I hear about new bike brands a couple of times a year. Nine times out of ten they are too undercapitalized to amount to much. I’ve got mad sympathy for them because I’ve spent enough time in the undercapitalized trenches to have a serious case of trench foot. Launching any sort of brand without a bank balance that includes two commas is a sign of just how hopeful a species we are.
And then there are guys like Tony Karklins. The Little Rock, Arkansas, based former bike retailer is the man who brought Orbea to the U.S. I remember seeing one of their bikes in the late 1990s and wondering why they hadn’t made an effort to sell bikes in the U.S., so when Karklins started bringing them in, the brand’s penetration was immediate. Just consider the stillbirth of the Museeuw brand here. Remember that? Classics master Johan Museeuw has a brand of bikes that he launched here and they went nowhere. I personally knew some of the staff and they were good, bright people, but they lacked the capital to build the infrastructure to get the brand off the ground. To this day, I don’t know how Karklins did it, but he built a dealer network that has given Orbea a lasting presence despite the loss of the Euskatel Euskadi team, which was their single greatest marketing asset.
After parting ways with Orbea, Karklins began looking for his next move and in his research he concluded that the smart money would move carbon fiber manufacturing back to the U.S. But the big challenge was, again, capital. Building a factory for carbon fiber manufacture is cheap the way a Bugatti is cheap.
And then Guru went under.
Voila. If he could buy the assets in auction, he’d enjoy a pennies-on-the-dollar launch.
I met with Karklins at PressCamp this week. He’s a guy who has been on my radar for years, but our interaction up until now has been minimal. He’s a strategic thinker, good with numbers and despite glasses, enjoys the kind of vision that can see around the curvature of the earth.
So how smart is he? At the auction, after submitting his bid for the entire operation—the only competing bid came from the management of Guru, and his bid was higher than theirs—he then had to wait until all the framebuilders and everyone else who came up to bid on individual lots had submitted their bids, lot by lot. His bid for the whole operation had to exceed their bids in aggregate. And there was a tipping point, which came when the highest bid for the paint booth was less than the cost for a good aluminum frame. Boom. In that moment he understood that the sum of bids would be less than his. And he was the first guy in the room to understand this. Guru was his.
While there, a guy tapped on his shoulder. A Quebecois by the name of Olivier Lavigueur who had been the production manager for Guru. He’s the only Canadian to make the move, but he was an indispensable hire. And then there was the intrepid duo of Sam Pickman and Chris Meertens, former Specialized employees who had a similar gift for seeing the future of carbon fiber manufacturing. The other visible piece—because no one buys a bike they think is ugly—was Jim Cunningham. Cunningham has a pedigree like few others in the bike world. He got his start at the fabled Masi USA operation and as the owner of Cyclart, he has been the go-to on the most challenging restorations being done in the bike world.
What separates Allied from other companies producing carbon fiber bikes is the fact that it completely controls design and production. The factory is theirs, so if they want to change a fiber source or an epoxy, they can make a switch, immediately. They aren’t prisoner to their factory’s whims.
What’s most significant about Allied’s difference is their ability to shorten the development cycle. There is very often a month-long lag between when a brand submits a new design to a factory and they receive a sample that can be tested. While engineers have plenty of other work to keep them busy in the meantime, it does mean that being in the same building as the factory instead of an ocean away results in much quicker development. Allied can model a new layup, cut fiber, lay it up and have a testable sample in just a day or two.
So development will be much faster and more efficient. But that’s not Allied’s only competitive difference. They have also chosen to use a fiber called Inegra that provides significant impact resistance as well as improving ride comfort. Inegra is a polypropylene fiber that will in many instances prevent a handlebar ding from killing a top tube, or knock that breaks a seatstay from your bike falling over. It is also likely to help prevent a catastrophic failure in bad crashes, meaning that some riders might not end up on the pavement because their head tube didn’t sheer away from the rest of the bike.
Allied is such a different operation it will offer a lifetime warranty on a frame. Srsly. I mean, dude. Dude. Lifetime. And if you do crash and crunch a chainstay or something, they offer a repair service. They won’t promise that they can repair everything, but they’ll take a look.
Their first product is the Alfa, a traditional road frame that features clearance enough to run 28mm tires and will come in a variety of finishes. That frame weighs just 875 grams for a 56cm frame. The Alfa is offered in 12 sizes. They make a 49, 52, 54, 56, 58 and a 61 as well as what they plus sizes, which are all the same sizes with with a two-centimeter longer head tube. Twelve sizes total. Looking at the geometry chart, what I see is a modern road bike in the same class as the Specialized Tarmac, Felt F and Cannondale SuperSix—handling sharp as a rapier but with the cool of a diplomat.
I bet you’re thinking, “Sounds cool, but I can’t drop $10k on a frame.” Well, guess what? A complete bike with Ultegra and Fi’zi:k cockpit goes for $4500. A frameset goes for just $2700. I’m unaware of anyone else offering a frame in that weight class for that kind of money. There are six builds ranging from $4000 to $8000.
In 1997 I received a folder in the mail from Rob Vandermark, announcing the launch of Seven Cycles. Born out of a frustration with existing opportunities and limitations, Seven was a new way of doing things, an idea so powerful and management so thorough, that operation remains healthy and thriving today. Allied reminds me of Seven. The similarities in terms of needs, frustrations, opportunities and smart people who can see beyond the horizon is striking.
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