Bikes of the Bunch: Allied Cycle Works Alfa Allroad
Dr. Allen Lim has worn several different hats during his career in the cycling industry: as a consultant for PowerTap, as a physiologist for various top-tier road teams, and his current role as a co-founder of exercise nutrition company Skratch Labs.
Throughout nearly all of that, one thing has remained mostly constant: His personal riding interests have been focused almost exclusively on the road. But as is the case for a growing number of traditional roadies, that began changing about four years ago, when he decided to venture off-pavement more frequently, reaching for his Focus ‘cross bike on occasion instead of the usual go-fast tarmac machine.
“[Riding on dirt and gravel] is more fun, and it’s more interesting,” he said. “You can connect more routes. I first started straying off of the tarmac because I’m not strong enough to do these big epic loops — everyone around here is too damned fit — and so I’m always looking for a way to maybe cut the ride a little shorter, but have as much fun, because I’m, at most, confined to two hours of riding.
“Around here, if you have under two hours to do a ride, it’s hard to do an interesting loop where you don’t have to backtrack unless you go on dirt. And I think that’s the case for a lot of people. All of a sudden, it becomes more interesting when you can cut across something, or close a loop, or create a loop, than having to go out and back.”
“The other part of it is it’s more peaceful. There are less people, there are less cars. The paradigm shift was giving yourself permission to do so, and having a bicycle to do it on. Because if you’re on a standard road bike and you hit the dirt, and you hit some washboard sections, it ends up just sucking.”
Lim was hooked, to the point where he decided to go with a more dedicated machine in hopes that it would make for a faster and more capable experience on the endless array of dirt and gravel routes near his home in Boulder, Colorado. Soon after its introduction, Lim went out and bought a Cannondale Slate.
“It was so alternative, so purpose-built, and relatively inexpensive. I just jumped on that. But it was way too heavy, way too overbuilt, and the tires felt slow and weird.”
However, he loved the stability that the Slate’s lower bottom bracket provided, and after getting back on his old Focus Mares CX, he quickly understood the rationale behind gravel-specific frame geometry. “I could feel that high bottom bracket,” he recalled.
Back to the drawing board.
Lim’s needle swung back over toward the road side of things, since he knew that he still ultimately wanted something that felt like his Canyon Ultimate CF SLX — and so he sold the Slate and bought a Canyon Endurace. But while the Slate was too much of an all-surfaces machine, the Endurace wasn’t enough.
“That bike served me really well for a really long time,” Lim said. “I could put 34s on it, but it got me really vexed because I always felt like I was missing out on something with wheelset choice. But it still felt a little muted compared to my Ultimate. The Endurace was cool because it opened up a lot of territory, and I started playing a lot with gearing. All in all, it’s still a phenomenal go-to bicycle, but it didn’t feel like quite enough.”
Lim missed the versatility that his old Slate provided, but tried to find it in a more sporting package. Maybe the Open U.P.P.E.R. would be just right? Er, not quite.
“It didn’t feel like a rally car,” he said. “It was super cool and lightweight, and I could use whatever wheel and tire combo on it I wanted. The bottom line with that bicycle is that it’s a true gravel bicycle, and it wasn’t road bike-like enough for me. It was too sluggish. I didn’t like the way it cornered; I had to really fight and push it through a descent. I was really bummed about that, because it was otherwise exquisite.”
Three bikes, three strikes. But Lim wasn’t giving up.
Along came the Allied Cycle Works Alfa Allroad. Could there really be a “just right”? Lim may be the son of Asian immigrants but, as it turned out, when it came to his search for the perfect mixed-surfaces machine, he may as well have been a little blond-haired girl named Goldilocks.
“I had heard that this felt like a road bike,” he said. “I was friends with [Allied Cycle Works owner] Tony Karklins, and I called him up and bought one. And it turns out that [reviewers] like you and Patrick Brady [of Red Kite Prayer] were right! It really is like a road bike with more tire clearance.
“It feels fast even when I’m going slow, which is a weird thing to say about a bicycle. But up around here, you’re doing climbs where you’re topping out at five or six miles per hour, and this bike still feels fast and responsive. Where this bike feels the fastest is like that tarmac-to-gravel interface; you hit that gravel, and it almost feels like it sped up a little bit. It gets really lively on that gravel surface. It feels like you’re riding a real race bicycle, but it has enough clearance that you can run 38s on it.”
Lim took a fairly pragmatic approach to the build kit, eschewing the usual bicycle industry insider habit of going ultra-high-end across the board, and staying away from exotica. His choice of groupset? Shimano Ultegra Di2.
“That was largely driven by the Ultegra RX rear derailleur,” he explained. “The clutch makes things really quiet. But it’s a Dura-Ace crank. Because the crank is so dominant, you automatically think everything else is Dura-Ace. By having a Dura-Ace crank, I think I’m riding Dura-Ace! But I saw no reason to spend the extra money on the Dura-Ace controls.
“From a setup perspective, I think SRAM Red eTap would have been a lot easier, and I tend to like the controls better, too. I also think SRAM brakes work better than Shimano right now, and I’ve had less maintenance problems with SRAM than Shimano. But it was the clutch rear derailleur that did it. That clutch rear derailleur with the 11-34T cassette and the 50/34T crank gives me a 1:1 climbing gear, which opens up the range for me for all sorts of terrain.”
The bottom bracket was upgraded to Kogel’s low-friction ceramic unit, however, and Lim tapped the company for its easy-spinning rear derailleur pulleys, too. A quick backspin on the drivetrain reveals a notably silky-smooth motion.
“I love the fact that this bike [has a threaded bottom bracket]. This is, for sure, the smoothest drivetrain I’ve experienced.”
Schwalbe’s ultra-versatile G-One tires were an easy choice, Lim said, and the 35c size puffs up to a healthy actual width of 37mm when mounted to 25mm-wide Enve’s gravel-specific M525 G tubeless carbon wheels.
“[The tires] blow up to about 37mm, but that rim keeps it fairly low and wide, and the combo hauls ass. I think it’s actually a faster tire than some of the slick tires I’ve ridden on this bicycle.”
Smaller frames tend to ride more harshly than bigger ones, though, and given that Lim had to put himself on Allied’s smallest 49cm Plus size, it wasn’t long before he traded the original Enve carbon fiber seatpost for the Ergon CF3 (also known as the Canyon VCLS 2.0) and its unique flexible parallelogram design.
“I had the Enve seatpost, but I hated the head,” Lim said. “I got the flex back in the post, and it was a game changer. I feel like now I’m screwed, because I always need to ride a flexy post, especially on gravel.”
Other bits were easy picks, such as the Specialized carbon fiber Zee side-load bottle cages (which make it easier to mount bigger bottles in the small frame), Powertap power meter pedals (Lim still has an association with the company, and says a regular coating of wax-based furniture polish helps keep the cleats clean), and front and rear flashing LED lights (because he likes the idea of making it home each day).
The handlebar and stem, however? That’s still a work in progress.
Lim thinks he likes the subtle flare on the Easton EC70 AX handlebar, but the shallow drop doesn’t afford him the lower position (and shift in the center of gravity) that he likes in a more traditional road handlebar. And while he loves the Alfa Allroad overall, he finds that the front end rides a little stiffer than he’d prefer — and so a Redshift Sports ShockStop stem is now on his to-do list.
But what’s the story with the boring frame finish? Allied offers a huge range of custom colors and finishes, after all, and so matte black seems like the least imaginative choice. As it turns out, that was precisely the point.
“It’s one less thing to worry about. I like to wear crazy and colorful clothing, and the only way I can get myself to match to any bicycle is if it’s a neutral palette. I try to make as few decisions in my everyday life as possible. Matte black matches everything.”