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Close to Custom: Parlee Z5i Dura Ace 9000

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Unlike the vast majority of custom builders, Bob Parlee didn’t spend an apprenticeship with a welding torch. His first bike was carbon, like every one since. Living in Massachusetts, Bob came from the yacht business and what could be called his one guiding principle may have tagged along from that world – no shape, curve or contour exists for style points. With a boat’s hull underwater the urge to design shapes for visual flare doesn’t exist and just because a bike is visible Bob saw no reason to change his philosophy, ‘I am not a stylist. I am a designer…” he says.


Making custom bikes, tube-to-tube, almost requires straight forward, round tube shapes, so it’s no surprise Parlee customs cut a traditional silhouette. It’s the monocoque bike built in large, molded sections that offers the ‘stylist’ a chance to shine. The Z5i is an Asian molded frame and provided the opportunity to add a million little flares, curves and knick-knacks upon which to affix a marketing term. Bob added none. The bike, aesthetically, is as traditional as carbon gets.

The Z5i comes from the same mold as the original Z5 but adds internal cable routing for a cleaner look and unlike most internal options, smoother shifting. The straight lines mean clean cable path, plus they run housing within the frame along the entire cable. This adds up to an easy build, easy maintenance and easy shifting. Parlee SL tubing and painstaking lay-up deliver a complete frame at just under 1000grams for our size extra-large. A tapered head tube and ENVE fork handle stiffness up front with a BB30 helping keep things light and snappy under power. The drop outs are full carbon and with a Dura Ace 9000 build, HED Ardennes LT wheels and 3T cockpit the bike weighs 14.9lbs. Impressive.

The Ride
If you’ve read much about the Z5 or Z5i you’ve seen endless chatter about how ‘smooth’ it is compared to all the other harsh carbon bikes. While this may have been the case initially, the past few years have seen new carbon bikes do an incredible job marrying ride quality with get-up-and-go. Parlee may have been ahead of that curve, but the rest of the industry has caught up. This is a long-winded way of saying the bike had a much stiffer, racier ride than we were expecting, but surprised us under power just as much. We were worried the Z5i would be a dull, muted comfort bike. It’s not. The Z5i is a race bike.

While it doesn’t accelerate as one monolithic beam of carbon like uber-stiff race bikes do, it has a drum like response at the bottom bracket that feels fresh and snappy when popping out of the saddle on a climb. It may not be as focused under big efforts as a large sprinter would like but it doesn’t feel dead at slow speed acceleration for smaller riders with fewer watts on tap. It’s a quality that just makes your legs feel good and who could ask for more than that?

From the first moment you hop out of the saddle and wrench on the hoods you feel quick reaction at the Z5i’s front wheel and know this bike will thread the needle. Parlee has graced these angles with the stiffness to make the most of them. No matter the speed, point the bike at the apex of a corner and it will hit that spot – to the millimeter. The tapered head tube and ENVE 2.0 fork work together to make this happen. Parlee does give all Z5i’s the same 410mm chain stays, from extra-small to extra-large, so comparatively it’s tough to say if all Z5’s will feel this quick and confident at the bars.

The Z5i does an incredible job of canceling out the thrum of chip seal or even gravel, but when it goes beyond high frequency, the bike is stiff. Don’t expect it to handle like a endurance or comfort platform. The Z5i gives you plenty of feedback, which is what a race platform is supposed to do. The HED Ardennes wheels get an assist for the bike’s great handling and dampening thanks to their wide contact patch, increased tire volume and linear deflection. A set of R-Sys or other narrow, stiff clinchers would likely do the bike no favors.

While the Z5i may not be a custom frame, Parlee has not forgotten fit is paramount. They offer six sizes, each with two head tube heights, for a total of 12 fit options. The ‘tall’ option adds 2.5cm to the head tube. While this is certainly preferable to spacers, Parlee just extended the head tube past the top tube, they did not change the slope of the top tube to meet in a more aesthetically pleasing joint.

The Rider
The Z5i is more than just for riders looking for small batch craftsmanship out of a custom builder. It can hold it’s own against any brand’s flagship race platform and for small riders wanting a lively response in the hills it is among the best. It’s race performance, stock convenience and custom fit comfort in a package the puts design before style – beautifully.

Frameset: $3700
As Tested: $6900
Weight: 14.9lbs Size XL w/o pedals or cages
Details: Dura Ace 9000, HED Ardennes LT wheels, 3T ARX Pro stem, 3T Pro handlebars, 3T Pro seat post, FIZIK Arione saddle.