You only need to take one look at this bike to realise it’s something special. Parlee, a small frame manufacturer based in the US, builds some of the highest quality, most meticulously designed and precision built carbon frames currently available.
Due to being handbuilt and with small production scale, they don’t make many, ensuring their exclusivity. They’re a rare sight on UK roads. As an alternative to the more mainstream high calibre carbon frames options then, they’re almost certainly worth a closer look.
The business is the work of Bob Parlee, a man clearly obsessed with building the highest performing road race frames, extracting as much potential out of carbon as possible and using some novel manufacturing methods to achieve some quite beautiful products.
Take a step back though, and it’s easy to see there’s a lot of design going into the frames. Even on the Z4, the most recent addition to the range, and which makes Parlee ownership now more affordable. The pursuit of perfection that is the driving force for Parlee is clearly evident.
A brief recap of the Parlee range before we get stuck in. The Z1, Z2 and Z3 are all largely the same frame, with the same production methods being applied. The Z1 is available in eight sizes (45cm to 63cm) with a custom option allowing changes to the tube lengths and angles and different tube sets – you can choose from super light and super stiff for example. The Z2 offers a semi-custom option, where just the geometry and decals can be changed. The Z3 provides a compact sloping option and customisable head tube lengths.
For the Z4 Parlee ‘reverse engineered’ the Z3 and changed a few of the processes used in the production and the lay-up. This, and by offering just five stock sizes (51 cm to 59cm) and not providing the custom option, has allowed Parlee to make a frame and fork package available for £2,000. Interestingly, while the Z1 through Z3 frames weigh about 1kg apiece, the changes to the Z4 have resulted in a frame weight of just 850g.
RCUK tested a Z3 several years ago and rated it highly, so after managing to persuade Bespoke Cycling, the UK importers, to lend us a Z4, we got to give it a spin. And here’s what we thought of it…
Now, while the Z4 does cost less than its bigger brothers, don’t think that any corners have been cut. It’s interesting that in producing this frameset they’ve ended up with a substantial weight drop over the more expensive frames. And a closer look at the frame shows there has clearly been a lot of thought and consideration into designing it.
The Z4 exhibits a range of production methods, with a variety of tube joining techniques including a composite version of tube-and-lug, much in the style that steel frames used to be built, and carbon wrap in which layers of carbon fibre sheet are laid in place over mitred and butt-bonded joints before the whole frame is then cured.
Traditional looking round tubes are something of a rarity when surrounded by the current crop of carbon frames which all seem to exhibit the designer’s urge to curve and bulge the carbon in all directions. But sometimes, simple is best, and I’ve grown fond of the Z4’s understated yet classy aesthetics.
Parlee moulds the top tube, head tube and down tubes as one, and bonds the top tube to a seat tube lug made from uni-directional carbon. From this lug extends the seat tube, a roll-wrapped compression moulded tube, as do the wishbone seatstays. The bottom bracket and chainstays are moulded as one piece for maximum stiffness. And all built by hand.
Forged alloy dropouts and the alloy bottom bracket shell – titanium on the higher-up frames – are the only visible signs of cost-cutting, but present no problems. The same carbon cable stops as on the higher end frames are a lovely touch.
Being available in just five sizes could be potentially limiting, if any of the sizes don’t fit. If that’s the case, and you’re thinking about going down the semi-custom route offered by the Z3 frame is probably a better bet. However, like I found, one of the stock Z4 sizes will fit just fine. Geometry on the 56cm tested came in at 73.5 degree head and 73 degree seat angle, with a 15.8cm head tube length.
On a frame and fork package costing £2,000, you’d not expect a penny pinching array of kit, and Bespoke haven’t disappointed with the test bike they sent in for test. It was a case of all top-draw components. Campagnolo’s Record groupset never falters, with fast snappy shifting and reassuring solid braking. Finishing kit was a combination of aluminium ITM stem and handlebars, a Reynolds carbon seatpost and Fizik Arione saddle.
Reynolds also supplied the MV32 C wheels, which feature a 32mm rim made from uni-directional carbon – they’re among a growing crop of full-carbon clincher rims. These are laced to Reynolds specification DT hubs with 20/24 DT Aerolite spokes lacing them together. Performance was ideally suited to that of the Z4’s, being rapid and stiff, only deflecting ever-so slightly when leaned over hard. Carbon rims mean carbon-specific brake pads, and happily these worked well, though a tendency to squeal under extreme braking caused some high-pitched squealing. The pair of wheels hit the scales at about 1.4kg. Wisely chosen Michelin Krylion tyres proved a good choice: plenty of rain fell during the test period with the Z4 and yet I suffered no punctures.
Unlike buying a complete bike off the shelf however, Bespoke are keen to stress the lengths they’ll go to get the bike perfectly setup for a Parlee customer. Upon buying a frame you’ll be invited for a fitting session to determine what parts (stem length, handlebars, layback/inline seatpost, crank lengths etc), so you can get the most out of your new bike with a perfect fit.
If I was pushed to make a few changes to the tested bike, it would be a swap of the handlebars for a nicer shape, but that’s just being finicky.
The result of all the above is a bike that rewards like no other. It’s sharp, taut, firm and willing to please. It feels planted at most speeds, though is prone to skip over rough roads at lower speeds just a tiny bit. It all settles down at anything approaching fast though, and there’s just enough give in the frame to keep the wheel in contact on the less-than-smooth roads around the RCUK loops.
When you push a bit harder you find the Z4 responds willingly, and just keeps giving and giving. The steering is light, direct and accurate, with the road surface relayed through the contact points to just the right degree. Unlike some bikes which pamper and isolate you from the road, the Z4 engages you.
Point the front wheel at a corner, lean the bike over a good few degrees and the Z4 stays on line, the stiff frame and fork clearly working well in harmony. The steering is well balanced and encourages you to push on, making it easy to join up corners, with rapid bursts of speed on the straight bits in-between a pleasure I will never tire of.
Thankfully it doesn’t batter you either, despite the noticeable stiff rear end, as a few longer riders revealed it proved to be a comfortable long distance cruiser. Some other bike testers have labelled this a sportive bike, and I can only imagine they’re drawing on the surprising comfort afforded by the Z4 when they came to their conclusion. Because a look at the numbers says they all talk race bike: fast, agile and rapid. Just how I like it.
Impressive too is just how easily the bike picks up speed. Trundle along in a middling-low gear at a little over walking speed, and start increasing the power output and flicking up through the gears, and before you even realise you’ll be rushing towards the horizon. Or the next set of traffic lights. There’s no apparent lag, nothing holding it back, just a willingness to constantly go faster, faster, and faster.
For sheer ride enjoyment, involvement and excitement, the Z4 is a match for any bikes I’ve previously tested. It’s one of the few bikes that, since its departure from the RCUK offices, I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m not sure anyone’s life is complete unless they’ve ridden a Parlee. Alas, my honeymoon with one of the most engaging, enjoyable and thrilling bikes this year has come to an end. There’s a lot to love about the Z4.