PEZ Tests: Alan Cross XTreme
Strolling through Interbike after too many years can lead to a condition whose effects closely resemble insulin shock. Unconsciousness is only a moment away until that jolt of bike candy that you had been stammering around in search of comes blearily into view. This year that happened when I passed the Stellina Sports booth, the new American distributors for the lauded Italian brand Alan.
– By Lance Johnson –
Now, you may well be unfamiliar with Alan (pronounced Ah-lahn). Or if you are familiar with them it conjures thoughts of old screw-and-glue carbon bikes from the 1980s, a la the Vitus Carbon 7. But to cyclocross fans who know the name Alan, it conjures similar glory to road bikes from Colnago or Gios. Alan made their bones in the mud (20 World Champions over the last 30 years), and that is where Stellina is concentrating to bring the brand back to prominence on this side of the pond.
Certainly, that doesn’t explain how this particular bike made me snap back to reality and reignited my typical mania about bicycles. To understand that; you need to really get a good look at one. While the frames are still made by hand in Italy, the bikes that Stellina was showing were finished in the US to their spec. For the past couple years I had been shaking my head at the no-original-thought-since-the-80s paint schemes that adorned bicycles hanging in Alan booth at the show. These were a radical answer to those disapproving nods.
The new look is like something from a graphic arts awards annual. It’s a bold statement to the Italians at Alan saying, “I don’t care if you wear fancier shoes than me, and I don’t care if your designer jeans cost more than my wardrobe. I am American and I have smited your design skills with the fury of ninety hungry lions.” At this point it’s likely that the someone in Italy is calling in a ‘favor’ on me, but I was in love and I still don’t care if beauty is only skin deep.
As my focus sharpened I noticed that the bike was in fact two different bikes finished similarly – the Klaus-Peter 2 (named for 2-time World Champion Klaus-Peter Thaler of Germany) with full-alloy construction, and the Roland 5 (named for 5-time World Champion Roland Libton from Belgium) built with the same alloy front end but a carbon set of hind-parts. These two models correspond to the Cross Xtreme and Cross Xtreme Carbon in the Italian lineup. Apparently Stellina thought that not only the graphics, but the names also could use a little more style.
Six weeks after the show with the all-aluminum Klaus-Peter 2 sitting in my basement workshop I felt the same twinges of lust, but it was clearly time to see if there is any substance to this looker. The whiskey-colored translucent paint job (or sarsaparilla for those under age) gives you a clear view of what happened during the fabrication of the frame. The welds are tidy and as beautiful as I have seen on an aluminum bike; their mass belying the purpose of the frame and its innate strength. While some may prefer the new aesthetic of smooth, filed welds on aluminum bikes – similar to fillet brazing – I have always preferred seeing the craftsmanship in a bicycle and the precise, even stitch on the Alan’s welds brought a warm feeling to the cockles of my heart.
And as much as I wanted to admire the craftsmanship of the frame I kept getting distracted by the paintjob. At first glance it’s the typography on the downtube of the frame that grabs your attention. The next thing that strikes you is that there is a bone (looks like a femur to me) on the top tube and your not sure why; but it’s cool. Then you start to look at the layering and richness of the whiskey-toned translucent paint. The color subtly shifts from a richer, deeper bronze to almost a brassy color on the front and back of the seat tube and picks up different highlights in different light. Underneath the frame appears to be hand brushed, but more industrially than glossy precision of a brushed Ti frame. The effect, when coupled with the paint, is that the frame looks like some kind of salvaged treasure – after its been cleaned it, up of course. It is the look of history and elegance balanced against a gruff ‘been there, done that’ attitude.
By today’s standards Alan’s Amadeus Xtreme 7046 triple-butted aluminum tubes are only moderately oversized – certainly a far cry short of something like a Cannondale or Scott CR1. The standard slight s-bend in the chain and seat stays provides fair, but not monstrous, mud clearance for when the weather turns Belgian on you. Overall the proportion of the bike is quite pleasing and certainly seems to fall within the spectrum of classic that you might expect from the Italian builder.
To me an aluminum cross bike is all business, and as such the folks at Stellina had dressed their aluminum frame up in full race kit complete with an AlphaQ CX 20 fork, a 2009 Sram Rival drivetrain, the Rotor Agilis crankset and single ring setup that their team runs, TRP EuroX Carbon cantilever brakes, even carbon RoL wheels and Challenge Grifo tires. All that was left was to swap in some bits from AlphaQ to get the fit and position set – bar, stem, and seatpost – and mount my trusty San Marco Rever saddle.
The first thing that I noticed while setting up the bike was the size. Stellina had selected the level-top-tubed 54cm frame to build my bike. On paper it seemed a reasonable choice after I emailed them a CAD drawing of my custom 54 x 54 cross frame. But as I was building it up, each time I made another trim cut on the seatpost I was more and more stunned by the tiny protrusion of post left – so much so that it made me wonder if maybe it wasn’t all a big mistake. Not only was the head tube 135mm (about 30 taller then my regular ride but with the integrated headset within a centimeter of the effective height), the top cap of the Cane Creek IS-8 headset stood up about 20mm on top of that. And maybe it is just the invasion of compact frame geometry and resulting BMX-bike-looking seat post protrusions that threw me, but something seemed amiss. Maybe I had been spoiled by riding custom bikes for more than a decade and this was just what you had to deal with getting something off the peg.
Fortunately, I got over my fear of not having at least 10cm of saddle-bar drop (65mm would have to do) and got the Klaus-Peter 2 out on the road.
One of my revelations from that first ride was that despite having poorly-toed shoes with pads that did not like the brake track of the RoL Carbon 38 wheels, the brakes themselves handled the task of stopping me with stunning confidence. More than that, this also gave me the first chance to be truly impressed by the Alpha Q CX20 fork – while I could see the straddle cable vibrating like a cello string and even a slight vibration in the carbon TRP arms the fork itself did not even remotely succumb to the urge of joining in this horrific symphony of resonating bike parts as a lesser fork would. Instead it remained firm and true. It’s times like this when something is not working entirely properly – which seems to happen all too often in cross races – that the true merit of race bits can be seen.
Rolling out on some of Boulder’s less-maintained roads, I got used to the new SRAM Rival groupset. I soon understood why crossers are gravitating to SRAM these days; there is something unbelievably simple about having a single shifting lever that an oxygen-deprived brain can handle. No longer do you have to remember which lever to push (more difficult than you would think when you’ve been red-lined for 45 mintues), only how to count to 1, 2, or 3 resulting in the proper downshift, upshift, or double upshift.
I started to dig the SRAM functionality, but as I felt more and more confident with DoubleTap, I noticed that my Dura Ace-tuned rapid-downshift-trigger-finger was faster than the Rival lever could handle. The result was that when I would try to drop down three or four gears at a time I might only move two. Putting a slight pause between downshifts solved the problem. I’m not sure that it’s a drawback, just a difference.
Arriving at my test track with all cylinders firing, I was ready to put the KP2 through its paces.
The bike doesn’t initially jump out at you as a world-beater. It’s well mannered, solid and inspires confidence, but it doesn’t off-hand feel like anything radical. It does feel good though. And because it feels good I pick up the pace a bit. And it feels better. So being me, the next thing I know I’ve picked up the pace to a point where I’m feeling like I should be borderline out of control, but I’m not. The super-fast GrifoXS tires had just enough lug on the edges to keep me in control on dry, fast corners while the light, stiff wheels and rigid aluminum rear end means I could quickly ratchet up the speed coming out of tight switchbacks.
In soft, wavy grass and powering up steep, short climbs the stiffness of the frame makes these leg-sapping efforts just that little bit less draining. And at 16.5 pounds the portaging weight is quite reasonable. With all the wild shapes coming from hydroforming aluminum these days it wouldn’t have hurt to add a flat section on the underside of the top tube to spread the pressure a bit more when shouldering the bike, but the oversized top tube was certainly large enough that it wasn’t painful. And the bike itself is so purposeful that I would imagine such flair would have seemed slightly out of place.
Since RoL is just down the road from Boulder, Shaun Lambert dropped by a set of his 38mm carbon cross wheels. The prototype sticker is there because they are actually wheels tested and raced by Katie Compton, America’s most dominant crosser, last year.
After a couple days of riding the Alan I’m heading full-tilt back home after my ride, not with a hot shower in mind; quite to the contrary, I’m going to the little BMX track that the neighborhood kids have set up to see just how well this thing can handle. No dirt jumps or anything for me (don’t think Shaun at RoL would appreciate it), but I’m going full boar over every whoop; section of deep, loose gravel; and steep drop-off in site. Ripping full speed through a series of tight serpentines designed for bikes about half the size of the Alan and nailing the perfect line through gnarly rutted sections makes me realize that I am not this good. The bike is definitely making the most of the skills I have and smoothing over my shortcomings.
Alan clearly has done their homework and knows how to build a stiff, responsive aluminum cross bike. I didn’t expect anything less, but was still pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. Not that it’s an ideal bike for everyone and everything. Taking the stiff aluminum frame over the washboard-scarred gravel roads that are a mainstay of my winter and spring riding showed that you definitely cannot have your cake and eat it too with this frame. It wasn’t awful, or even that bad. But it definitely beats you up more than typically built frame materials like Ti or steel. If your riding and racing don’t usually include very-hard-packed dirt or gravel sections with pocks, ruts and washboard this shouldn’t be a concern. If it does, or if you are looking for a bit more forgiveness in the ride, Alan also makes the afore mentioned aluminum and carbon version that could be what you are looking for.
On the rough gravel roads one thing that really shone through was how comfortable the AlphaQ bars are. There are a lot of bars nowadays that have flat top sections. The benefit is that they spread the pressure of your hands over a wider area. The drawback for cross with most of those is that they correspondingly make the tops more and more narrow. That’s fine for a road bike, but the nice round lobe of the AlphaQ bar seems to keep a similar radius to the front of the bar so that whether your draping your hands over the tops like a guy facing Flanders, or you need to grab hold to bunny hop something the bar feels great in your hand. And being carbon, they do take that little bit extra sting out.
With a batch of finishing options on each frameset, and custom graphics available from Stellina there is little to complain about with this bike. One thing that does seem almost unfathomable to me is that the frame came without a replaceable derailleur hanger. The thought of having to scrap a frame this capable and sexy after a season due to a derailleur hanger breaking after being straightened one too many times is heresy. From a company with as much cyclocross experience as Alan has, this seems like a serious oversight. Stellina Sports apparently feels the same way and is having Alan provide all future frames with a replaceable hanger.
The only other complaint I have is minor and involves the build spec. Having used double guards or a guard and a chain keeper on single-ring setups with great success in the past, I was unable to figure out the advantage of the faux front derailleur that came installed on the bike. After much fiddling, I accepted that it rubbed slightly in a number of gears and got on with the business at hand. I would imagine that if it is set up perfectly that the device is competent, but I couldn’t see any advantage over the afore-mentioned systems. It’s not something I would use again.
The Klaus-Peter 2 frameset is available from Stellina Sports and comes complete with an AlphaQ CX20 carbon fork and an FSA integrated headset (which, if coupled with CyclocrossWorld’s CXW Long Cable Hanger, would solve my stack-height complaint and get me to about 90mm of drop) for $1499.
• See the Alan Website at: Stellinasport.com/alan.html
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