BEST of PEZ ’08: Parlee’s Z4

Parlee have been one of the “it” bikes for several years now. Easily and firmly one of the top carbon shops on the planet, the guys at Parlee knew it was only a matter of time before someone tried to make a knock-off, using some of the design elements reserved for Parlee’s custom frames. Thinking a step or two down the road (or a few strokes across the ocean) they decided to knock themselves off… We get what should be called the Z3.2… Parlee’s Z4.

The Best of PEZ – To help make brighter these winter days, we’ve selected for your viewing pleasure some of our Best Stories of the Year. Who decided which of our stories from 2008 were the best? – we did! Through the next week we’ll present for your consideration some of the work we’re most proud of, and hope you enjoy one more look as much we do. Sometimes a glance back helps clear the path ahead. This story originally ran in June 2008.

A while back, I went on one of my favorite factory tours, to Parlee’s place. It was a nice trip and a chance to poke around a real factory, where things are actually manufactured, instead of the glorified sales offices that are getting passed off as factory tours lately.

What we wound up with was a great understanding of the time, effort and expense that Parlee put in to all their frames including the Z1sl they made for me back then…

That trip not only clarified the build process but gave me a great idea of the attention to detail and understanding of the raw materials specified by Parlee as well as the design process that determines the lay-up (direction / density) of the carbon to produce a required end result.

It’s that design and materials process understanding that is the critical tie in for Parlee’s new Z4.

Parlee simply spend a ton of money to build bikes in the Boston area. Boston is an expensive labor market even within an exceptionally expensive labor market like the US. Parlee managed a bit of a sale price break in the form of stock-sized options, but the actual production costs didn’t drop much having the exact same craftsmen build a stock size bike versus its custom counterpart.

It is putting a Parlee type build and material specification in the hands of more people that is the goal with the Z4 and doing that simply meant moving the production off shore.

What’s It?
The Z4 is definitely built with Parlee type design. In fact it’s a direct descendant of their Boston baked Z3. The tube sets (carbon lay up and material type) for the Z3 and 4 are virtually the same.

Uni weave for the top and down tubes, simple cool.

The difference is largely in the tube joining process where the Z3 is 11 separate structures and the Z4 have a couple of things molded together prior to final frame fabrication, making for 5 sub assemblies needing joining together.

For instance, the front end (head tube, down tube and top tube) are molded as one piece before build. (Note: I said front end and not front “triangle”)

As mentioned, the tubes of the front end are Uni weave and the material lends itself better to the process used in molding the three front tubes together at one time. But more important than that, the process still allows Parlee to tune the Z4’s front tubes according to purpose by manipulating fiber orientation, just like in the Z3. The Z4 also uses different lay up and material across the range of sizes.

The front “triangle” is completed by adding the seat tube, which looks and acts a little different than the other tubes.

Pretty plain to see the difference here as it’s a roll wrapped tube where fiber is rolled around a mandrel with the structure and look being quite a bit different. (“Roll wrapping” is not what joins the tubes).

The seat tube is also what you’ll find not just in the Z3, but right to the top of the food chain in the Z1sl as well. It’s a very solid structure and the fiber orientation and structure do a great job of making vibration work over time to travel…

At the top of the seat tube is a uni weave lug, but this part is high compression molded rather than bladder molded. It is a stand alone lug that joins the seat tube, top tube and seat stays.

Bladder molding works well for tubes but high compression makes for a better process where a part is relatively thick. That thickness is important here, not just to join tubes but to also form what will be the seat clamp. The density does a great job of resisting cutting nicking and damage where the seat clamp is applied. And yeah, it looks pretty damn cool.

Sticking out the back of the seat lug are molded seat stays.

Uni weave again here, like the Z3 and this is another area where Parlee are producing the Z4 as close to home as they can. The molding process used to make the wishbone stays is Parlee’s own specification and the tooling / design is all Parlee. The end result is a wishbone on par with what goes into their custom rigs. The lay up is also a key here and although there are no curvy-swoopy shapes, I would put these stays against anyone else’s high end stock bike stays for vibe damping and directional stiffness.

Same goes for the chain stays…

And no review would be complete without showing a bottom bracket…

Now what I’m supposed to say is “beefy” or “large” then imply that size is the sole quality to be noticed and the only thing determining drive train efficiency… Size in a BB area is usually just incidental as it joins ever growing down tubes and seat tubes and chain stay sections…

What some reviewers tend not to qualify their “big stiff BB area” comments with is that material thickness is also an important factor along with fiber type, orientation and density. And the bottom end stiffness of a bike is related to the relative stiffness of the down tube, seat tube and seat stays… When was the last time you noticed your bottom bracket flex, but not the tubes around it?? Yeah, that would be “never”, yet lazy reviewers keep oversimplifying “big stiff bottom bracket”.

The Z4 has a mid sized BB but the bottom end performs like some far larger, more complex structures. It is a pretty sleek affair that simply doesn’t need to do the bicycle equivalent of stuffing a sock in your pants (or paper in your bra for you ladies)…

Honestly, “sleek” holds true for the Z4 on the whole.
Parlee wanted to build one of their super-bikes and make it affordable. They succeeded. How they get there is a bit different than a lot of stock bike makers though.

Parlee have never used any sort of gimmick. They just went about producing stunning custom performers and let their reputation for doing so build. It’s the same for the Z4.

If you look close you’ll see some neat details. Nothing leaps out at you, no curves look like someone fired a smart bomb full of carbo-steroids at a single tube, Nothing looks like it’s been left in the sun too long, and Parlee don’t name each tube or joint, but the detail in the tubes themselves or in the head tube and seat lug draw you in when you’re close.

Get closer and you might notice other teeny-cleany stuff like the solid piece carbon cable stops that are molded in rather than riveted on (a move that costs several times as much to perform, but winds up being way stronger). This means no punching holes in the tube near a stress point and no popping off as I’ve seen with a few companies riveted jobs (especially at the brake cable stops).

Maybe you miss something like a relieved (so the hanger breaks easier than the drop out), replaceable rear mech hanger that has a jewelers quality finish to it.

Maybe you missed Parlee’s own carbon front mech hanger in the seat tube picture…

Then it strikes you that you do notice the name Parlee on the bike and with it come the same expectations that come with a select few other “names”, and that everything you’re seeing with the Z4 is just as it should be on a $6000 custom Z3.

Except that someone forgot to charge you the other 2800 bucks…

I am a massive fan of custom. I’m not a whacked out body type or anything, I’ve just had enough general experience that I know what I want in a bike and know what little differences make a big overall impression when combined. With that, the Z4 is not as good as the Z1sl custom I have.

But it’s close enough that I honestly thought for a few days that Parlee have simply taken too close a swing at themselves making the Z4… Then I thought; “wait… take a look past Parlee Custom and toward the substantial list of other stock bikes at or over $3000.” At that point Parlee look pretty damn clever.

The ride is a bit tilted toward firm-smooth versus smooth-firm… It’s not a jack hammer “stiffness to weight” focused bike. But it does have very good stiffness.

One of the questions I got a lot when a few folks realized I had this bike testing was “I know that it isn’t a good race bike, why not?”

My reply to that was “I think that’s bullshit”.

The Z4 may well not be what some folks would consider a bargain racer, but if you’re a fan of “race bikes” like Colnago’s C50 and EP, Pinarello’s Paris, the BMC SLC01 and Kuota’s KOM, you’re not exactly stretching your mind to find the Z4 a proper race bike.

If the Z4 can’t be raced, someone needs to go tell Rabobank, Credit Agricole, Agritubel, CDP and Milram they’re screwed…

Parlee also maintain ride quality in the Z4 that is better than several “race bikes”. It’s a bike that does a very good job of soaking up high frequency buzz and larger bumps in a way that puts it in the all day comfort class.

There are stiffer bikes and lighter bikes. But the list of stock bikes that are stiffer and lighter and this smooth don’t require using all your fingers on one hand to count…

Honestly I would rather be on a bike with a bit more compromise toward ride quality than toward the “stiff/light” battle cry of the weak marketing men. But then this test frame is plenty stiff and sub 900 grams, so exactly what I’m giving up for the extra comfort, I simply don’t miss.

The handling with the Z4 leans toward the middle of the road more so that the “edgy” part as well. It’s responsive, but the stability and tracking are very good. I would guess it’s affected by the smoothness that some frames at this weight and with similar geometry might be lacking. Sometimes “quick” is more a feeling you get with road vibes and chatter and this ride is a bit more muted.

That stability and tracking is also aided by one of the better, yet unsung, forks on the market in EDGE composites new wheel holder…

This thing weighs squat and has the character (stability and well damped flex) of one of the original Reynolds Ouzo Pro’s that weighed an extra hundred grams or so…

We also got a chance to roll out wheels from Edge (wrapped in the house favorite Vittoria KS tubies from Bikemine) and have been regularly using Bontrager’s all carbon clinchers as well. In all honestly a review that said the Z4 is good for all but racing was wheel hampered in my opinion and wheels play a HUGE part in ride quality and handling perception. That’s the reason I always roll house wheels with a high degree of familiarity (along with saddles, bars stems etc) instead of trying to test too many variables at once, only to fail at properly commenting on anything with any sort of comparative relativity…

I will say I did like trying out the San Marco Magma… (Thanks to Tom @ Velimpex)

I pulled it off and rode it on the Z1sl, swapping my standard Selle Italia saddle to the Z4 for test, but actually found a thinly padded and light saddle that I can live with… wide, fairly flat platform. Usually I pull saddles off and don’t even bother, but this one had a profile I thought might work (pretty flat and wide across the sit area) and it does.


All said and done, this bike’s all in performance is pretty much what I expected from Parlee. The Z1 I own is one of the two or three nicest bikes I have ever been on and the Z4 doesn’t get embarrassed in the Z1’s company (kinda like Ely Manning can hang with Payton without flinching anymore…). I prefer a bit different geometry and a bit different flex if I’m spending twice the money on custom, but among stock bikes this one gets pretty close to custom in ride and looks (oh yeah, Parlee also do custom paint on the Z4…). In fact it’s in a class with top line stock bikes from a couple of favorite brands like Look and Colnago.

What is a surprise is that a custom spec shop like Parlee could turn in a performance like this in their very first attempt… It would’ve been impressive at $4200. Knock off a grand and it’s in a damn happy place…

Call Parlee for their closest retailer or check

Have Fun,
Charles Manantan

Thanks for looking.
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