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by Iain Treloar
June 18, 2020
Photography by Iain Treloar
Twenty years ago, the boatbuilder Bob Parlee decided to make a change. Drawing on his experience with composite materials, Parlee started up a bike company in Massachusetts and set to work building custom carbon fibre bicycle frames. By 2002, his creations were being raced in Grand Tours. In the two decades since, Parlee Cycles has evolved and expanded from a one-man operation to an internationally distributed company with a full line-up of stock and custom models.
One of the milestones in Parlee’s journey came in 2007 with the Z4 road model – the first non-custom frameset offered by the company, and the first manufactured in Asia. This was superseded by the Parlee Z5 – a bike that I owned several years back, and which I remember to this day as being almost perfect, in spite of its flaws. This evolved into the Parlee Altum – a model that remains in Parlee’s range today and a bike that I also owned a while back, before my life moved beyond that type of bike.
In 2015, Parlee entered the then-nascent gravel market with the Chebacco, which bears some visual similarities to the Altum but has a character all of its own. It also has greater multi-surface capability thanks to its disc brakes, big tyre clearance, and approachable geometry.
The Chebacco is named not after a wookie but an early European settlement north of Boston, near Parlee’s headquarters – a region where, Parlee says, “roads can get rough and rides turn into adventures”. The bike was designed as a steed for anything from gravel to cyclocross to long road miles, and is the company’s attempt at that most elusive phenomenon – a single bike quiver.
That idea is bordering on antithetical to an industry where bike categories are increasingly fragmented, but there’s a certain appeal to it. Consumers are flooded with messaging telling us to buy more – more bikes, more wheels, more tyres. If you succumb to that pressure, your experience may well be enhanced, but your bike maintenance regime can become increasingly complicated and the decisions of what to ride – and where – can become increasingly drawn out.
This bike, and others like it, ponder some alternative questions. What if you could pare all that back? What if you could do all your riding, across the spectrum, on a single gravel bike, perhaps with an extra wheelset? Can one bike straddle both road and gravel, with little compromise in either world?
If you’ve found yourself intrigued by the allure of a one-bike solution like that, you’re not alone. In a roundabout kind of a way, this brings us to a year ago, when Parlee sent over a Chebacco set up for gravel, a road wheelset, and their blessing for me to absolutely hammer it for an entire year.
One bike. Two wheelsets. One year. Game on.
Today’s Chebacco is the same as the one launched by the brand in 2015, bar some minor changes along the way to accommodate shifting thru-axle and disc brake standards. The frameset is manufactured under Parlee’s strict specifications in Asia, and constructed from high-modulus carbon fibre.
Cabling and hoses run internally, with clever interchangeable ports for mechanical/electronic/wireless groupsets. Parlee has opted for a PF30 bottom bracket, giving space for the internal routing of wires and cables underneath. Combined with SRAM’s aluminium bearing cups, this setup stayed mercifully silent for the duration of my time with this bike. Hooray!
No WiFi on this bike, sorry – this is the eTap blank that Parlee provides for the internal cable routing. They also provide options for mechanical and electronic builds.
At the front end of the bike, the headtube features a 1 1/8” upper bearing and a 1 1/4” lower bearing, to match the fork’s tapered steerer. The frame rises into a pronounced hump at the front of the top tube, which marries up with a matching spacer – Parlee calls this a ‘Flex-fit top cap’ – allowing for a more natural-looking transition from the frame to the fork, avoiding a tower of spacers, and keeping the interface firm.
There’s an economy here, too – rather than producing different stack height options in the same frame size, as the brand used to do with the Z5, you can elect for a differently sized integrated cap at purchase. As such, there are three stack and reach dimensions listed for each frame size.
Parlee’s off-the-shelf geometry tends to feel fast, but is quite forgiving. The stack height of my ML review frame – nominally a 56 cm, with a medium top cap – is 593 mm, with a reach of 378 mm. That’s possibly both taller and shorter than more-flexible riders might expert or prefer, but those riders are not me. I found the position immediately natural and comfortable, and liked not having an ungainly pile of spacers to get there.
Frame weight is claimed at between 870-980 g, depending on size, with a fork weight of 390 g, which offers potential for some lightweight builds. The ML-sized bike reviewed here weighs in at a very respectable 7.2 kg in road trim (sans pedals), and 7.8 kg with the supplied gravel wheelset, setup tubeless (again, no pedals).
The Chebacco range features the same frameset across the board, but is split into two tiers depending on trim.
The ‘core’ Chebacco range starts with complete builds at US$3,099 / £2,999.00 / AU$4,999.00 / €3,299, with a choice of two colour schemes.
The Chebacco LE, as reviewed here, offers customisable kits and finishes and the inclusion of Parlee’s own bar, stem, post and a co-branded pair of the excellent Arundel Mandible cages. Complete Chebacco LE builds start at US$5,099 / £4,899 / AU$8,199 / €5,499, with somewhere just below the sky, give or take, as the limit.
The Chebacco LE in this particular season’s paintjob was a deep, lustrous metallic racing green, with lime green accents for the logos and topographic markings on the inside of the fork legs and chainstays (not of the Chebacco Parish or indeed any specific location – I asked). The stock 2021 offering is a matte grey with orange affair, although the placement of all of the branding stays the same. Buyers can opt for different graphics, too – Level One finishes, painted in the company’s US facility, come with an AU$640 upcharge, while fully custom paint is available, charged on a per-job basis.
This build, with a SRAM Red eTap AXS groupset and power meter, would come in north of AU$12,000, plus the cost of the road wheelset (in this case an ENVE SES 3.4 Disc, AU$3,999).
Whilst this is undoubtedly an expensive bike, the takeaway isn’t – or shouldn’t be – that Parlee can put together a pricey build. After all, the company has operated at a premium pricepoint for virtually its entire existence. What’s much more interesting to me are the reasonably priced builds, which get you out on a complete bike for thousands of dollars less than what the exact same Chebacco frameset cost when it was launched, and also gives the brand a competitive rival to offerings from more mainstream brands.
While Parlee’s main specialisation is road bikes, the Chebacco has become an important part of the brand’s repertoire. Since 2015, when the model was first introduced, gravel has boomed, and the Chebacco with it. “The Chebacco is over a third of our sales,” Tom Rodi of Parlee told me. “We thought when we introduced it that it would be 10%, so it has been a big success.”
Part of that comes down to a broadened offering of componentry to suit – Rodi credits Shimano and SRAM’s gravel-oriented groupsets as being a boon for the success of the Chebacco – but there’s likely also something in the Chebacco’s ability to straddle categories that increases its appeal. “Our goal with the Chebacco was always that it would be decent off-road but with road tyres it would feel like a road bike on the road,” Rodi said.
Since the Chebacco’s introduction, the market has fragmented in increasingly rugged directions, but the Parlee Chebacco isn’t necessarily targeted at that style of riding. “We have seen a little more of the MTB influence come into gravel the last couple of years, so there are longer and slacker gravel bikes out there now, and wider tires,” Rodi told me. “But we really think 700c x 38-42 mm is the sweet spot for most folks and that there is a certain point where you are better off on a mountain bike.”
Tyre clearance is officially listed at 700×40 mm, although that’s somewhat conservative to allow for variances in rim width and tyre measurement. At points in the past year I rode tyres up to 42 mm in width, which was only a problem (in both clearance at the bottom bracket and to the eTap battery) in extremely sticky mud. Rodi confirms that “we try to be conservative with the guidelines. The reality is that running too big of a tire can be dangerous to your bike, regardless of the material it is made from.”
Unlike many modern gravel bikes, the Chebacco is not optimised for use with 650B wheels, and changing to those does not gain any significant width. “We have been pretty vocal that there are very few usage cases where we prefer 650b over 700c so we never really designed for that,” Rodi said. “Much like with XC hardtails, we think the larger wheel just ‘rolls’ better.”
There’s also the fact that 650B’s rise in popularity happened after the Chebacco came out – the first mainstream 650B gravel bike, the Cannondale Slate, was released in June 2015, when the Chebacco would have been well on its way down the production pipeline – so it’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. But regardless, the Chebacco wasn’t designed for that wheelsize back then, and the frameset hasn’t changed to accommodate it now.
No mistaking who’s made this frame, with a generously sized logo on the base of the down tube.
Demand for greater tyre clearances has ballooned over the past five years, with designers seeking increasingly inventive ways of squeezing in that rubber – from dropped stays to raised stays, forged yokes to carbon beams, flip-chips to 1x-only groupsets. Some would argue that the Chebacco, with its 40 mm tyre clearance and its ability to run a double chainring and conventionally symmetrical stays, shows its age. There are plenty of others who would agree with Parlee’s contention that a bike like the Chebacco covers a decent slice of the gravel rider pie. As for me? I found the bike’s limits, but I seldom found it wanting.
From the very first ride, the Chebacco felt a very natural place to be. Given my previous positive experiences with the Z5 and the Altum – which across the entire sizing range features almost identical stack and reach to the Chebacco – that was almost a guarantee, but it’s still worth remarking on. When a bike instantly feels like coming home, that’s a good place to start.
Attentive readers will notice that the Z5 and the Altum are both road bikes – with a race-bike character but some concessions to comfort in the geometry – and that’s a pretty decent way of succinctly describing the Chebacco’s position and handling. In the broad spectrum of gravel bikes, the Chebacco sits firmly at the racier end, with a weight, position, and character that makes it best-suited to well-made gravel roads and speed in a straight line rather than more technical terrain.
A moderately slackened head angle (71.75º in this size) and 47 mm fork rake keep the bike’s trail on the slightly stabler end of responsive at 68 mm when wearing 40 mm tyres, and I had few issues with toe overlap with chunkier tyres and size 43 shoes. The chainstays at the back end are 430 mm across the sizing range, giving ample space for fatter rubber, while there’s a pretty middle-of-the-road 70 mm bottom bracket drop; pedal strike was rare except in the roughest of conditions.
Parlee’s bikes, in my experience, offer a refined, gliding ride quality that masks a more aggressive edge, and the Chebacco follows in this lineage. On smoother surfaces the frame does a good job of muting any surface imperfections. That’s helped in part by bigger-volume tyres, but the impression carries over when the Chebacco is outfitted with 25 mm and 28 mm tyres, too, so it’s not just the tyres doing the heavy lifting.
That’s a little surprising given the other contact points on the Chebacco LE are Parlee’s in-house seat post, handlebar and stem, which are all quite girthy and oversized. The seat post, in a 31.6 mm diameter, is available with either 0 mm or 25 mm offset – and interestingly, is now produced by Parlee in 27.2 mm and 30.9 mm sizes to cater to aftermarket consumers on other brands, despite Parlee’s own adherence to the 31.6 mm size throughout the range. Rodi told me that “our in-house standard remains 31.6, which is what our frames are tuned for,” and confirmed that Parlee has no plans to use smaller sized posts in its bikes.
The handlebar and stem, meanwhile, are most likely to be installed as a symbiotic setup due to the use of the less-common 35 mm bar diameter. More on all of those later.
Parlee’s own-brand cockpit features a lot of carbon fibre, a 35 mm clamping diameter, rearward-facing bolts and replaceable hardware throughout.
On rough surfaces – and particularly noticeably in corrugations – the frame’s ability to filter out chatter was overwhelmed. Here, I found myself wishing for larger tyres, or a smaller diameter seatpost, or a smaller diameter handlebar. Despite a clutched rear derailleur, it wasn’t always a silent ride either, with the broad canvas of the down tube and lack of any protection conspiring to a staccato accompaniment in rocky conditions. By the end of the year, the frame was visibly marked by gravel hitting the frame.
*gritted teeth emoji*
At slower speeds, it’s not as nippy as some others in the category, and the lack of insulation or any suspension elements means that you’re occasionally battered and bounced around. This feeling of ‘underbiking’ brought its own sense of enjoyment for shorter rides and rewarded good bike handling; I needed to be sharper on the Chebacco than I am on more off-road-oriented gravel bikes, which can forgive sloppier riding. That does take a bit of a toll on the body, though – on long days of rougher terrain, I’d find myself feeling a bit beaten up, especially in the shoulders.
In a straight line and at speed, this thing goes. The Chebacco is more responsive to acceleration than any other gravel bike I’ve ridden, springing forward eagerly with a purity of purpose that is harder to find in bulkier gravel bikes tuned for comfort and toughness.
I preferred the bike’s handling with a bigger tyre – it rode best, in my opinion, with 38 mm tyres, which offered a fairly tranquil character. With the supplied 25 mm road tyres the trail figure dropped to a more nervous 63 mm and the bike didn’t love being ridden hands-free. Cervelo’s Aspero uses interchangeable chips on the fork to maintain a desired character across different tyre sizes, and in the absence of such provisions, the Chebacco does have a discernibly split personality handling-wise, especially when directly comparing tyres at the skinnier and fatter end of the Chebacco’s scope.
A 700×28 mm tyre has oodles of space…
… while there’s room to move at the front with a 40 mm Vittoria Terreno Dry, too.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t make a capable road bike. Indeed, in its road guise, it never really felt like it lacked any appreciable speed compared to a dedicated bike for the purpose, spooling up to speed quickly and holding it. In its gravel guise, meanwhile, the Chebacco felt like a road bike with fat tyres and a lot more capability.
Based on what Parlee has seen from its consumers, that’s a big part of the Chebacco’s appeal – a bike that capably straddles a range of different terrains. Alongside the increasingly wild and wooly offerings in the market, the brand’s interpretation of the ‘gravel’ category skews it more towards what is now deemed ‘all-road’ – road-leaning, but with bigger clearances.
I haven’t ridden the Cervelo Aspero, but based on the comments of my colleagues, the Chebacco occupies a similar ‘haul ass, not cargo’ kind of a niche. The Chebacco is even more minimalistic in its capacity to carry extra stuff, offering provision for fenders but just two bottle cage mounts, and no hardware to mount a top-tube bag, frame bag, or cages on the fork legs. In that sense, it’s very much like a road bike designed to go off road.
This Chebacco landed in my hands just after the release of SRAM’s Red eTap AXS, and was outfitted with the (ruinously expensive) flagship groupset, right down to the power meter crankset.
SRAM’s range-topping Red eTap AXS groupset comes with the option of a power meter crankset. You need to replace the power meter with the chainrings, which is a little silly, but SRAM is good enough to come through with a 50% discount if you recycle them. Luckily, they last a long time.
Gearing range supplied was in the most gravel-appropriate iteration then offered by SRAM – a 10-33T cassette with a 46/33 crankset, giving a 1:1 gear ratio at the lowest end. It’s perhaps a concession to changing norms of gravel gearing – or changing norms in my power output – that this still sometimes felt as if it was geared too high; SRAM has since offered wider range gearing in the Force eTap range, along with ‘mullet’ options for those that prefer single-chainring configurations.
The industry’s still on the fence when it comes to the merits of 1x versus 2x drivetrains, but I’m not; I liked having a front derailleur at my disposal, even if it was one more place for mud to accumulate.
I’ve been a long-time SRAM user on some of my personal bikes, but this was my first exposure to eTap. For the most part, I was a happy camper. The groupset’s shifting was sure, with a defined ‘clunk’, and the ergonomics of the levers were just about perfect for my hands.
The clutch in the rear derailleur keeps things quiet from a chain-slap perspective, but I had occasional dropped chains in choppy terrain at speed. In more technical terrain – where you can find yourself caught out and needing to dump gears to maintain momentum – there’s a brief lag in the shift which I found frustrating; in such scenarios, a full pedal revolution waiting for a shift to happen can feel like an eternity, and sometimes brought me to a complete halt. On-road, where gradient and traction is more predictable, this didn’t bother me as much.
The brakes, meanwhile, are superb – more progressive than Shimano’s slightly wooden lever-feel, with an impressive initial bite. I find them a touch noisier and prone to contamination than the Shimano-equipped disc brake setups I’ve used over the past couple of years, but I genuinely love the performance and feel of them otherwise.
Provided with the bike was a DT Swiss C1800 Spline gravel wheelset, a 22 mm internal rim that was setup tubeless with 40 mm Vittoria Terreno Dry tyres. This mid-range wheelset, at 1,745 g, was perhaps a little below the spec of the rest of the bike, but was impressively hardy through the duration of my testing, and, indeed, the majority of the 5,000 km I spent on the Chebacco.
I was less fortunate with the fickle tubeless setup of the rear wheel, which was annoyingly needy over almost the entire year, despite different rim tapes, sealants, valves and tyres. I still haven’t been able to diagnose the exact cause of the symptoms I was experiencing – perhaps some unfortunate series of combinations of components. DT Swiss has a solid reputation for reliability, though, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that I was just unlucky, even if I wasted hours of my life wanting to throw this particular wheel through the window.
I also wasn’t sold on the Vittoria Terreno Dry tyres, which were worse in dry conditions and better in wet than I’d have expected based on the name. In my experience, they were hypersensitive to pressure, feeling either sluggish or harsh with an almost impossible-to-dial middle ground where they performed to my satisfaction. I swapped them out for much of the review period for Specialized’s Pathfinders, which better flattered the Chebacco and improved my experience.
Also provided was an Enve SES 3.4 wheelset, built up with Enve’s in-house alloy hubset. Like the SRAM Red eTAP AXS groupset, it was a luxurious inclusion. They’re an undoubtedly costly wheelset, but they perform beautifully, providing a tangible sense of free (well, expensive) speed compared to the alloy clinchers I’m more accustomed to. These came supplied with 25 mm Vittoria Rubino Pro tyres, tubed, and were changed out for a 28 mm tubeless tyre. Thankfully, compared to my tubeless woes with the gravel wheelset, the Enves set up tubeless with a floor pump and complete absence of swearwords.
As mentioned previously, Parlee provided their own handlebar, stem and seatpost – all of which I have previously used on my Altum, and have some established impressions of.
The handlebar is a comfortable shape with a compact reach, shallow drops and a modest flare. It has tangible flex in the drops, but on a gravel bike that’s not where I spend a lot of time; at the lever and on the tops, it’s noticeably firmer. That’s not helped by the 35 mm diameter of the bar, which gives a rock-solid, flex-resistant response to handling inputs, but yields little in comfort. If you use an out-front computer mount or a bar-mounted light, you’ll almost certainly need to get new ones from a more limited selection to suit the bigger bar, too. I killed two birds with one stone with a Bar Fly 4 Road Max modular mount.
Rearward-facing bolts and a chuuuuunky girth.
The stem, which is a meaty squared-off slab of carbon fibre with rear-facing bolts and titanium hardware throughout, is a perfect match for the bar both in appearance and ride quality. The rear-facing bolts are in theory a nod to durability – if you strip a bolt-head or cross-thread a bolt, you can just replace a faceplate. However, not all torque wrenches play nicely with the limited space available, entering on an awkward angle and marring the finish – especially if you travel with the bike, and have to remove bars often. That doesn’t help the durability of the bolts, and even with extreme caution and the most appropriate tool of the three torque wrenches I own, I find that the soft titanium bolt heads are prone to rounding out – an issue I’ve experienced on two from two of these stems that I’ve used.
More worryingly, I experienced slipping handlebars on several occasions in the first few months of riding the Chebacco, despite using the designated torque settings and carbon paste, and also not being particularly heavy. This issue, which manifested on rough descents, was – quite charitably – a nerve-quickening thrill. After the third instance of this, when I got tired of carrying a torque wrench on my gravel rides and fretting my way downhill, I contacted Parlee.
At the time, they hadn’t heard of this issue before. A subsequent measurement found that the bar’s outside diameter was ~.08 mm out of spec on one side of the clamping area, and ~.02 mm on the other – a tiny amount that Parlee maintains is well within tolerance. I torqued the stem to 7 Nm with Parlee’s OK – above the stated 5 Nm spec of the stem, but below the 8 Nm spec of the bar – and it hasn’t slipped since. To Parlee’s credit, they were responsive to remedying the issue and when it stopped slipping, I learned to stop worrying (mostly). The brand has since confirmed that “we are in the process of revising the torque specs (upward) on our bars and stems as this issue was popping up from time to time.”
Finally, the seat post gives a surprisingly comfortable ride, especially given preconceptions that exist around larger diameters. “Comfort is a byproduct of the laminate schedule and diameter in carbon seat posts,” Rodi says, “meaning you can tune a 31.6 mm to feel like a 27.2 mm if you know what you are doing.”
I had no issues with slipping of the seat post head on the Chebacco – although I have experienced such previously when I had one installed on my Altum. Like the stem, there are some minor tool-access difficulties, but for the most part I quite like it.
Most bike reviews don’t play the long game. When a bike’s first launched, journos might get a couple of rides on foreign terrain to form a first impression. For a proper review, we might hold onto a bike for a few weeks or a few months. By that point you’ve got a pretty decent understanding of the foibles of a bike, but you haven’t really lived with it, ya know?
With this review, I wanted to go deeper down the rabbit hole. For (almost) every ride for a full calendar year, regardless of conditions or location, it was in the company of the Chebacco.
Postcards from places we’ve been #1: Day one, some wall in Camberwell, on the way back to the car after picking the Chebacco up.
It was a fascinating experiment that taught me a lot about myself as a rider; what I want, what I think I want, and what I actually need.
I also learnt a lot about the Parlee Chebacco over those 5,000 km or so. We got to know each other pretty well, and there was a lot that I loved. And like any long-term relationship, there were some rough patches along the way, too.
Plenty can happen in a year. Hell, just look at the world … plenty can happen in six months. When the Chebacco landed in my lap, my daughter hadn’t learnt to ride; my wife and I weren’t expecting a second daughter; COVID-19 didn’t exist. I was a year younger, a year less worn; fitter, happier, more productive.
Any bike is a conduit to experiences and memories, and this Parlee Chebacco is no different. I remember a year of dreary commutes, but I also remember diving down Myponga Beach Road to a perfect blue sea, on a visit to Grandma’s house. I remember the sickening sound of a stick chewing up the rear derailleur, and I remember discovering new trails overhung by creepers, like a portal to another world. I remember a year of riding – sweating, smiling, grimacing, floating.
Postcards from places we’ve been #2: Fields of gold, Kangaroo Ground.
Now it’s going back home, I’ll miss it, and I’ll remember it fondly.
Things change. The gravel category has evolved dramatically in the past half a decade, and the Chebacco hasn’t. In some areas, its vintage shows – as in its lack of mounting points for extra bottle cages, bags, and other such things that aid spirited exploration.
As noted earlier, the market has shifted over the years to a point where many brands are designing their gravel bikes for all of those things, as well as two wheel sizes, more comfort, and greater tyre clearance.
For some potential buyers – those who want a bike that’ll allow more scope for evolution and exploration – the shifting norms of the gravel market may be enough to rule the Chebacco out. For those who know what they want and find that the Chebacco meets them there, it’s an extremely enticing option. And either way, it’ll be genuinely interesting to see where the Chebacco evolves from here, if or when the next iteration comes along.
On Parlee’s future plans for the category, the brand offered a polite “no comment”, but did say that “we are not afraid to update and evolve our bicycles, and we plan to continue that mentality moving forward.”
Yeah, things change. Sometimes that means that entirely decent bikes aren’t recognised for what they are, because of what they’re not. Doesn’t mean they’re not great, though.
Here’s the Chebacco in its road-going guise.
Postcards from places we’ve been #3: Yarra Trails, my first ride in several weeks, still utterly fried after the Tour de France. You have no idea how much I needed this.
The Parlee Altum introduced this distinctive hump to the brand’s range, a feature that carries over to the Chebacco. It’s a bit polarising, but I actually kinda like it.
When your bars turn, the spacer turns with it.
Postcards from places we’ve been #4: An early off-road ride, some local singletrack.
These SRAM dub bottom bracket cups weren’t threaded, but they were quiet. I’ll take it.
The dropouts (and hanger) are replaceable and modular, if you suddenly decide that you want to run a quick-release rear wheel instead of 12 mm thru-axles.
Shifting is smooth and predictable, although with just the teensiest bit of lag.
Postcards from places we’ve been # 5: dusty summer trails behind the powerlines on the way out to Beasleys, and some concerned onlookers.
I didn’t always keep it rubber side down…
… but the highs were very high indeed.