What's Cool In Road Cycling

Best of 2016: Parlee’s Z Zero Disc Isle of Man TT-ribute

Tech n’ Spec is one of the most popular sections of PEZ, so it would only be right to replay Charles Manantan’s favourite bike review of 2016: Parlee Cycles Z Zero Disc is a beautiful, custom fabricated and finished tribute to the fastest family on two wheels and the race that is perhaps the most intense combination of speed, endurance, concentration and danger in the world.

The company’s fabrication skills need no introduction. Their product is at or near the top of virtually everyone’s wish list and they’ve earned that placement by pioneering carbon fibre construction and custom production.

I put together Parlee’s latest Z-ZERO Disc with a mind firmly planted toward the Isle of Man TT and the first family of “Road Racing”, the Dunlops.


The family started racing with brothers Joey and Robert…


And they continue today with Robert’s sons William and Michael.


The TT Races are running as I write this (with Michael Dunlop at the top of the practice time sheets with a 131 MPH lap), and I can’t help but marvel at the courage and skill of the riders and long for the bikes they’re handling.

At the highest levels of most all racing sport, you and I can’t have what the very top pro’s have.

Want a Formula 1 car or MotoGP bike? The development cost is in the hundreds of millions and virtually nobody can afford that. In sailing, something close to Bob Parlee’s heart as he started with composites in that field, you’ll need $100 million just for the privilege of getting shit-stomped in qualifying and $250 million+ to sip champagne from the America’s cup.

But then there is cycling… Parlee correctly mention something on their website about the governing bodies in cycling not allowing the riders to have the best kit.  I’ll add sponsors as being to blame as well, because they want to sell what they mass produce, to as many people as possible.

The UCI weight limit alone will ban several things you and I might want, but we don’t ride a scale. It’s the ride quality and performance of the sum of the frame and parts that matters. Looking at both weight and the sum of the equipment, the pros just don’t have it as good as we can.

In a world where millimeters matter in proper fit and balance, Pro Tour riders are generally tooling around on stock geometry made to suit anyone within a few inches of height, reach, inseam, bar drop and more, all so their sponsor can sell as many frames as possible.   And the carbon for those stock frames is laid up to handle riders weighing +/- 50 or more pounds, so frame weight and compliance are incidental to a generic spec (usually one made to pass a German Flex test rather than anyone’s desires). The rest of the spec’d parts have to combine in weight to hit at least 15 pounds (ok, 14.99) which generally means more weight at the top of the bike (bar/stem/post/saddle) where you work to move it around.

Here’s the deal: A Pro tour rider’s stock bike is made one way for one size… Two if they’re lucky and the company has a “tall” version.

My Parlee Z Zero custom is roughly a 54. And in that same basic size, Parlee have multiple tube types available for each tube (top, down, seat, seat stays, chain stays). They can use combinations of these tubes in a fashion where they are making roughly 30 different bikes in a size 54.

That’s 30 versions of a single size 54 AND THAT’S BEFORE YOU CONSIDER THE CUSTOM GEOMETRY.

Buying a custom Z Zero is like getting into a VIP area where Chris Froome, Pete Sagan, Nibali and Contador wish they could be:

• Your contact points are set exactly where you want (and barring some sort of exceptional issue these fit points are not reached with funky parts choices that can effect compliance / stiffness and handling).
• The angles and tube lengths between those contact points are adjusted so bike handling is to your spec rather than a generic call out (something a certain Mr. Kruijswijk might have appreciated in the Giro).
• The tubes themselves are selected based on your weight and your desired stiffness.
• Each joint is also built up to suite your desired ride qualities. (ALSO NOT CONSIDERED IN THE 30 DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THE SINGLE SIZE)
• The bike’s finish can be your own personal message. Sponsors be damned.
• The parts mix can be whatever you like (Parlee / your retailer will design the bike fully to consider the parts choice).

How can Parlee do that?

The benefits that come with the Z Zero are the net result of design, raw materials choice and a refined build process that takes 6+ times the planning and production time of some stock bikes to allow Parlee to finish something to your specification (not including custom paint).

Parlee have developed their skill sets tremendously over the years and it’s allowed them to make nearly everything in-house for the Z Zero. The most substantial advance is in molding their own tube sets.


The process is proprietary, but Parlee have advanced their skill set enough so that they’re able to cut 10% of the weight from past models of the same size and stiffness spec versus the bikes they made using someone else’s tubes. This happens as they’ve redesigned both the tube shapes and the fundamental way they’re joining the individual tubes.

Everything here but the seat stays

The tubes are conservatively shaped. The top tube is oval at the head tube and round at the seat.


When you think about how this tube performs, there is side flex at the head tube and that side flex translates to torsional (twisting) flex nearer the seat post. The oval shape resists side movement at the head tube and there is no better torsional resisting shape than a circle. That kind of thinking is what creates the shapes for all of the tubes.

A key detail to the new construction method is a notable step to the wall thickness at the ends of the tubes.


Parlee have built past custom carbon models using lugs and tube to tube construction with a substantial overwrap. With the Z Zero they taper the tubes at the end to allow for a bit more room for the carbon reinforcing.

On my version of the Z Zero, I required very little joint reinforcement at the head tube. With the new stepped tubes the joints are perfectly flat and show no lug-like structure at all despite being well reinforced. This is still tube to tube construction, but the joints are exceptionally cleaner and leaner than past versions.


It’s this joint build up area and within the multiple tube sets available in multiple sizes that Parlee have the ability to customize the ride.

First, the frame tubes are selected by length, stiffness and the amount of reinforcing area relief. They then go for cutting…


Once cut, they’re checked for size…


And then bonded into place, ready for the build phase that goes a substantial level past “simple” custom geometry and tube set selection.


Parlee can greatly vary the amount of carbon in the joints and the distance that these layers travel away from the joint itself in order to make a stiffer / stronger intersection.

And Parlee make several different tube sets with variable thickness as well as carbon lay up (the number of layers and the direction of the fibers in each layer) in order to control the amount of flex in each individual tube within the frame.

When you look at the construction method, you start to understand how much fine tuning is available and how complex and time consuming the process really is.

Each joint gets multiple hand-cut pieces of unidirectional carbon placed by hand, starting with tiny pieces…


Followed by slightly larger pieces…


All of these are laid over in specific patters for each joint and built out (in scale/volume) to suite the rider spec.


Once the reinforcing layers are correct, a couple of overwrap pieces are carefully cut to the size needed for the specific joint and laid over.


This leaves a refined, clean looking surface that hides the complexity sitting underneath…


The detail of this wrap is pretty special


The entire frame goes into a highly proprietary compression and curing process at this point. It is a very slick process that is the result of all of Parlee’s time and experience in manufacturing custom carbon.

I can’t show you how it’s done because I would like to eventually see Parlee again some time… But the net result is fantastically clean and attractive joints…


These are spectacular to look at, especially when you have an appreciation for the details that lie beneath the refined top layer.


As mentioned, Parlee are making nearly everything in house and that includes the details like cable guides, front and rear drops, headset cups. They’re compression molding and machining these detailed pieces now and a part of that new manufacturing prowess is actually the result of making production / non custom bikes like their Z5sl…


Parlee were able to partner with arguably the most refined manufacturer of production bikes and develop their chops in producing parts in-house that many other custom shops need to go aftermarket to buy…


In doing so, they’ve almost completely removed metal from the frame’s structure, relying instead on the material they’ve grown very comfortable with in carbon.

Parlee are also making their own forks. (Cross model shown)


These are slick units with internal cable routing, options for fender mounts, thru-axle, tire clearances for Cross etc. I had my bike ahead of availability and while I could certainly upgrade, I would rather not have the fuss of color matching and running new lines to the calipers.

When I think about it, color matching would not be any sort of an issue for Parlee. They’ve also extensively upped their finishing game…


The items rolling out of the booth were all drop dead beautiful and the execution detail is fantastic… While it’s easy to make detailed paint requests, it’s something else entirely to put pattern onto the multiple shapes of a bicycle. Parlee’s staff are now very very good at this.

Sure the head badge was very well done and in extreme detail, right down to the feathers of the birds…


More impressive though are the lighter grey/silver accents that are very reserved but catch the light well in person… Kudos to Parlee in any case for not insisting they have their own logos as the main focal point of the bike… They have enough confidence to allow an aesthetic to match the customer desire and actually came up with the color variation and it’s a fantastic execution of being subtle and bold all at once.


A lot of the people that have seen this bike up close comment on the graphics being slight enough that they don’t scream at you, but when you start to notice the details you get “sucked in”…

The one bold accent that I asked for was the red inside the fork and on the “back sides” of the main triangle and seat tube. Parlee also asked for the seat post topper so that the painted detail would be complete to the top…


It’s hard asking Parlee to put paint over any of the bike once you’ve seen the raw finish but then this design isn’t too over the top and leaves a lot of the finish still available for the eyes. The whole bike got a light coating of dark grey just to bring the finish together so that the lighter font stands out a little.


You can still pick up details of the joints that are visible through the dark tint…


The fiber detail is just more muted than the raw / waxed finish would have been.


The build is full SRAM Red 22 HRD and a set of Zipp’s 202 Firecrest Carbon Clincher Disc wheels…


The bar stem combo was an easy choice as 3T have a reserved look with their Team Stealth finished Ergonova Bar and ARX Stem…


I’ve also come to appreciate the feel and durability of 3T product. The stem has good stiffness and very good build quality. The bars are a balanced match for stiffness, have reasonably easy routing and a fairly neutral shape with a more oval top section that is hand friendly but not so overly shaped that it can’t be rotated a bit up or down. That the graphics are a great fit are a plus as well.

There’s some shake up over disc use in racing and I would guess that the outcome will be that a production step will be added by disc manufacturers to simply round the outer edge of the rotors and that will be that.

What is not up for debate is the better performance of discs in all conditions. The performance advantages are multiplied with carbon rims and are increased further with lighter tubular carbon rims.

I’ve listened to the “get-off-my-lawn” crowd bitch over every single new product type that hits the market.  From 9-10-11 speeds to carbon fiber itself to threadless stems to different BB standards to larger tires to deeper profile rims to wind tunnel testing (”cause it ain’t real-world”), these goofs essentially reject that physics exist in order to claim every advance is down to marketing. Never mind that over the past decade or two, bikes are pounds lighter with less drag while maintaining or increasing structural integrity relative to being pedalled hard… If you’re one of these ignorant people, I tip my cap to your parents for having the courage to marry within their immediate family.

Hydraulic road disc brakes are an advance and right now, they’re also better than anything the pros are using… And the SRAM units on this bike (and 3 others that I have) are all running very well.

That said, in the case you want a Z Zero with standard brakes, Parlee have designed both their forks and rear drops to be compatible with thru axle and standard hub types. Out back, they have a sandwich design that allows for handling both replaceable hangers and different axle standards.


They’re mountable using the same generic frame drops, post molding…

Rim brakes have been stopping people well for a long time and there’s no shame in wanting to use the wheels you have sitting around.

The choice is yours.

This Z Zero is exactly what I wanted.

Which may or may not be what you would like… And that would be the point.

Parlee designed and fab’d this bike for a 5’-8” inch rider with a 73 inch boxers reach, a short torso, a bit of a stiff back and lingering neck issues that limit body flexibility and 155 pounds of rider mass, with the desire for more compliance than stiffness (me).


Parlee also could have tuned this for the same body measures and 270 pounds of mass, with the desire for a stiff bike. And they can build for rider with the same height but a 65 inch reach, a long torso and massive body flexibility and 125 pounds of mass.

And all three of these people can have their head tube, seat tube and BB drops changed to suite substantially different handling preferences.


You could conjure up another dozen combinations or rider requirements like these, all of them relatively close in size but with completely different tube sets, joint wrapping and geometry, and Parlee will have made multiple versions of each.

At the point that Parlee built each of these different Z Zero’s (or 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, TTiR’s, CX, Track or Tour) their owners will all climb on and notice very different things because they have very different needs, but they’re all likely to have the same feeling that I have when I’m on the Zero, especially when I’m going very quickly…

“I’m home…”

In battles and in competition, there’s a certain calmness and security that people get when they’re at ease with their surroundings and the same holds true for a bike. While you may be miles from home, even oceans away on unfamiliar roads, that sense of calm and balance that come with an exacting fit, feel and ride quality is a lot like the very real advantage that home ground has provided in battles for centuries.

Sometimes those battles come with number plates and prizes, but far more often they come from within.  And it’s those hundreds and thousands of miles you spend inside your own head where a sense of ease is so fantastic.

When you’re footing your own bill, and you’re shopping at the top of the food chain for bikes costing 10-12-15+ thousand dollars, I can’t imagine not getting exactly what you want.

For me that was a bike with a tilt toward longer miles and comfort. I wanted this to be simple and understated in finish and I planned on pairing it with SRAM Red Hydro, Zipp 202 Clinchers and 3T’s Bar stem combo, so weight wasn’t really even a consideration… I knew that this would be light, even for a disc brake set up and it is at just a tick shy of the UCI Limit at 14.90 pounds.

That’s with Look’s midrange Keo Blade Max pedals, 2 Bottle cages and of course I can’t seem to build a bike without calling Fairwheel Bikes, this time for an Mcfk carbon seat mast topper (that’s no longer in production, but there may still be one floating around at Fairwheel). I also bought a set of lighter brake rotors but I switched them back to the stock SRAM because the weight difference didn’t matter and the SRAM set seemed more durable.

With a couple of simple tweaks to the build, this bike could be comfortably in the 13’s, but I don’t care what the scale says… Everything here is solid / no fuss / no special care. The weight is incidentally under the UCI limit, not because it was a goal.

With all that said, power transfer is excellent. Handling leans more toward stability than quickness. There is very little BB flex relative to the comfort here, but there is a bit of flex. Still, there is no disc rub out back, even when hammering.  The Z Zero in my form is equally at home going up as going down and with the added modulation of Disc brakes, the confidence on descents borders on allowing me to be irresponsible. So much so that I have to be careful going to a non disc bike after riding the Zero, as I’ll very simply screw up braking points and find myself in trouble.

But none of the feelings I get when I try and extract words about specific performance character begin to touch the overall feel and confidence that is the sum of the parts and construction.

I’m blown away by the Z Zero. It is the full experience that you should get when something is made for you, but even in the rarified air of custom, most others don’t play at this level.


You can see more at PARLEECYCLES.COM

You can learn more about the Isle of man at: IOMTT.COM
Bars Stems and more at : 3TCYCLING.COM
Group set info at: SRAM.COM
Tires from: VITTORIA.COM
Several Mortgage payments can be spent at: FAIRWHEELBIKES.COM

Have Fun,

Charles Manantan
[email protected]

Note: if you have other experiences with gear, or something to add, drop us a line. We don’t claim to know everything (we just imply it at times). Give us a pat on the back if you like the reviews, or a slap in the head if you feel the need!

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