US-Made, Massachusetts-Inspired Performance Race Bikes

Transforming Carbon Fiber into Road Cycling Art

March 2, 2016 Sports and Outdoors By Photo by AJ Powell
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Parlee Cycles was born out of boat building. For many years, founder Bob Parlee crafted high-performance race boats out of carbon fiber and, on the side, shaped wooden sailboats. During this time, Bob Parlee was also racing bikes, but as a rider he was never satisfied with the quality, performance and fit of off-the-shelf bikes. The boat builder figured he could do bicycles better, so in 2001, he took his attention to detail, knowledge of carbon fiber and love of bikes and created Parlee Cycles, a small carbon bike manufacturer making frames entirely by hand — from fork to dropout. And to understand why cyclists will spend $7,000+ for a Parlee frame, I visited Bob Parlee in his studio.

Situated next to the railroad tracks of the Newburyport/Rockport “T” line and down the street from the Bowl-O-Mat bowling alley in Beverly, Massachusetts, you wouldn’t think twice driving past Parlee Cycles. Its exterior is modest, constructed from whitewashed cinder blocks, and the only thing that gives away that this is a bike shop is a branded trailer parked out front. This humble facility, by appearance, stands in contrast to some multimillion-dollar research and development facilities of larger brands. But despite its size, Parlee is making bikes that surpass the quality of the bigger companies.

“Some of the little details are lost when people talk about weight and stiffness, but the little details, for us, make the bike.”

Each and every custom frame that comes out of the Parlee shop is made entirely by hand, in house — including the tubes. In my research, no other brand in the US can make that same claim. Most custom carbon bike makers use pre-made tubes from other companies, like Edge Composites. Not Parlee. Parlee uses a proprietary process (which they keep very close to the chest) in which the carbon tubes have pressure applied to them from the inside out. This gives them the flexibility to create literally any shape and length tube imaginable, which translates to custom bikes that are comfortable enough to ride all day while still offering high performance.

To create the tubes and to assist in the layup of the frame, Parlee uses what are called pre-preg sheets of carbon fiber, or carbon fiber weaves that already have resin embedded in the fibers. To shape them, you “just turn on the heat,” Bob Parlee explained. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each custom frame starts with measurements, then moves to tube construction, assembling the tubes to create a rough frame, grinding and sanding, and finally painting — which Parlee also does in house.

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In addition to building their custom orders, Parlee also invests time and effort in developing new bikes and prototypes. They use 3D modeling and software to determine technical specs, but also make prototypes from wood. Bob Parlee, in his personal corner of the shop (a long table filled with in-process prototypes and tools), makes multi-material mock-ups. After the mock-ups are refined and a concept bike is fleshed out, the bike goes to a 3D printer where they print a full-scale model. This model isn’t rideable, but it allows Parlee to work out kinks in the design before investing in expensive molds for the tubes. It also allows them to bring the model to a wind tunnel, to help refine performance.

Every Parlee bike is aimed at finding a balance between performance and comfort. As Sales and Marketing Manager Tom Rodi explained, “You want a bike that feels amazing under power, and is responsive and tracks like it’s on rails. But you also want a bike that, if you’re going to go ride for six hours, you’re not going to feel like rubbish at the end of that ride.” This match of fit and ride quality is something you can only get with a custom frame, and, naturally, that kind of personalized comfort and performance comes at a price. Parlee custom frame sets start at around $7,000 and complete bikes can cost over $20,000.

One look at a complete bike shows that product is worth the cost. The boat builder has made a better bicycle, and these bikes are well beyond what rolls out of the local bike shop. “Some of the little details are lost when people talk about weight and stiffness, but the little details, for us, make the bike.” Rodi said. “That’s a cultural thing for us as a company. That’s the difference between making something that’s easy to manufacture versus making it the right way.”