When I went to visit Allied Cycle Works, I had some idea what I’d see. I knew I’d see carbon fiber frame production, some offices and a paint booth, at minimum. I wasn’t really sure how much of any of that I’d see in detail. It turns out, I needn’t have wondered. Short of climbing in the paint booth with Jim Cunningham, I saw pretty much everything there was to see.
So why the lack of an NDA, a lack of any sort of secrecy? Simple. To CEO Tony Karklins, there’s no mystery to carbon fiber frame production. None of the techniques involved are closely held trade secrets. They are using many of the same techniques you see in frames like the Cervelo Rca. What separates a frame like the Allied Cycle Works Alfa from the Rca is just how far they are willing to push the envelope. And what separates the Alfa from the vast majority of production frames is the layup and the skill of the production staff.
With the exception of the Inegra, which is used to provide a small measure of damping and impact resistance, the Alfa is made with what the industry commonly refers to as intermediate modulus carbon fiber. They aren’t using any crazy ultra-high-modulus fibers. But where many factories will only allow square or rectangular sheets to be cut at 0, 45 and 90 degrees, the Alfa features sheets cut in a wide variety of shapes depending on the position of the layer in the layup, and they cut in a greater variety of angles than most factories will allow.
Here’s something I never knew about producing carbon fiber frames in a factory you don’t own: While there could be exceptions, normally the layup schedule that may have been modeled carefully by the bike company’s engineers is ultimately determined by the factory. The engineers may want some plies oriented at 22.5 degrees, but the factory may tell them to pound sand. Worse, whatever that layup schedule might ultimately be, however compromised from the engineer’s original vision it is, that schedule is the factory’s intellectual property, not the bike company’s. That works out fine for Giant, but not for virtually everyone else.
Removing a mold from the platen.
Part of the advantage to offering nothing but squares and rectangles is that the factory can use a large die to cut large sheets into much smaller ones—kerchunk! Nested strategically, it’s possible to end up with zero waste. Crazy efficient, right? Yes, except you end up with fiber inside the frame that is doing nothing to aid in the bike’s structure. It’s material that could have been trimmed from a ply before it ever got added to the frame. Sam Pickman, the head of engineering walked me through how you don’t have to use crazy materials if you use only as much material as necessary and lay it up to make sure the plies are oriented to account for the stresses that a frame encounters.
There’s a room in which a large plotter zips over a table cutting large sheets into much smaller ones. As it makes each cut it goes back and writes a number on the sheet to show which step in the process it corresponds to. All these sheets are then stacked together in what’s called a kit. There are kits for each different process: top tube, seat tube, down tube, fork, bottom bracket, main triangle, etc.
The BB shell must be bonded in and the frame is heated to allow alignment.
These kits are delivered to a room next door where a team of women produce each of the components that goes into a frameset. Karklins told me that when he began building the team at HIA Velo he set out to bring together the most diverse workforce in the industry. He wanted to be an example to others of what was possible. Alas, his workforce isn’t quite as diverse as he’d hoped. While you can hear two different languages spoken in the facility, the production staff are entirely female and almost exclusively hispanic. As much as he wanted a diverse array of people, what he found is that his most detail-oriented and conscientious workers who were least likely to decide they could dream up a better way were the hispanic women. Which is to say they performed the best work at the highest rate of production.
The Alfa is laid up in three sections. The main triangle is molded as a single piece. That’s the single biggest section you can produce without creating colossal headaches for how to get the mylar bladders out once the frame is complete. Something else I didn’t know: How you position the mylar bladder inside the frame matters big time. position it wrong so that it kinks or is asked to stretch too much and—pow!—it breaks and that can result in a crack at the site of the break.
Head of engineering Sam Pickman walks me through the process for co-molding the rear triangle.
What was interesting to watch was as the various components of a main triangle were added to the mold, the different women who had just laid up the head tube or the down tube, would pick up their finished piece (finished from the standpoint of layup) and walk it over to the mold and work with the person who had finished the piece to which they were joining theirs. They had to work as a team to fit together two flaccid tubes. What I saw of their work spoke of a determined and egoless work ethic.
In addition to the main triangle, the seatstays are molded in another operation, as are the chainstays. The other component is the pair of dropouts which run into the lower third of the seatstays. Once these parts emerge from the four molds, they are assembled together in a jig (they were mostly from Don Ferris’ operation, Anvil) for final bonding. The technique used is pretty common in the industry. The pieces are swabbed with a black epoxy that does not smell like chemical death and secured in the jig to make sure the epoxy hardens in alignment.
Liberal application of epoxy is in order.
Once those six joints have hardened they are then wrapped with carbon fiber and the frame is cured as a whole.
From there the flashing is cleaned off, the surface prepped and then the frame heads to paint.
Right now, Allied is a tiny operation that can’t match the output of even a company like Cervelo. They are utterly dwarfed by an outfit like Trek. But they stress process and attention to detail. Sam told me they are running around 5 percent on their reject rate, maybe a bit more at times, but think they are establishing procedures and practices that will bring them down to as low as 1 percent; he believes it is achievable and is something they can keep even as they scale production.
The joint between the dropouts and seatstays is epoxied and then wrapped in carbon before being baked again.
Having ridden nearly ever über frame on the market, I can say that the Alfa is kin to those bikes. You can have a meaningful discussion of just which bike is best, but you can no longer debate value. Because Allied’s workforce is a fraction of most of its competitors, their costs are much lower, but more important, they’ve built a system that will allow them to hire more people and scale their output without simultaneously driving up cost. It takes some stones to launch something like this.
So at $2700 for a frameset, the only question is why their backlog isn’t two years.