Bob Parlee takes an idea for a bicycle and turns it into an international phenomenon. By Alexandra Pecci. Photography by Joel Laino.
Bicycle designer Bob Parlee might tell you that he never really went to school; that he just enjoys building things and figuring them out. But then his wife Isabel is likely to interject.
“You understate your talents,” she says, tilting her head toward her husband. They’re both wearing jeans, leaning back into swivel office chairs, exuding an easy, casual friendliness. “He’s incredibly talented at making things and fixing things, seeing how things work, and coming up with really good solutions,” she says.
Among cycling’s in-crowd, the carbon fiber bicycle frames that come out of Parlee Cycles’ Peabody plant represent the pinnacle of performance. Since they incorporated in 2000, co-owners Bob and Isabel, both 56, have been building their company “one bike at a time.”
Before hitting the pavement in the bicycle industry, Bob was a boat builder who researched aerodynamics and created custom boats and high-tech racing sailboats, power boats, and wind surfers. He was also an avid cyclist.
“Not a very good one,” he says, customarily modest. “I didn’t go out there and try to win races or anything. I did it because I enjoyed racing.” The deeper he got into cycling, the harder he looked for a better bike and finally decided to build one himself. “I just felt that you could get more out of a bike than what was available,” he says. “It was a personal endeavor but with a desire to create a business from it.”
Using his boat-building knowledge and aerodynamics research, Bob teamed with Woburn-based engineering company KaZak Composites, which gave him space in its shop and use of its equipment. There, he learned the ins and outs of carbon fiber and how to create the molds needed to make bike frame tubing. The result was the Z1, the first in a line of customizable and stock bicycles that have been called works of art by the people who ride them. They are simple, clean, and efficient designs that achieve cycling’s ideal combination of comfort, speed, and stiffness. The strong, lightweight, and durable carbon fiber frames don’t flex the way metal does and help dampen road vibrations.
“There’s this power transfer that’s complete,” Isabel says. “You feel like you have a complete mechanical advantage. Every ounce of energy goes into forward movement.”
With tweaks to the basic design, the company creates frames for different types of cycling, whether riders are racing their bikes or using them for commuting to work. Parlee manufactures both stock frames and custom frames, the latter of which allows riders to tailor bikes to their own bodies and preferences.
“There’s a lot of science in the sizing and the fitting of the bikes right now that addresses not just your height, but also your experience level and your medical history, [such as] whether you have a bad back,” says Parlee Sales and Marketing Director Tom Rodi. “You can adjust for if you have two dissimilar length legs,” he adds.
Parlee can also customize its bikes for ride quality—something it says most other manufacturers can’t do—by mixing and matching the tubes used on the frames to make them stiffer, lighter, and smoother to ride. Parlee can also beef up the tubes and joints for really hard riders.
“Our molds are designed so that there’s some flexibility in them that makes it so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we want to change the geometry of a frame,” Isabel says. As a result, Parlee works closely with its dealers, which provide measurements and specifications of individual riders in order to make the custom frames. One of those dealers is Peabody-based Fit Werx, a shop that’s in such close proximity to the Parlee factory that co-owner Marty Miserandino often takes customers there to see their bikes being made.
“There are times when we’ll walk customers right over to them,” says Miserandino. “They can see their bike in the build process or going into the paint booth or something like that; they’re just so excited.”
In addition to incorporating the frame to perfectly suit a rider’s body, Parlee bikes can also be tricked out with custom finishes, decals, etching, and painted lettering. All that customization means that Parlee bike frames don’t come cheap, with prices ranging from $2,900 to $9,000 and with the average custom frame coming in at around $6,000. The combination of a bad economy and a high-end product line might have been a lethal one for a relatively young company, but Bob says that Parlee recently has seen record sales, and die-hard cyclists say the bikes are worth the cost.
“I think people recognize that we build an exceptional product. There’s a lot of thought that goes into what is going to make this a great bike,” Bob says.
Parlee riders range from avid amateurs to professional racing teams. “We’ve had some of the top pros in the world riding our bikes,” Bob says. Olympic gold medalist and Marblehead native Tyler Hamilton is among them.
“I rode the bike to a second place finish at the 2002 Giro d’Italia,” Hamilton says. “It was fantastic. At the time, it was the biggest result of my career.” Hamilton, who says he has several Parlee bikes in the garage of his Cambridge home, also rode a Parlee bike for the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb, “which is 7.6 miles basically straight uphill to the top of Mt. Washington,” he says. “Bob built me a special bike just for that.”
Hamilton feels a special affinity toward Parlee, having been born on the North Shore just like the company’s owner, and enjoys supporting a local business that was built from the ground up. But in the end, it all comes back to performance.
“You can’t go out and get a much better bike than a Parlee,” Hamilton says. “In my opinion, it’s the best bike in the world.”
In fact, Bob says he set out to create the best bike in the world, and many believe he has. The Z1 was named Bicycling Magazine’s 2007 Editor’s Choice Dream Road Bike, and Cycling Weekly awarded the Z3 the title of Race Bike of the Year. Bob designs and perfects every detail of the frames himself, from building the molds for the tubing to designing seat post clamps and cable stops for braking and shifting. All of the designing and most of the building starts with Bob in Peabody.
“Everything that goes into the bikes, everything that’s on them, everything that’s grommeted to them is designed here and has been built here first,” Bob says.
Now that Parlee Cycles is growing, the company has started to build production bikes in China; however, they are always designed here. Bob travels back and forth to China to go through the building process and get everything done just the way he wants it. When it comes to their design, Parlee bikes have been called classic and practical. There’s nothing frivolous or gratuitous about them, nothing that isn’t perfectly functional and designed for maximum performance. Other, maybe “trendier” manufacturers use extravagant shapes and different tube profiles, says Jeffrey Palter, owner of Cycle Loft in Burlington. But Bob “just wants to do the most with the least.”
“He wants to get from point A to point B in the simplest and most effective way,” says Palter. “Very utilitarian, very thrifty, very effective in the use of technology.”
That thriftiness also extends to Parlee’s marketing, which has been minimal. “We have always taken the approach to design the best bikes that we can and to put the money into the bike rather than into advertising and market hype,” Bob says. Parlee’s success has been built largely by word of mouth among cyclists. Rodi and Isabel both describe cyclists as “graduating” to Parlee bicycles as they get more interested in the sport.
Parlee owner Moira James, a freelance television producer from Marblehead, upgraded to a carbon fiber Parlee frame when she rode the stages of the Tour de France as a recreational rider three years ago. “I got on it and never looked back,” she says. Since then, she’s also ridden the stages of the Giro d’Italia on her Parlee. “It’s such a great bike; the geometry is perfect for me,” James says. “We were climbing in the Alps; we were climbing in the Pyrenees. You’d be on your bike over there for three to four hours, riding straight uphill. And in order to do that and not have your legs just fall apart, you need a light bike. It was just so comfortable and so much fun. You feel like it’s a part of you after that. You fall in love with this type of bike. It takes you places.”
These kinds of glowing reviews are common, according to Bob. Parlee owners seem to be a devout bunch. “We have actors and directors, and people in finance and the computer industry. Robin Williams owns a few of our bikes,” says Bob. Isabel even shows off a picture of Williams posing with their youngest son. The family met him at an event during the Tour of California. “He saw Bob and said, ‘Thank you for making such nice bikes,’” Isabel explains.
Bob also remembers a Navy SEAL who gave him one of his medals as a way to show his appreciation for the bike. “I really felt super proud,” Bob says. “There are a lot of moments like that. People are ecstatic and very much in love with what we do for them.”
In addition to the flagship Z1 cycle, there’s also the Z2, Z3, Z4, Time Trial, Cyclocross, Track, and Tour bikes, as well as the brand new Z5, which launched in the fall of 2009. Innovation is ongoing at Parlee.
“I think that as a company, Parlee is always trying to come up with new and exciting products, whether it’s tinkering with a seat post clamp or looking at fork designs or aerobars or different bicycle geometries; [Parlee is] always trying to come up with something that is going to be leading edge,” said Miserandino.
Indeed, Bob says that they are working out the details on a new fork design that they will introduce within the next year. He has also been playing with some small components like seat posts and aerobars. “For a while now, we’ve been producing at least one new model a year,” Bob says. “This year, my focus has been more on parts.”
Parlee also finished a season as one of the sponsors for the race team Fly V Australia and is tying up the loose ends of a contract to sponsor a new team. But it’s the constant striving to build the world’s best bicycles that people remember about Parlee and its “inventor dude,” as Isabel calls Bob. That passion seems to be apparent to anyone who has ridden a Parlee or met Bob.
“They’re proud of every bike they build,” says Hamilton. “You can’t go out and get a much better bike than a Parlee. If it’s not the best bike in the world, it’s the best bike I’ve ever ridden.”
For Bob, that was always the ultimate goal.
“We’re really lucky to do what we’re doing. We’re not in a cubicle or anything like that,” he says. “I get to design things the way I want them to be designed. And I’ve been well received out there. We developed a business around my designs. I feel pretty lucky to be able to do that.”
Incorporated: 2000. Number of employees: 10 full-time, 6 part-time. Product Line: Z1, Z2, Z3, Z4, Z5, Time Trial, Cyclocross, Track, and Tour models; also small parts that comprise the frame sets, such as dropouts, cable stops, and fittings. Contact: Parlee Cycles, 119 Foster St., Peabody, 978-977-7474, parleecycles.com.