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Parlee Altum Disc review

5 Jan 2017
Verdict:

A comfortable, refined disc-brake ride but possibly lacking a little of that Parlee magic

Price: 
£3,999 frameset (£10,200 as tested)

If ten grand sounds a lot for a bike, consider the Henk Carbon Attache, which starts at €9,900, and is a briefcase.

True, unlike the Altum Disc it is largely custom – for €5,770 extra you can get the interior trimmed in calf skin, the exterior made bulletproof and a cigar humidor installed in its base – but beyond that it’s a carbon fibre clutch for storing pens.

Couched in those terms, the Altum seems a positive bargain. For one, it has wheels (although it must be said wheels are also available on the Henk Classic suitcase, a snip at just €26,000), and two, it’s made by Bob Parlee, a man who’s been building with carbon fibre for nearly 40 years.

Henk, by contrast, was started by Henk van de Meene, a Dutch property tycoon, aka an estate agent. I know which I’d rather buy. The question is, should you?

Damned if you do

If you’ve not come across the brand before, Bob Parlee is to carbon fibre bicycles what Morgan Freeman is to playing the role of God in films.

He didn’t invent polyacrylonitrile but his bikes have become the stuff of legend ever since Tyler Hamilton threw a leg over a rebadged Parlee in the 2002 Giro (the world quickly found out it was a Parlee when Hamilton crashed after a wheel failure, exposing the black fibres within). 

Those bikes were made to measure in Massachusetts, and in the Z-Series Parlee still does a sterling line in US-built custom carbon.

But in recent years it has also moved into the overseas mass production market, or as marketing manager Tom Rodi puts it, ‘small-batch building’.

‘If you’re a Trek or a BMC you might be making a run of 5,000 bikes. We’re typically making our stock bikes in batches of 50 or 60. It’s a very different way of doing things,’ says Rodi.

‘When we told people we were going to make bikes in Asia they were almost aghast, like how could we do this? Sacrilegious sellouts!

‘But people have recognised that these are our bikes, our designs, you’re not going to see any aspect of one on anyone else’s bike.’ 

Parlee wasn’t able to meet customer demand for its frames in a cost-effective way in the US, so while £4,000 for a ‘stock’ frame might seem a lot, it reflects the small-batch approach, and is significantly less than the £7,000 asking price for a custom US-made Z-Zero.

In silhouette alone the Altum backs up Rodi’s point – nothing looks quite like it. The top tube flares up to meet the head tube, while the down tube goes from a virtual round to flattened oval cross section at the bottom bracket.

Most striking of all, however, is the bike’s stance. The combination of a tall head tube and heavily sloping top tube makes the Altum appear as if it’s rearing up. This is more than just an aesthetic choice, though. 

If the bike fits…

Based on fit data gathered from Parlee’s custom frames over the last decade, Rodi reckons the average head tube height across the board has increased by around 10%. 

One hypothesis is that riders’ physiology has changed as the demographic has enlarged, but a more likely one is that fitters and customers have come around to the idea that a super-short, pro-style head tube is not the best solution for most ‘normal’ riders.

Speculation aside, for Parlee this posed a problem. Tall head tubes are potentially flexy and – let’s not deny our shallow selves – inelegant.

Accordingly, the Altum’s flared top tube performs a three-fold function. One, it braces the taller head tube for increased stiffness; two, it creates the illusion of a shorter head tube; and three, it offers a neater solution to headset spacers, which integrate into the flared design.

I’d say the success of number two is in the eye of the beholder, yet the frame’s form at least lends the Altum distinct character. The success of point three is more objective.


Parlee offers each of the six sizes with an 8mm, 15mm or 25mm integrated ‘Flex Fit’ spacer (this bike features the 15mm), which allows a more tuneable, versatile fit without using unsightly, flex-inducing spacers. 

It’s as neat an answer as I’ve seen to the ‘I want slammed but need tall’ conundrum, offering 17mm of tuneable stack height without spacers.

In this regard Parlee should be applauded, yet paradoxically it will be limiting for riders wanting a traditional racy fit. This size 56cm comes with a 173mm head tube, which even with the smallest Flex Fit spacer creates a nominal 181mm head tube length.

You can run the bike with no spacer at a push, but you risk fouling the frame with the stem, and the whole thing won’t look quite right.

Individual tastes

Personally I’d opt for a head tube in the region of 150mm, a figure that’s cropped up in two separate bike fits based on a bike with a 56cm top tube.

That said, the taller position on the Altum was actually jolly comfortable, and thanks to Parlee’s agreeably shaped carbon bars I was able to get comfortably low in the drops without feeling like I was having to reach down, as it were.

This came with the added benefit of a shifted centre of gravity – lower and more over the front wheel – that made for excellent stability when descending, and quick changes of direction.

I felt confident enough to take a local descent, comprising several tight turns, at full pelt without braking for the first time in months.

The discs certainly helped – bolstered by bolt thru-axles these top-end Shimano offerings were rock solid under heavy braking, with no squealing or sudden grabbing – and this gave me confidence to ride harder in the knowledge that safe emergency stops were quite possible.

Coming back up the hill, though, was a little different. For a disc bike the Altum is admirably light, and seated it climbed well. But out of the saddle I felt the bike had a tendency to wag its tail under hard efforts.

I ran this past Rodi, who explained that as far as their numbers showed the Altum was up there with both Parlee’s and other manufacturers’ stiffer framesets.

I’d agree that in most instances the Altum does feel stiff, even when sprinting. It’s just that when I stood up and put the power down at low speed I felt like the rear of the Altum took a while before it received the message from the front to get going.

Familiar

It’s familiar territory for me, and I’m sure it’s down to my weight (80kg) as much as anything else. Still, it’s there in some bikes and not in others.

However the upshot, I believe, is that a little front-back torsional flex is a very useful attribute at other times. It keeps a bike comfortable, and it helps it track the road better through corners. Too stiff and a bike skips and loses traction.

Overwhelmingly the Altum left me with two competing feelings: that it is a very well-behaved bike that handles impeccably, but that it lacks a certain edge.

I hasten to add that edge will be a personal thing, but having been spoilt by some decent time aboard a Z-Zero, I know what else Parlee is capable of, and it’s just that little bit more than the Altum has to offer.

Spec

Parlee Altum Disc
Frame 56cm
Groupset Shimano Dura-Ace 9070
Brakes Shimano R785 Di2 disc
Chainset Shimano Dura-Ace 9070
Cassette Shimano Dura-Ace 9070
Bars Parlee
Stem Parlee
Seatpost Parlee
Wheels Enve SES 3.4 Disc
Saddle Fiziik Antares
Weight 7.31kg
Contact parleecycles.com

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