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Flights of fancy: Dream bikes ride test

James Spender
20 Sep 2018

If money were no object, what bike would you buy? We’ve got three pretty good answers, so we took them to France to live the dream

This article was originally published in Issue 75 of Cyclist Magazine

Words James Spender Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

It’s mid-April and Port Grimaud on France’s southeast coast is still half-asleep. It’s blissful. The harbour water is like plate glass, the sky hazy blue and the air breathless. By 8am we’re spinning along an empty bike path towards St Tropez.         

This is the first time I’ve seen our trio of bikes collected together in full flight, and as we pass a mirroring shop window, I think even the harshest critic would be hard pressed to describe them as anything less than fantastic.

There was much deliberation over how to label these bikes for the sake of this test. Candidates such as ‘boutique’, ‘custom’ and ‘superbike’ were floated, but as the terracotta roofs and towering boat masts of St Tropez peel into view, I think there is no better collective term than ‘dream bikes’.

This is exactly the scene my mind has wandered to time and again over the last month, perhaps in response to ever more sensational headlines about inhospitable weather fronts.

And these are exactly the kind of bikes about which I dream. Not necessarily the fastest or the lightest. No gimmicks to make them more comfortable.

Just elegant, beautiful, finely crafted machines in the classic bike mode, albeit with some first-rate technical touches and astonishing prices. We did say dream.

Divine inspiration

First up, we have the Passoni Top Force. In many respects this bike is so normal as to appear almost nondescript – nine metal tubes welded together to form a traditional diamond frame.

But if you know what you’re looking for, and you’re looking for it in the right light, nothing could be further from the truth.

Passoni was founded by Luciano Passoni in 1989. Five years earlier, out on a ride himself, Luciano chanced upon a man named Amelio Riva, halfway up Lake Como’s Madonna del Ghisallo climb. Riva’s bike sparkled in the sun, but not like chromed steel.

That’s because it was titanium, made by Riva’s own hand, and Passoni realised he was looking upon the future. He proceeded to commission a bike to be built for himself, and was so impressed that he tried to convince Riva that the pair should go into business.

Riva said no, but that didn’t stop Passoni. He decided to go it alone and in 1989 debuted his first titanium bike, the Top, of which the Top Force is a direct descendent.

Riding the Passoni today is Therese and, just like Riva’s inspirational bike did, the Top Force glints and shimmers in the morning light as she climbs from St Tropez to the town of Gassin.

At the crest, Therese declares the Top Force to be incredibly stiff, which she claims was great on the spikier gradients of the climb but less than comfortable on the rutted false flat near the top.

By contrast, my other companion for the day, Peter, cannot heap enough praise on the Parlee.

Like Passoni, Parlee is an eponymous brand from a man who at one stage knew nothing about building bicycles. Bob Parlee cut his teeth fabricating boat hulls from composite materials in Massachusetts, USA, expertise he brought to bikes with his first carbon fibre frame in 1999.

The breakthrough quite literally came in 2002 when Tyler Hamilton crashed and snapped his frame at the Giro d’Italia, revealing that his Look-branded bike was actually made out of carbon fibre by Parlee (the crash wasn’t Parlee’s fault but the result of a defective freewheel).

Since then the US builder has gained an almost cult-like following in premium carbon fibre, and Peter’s Z-Zero Disc is the current zenith.

Parlee will, and does, paint its frames if desired, but the Z-Zero is most usually seen in this naked, waxed finish, all the better to show off the exceptional construction.

The tubes are roll-wrapped in-house (where pre-preg sheets are wrapped around a mandrel and cured) to create the desired ride characteristics – stiffer for heavier riders, for example.

The tubes are joined in a tube-to-tube-cum-monocoque hybrid fashion, where tubes are cut and mitred, intricately wrapped and then each joint put into a clamshell mould with bladders inserted inside the tubes, before being heat-cured.

This, says Parlee, helps save precious weight while allowing it to dial in very specific ride characteristics, because the stiffness and flex offered by each joint can be carefully controlled. Whatever it has done, Peter is clearly enamoured.

Rounded personality

By the time we descend from Gassin, a searingly fast series of dives through tree-shrouded roads, and back to the flat coastal drag, Peter has used the word ‘awesome’ at least four times, and starts to expound a theory as to why.

Round tubes, of which the Z-Zero is made, he reckons, put up a more uniform response to stresses and strains coming from different directions than non-round tubes.

This uniformity of shape means greater predictability of frame flex and movement, which inspires greater confidence, especially when descending.

But moreover, says Peter, whatever carbon fibre magic Parlee has woven into the Z-Zero has manifested in a frame that although stiff, doesn’t feel lifeless.

‘It’s like the perfect blend of carbon stiffness and steel springiness, though with the emphasis on the stiff.’ By comparison, Therese is still not entirely convinced by the Passoni.

She happily keeps pace on the descent, but when the road flattens out and the pace drops from gallop to canter, she reiterates that the frame ‘is just a bit too stiff, and the handling a bit too twitchy’.

For my part, I’m having a similarly interesting time on the Festka.

On looks alone the Festka Scalatore makes the black-on-black Parlee and silver Passoni appear ordinary. The near-radioactive pink has been selected to commemorate this year’s Giro, and the build kit is similarly exotic to match.

As seems de riguer among framebuilders, Festka has built the Scalatore around Sram eTap. That means there’s no finicky, gram-sapping internal cable routing to deal with, which helped achieve an incredibly impressive frame weight of 740g.

That’s no mean feat for a handmade bike, which as per the Passoni, handmade in Milan, and the Parlee, handmade in Massachusetts, the Festka is.

A few weeks ago the Scalatore was just a pile of tubes and carbon plies in Festka’s workshop in Prague in the Czech Republic.

Sram’s brakes have been eschewed in favour of eeCycleworks eebrakes, a one-man start-up from the States now so successful it has found investment from Cane Creek.

The set, with pads, weighs less than 200g – 60g lighter than Sram Red counterparts. However the biggest, most exotic weight savings are to be found in the saddle and wheels.

The all-carbon Selle Italia C59 perch weighs just 63g, and the Lightweight Gipfelsturm wheels a mere 1,015g. They both look highly impractical, from the wafer-thin saddle to the carbon spokes, but both seem exceptionally strong.

The saddle is rated to seat a 90kg rider while the wheels support 110kg, say both companies.

Whatever, they have helped create a 5.6kg super-climber that, thanks to the supremely light and stiff Lightweights, accelerates with the verve of a drag racer. Yet there is a downside.

The ridiculous and refined

Most people will head to the Alps for a climbing-based riding holiday, but the French Riviera serves up its own heady cocktail of climbs too. OK, they’re not quite as steep as Alpe d’Huez

or as prolonged as Ventoux, but they are testing and come regularly. So before we wind up from Rayo-Canadal-sur-Mer and back down to La Lavandou, before arcing for home, I swap bikes with Peter to see what all the fuss is about.

For climbing, we both agree the Festka is leagues ahead of the Parlee, and that’s saying something. I would happily describe the Parlee as an excellent climbing bike, but there’s no escaping the Festka’s incredible stiffness-to-weight ratio. The thing virtually rides itself uphill. 

However, every time we hit a descent, the tables turn. The Festka will hold a line, but you have to concentrate to do it, especially on rougher roads where its lightness means it wants to skip. 

The Parlee takes everything in its refined stride, distilling each corner into a few, easily executable movements. And thanks to the disc brakes, it has incredibly assured and equally rapid stopping power.

If the two were dinner guests, the Festka would be sozzled by nine, but terribly entertaining company nonetheless, while the Parlee would be still claiming it was fine to drive at three in the morning with a scotch in one hand.

So what of the Passoni? According to Therese, it would have gone to bed at 10pm, having stuck to the fizzy water all night because it had a race in the morning.

‘This would be a really fantastic crit bike,’ she enthuses. The pity is it doesn’t seem suited to more leisurely, all-round riding.

The price of dreaming

We wind up our Riviera tour back in St Tropez, one of the few places on Earth where our dream bikes might actually seem cheap. Apparently, the record bill for a night on the town here was recently shattered by a gentleman who managed to spend €1.2million in a single evening.

As we sip on coffees, our conversation turns to money, bikes and value. Yes these are dream machines, sublime to ride, full of character and fantastically pretty.

But it’s impossible to ignore the price, and with it that nagging question: have bikes become disproportionately expensive, and are these the three guiltiest parties?

It’s not an answer per se, but I can’t help recalling a factoid from David V Herilhy’s book Bicycle: The History.

In it he describes how the original laufmaschine, designed by German baron Karl von Drais in 1817, was an answer to a puzzle posed in 1696 by French mathematician Jacques Ozanam, in which he asked how ‘one could drive oneself wherever one pleases, without horses’.

The first running machines were obscenely expensive, Herilhy recounts, and remained so up until the early 20th century, where the modern safety bicycle (the format we share in today) still cost three times the average monthly wage.

I don’t see this fact as justification for the prices of the bikes we’ve been riding, but I find it interesting nonetheless because it shows that, even far back in history, people saw huge value in the bicycle that transcended fiscal judgement.

It’s this feeling I can’t escape either. Could I bring myself to part with this much for a simple bike? Like most people I will probably never be in a position for that to even be a question.

But if money was no object and I wanted something that’s like nothing else around? I’d be queuing at Festka’s workshop door before it even opened, as I think Peter would be camped outside Parlee’s.

Therese? She says she could be convinced, just maybe not this time around.

 

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