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Inside Parlee

James Spender
12 Sep 2016

If there's one man who knows carbon fibre, it's Bob Parlee. But building bikes is about more than just understanding the black stuff.

There’s an old saying in the world of professional kitchens: never trust a skinny chef. In today’s health-conscious society that rings less true than it once did, and as Michel Roux Jr pointed out in a recent interview, one ought only to trust a skinny chef, as a fat one is likely ‘sitting in his office with a bottle of wine and a plate of potatoes, rather than bouncing around the kitchen’. Yet, the logic holds up: a maker of things should show signs that they enjoy the things they make; that they have an interest in their profession beyond the fiscal; that they have passion.

Within minutes of meeting Bob Parlee at his framebuilding facility in Beverly, Massachusetts, it obvious he’s just such a man – one who lives his craft. Speaking softly with a hint of Baw-ston twang, Parlee exudes a measured quality more befitting a statesman or orator than a framebuilder. Yet his face and body tell a different story. He’s wiry and tanned like a cyclist should be, hands large and coarse like a craftsman’s – the tip of one finger conspicuously missing. Everything about him seems authentic, from his infrequent yet deliberate gestures to his analytical gaze. 

Standing in the office-cum-showroom of Parlee’s Beverly facility, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the man and the chronology of his frames adorning the walls. The first half are about as minimalist and true to classic bicycle form as you’ll find anywhere, but as the wall-mounted timeline progresses towards the present day the frames become steadily more flamboyant – in both finish and aerodynamic shape – yet remain equally subtle and meticulously finished.

None of these models, past or present, are inexpensive. The current crop runs anywhere from £3,000 to £7,000, and those are just the framesets. But, like their creator, they appear highly considered with a no-nonsense character. And as with Bob Parlee’s working life, there’s a common theme uniting them all: carbon fibre. 

Sea change

‘I’ve been building things my whole life,’ says Parlee as he leads us from the customer-facing office through to the airy workshop in which all of Parlee’s custom frames are still handmade. ‘I was never comfortable building things like houses, though. I was always more into complex shapes, so I guess that’s why I ended up working with boats.

‘Back then, in the 1970s, you could maybe get 12 knots [22kmh] out of a race boat, and you had these extreme boats that were trying to get to 36 knots [67kmh] but couldn’t get much past 30 [55kmh]. Then carbon fibre was introduced and suddenly you could build boats lighter,with stiffer hulls and centre boards, rudders, that kind of thing, and they could get up out of the water and hydroplane. Now 36 knots is commonplace. We were building these 36-foot long race boats, with these big 15-foot wings, and six of us could pick it up and walk around with it. Carbon fibre just changed the whole world.’

Clearly Parlee’s passion for boats remains. After disappearing into the back of the workshop he soon re-emerges with a large rudder that he explains he made for his own boat, because the stock part just didn’t live up to his expectations.

‘The thing bugged me – it had the most terrible shape to it, plus it was incredibly heavy,’ he says, lifting the rudder, which is nearly as tall as he is, high into the air.

World’s not your oysters

That kind of ‘if you don’t like it, make a better one’ attitude is exactly what kick-started Parlee into building bicycles. However, the transition from boats to bikes was far from straightforward. Despite a successful boat-building career spanning some 27 years that saw Parlee working on Olympic-class racing boats and America’s Cup yachts, the wave of high-end boating enthusiasm waned, leaving him at a loose end.

At first his attention turned to oyster farming, but when he lost his million-strong crop to a shellfish blight that swept along the New England shores, it was again time for a rethink.

‘I was spending a lot of time on bikes, doing a bit of racing, and I’d started to design aero shapes for TT bikes based on what I’d learned in hydrodynamics – water’s just like air, only thicker,’ says Parlee. ‘I introduced myself to some people at a company called KaZaK Composites, who were doing all this development stuff for military and aerospace. Back in the early space shuttle days they built an extendable arm for photographing the Earth from a shuttle. The founder, Jerry Fanucci, liked the idea of helping make something more accessible that people could buy, like a bicycle, so he was kind enough to give me access to his workspace and equipment.’

Parlee built his first bike at the facility in 1999, the round-tubed Z1, out of offcuts from KaZaK’s military tubing inventory, and was overjoyed at being able to ride it the 30km home ‘without it breaking’. By 2000 Parlee had gone full bore into bikes and set up Parlee Cycles, and by 2001 he’d sold his first frame.

‘I just went walking around Interbike [the Las Vegas tradeshow] carrying a Z1 on my shoulder. I got a lot of press for that. Then I get home and this guy calls me up and says, “I’ve heard about your bikes, what do I have to do to get one?” I tell him he’ll need to get measured for his size, and he says, “No problem, I’ve got 65 custom bikes already so I know my geometry, it’s nailed”, and sends me a cheque. I build it, then the next year I come out with a new bike, and he phones me up again and says he wants that one too.

‘He was my first customer, and since I’ve known him he must have bought 15 of our bikes. I guess he has a big enough house to store them all, but when does he get the time to ride them?’

That’s the sort of client any small-batch builder dreams of, yet it wasn’t selling bikes to enthusiasts that established Parlee. Rather, it was a fellow by the name of Tyler Hamilton.

Pro seal

Professional bike racing wasn’t always as it is now. Up until 2011 a rider could ride pretty much whatever bike they liked, within a few UCI guidelines. Today, those bikes have to be vetted and approved by the UCI (just look for the ‘UCI Approved’ sticker on a frame or fork), and must be available to be purchased by the public within an allotted timeframe (usually a year) after their debut. Thus riders like Greg LeMond famously appeared on rebranded titanium Merlins and prototype carbon fibre Calfees, and Hamilton was allowed to race one of Parlee’s frames.

‘Tyler lived not too far from me so I’d go riding with him on occasion, and one day I asked him if he’d like to try a bike. At first he trained on one, but he loved it so much we had one painted up in Team CSC colours and badged up as a Look, the team’s bike sponsor.

‘It was all going great, then in 2002 I’m watching the Giro and Tyler crashes. It looks like his bike’s failed and I think, “Man, I’ve killed Tyler Hamilton!” I called up his wife, Haven, and asked what happened and she said not to worry, it was the wheel that failed. To save weight they’d pulled out half the pawls in the freehub, so when he went to accelerate the wheel didn’t engage and he just went over the top. Somehow he finished the race, and shortly after a story started going around with pictures of the bike – which said “Look” on it – and the caption was “Look! It’s a Parlee”. It was great guerrilla marketing and it put us on the map.’

It certainly did nothing to harm Parlee’s reputation within CSC either. As a result of the exposure, other riders on the team adopted his bikes for racing too, and soon the management was knocking on Parlee’s door. Sadly though, it wasn’t to be. ‘At the time I’d only built 30 bikes, but the team wanted 165 and it just wasn’t possible,’ explains Parlee. ‘We weren’t, and still aren’t, a huge company, and we’d rather invest everything back into building better bikes.’

Infamy and skulduggery

Over the years Parlee has expanded its portfolio from just a single bike, the aforementioned Z1, to a range of 17 iterations from five model groups. In so doing it has cemented its position as one of the most desirable carbon fibre bike manufacturers going. Even Lance Armstrong owns one, bought somewhat infamously in 2013 in the wake of Lance-gate.

‘We didn’t know he’d purchased it,’ says Parlee. ‘The form came in from his bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s, and it didn’t have a name on it, which was a bit odd. Then Tom [Rodi, Parlee’s marketing manager] who’s a bit of a savant, looks at the geometry sheet and says, “I know where this is going.” So we guessed it in the end, but I think if Lance had come directly to me, I’d still have made it for him. It’s not the way I’d want to do business and I don’t condone the cheating, but really I’m just some schmo that likes building bikes.’

It might sound like a cliché, but hear Parlee say it and it’s hard not to believe him too. His honesty is almost disarming, and it’s present right down to Cyclist’s last question: just what did happen to the tip of his finger?

At this Parlee shrugs, and says, frankly, ‘I spent my whole life building boats and all that, so I could say I lost it in some professional accident. But really a little terrier dog bit it off.’

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