full-custom program, such as that offered with the Z-Zero Disc, that the brand is best known for.
“The process was really good,” Howie said. “Talking with Kim that handles distribution with Parlee was great; there was a lot of back-and-forth with him, in terms of tube selection, fit, and things like that. There’s a real mix with this bike: seatstays, chainstays are basically all their stiffest tubing, where the down tube, top tube, and seat tube have a lot more compliance. You can really feel that in the bike.”
While this wasn’t Howie’s first disc-equipped road bike, it was his first custom road disc bike. And that brought a few unexpected changes to his initial wishlist.
“A lot of the things I gave to them (Parlee), they turned around and said, ‘Look, this is a disc bike, so you are asking for things that are a little different.’ A lot of that was the geometry. I started with the Mosaic geometry and changed it to fit my current (lower) position. They came back, suggesting longer chainstays due to the discs, but also [changes to suit my] riding position.”
“I work with Tom Petty from Pave the Way Bike Fitters; Tom knows me inside and out. He knows my position when I sit when I’m climbing, when I’m sprinting, all sorts of different conditions. So looking at that, Parlee suggested changes for where my balance was a little more forward over the bike. They were really good like that and considered the way I ride, not just the way I thought I rode.
“Seeing how they work, they’ve delivered in what they’ve said in terms of time frames, and communication has been great,“ Howie said, before Smiley added, “In a way where many others boutique makers struggle.” All up, Howie had his frame within eight weeks of ordering it. “It’s amazingly quick for a custom carbon bike.”
That 3K theme…
The bike industry once finished seemingly every carbon fibre frame with a 3K woven outer layer to highlight the material, but more structurally efficient unidirectional layers have since taken over. However, this Parlee shows a clear homage to the woven look.
When asked about the 3K theme and the patches of it throughout the frame, Howie admitted it was a custom request, with Smiley laughing about the question. “I wanted the 3K theme going through the bike. We actually considered doing the whole bike in 3K but it would have added an extra 600g,” Howie admitted, with Smiley adding, “Because it’s entirely cosmetic. Wrapping it on the lugs is one thing, but they don’t use 3K tubing. It would have added a massive amount of weight, and cost, for no gain.”
“I like the 3K,” Howie said. “I’m 41 years old, and I remember it from F1, and it’s a bit nostalgic for me having the 3K. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it kinda works.”
The chosen appearance also made Howie’s paint choice easier, with a subtle pearl clear coat and stealth logos that, on close inspection — or in the right light — show the material beneath. “The workmanship on the Parlees is that good,” said Smiley, “that to go slather it in paint and not be able to see it is selling it short.”
A bike for Sydney
On first inspection, you’d be forgiven for assuming Howie is a loyal gram counter. I did. And I was proven wrong. For Howie, his key priority in a bike is always reliability — he’s going to ride the thing, and Sydney roads can be a little, well, less than ideal. And in the case of his Parlee, there’s an element of aesthetics, too, such as the choice of Mcfk components (with more of that 3K finish).
Howie admits that Smiley, a notorious tinkerer and connoisseur of boutique parts, had a fair amount of say in the build.
“Zak builds my wheels; he’s built six sets for me,” he said. “I look a lot to him for advice. I guess with Zak, I’m perhaps his guinea pig; we do a lot of stuff on the bleeding edge. We’ve tested certain brands in the past and we’ve had issues in terms of quality. We’ve got the Schmolke carbon rims on these, and they’re fantastic. They’re a great wheelset.”
Howie’s bike is built with a fair number of ultralight components that you’ll only ever hear spoken of on the Weight Weenies forum, but it’s fair to say the bike hasn’t been compromised in the pursuit of grams. Surprisingly, there was also a limit on budget – one that was higher than what would be available for many, but a limit nonetheless.
“For example, the other crank option would have been the new carbon SRM,” explained Smiley, “but it’s three times the price, when the Quarq does exactly the same job.”
Smiley did admit that perhaps the one questionable piece of weight-saving was the Carbon-Ti disc rotors, but so far, Howie is happy with the performance on tap, and Sydney’s hills rarely go beyond 200m elevation.
The complete bike (as pictured) is said to weight 6.7kg (14.77lb) – an excellent but not extraordinary figure for a disc-equipped bike running fairly normal 25c tyres and 45mm deep wheels, not-all-that-light shifting components, and a powermeter.
How’s the ride?
Having now had the bike for a month, Howie jokes that he’s shelved all his other bikes. One upcoming final fitting remains, after which the final touches will be added: Busyman custom leather bar tape, and one last trim on the steerer tube. Howie may not consider the bike to be totally finished, but few others would likely see it that way, and the ride quality is the same regardless.
“It’s the only bike I’ve been riding, apart from my trainer bike,” he said. “There’s nothing I want to change. Perhaps the Mcfk saddle, but it’s just a matter of getting used to it; it’s an unusual shape. It was picked for aesthetics and weight, but that’s the only component I’d consider swapping.
“I like the fact that every bike I’ve owned is different. And with every bike, you can tell what it does well and what it doesn’t. I like the fact you can pick the bike to the ride. This one just does everything so well. It’s a cliché, but it just does.
“It’s like driving a Lexus: everything just happens. You put the power down, but you don’t feel it going down. Compared to my other bikes, such as the Spooky, which is a lot rawer, you just feel everything. Everything that goes into it, you just feel. The Parlee kinda absorbs it and puts it through, which is an odd sensation.
“I’ve had bikes that have been a bit noodly in the past, which make you feel like you’re losing the effort, but here you still get it and you’re getting your watts through, but you just don’t feel it. You can still feel the road, you’re still connected, but when you put the power down, it’s a weird sensation. It’s a very impressive bike.”
“That’s high-end carbon,” Smiley added. “It’s a material that allows you to tune in all the characteristics without compromise. I’ve owned a few Parlees and they do have a beautiful soft feel; they turn everything to butter, but you’re not losing anything in the process. It’s unusual.”
Frame: Custom Parlee Z-Zero Disc
Fork: Parlee Road Disc, 1 1/4in tapered steerer
Headset: Cane Creek Slamset
Wheels: Schmolke SL 45 carbon rims, Extralite CyberDisc hubs, Sapim CX-Ray spokes. Built by Skunkworks
Tyres: Pirelli P Zero 25c
Groupset: SRAM Red eTap HRD
Crankset: Quarq D-Zero powermeter
Chainrings: Praxis Works Buzz, 53/39T
Chain: KMC X11SL gold
Bottom Bracket: Kogel Ceramic EVO386 30mm
Brake Rotors: Carbon-Ti Floating, Tune Titanium bolts
Handlebar: Mcfk, 42cm
Stem: WR Compositi, 110mm, 3K weave
Seatpost: Mcfk 31.6mm
Saddle: Mcfk Leather
Bartape: Lizard Skins DSP (for now)
Pedals: Speedplay Pave Ti
Bottle Cages: Fairwheel Bikes Gloss 3K
Extras: Parlee carbon front derailleur clamp, Extralite chainring bolts, Extralite Blacklock thru-axles, Fetha computer mount, Skunkworks #Tidylight mount for Exposure, Skunkworks custom BlackTi bolt kit
Weight: 6.7kg as pictured.