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by James Huang
June 12, 2020
Photography by James Huang
Allied Cycle Works’ steady march from tarmac to gravel and dirt continues with its latest model, the Able. It looks like nothing else out there right now with that crazy chainstay design, but there are sound design and engineering principles behind its curiously asymmetrical layout. It’s not without its quirks, but with simultaneous men’s and women’s overall wins at the bike’s debut last year at Dirty Kanza, it seems safe to say that function over form has its merits.
The design of modern high-performance gravel bikes has become more akin to a fight for real estate. Preferred tire sizes continue to grow, but there’s still a drivetrain to contend with, and yet there has to be some structurally sound way to connect the rear wheel to the rest of the frame. The easy solution would be to just extend the chainstays to minimize the interference, but doing so compromises the sporty handling that many gravel riders prize, so engineers have had to get increasingly creative in terms of packaging.
The predominant approach has been to arc the chainstays downward just behind the bottom bracket, where there’s more space in between the rear tire and the chainrings. Open is commonly credited with being the first to adopt the practice with the original U.P. back in 2016, and it’s been widely adopted since then.
The Allied Able is undeniably unusual-looking, but there are some good reasons for the quirky design.
Still, dropping the chainstays is hardly the only solution to the challenge, and other ideas continue to pop up.
For example, Specialized hasn’t bothered dropping the chainstays on its latest Diverge gravel bike at all. Instead, the driveside chainstay features a short span of solid carbon fiber instead of the usual tubular construction, which allows for a thinner cross-section while still maintaining stiffness and strength. In essence, it’s a page borrowed from the playbook custom builders have been using for several years on metal bikes with their plate-construction chainstay yokes.
Now, American carbon frame manufacturer Allied Cycle Works has brought to market its interpretation of the solution with the new Able carbon gravel bike. Instead of going low, Allied went high — very high — raising the driveside chainstay up and above the entire drivetrain in a manner not at all unlike the vintage Richard Cunningham mountain bike designs of the 1990s.
Feeling some old-school mountain bike vibes? You’re not alone.
In doing so, Allied is able to maintain compact 420 mm-long chainstays, a standard 68 mm-wide threaded bottom bracket shell, and a road bike-like pedal stance width (also known as Q-factor), while still officially allowing for rear tires up to 700×43 mm or 650×47 mm (front clearances are more generous at 700×47 mm or 650×55 mm). In both instances, Allied claims those figures are intentionally conservative.
“The trick here is in the language of the claims,” explained Allied director of product and engineering Sam Pickman. “These days, you need to be so careful about what you claim for compatibility because of the variation in actual tire widths due to the variability in rims. The Able can fit above what we state which is a 43 mm tire, but due to this wide variability, we shy away from stating more.
“If we were going to take the approach Cervelo did [on the Aspero], we would claim that the Able can fit most 45 mm tires. A wider bottom bracket would certainly help a tiny bit, but the benefit of the threaded bottom bracket and road Q-factor far outweigh the additional tire volume.”
Additionally, Pickman says the move also allows for a wider and stiffer rear end that’s more responsive under pedaling loads.
That raised chainstay won’t work with a front derailleur, though, and needless to say, the aesthetics of the asymmetrical rear end — the non-driveside chainstay isn’t raised at all — are undeniably polarizing.
Hell-bent on running a front derailleur? Sorry, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Funky chainstays aside, the rest of the Able is decidedly conventional.
The front triangle clearly places a priority on stiffness given the big cross-sections of the down tube and top tube, while the slender, rectangular-profile seatstays clearly suggest an effort to smooth out the ride of the rear end. None of the tubes bear any sort of aerodynamic shaping (which clearly didn’t keep Allied-sponsored riders Colin Strickland and Amity Rockwell from winning the men’s and women’s editions of last year’s Dirty Kanza 200 gravel race).
Cables are internally routed, and an interchangeable eagle-shaped aluminum plate on the down tube makes for a clean installation depending on the drivetrain configuration used. Mounts are included for three water bottles, a top tube feed bag, and front and rear fenders.
Business in the front, party out back?
Allied makes its own carbon fork for the Able, and while adventure-minded riders will undoubtedly be bummed that there aren’t any cargo mounts on the legs or provisions for internal dynamo hub wiring, it’s nevertheless an elegant-looking unit despite the wide-legged stance. Allied uses the same fork for every Able size, with the identical 395 mm axle-to-crown length and 51 mm rake. Both the fork tips and rear dropouts are compatible with Mavic’s nifty SpeedRelease pseudo-quick-release thru-axle system.
Geometry-wise, the Able is fairly middle-of-the-road, at least when it comes to all-purpose gravel bikes that are made for speed. As already mentioned, the rear end is admirably short at 420 mm, but the front-end geometry is similarly nimble with a 71º head tube angle and 68 mm of trail when paired with a 40 mm-wide tire. Bottom bracket drop is a pretty average 70 mm.
Allied doesn’t break any new ground in terms of stack and reach, although it’s perhaps worth noting that while the cockpit lengths are fairly generous so you can comfortably stretch out your back, some may find the stack heights to be a touch on the tall side, at least if you’re looking to mimic the fit of a more dedicated road racing rig.
The Able is offered in five sizes, with reach dimensions ranging from 376 mm to 405 mm, and stack from 533 mm to 615 mm. Two stock colors are offered, but custom hues are available as well. For riders who already have a preferred painter in mind, Allied even makes the Able available in a “ready to paint” variant that comes factory primed and sealed, but otherwise unfinished.
Every one of those Able frames and forks are proudly manufactured — as in, not just painted or assembled — in Arkansas, which means that Allied presents the rare opportunity to buy a carbon frame made in the United States. But as the saying goes, you’d better be prepared to put your money where your mouth is, given that the Able frameset retails for a substantial US$4,200.
That’s obviously an awful lot of money, but it’s worth pointing out flagship framesets from major brands are often even more expensive despite the lower labor costs of producing in Asia, so in the grand scheme of things, the Able is pricey, but hardly out of line. Allied has also devoted a fair bit of its development efforts at improving frame durability, so there’s also at least the promise of a solid long-term investment.
Actual weight for my medium frame was 1,290 grams (with seatpost collar, rear derailleur hanger, and cable hardware, but without rear axle), with the matching fork adding 473 grams with a generously sized, uncut steerer tube.
Go ahead and try to find another carbon fork that’s made in the United States (aside from Wound-Up). Go ahead; we’ll wait.
Allied sells the Able in three complete SRAM builds, ranging in price from US$5,800 with a Force 1 mechanical groupset up to US$9,800 with a Red eTap AXS wireless electronic one. I built up my test sample starting from a bare frameset, including a SRAM Force/Eagle AXS wireless “mullet” drivetrain, Zipp Service Course SL aluminum cockpit components, and two wheel-and-tire setups. One was a 650b DT Swiss GRC 1400 Spline 42 carbon wheelset wrapped with 48 mm-wide Rene Herse Juniper Ridge tubeless tires (with the Extralight casing); the other was a set of 700c DT Swiss GR 1600 aluminum wheels with 40 mm Continental Terra Speed tires, set up tubeless all around.
Actual weight for the complete bike was 8.30 kg (18.30 lb) in the 650b configuration, without pedals or accessories.
Unfortunately, distribution for all of Allied’s bikes is primarily focused on the US market, with very limited official availability elsewhere.
“Our current focus is on the US market, and because of this, our bikes only have official retail pricing in USD,” Pickman explained. “We’ve made some initial inroads to international distribution, and we’ve just opened up China and Canada through distributors. Expanding this distribution network is becoming a bigger priority for us, but for now our USD pricing is the only pricing we offer.”
Some high-end gravel bikes feel like they’re purpose-built to be comfortable, while others focus more on making riders more confident when the going gets tricky. Still others are basically just trying to be mountain bikes with drop bars, while others are essentially just road racing bikes with slightly fatter tires.
So where does the Able sit? Let’s just say that if we had included it in our recent Gravel Bike Field Test, it definitely would have gone into the “racing” category, because it doesn’t seem at all happy to just tootle along. The faster and harder you ride it, the better it gets, but that doesn’t mean that single-minded attitude isn’t without some caveats as well.
If you’re a bigger and/or stronger rider looking for a high-end gravel frame that feels especially stout up front, make sure to put the Allied Able on your list.
According to Pickman, “The ideal [Able] buyer is anyone looking for a race proven, performance driven gravel bike made to the highest quality standards in the industry.”
That’s a heady statement, but one that actually seems pretty close to the mark in reality.
Just as Allied suggests, the Able is wonderfully stiff and responsive, with much more of a distinctly taut and sporty feel that sits in contrast to gravel rigs that put more of an emphasis on ride compliance. The rear end has nary a wiggle when you hammer on the pedals and offers that “right now” acceleration that’s so highly prized in high-end road racing bikes. Up front, the front triangle is noticeably stout when muscling the front end up steep uphill pitches or through fast, technical corners. In general, there’s a sense of solidity and cohesiveness throughout the whole structure.
Allied certainly achieved its goal of improving tire clearance relative to its Alfa Allroad model. If anything, the claimed figures are quite conservative.
Also as expected, the Able’s handling sits slightly more at the nimbler end of the gravel bike mainstream, with a fun and flickable personality that encourages you to snake your way around (or over) obstacles, and rally through series of tight corners instead of just plowing through whatever sits in your way. Some might prefer a longer and more stable geometry that’s more forgiving when things get loose, but the Able’s more agile manners are still hardly nervous, particularly in the hands of a skilled rider.
Tire clearance on the Able is indeed more generous than the official claims might otherwise suggest. For example, those 40 mm-wide 700c Continental Terra Speeds (39 mm actual width) come close to the 43 mm maximum width that Allied lists for the Able, but in reality, that setup leaves almost 12 mm of space between any part of the tire and any part of the frame out back — and up front, there’s almost 20 mm to spare. When a 45 mm-wide WTB Riddler is mounted to the same rim (45 mm actual inflated width), there’s still 6 mm of room.
As you’d hope given the asking price, finish quality and attention to detail are excellent.
The bottom bracket shell is cleanly threaded and the cups install easily by hand, clear protective vinyl is factory-installed at a multitude of key locations, and the paint work is immaculate. It’s worth mentioning here, too, that Allied doesn’t use decals; all of the logos are painted on, which is rarely seen outside of the handmade world, even at this pointy end of the pricing spectrum.
When the finish is this nicely done, it’s a good idea to keep it protected.
Speaking of aesthetics, kudos to Allied for the Able’s restrained colors and graphics in general. After all, that unusual rear end draws enough attention as it is, so there’s arguably no sense in making the Able stand out even more than it does already.
That said, there are some additional downsides to that raised chainstay aside from its curious appearance.
Despite the comparatively small-profile seatstays — and regardless of which wheel-and-tire setup I ran — ride quality of the Able is on the firmer side of things (not unlike the Alfa Allroad model I tested a couple of years ago). Given how heavily bolstered the lower end of the seat tube has to be to accommodate that raised chainstay, the frame seems to rely more on seatpost flex for rider comfort than something with more built-in compliance features, like a Trek Checkpoint SL, BMC URS, or Pivot Vault.
The way the base of the seat tube is reinforced to accommodate the asymmetrical chainstay layout also seems to somewhat hamper desirable frame flex.
I wouldn’t say that the Able beats you up unnecessarily, but it doesn’t feel particularly cushy, either, at least at slower speeds. When pushed harder and faster, however, the Able somehow manages to feel smoother, almost as if to remind you that it’s happier when not just tip-toeing along. That firmness is also nicely balanced front-to-back, so the entire bike is at least wholly predictable with none of the lopsided sensation you can get from bikes that are plush at one end, but not the other.
Given that reliance on seatpost flex, though, it’s important to choose your frame size carefully. I’m often in between sizes, and it was no different with the Able: both the small and medium would have been fine in terms of stack and reach. In hindsight, the small may have worked out better given the 20 mm of additional seatpost I would have gained, although the improvement would likely have still been pretty minimal given the Able’s modest top tube slope and more traditional seat tube lengths.
Despite the positive effect the raised chainstay has on tire clearance, I nevertheless have some misgivings about this core design feature. After all, there’s a reason why dropped chainstays have become so popular: they work.
For example, the new 3T Exploro RaceMax boasts similar tire clearance to this Allied Able, and yet its double-dropped chainstays are actually 5 mm shorter. And although the latest Specialized Diverge’s rear end is 5 mm longer than the Able, that extra length comes with the benefit of a little more tire clearance as well. Both bikes also allow the option of a two-chainring drivetrain, too, which the Able does not.
“We made the call early on that this was going to be a 1x-only bike and that opened up the design envelope,” Pickman explained. “After living with that decision for a year, I still believe it is the right call. The 1x has never left me wanting, and it has the benefit of fewer moving parts.”
You know why external seatpost collars were ubiquitous for so many years? It’s because they work.
That 1x drivetrain requirement obviously won’t be a dealbreaker to riders that have already converted, and there’s definitely something to be said for simplifying the drivetrain in general. However, the reality remains that the format still has some evolving to do, and not everyone will be OK with their hand being forced. Despite the proliferation of 12-speed cassettes (or 13-speed ones in the case of Rotor), 1x riders still have to choose between more total range or smaller gaps in between gears, neither of which are an issue with the latest 2x systems.
In my case, I mostly didn’t mind the 1x “mullet” setup on solo rides, although even then, I occasionally lamented some of the bigger ratio jumps. But if I were looking to also use the Able for something like fast group road rides where maintaining a steady cadence is more important, it would have been a different story.
There’s also the curious issue of chain slap. Well before the advent of rear derailleur cage clutches, mountain bikes had raised chainstays to help minimize the clatter of the chain smacking the frame on bumpy terrain. Therefore, between the clutch on the SRAM X01 Eagle AXS rear derailleur and the fact that the Able’s driveside chainstay sits above, instead of below, the chain, I expected a blissfully silent ride when the going got rough. Instead, what I discovered was the upper span of the chain occasionally hit the underside of the chainstay — not so much that it was louder than a conventional bike, but something I noticed on rougher sections of dirt and trail nonetheless.
Sorry, folks, I know the raised chainstay suggests an utterly silent ride, but that wasn’t the case during testing.
Allied could also stand to catch up a bit in terms of the internal cable routing. Although the swappable aluminum eagle plate is neat and all, I would have rather seen fully guided paths for the front and rear brakes. As it is here, it’s a bit of a fishing expedition to run the lines, and you also have to remember to line the rear brake hose with some foam unless you want to be stuck with a persistent rattle inside the down tube.
Finally, I applaud Allied for utilizing Mavic’s clever SpeedRelease semi-open dropout design for the Able, but the included thru-axles (which are also made in the United States by Industry Nine) don’t step down in diameter enough to actually pass through the dropout slot.
Am I being nitpicky? Perhaps, but we are talking about a US$4,200 frameset here.
Back to those words from Pickman: “The ideal [Able] buyer is anyone looking for a race proven, performance driven gravel bike made to the highest quality standards in the industry.”
Is the Able race proven? Clearly.
Is it performance driven? Sure feels that way, for better or worse.
And is it made to the highest quality standards? That’s harder to discern from the outside, but having visited the operation myself, it’s hard to argue with that claim.
Some might misconstrue Allied calling out its US-based carbon fiber manufacturing, but it’s a rightfully earned distinction in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly Asia-based industry.
Ultimately, I’d say the Able is everything it’s made out to be: it’s quick, it’s sporty, it’s capable, it seems very well constructed, it thrives on going fast, and it’s a blast to ride. If you value being a little different, the design here certainly fits the bill, too.
As is often the case, though, being different comes with a few major quirks, and you’d better make sure you’re at peace with them before making the commitment.
Allied made the conscious decision to stick with a 68 mm-wide threaded bottom bracket for the sake of servicing convenience and creak-free operation, in spite of the fact that using a wider-format press-fit setup might have provided even more tire clearance.
A third water bottle mount is located on the underside of the down tube.
The front triangle tubes are very big and wide, which produces the expected result in terms of front triangle frame stiffness.
Riders who pedal knees-in might actually find the top tube to be a little too wide.
The seatstays are relatively slender, but the Able still rides on the firmer side.
The eagle emblem emphasizes Allied’s made-in-USA manufacturing, and also provides a neat way to incorporate an interchangeable port for the internal cable routing.
Stack heights are taller than what you’d find on a comparably-sized road bike, but are still quite reasonable. And if anything, the taller front end encourages riders to use the drops, where you’ve got more control in many off-road situations, anyway.
The branding is admirably minimal. Graphics are painted on, not decals.
Naturally, flat-mount disc brakes are featured front and rear.
Front and rear fender mounts are tidily integrated into the frame and fork.
The included thru-axles are made for Allied by Industry Nine.
While it’s questionable how many riders would actually head out off-tarmac with fenders, it’s still nice to see that you have the option.
Technically speaking, this 650×48 mm Rene Herse Juniper Pass tire pushes the limits of the Allied Able’s tire clearance, but in reality, there’s still a bit to spare.
Kudos to Allied for orienting the exit hole for the front brake hose in such a way that it’s pushed away from the head tube. There are no worries about paint rub here.
Thru-axle threads are replaceable at both ends.
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