Parlee First Impressions
February 12, 2012
Many years ago, when I was a young man in my forties, I built a racing motorcycle in my garage. I bought the frame, wiring harness, motor, forks, etc. all separately, and tore everything down to the last bolt, and then put it all back together with exact measurements, better components, everything lubed nice nice, and so on. Sent the wheels, engine and suspension out to be professionally built for racing. That thing was the sweetest-handling and running race bike I ever owned. Everything just felt taut and tuned.
I get the same sensation from my new Parlee Z5 SL. I went for broke on this one (literally) and got the custom paint, SRAM Red and the new Mavic SLR wheels. More on those later. The paint alone cost more than my previous road bike. Honestly, it looks much better than I had expected. It’s a personal opinion, of course, but I think it’s drop-dead gorgeous. Now all the slow ugly stuff is on top of the bike. Call me crazy, but I think it makes me look good and feel fast.
I picked it up about a week ago, and put 300 miles on it last week. My very first ride (apart from 20 minutes to test the fit at the shop) was at the Knight’s Ferry Road Race. That was painful. I’d been traveling, and had not ridden in ten days, and the road race was my first time back on a bicycle. My hands went numb, my butt hurt, my legs were alternately feeling like wood or on fire, and I started to reflect half-way through the race that this was possibly not the smartest move I’ve ever made in my life. But what the heck, you only live once. I’ve rarely looked back and wish I’d played it safe.
By the way, let me just say how great Chris and the other folks at Oakland Cycle Sports are, as well as the frame-builder at Parlee (Tom). Smart, engaged, knowledgeable and helpful. Working with them, and with Chris in particular, is a pleasure.
I’ve settled into the bike, and feel more comfortable on it, but from the very first it had an excitingly responsive feel to it. By the weekend, in fact, everything seemed to come together. I put in around ten hours on the bike on Saturday and Sunday, with perhaps two of those hours standing around admiring the smooth lines and lovely color. The bike is light – 14 pounds, 10 oz with pedals – and as you might expect, it responds to forceful inputs with immediate acceleration.
This is the best thing about the bike so far, in my opinion. It likes hard accelerations; just cruising along at an endurance pace is not particularly interesting or thrilling, unless you are rolling along College Ave admiring your reflection in store windows. When you step on the gas, though, watch out. Assuming your legs are up for the task, the bike just leaps forward.
It’s not just the in-line acceleration up a hill that impresses; what I like most, actually, is the way you can power out of corners, even over bumpy pavement like on Wildcat Canyon or Grizzly Peak. There is no sensation of the front end pushing wide, instead the front tire seems to dig into the pavement and you can put as much power as you want into the crank. In fact, it seems to want you to push harder. And here is something weird – this may be due to other circumstances of psychology and physiology, but it appears to me that my although I felt at the time that I was working hard, my muscles didn’t feel so tired afterwards.
Some of the handling under power happy feelings may be due to the new wheels that came with the bike, but I’m sure a lot is the way the frame responds to inputs – that perfectly tuned sensation. Make no mistake, this is a stiff bike and rolling along over rough pavement is not exactly a magic carpet ride. It’s not as bad as I feared it might be, however.
So, it’s great at going uphill, but what about downhills? Here, the opposite is true. Going up, the bike wants to be mashed, and you can feel all that power instantly translated into forward motion. On descents, you want a light touch on the bars. The bike turns in very quickly, and you can change lines just by thinking about it, so ham-handed inputs can make the bike feel skittish. On the ride Sunday, down Redwood, I relaxed and focused on finding a good line through the corners. Nice smooth pavement, not technical, and the bike just floated down the road.
Along the same lines, the Parlee prefers your hands on the drops. Everything feels much better in that position, which is the exact opposite of my old bike. Hands on the drops, index fingers curled around the hoods for added power input, and it’s all good. I put down so much power the rear tire started smoking, sparks shot from my calves and Tesla bolts exploded off my thighs. Oh, and my power meter lit up like a Christmas tree. Okay, that last bit isn’t true; the power meter hub is on an old wheel far too proletarian to be seen on this thoroughbred.
Kudos are also due to the tire/wheel combo Mavic provided, but I have to say, I felt like I could have gone faster through any one of those corners, by which I mean I was so comfortable that it would have been no problem had I been going faster, although I was for sure going as fast as I ever had on that road. I never touched the brakes, which, by the way, everyone in Alameda and Contra Costa County can attest to. Had I been on the brakes, would have heard me.
The brakes squeal like a cat caught in a blender, which is apparently part of the design on these Mavic R-Sys SLR, which are aluminum rims coated a special and patented layer of marketing hype called Exalith. They are not superlight, but are under 1400 grams for the set, with an extra-hard, slightly ridged braking surface that requires special brake pads. They sound cool on light braking, shriek like crazy on moderate, and the sound goes away again when the braking reaches a certain point. I’m hoping this doesn’t last forever. The wheelset comes paired with Vittoria tires, two different ones for the front and rear.
In the looks department, I find this wheelset a stunning match for my Kandy-red frame. For performance, again, as far as I can tell the wheel/tire combo significantly improves handling in fast corners. I’ll have to try the same roads with a different wheelset.
So there you have it, first impressions after 300 miles in the saddle. Feel free to send me any questions, and I’ll update this in a few months. Off to India today for another ten days of resting and dreaming of the moment I’ll be reunited with my Kandy Red Parlee.