Allied Alfa Allroad long-term review: The antidote to the N+1 rule
Allied Cycle Works is not your average bicycle company. The brainchild of several industry veterans, Allied doesn’t design and engineer its carbon-fiber frame and forks in-house only to then contract manufacturing overseas. Instead, the entire process is performed under the same roof in Little Rock, Arkansas. This compact supply chain offers a number of logistical benefits, and also helps Allied make some fantastic bikes in a surprisingly short timeline. Case in point: the Alfa Allroad model reviewed here, which went from concept to production in less than 18 months, and yet can still go toe-to-toe with the bigger brands in terms of both price and performance. It’s not a custom bike in the traditional sense, but it’s certainly not cookie-cutter, either — and it’s absolutely fantastic to ride.
Doing things differently
Tony Karklins was always troubled by the way mainstream companies traditionally went about making carbon-fiber bicycle frames when he was managing director at Orbea USA. Although nearly all of the design and engineering work could be done fairly quickly, and the information shared readily, it took ages to see the concepts turned into physical samples because they were being made so far away. Simple revisions could also take weeks or months to execute depending on production cycles — a painfully long wait when each season was so short.
Karklins had a vision of doing everything under a single roof, and in the United States. But there are reasons nearly every company contracts its manufacturing overseas, especially when it comes to carbon. Carbon-fiber frame production is extremely labor-intensive, and American labor has been historically expensive as compared to what was available in Asia.
Times have changed, though, and as China and Taiwan have advanced economically, so have wages. On paper, it’s still cheaper to manufacture frames in Asia, but the advantage is steadily eroding, and for some, the logistical challenges of separating R&D and manufacturing by thousands of kilometers is becoming less palatable.
Even so, building a new American frame manufacturing company from the ground up is no easy (or inexpensive) task, but one company’s demise proved to be Karklins’ phoenix rising from the ashes. Guru Cycles was a small Canadian custom frame builder, offering some of the most highly sought-after machines in a variety of materials, and across multiple disciplines. But by early 2016, the company had taken on far too much water to stay solvent, and not long after shutting its doors for good, all of Guru’s assets were sent to the auction block.
Karklins saw an opportunity.
And so he packed an overnight bag and flew north with a few investors to try his luck. As it turned out, Karklins was the only person to bid on the entire lot, including all of the milling machines, the remaining frame parts and tubing, and Guru’s massive paint booth. Needless to say, the stay ended up being a bit longer than originally anticipated.
Karklins didn’t even know the full scope of what he’d acquired until six semi trucks hauling full-sized shipping containers showed up at his door in Little Rock.
The stars further aligned in that two high-level engineers from Specialized, Sam Pickman and Chris Meertens, also happened to be fostering the same dream as Karklins, and were just about to set after it on their own when they heard about what had happened at the Guru auction. Pickman and Meertens were mentally prepared for the rigors of going at it alone, but now they didn’t have to.
Also joining the team on the engineering side was long-time Guru employee and carbon-fiber fabrication specialist Olivier Lavigeuer.
Jim and Sarah Cunningham, who founded CyclArt in 1976, were brought on to handle paint and finish work. Karklins hired a small group of skilled labor from the surrounding area to handle tasks such as carbon fiber lay-up, bonding, testing, and assembly. Almost by happenstance, Karklins’ dream of producing carbon bikes in the United States was becoming a reality, and HIA Velo (Handmade in America) was born.
Two bikes in one
HIA Velo debuted the Alfa carbon road bike in March 2017 under the catchier-sounding Allied Cycle Works brand name, barely a year after the trucks unloaded in Little Rock. It offered traditional geometry and aesthetics, clearance for 28mm tires (or 30mm tires in the disc-brake version) and an emphasis on overall ride quality and long-term durability instead of ultra-low weight and cutting-edge aerodynamics.
Four months later was the debut of the mixed-surface Alfa Allroad review here, equipped with (very) slightly relaxed handling and a disc-only format with room for 38mm tires, but still sporting the same traditional look and feel. It’s not particularly flashy, but then again, it’s not really supposed to be.
Allied’s unique way of doing business was instrumental in bringing the Alfa and Alfa Allroad to market in such a short period of time. Most of the carbon lay-up and tube shape revisions were designed and tested on the computer before a single physical sample was produced. From there, Pickman’s team could make additional test samples in a matter of hours or days instead of weeks and months, and also test them in-house in a similarly contracted time frame. There may have been a lot of midnight oil burned during this development period, but even just being able to do so was a relative luxury; usually, engineers send updated drawings to Asia, and then wait, and wait, and wait.
Furthering helping matters is how closely the Alfa and Alfa Allroad are related to each other; they actually share identical main triangles (save for a small modification where the chainstays are joined). Each bike gets its own seatstays and chainstays, along with its own dedicated fork (Allied produces the carbon forks in-house, which is more rare in the industry than it is for frames). Up front, interchangeable molds allow for two head tube heights per size on both frame models.
On paper, the Alfa Allroad frameset might not blow anyone away. Claimed weight isn’t freakishly low at 920g for a raw 56cm frame, and Allied doesn’t make any bold claims about stiffness, compliance, or aerodynamics. The tubes are nominally round with fairly subtle shaping throughout, the wedge-type internal binder secures a conventional 27.2mm-diameter seatpost, and down below is an aluminum insert that accepts a good old fashioned English threaded bottom bracket.
Up front, the integrated headset envelops a tapered 1 1/8-to-1 1/4in steerer tube, there are 12mm thru-axles and flat-mount disc brake interfaces at both ends, and the internal cable routing can be configured for mechanical or electronic drivetrains, with just a bit of flair coming from the swappable eagle-shaped aluminum plate that covers the entry point on the top of the down tube.
As if the classic proportions weren’t enough of a hint already that Allied was going more for timeless, long-term performance here, three key areas of the frame are reinforced with Innegra S fibers. Featured at the seatstays, forward section of the top tube, and the fork crown and steerer base, these “high-modulus polypropylene” fibers are said to greatly improve the impact resistance of the tubes to which they’re applied, and also help hold everything together in the event that a crash is so destructive that the tube actually breaks.
Furthering the classic intent is the overall frame geometry. Allied easily could have jumped on the gravel bike bandwagon with an emphasis on stability, huge tire clearances, 700c/650b wheel-and-tire interchangeability, and a taller front end. But instead, the Alfa Allroad is more of a rally car than a SUV, emphasizing quickness and sportiness more than outright capability. Gimmicky add-ons are nowhere to be found, nor is there a hint of aerodynamic consideration given to the Alfa Allroad’s shape.
“In the Allroad, we really wanted to make a road bike with unsurpassed versatility that excelled in on-road performance, but could seamlessly transition and give up very little to purpose-built gravel bikes,” explained Pickman. “While the fantasy of going on three-day gravel adventures is incredibly appealing, the reality is that most people have to squeeze in their rides. The Allroad allows you to ride to trailheads, rip around in some dirt, then pop back out on the road and race home.”
“The weight and stiffness give a great all-around ride that focuses on really great handling, especially on the road,” Pickman continued. “That said, we are certainly not opposed to lighter weight as long as it doesn’t sacrifice durability and ride quality. Aero is a tough one. In my opinion, if you want to get meaningful benefit from aero, you have to sacrifice ride quality quite a bit. I have yet to ride an aero bike that I really enjoyed. I see the need for aero bikes and we are in no way opposed to them, but as our first offering, it felt important for us to go to market with a bike that we truly loved riding, and that bike is without a doubt the Alfa. When we do come to market with an aero bike, it will have to meet our high standard of ride quality, because what’s the point if the bike isn’t fun to ride?”
Allied offers the Alfa Allroad in six sizes, from 49 to 61cm, each with optional extended head tubes that raise the stack height by about 15-20mm, depending on size. Chainstay lengths are 420mm across the board, but bottom bracket drop and head tube angle vary according to size, from 71.6 to 67.6mm, and 72 to 73.8°. A longish 48mm fork rake on the Alfa Allroad yields trail figures between 61.5 and 50.1mm, for a responsive front-end feel across the board.
One of the reasons Guru shut down was its immense range of customization, which, according to Karklins, simply wasn’t scalable. As a result, Allied only offers custom geometry on the the Echo, a tube-to-tube carbon road frame that was originally intended to be Guru’s new Photon RX. That isn’t possible with the modular monocoque construction of the Alfa and Alfa Allroad, but both are available with custom paint, including a stunning chrome-like finish that is truly lustworthy. There are also multiple complete builds (including with Rotor’s rare UNO fully hydraulic groupset), as well as bare framesets for DIYers.
My 52cm Alfa Allroad test sample was built with a Campagnolo Super Record EPS disc-brake groupset, Industry Nine AR25 aluminum tubeless clincher wheels, and Fizik carbon fiber finishing kit. Total weight without pedals was a fantastic 7.48kg (16.49lb).
A vision in green
Allied went for a road bike-like feel for the Alfa Allroad, and after spending nine solid months on my test sample (resplendent in PPG “Time to Lime” paint), I’d say the company hit the bullseye.
Bikes in this category offer a range of ride characteristics that’s far broader than what we see on the road. At one end of the spectrum is the Trek Checkpoint, with a couch-like ride that glides across the ground, but without a generous amount of feedback for the rider. That one seems best suited for someone who is eager to do some long-distance jaunts on mixed terrain, and most definitely doesn’t want to feel at all beat-up in the process. In fact, that person perhaps doesn’t want to feel anything at all, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Scott Addict Gravel’s enormous carbon tubes make for a hyper-efficient feel that’s an absolute rocket ship when you mash on the pedals. It’s a wickedly quick machine, but also one that relies entirely on its higher-volume tires to provide even a smidgeon of comfort.
Handling characteristics vary substantially with gravel/all-road bikes, too. That Checkpoint is soft-riding, but is nevertheless one of the quicker-handling bikes of the bunch. Conversely, the Addict Gravel’s lazier front end demands a more ham-fisted pilot willing to manhandle it through tighter bends.
The Alfa Allroad strikes its own unique blend. It’s somewhere in between the Checkpoint and Addict Gravel in terms of ride quality, with a firm-but-not-unreasonably-so personality. It relies more on tire squish than frame flex to help shield the rider from impact forces, like the Scott, but the way it does so isn’t quite as extreme. There’s still a bit of give, and very good damping overall, but as is the case with so many bikes, the rear end rides more smoothly than the front, which is still a bit stiffer vertically than I’d prefer. It wasn’t until later in the testing process, after installed a Redshift Sports ShockStop suspension stem with the firmest elastomer kit, that I got the front-end feel I was ultimately looking for. (A standalone review of the Redshift Sports ShockStop suspension stem is coming soon).
In terms of handling, the Alfa Allroad is definitely the nimble beast that Allied intended. It’s quick and darty, and eager to change its path when asked to do so. Coupled with the relatively short (for the category) wheelbase, the Alfa Allroad is far from a relaxed cruiser that’s ok with you dozing off at the wheel. In fact, it’s much more akin to a traditional cyclocross bike in this sense compared with most gravel bikes on the market.
Die-hard gravel riders will invariably be put off by those road-handling manners, but that’s also what makes it such a superbly versatile machine if your days are truly spent on a mix of paved and unpaved surfaces, as opposed to tackling something like the Dirty Kanza 200.
And versatile the Alfa Allroad most certainly is. In fact, it’s almost two-faced.
Lots of drop-bar bikes on the market today claim to deliver “all-in-one” performance, but the Alfa Allroad comes closest to actually delivering on that of everything I’ve ridden to date, and the one whose personality seems most affected by swapping different wheels and tires. The well-heeled Alfa Allroad owner would have two — maybe even three — wheel-and-tire setups at their disposal to suit the ride at hand: a full-blown road arrangement for fast group rides on pavement; and a wider and burlier gravel configuration for exploring backroads and singletrack.
I regularly swapped between the Industry Nine AR25 wheelset and 33mm-wide Schwalbe X-One Speed tires, and the deeper-section Enve SES 4.5 AR Disc carbon clinchers shod with 28mm-wide (30.5mm-wide actual width) Specialized S-Works Tubeless tires. Set up in the latter configuration, I never felt like I was losing anything relative to a traditional road bike in terms of speed or efficiency, and the smaller tires also brought the additional benefit of slightly reducing the trail dimension for snappier handling. As a nice bonus, I also dropped about 200g of rotating weight in the process.
As compared to a dedicated road racer, the Alfa Allroad in that setup felt just as efficient, just as quick, and provided just as aggressive a position.
On the other hand, maxing out the 38mm tire clearance with a set of Specialized Sawtooth tires brought out the other side of the Alfa Allroad’s personality. The bigger, heavier, and slower-rolling tires toned down the frame’s responsiveness, but it also allowed for more rigorous exploring of local trails. Pinch flats are a regular occurrence here in Colorado on account of the persistently rocky ground, but those obviously became less of a concern with the larger air volume as compared to those Schwalbe X-One Speeds, and much hooliganism commenced as a result.
Ultimately, I spent most of my time on the Industry Nine AR25 and Schwalbe X-One Speed combination, merely adjusting pressure depending on the day. Only occasionally did I wish for more conditions-specific rolling stock (at least for solo rides), and the more I rode the Alfa Allroad, the more I questioned my need for multiple drop-bar bikes. I wouldn’t say that the Alfa Allroad can do everything with equal aplomb, but it excels at the type of riding I’m most apt to do these days: fast solo rides on pavement and dirt, mixed with a healthy dose of reasonable-condition singletrack and backwoods paths.
Allied Cycle Works/HIA Velo may have a lot of accumulated industry experience behind it, but I still noted a few details on my Alfa Allroad tester that I’d like to see ironed out moving forward.
The internal seatpost binder held tight and stayed quiet throughout testing, and the bolt is reasonably easy to access with a torque wrench or multi-tool. It’d be nice if Allied were to include some sort of rubber cover to keep water out, though, especially given the top-facing steel bolt, which is sure to corrode given enough road spray, rainfall, or washings.
Allied’s convertible internal routing system is visually neat, what with its stylized eagle-shaped aluminum plate covering the access port on the top tube, but things aren’t as refined out back. The Alfa Allroad frame uses the same exit point on the chainstay for both wired electronic and mechanical transmissions, but the result isn’t as finished-looking for the former. The vestigial hole for the front derailleur could use some sort of cosmetic cap, too.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t lament the lack of fender mounts on the Alfa Allroad. Given the generous clearances on tap, plus the versatility that the design provides, it’s unfortunate that Allied didn’t include an elegant way to let you keep enjoying all of that when road surfaces are wet. There’s plenty of room here, and given that Allied manufactures all of its own stuff, one would think there’s certainly the freedom to do so.
A carbon bike with soul?
One thing I can’t complain about much, however, is the price, which is not only competitive with many major brands, but even manages to undercut them in certain configurations.
Considering the Alfa Allroad’s US origins, that’s quite an achievement — basically all of the cost-savings are achieved purely by maintaining an efficient process from start to finish instead of minimizing labor costs.
Speaking of which, many riders like to talk about how hand-built bikes made out of metal have “soul,” whereas molded carbon-fiber bikes are somehow cold and lifeless. However, that can be said of any mass-produced frame produced by some nameless face in a factory you’ve never seen or heard of, be it metal or otherwise. For sure, neither the Alfa or Alfa Allroad are bespoke creations handled by a single craftsman from start to finish, but it’s still real people building these things.
If you were to purchase an Allied Alfa Allroad, chances are good that you’ll never actually speak to one of the people who laid hands on it while it was being made. But that said, it’s worth a reminder that carbon frames are built by people, too, and at least for American customers, the ones at Allied are a little closer to home than usual.