Swiss Army Bike

Swiss Army Bike

When I reviewed the Raleigh Stuntman recently, I wondered if it might be possible to own a single do-it-all bicycle. It’s a fun thought, that you might be able to engage every kind of riding you might want to do—paved roads, dirt roads and singletrack—with just one bike.

But it’s just a thought experiment. I don’t really believe that. No drop-bar bike will ever be able to serve as a capable substitute for a full-suspension mountain bike. That would be like asking your dermatologist to adjust the dosage on your antidepressant. And let’s be clear, a full-suspension mountain bike is definitely an antidepressant.

Reducing one’s quiver isn’t a silly thought, though. Modern life is damn expensive and not everyone has room in the garage for eight bikes. So while owning one bike would leave me feeling limited, hamstrung, I think it’s possible to get away with just a few bikes.

Some time last fall I began hearing from riders I know that they had cut their stable down. Many were tired of riding 23mm tires on ever-degrading roads, so they sold their road bike, and in lieu of a traditional road bike, they simply set up their adventure or ‘cross bike with two sets of wheels: one for off-road use and the other for paved use. Voila! Pas de problem.

I’m enough of a handling geek (snob?) that I can’t imagine having a cyclocross bike as my only road bike. But an adventure or gravel bike as my only drop-bar machine? Yeah, that’s no stretch.

But just what would that bike be? It would need good road manners, which is to say handling that is calm as the hand of a massage therapist and as confident as a world-class chef making scrambled eggs. It would need clearance for big tires. It would need to have a fit suitable for six hard hours in the saddle. But it would still need to feel quick and responsive if I decided to run a 27mm-wide clincher.

This summer I’ve been riding the Allied Cycle Works Alfa All Road. This is the Little Rock-based manufacturer’s adventure bike. It accepts up to a 38mm tire and comes in 12 sizes. I went with a 56+, the version with the 2cm longer head tube, to get the bar up a bit higher for my aging spine.

My opening ride on the bike was on gravel roads used in Dirty Kanza. What an introduction. Our group included Yuri Hauswald, pro roadie Janel Holcomb (who just won Crusher in the Tushar), pro mountain biker Heidi Rentz as well as some Sonoma County badasses. Our pace was quick enough that I’d have been in trouble riding a bike that didn’t inspire confidence.

What no one told me about Dirty Kanza before I got there was that while there are always two firm lines in the road, corners are loose. Come up to an intersection and apexing hard with lots of bike lean is not the way to go.

Construction
The Alfa All Road, unlike any similar bike from the competition, uses a single fiber. Typically the industry refers to this as intermediate modulus. When I asked Sam Pickman, the head of engineering at HIA Velo, the parent company of Allied Cycle, why he elected to use a single fiber, he had several reasons. The biggest single reason is because there is always a disconnect between the FEA (finite element analysis) that an engineer for a manufacturer does and what the actual layup that the factory does. The upshot is that samples are produced and tested (broken). This is to make sure that the frame meets the performance targets. So samples are made and tested and that’s compared to the targets set and then the layup is revised to help hit the target. One of the quickest ways to improve stiffness in a frame is to add high- or ultra-high-modulus carbon fiber to certain critical areas like the bottom bracket or around the head tube.

What sets Allied apart from nearly all of its competitors is that it is able to perform an FEA on exactly the layup they have designed. If the layup fails in FEA, they don’t need to build a sample to verify that. They simply move onto another rev in software. This saves money, and saves time in two different ways; they not only don’t have to wait for the bike to be shipped from Asia, they don’t even have to wait for it to be built and cured. Pickman tells me that’s good for shaving a month from development time right there. Ultimately, Allied is able to use FEA to predict the stiffness and weight of a frame to within 1 percent of what they see in the real world.

Sticking with a standard modulus fiber pays other dividends as well. Those high-modulus fibers are difficult to work with, not to mention expensive. Sticking with a single fiber cuts the expense of the more expensive fibers and simplifies inventorying.

And while I say this frame was built with a single fiber, there was some Innegra used to increase the frame’s durability. What I’ve been told is that it’s used in areas vulnerable to strikes, namely the top tube and chainstays. However, the Innegra isn’t a structural fiber; it provides impact protection and can also be used to provide a measure of vibration damping.

This all sounds good on paper, right? But how much of this is Kool-Aid, right? It’s a fair question. Here’s what I’ll tell you I can verify from other manufacturers’ experience: The time lost in development due to working with a factory in Taiwan is real. The communication disconnects come in ways that will surprise even the seasoned veteran. I’m amazed by the number of stories I’ve been told by manufacturers where their Taiwanese or Chinese “fixed” part of their design, deviating from the approved design and then proceeded to ship tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise that ultimately was shipped back to the factory.

I’ve been riding carbon fiber bikes for more than 20 years. The whole of my experience has told me that a frame made from nothing but intermediate-modulus carbon fiber will ride like a block of wood. Everything I’ve seen so far has told me that to make a frame strong enough to be safe and perform well requires so much intermediate modulus fiber that you end up with a frame that feels like it was made from broom handles. Ugh.

What I haven’t previously experienced was a frame made with the precise layup schedule of a bike like the Cervelo R5 but with all intermediate-modulus material and none of the über-fancy fibers.

Lo. Behold. The Alfa All Road offers the sensitive ride I’ve come to expect from the top carbon fiber bikes I’ve ridden, and is stiffer, in fact, than some very good 900-gram frames I’ve ridden. I was mildly worried/suspicious when Pickman told me they were using nothing but intermediate modulus. Why cheap out now after going to so much trouble? Let’s put this in other terms: Had I ridden the Alfa All Road before you told me about its construction, I’d have sworn that it had plenty of high-modulus carbon fiber in it. Similarly, I’d have sworn that a bike made from 100 percent intermediate-modulus carbon fiber couldn’t ride this well. Just stack the bibles up.

The lesson is, once you remove the foam inserts in the bottom bracket and dropouts, cut the sheets to the exact shapes and fiber orientations you need, use a wedge bolt instead of building up a massive seat clamp, you end up with a frame that Allied says is 920g and rides like … well I’m about to get to that.

What’s in a name?
There’s a reason this bike was called the Alfa All Road and not the Beta or something else. This bike is a sibling to the Alfa. It’s got very modern road geometry with nods to tire clearance. On my 56 review bike, the head tube angle was 73.3 degrees and the fork rake was 4.8cm for a trail of roughly 5.25cm. The seat tube is 73 degrees and the bottom bracket drop is 6.9cm. By going with less head tube angle and more fork rake Pickman was able to increase the front center, thereby reducing the amount of toe overlap, which is a consideration if you plan to run tires bigger than 28mm. The effective top tube length is 56.5cm. Amazingly, the chainstays are only 42cm. I didn’t think you could get a 38mm tire into a rear triangle with an English bottom bracket and 42cm chainstays, but Pickman managed it without resorting to chainstays flat as a slice of cheese.

Allied offers the Allied All Road in six basic sizes. They run 49 (51.3cm top tube and 38cm reach), 52 (53.7, 38.5), 54 (54.8, 38.8), 56 (56.5, 39.4), 58 (58.3, 40.1), 61 (60.1, 40.8). It’s a very well thought-out sizing run. Additionally, each size is available in two different head tube lengths.

Allied created the front triangle tooling so that a small section can be swapped out to increase the head tube length by 2cm. Allied says this results in 12 sizes, but that’s not 100% accurate in my opinion. I selected the longer head tube and wouldn’t have minded another centimeter spacer beneath the stem.

The chosen axle standard for this bike 100x12mm front and 142x12mm rear. Many wheel manufacturers make hub end caps that can be swapped out with QR end caps, meaning your existing wheels can very likely be used with this bike.

Tire clearance with 38mm Specialized Trigger’s is good at the fork crown, but limited between the chainstays. In muddy rides a narrower tire would be smart. Literally the only aspect of this bike I’d ever consider changing is increasing tire clearance.

The Alfa All Road rides like a straight-up road bike. It’s as relaxed at speed as a sleeping baby but dives into turns like a hawk after a mouse. Think of pure road machines like the R5, the Tarmac or the Madone. The Alfa All Road is what results when you reimagine those bikes with clearance for off-road tires.

Of the many bits of news that emerged in the run-up to the launch of Allied was the purchase of CyclArt in San Diego. Jim and Susan Cunningham have a reputation for stellar finishes and the combination of a metal flake and clear coat on this Alfa All Road give the bike flash while still allowing the immaculate layup work to be seen.

Where rubber meets off-road
Any time I review a bike one of the single most important dimensions of that review is the bike’s feel on pavement, dirt road or trail. The softer the surface, the harder it is to tell what’s going on with the bike. One thing I noticed when at Dirty Kanza was how readily I could discern changes in surface. Sure, there was the obvious slowing you experience when you hit softer ground but the feeling you get at the bar becomes more muted as well. The amount of feedback that the Alfa All Road provided let me know any time I began to veer off the packed double track in the Flint Hills.

I recently tried putting some smaller, more traditional road tires on the wheels on this Alfa All Road. I was curious if I’d feel the bike lacked anything I expect from a great road bike. The answer is no. Any time I looked down the tires looked tiny and out of place passing through that fork and rear triangle. But aside from the disproportionate appearance, nothing else about the bike suggested that it wasn’t a proper road bike.

I don’t really want one bike in my garage. That’s not a dream of mine. However, I do like having a trusted bike that’s good for more than just one thing. With the riding I do these days, having a bike that feels like a proper road bike but can be ridden up or down any dirt road I encounter gives me the flexibility I want for where I live. I’m not planning to race another crit in my life, but I could ride this in one and never miss a beat. More importantly, this bike is perfect for the gravel events I do and wouldn’t be out of place in a cyclocross race. The only things I’m unlikely to do on it are run errands or bomb rocky singletrack. Frankly, this thing is more fun than a weekend in Vegas.

Final thought: One bike, but many tools.

, , , , , , ,

20 comments

  1. tomi

    Thanks, Padraig. I’ve been waiting for this review. Sounds like a very sweet ride!

    One general question: When you talk about quiver reduction, you mention the types of bikes you’d like to keep, and a bit about why. You don’t mention frame material as a choice. I know you’re still in love with your Seven. I wanted to ask, steel vs. aluminum vs. carbon vs. Ti as the best choice of a frame material for that value of N where N isn’t N+1 but rather, a minimum as N approaches 1.

    If this isn’t the best place for this discussion, sorry!


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Fair question. My answer has an inherent bias due to my chosen career. While it hasn’t always been the case, I’d like to have (at least) one steel, one ti and one carbon bike in my quiver at all times. That’s for drop-bar bikes only. I don’t feel the same need with mountain bikes. Were I to try to make N approach one, I can say there are two bikes in my garage right now that could help me get close. My DiNucci was built with this sort of versatility in mind, but its tire clearance maxes out at 35mm. The Allied is the other bike (no surprise after that review) and if I didn’t already have my Bishop, Seven and DiNucci, I could see tossing everything aside to own just this bike.

  2. Scott

    Nice bike! A couple questions.
    1. Is there a thru axle option?
    2. The regular Alfa uses Innegra fiber for improved toughness. Is there Innegra in this frame?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      This frame is thru-axle only.

      And yes, this uses Innegra, a detail that didn’t make it from my notes into the copy; I’ve edited it to include that info.

  3. Dolan Halbrook

    This would be a perfect PNW year round bike, except for the lack of any kind of way of mounting real fenders. Maybe there will be an Alfa All Weather some day as well? Otherwise, kudos to Allied.

    For now I’ll stick to two bikes (rain and shine) and lust after the regular old Alfa.

  4. Dustin

    Cool ride. For me the tire clearance is too limited to be a ‘gravel’ bike, I want to be able to run at least 40mm tires (currently using “40mm” tires that actually measure 42mm). And everyone I know with a bike that limits clearance to 38mm (aka the now-older Specialized Diverge) wishes they could fit a 40mm. That said, my gravel and your gravel and John Doe’s gravel can be wildly different and require different tires, so I’m sure this is a great tool for lotsa folks, and I think calling it the Alpha All Road is a great move as well since (IMO) it seems to learn more road than dirt. And I generally dig what Allied is doing, I hope to have a bike of theirs eventually.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I struggle with the 38mm limit, conceptually. My perfect or ideal all-road bike would have clearance for 40s as well. The thing I had to keep asking myself as I rode this bike was whether I was giving something up by running the 38mm Specialized Trigger as opposed to the 40mm Panaracer Gravel King SK. Believe me, with all the rock I deal with here, my default on tires is to go bigger. Ultimately, though, I didn’t think I’d given up any performance, so it was hard to criticize the bike for that.

    2. Willis

      I’m with Dustin on this…Living in Western Michigan where we have a lot of sand in our gravel mix I’m looking for a drop bar “adventure” bike that will handle wider tires than this. Something like the Rodeo Adventure Labs Trail Donkey 2.0 or the Bearclaw Bicycles Thunderhawk perhaps…I’m really perplexed as to why more designers/framebuilders/manufactures limit their “adventure” bike tire clearance to something like a 38. Having said all that, I really like what HIA/Allied is up to and I sincerely hope they are successful.


    3. Author
      Padraig

      I’m at a QBP event right now and getting to check out bikes from their house brands. I’d strongly recommend looking at Salsa or Surly if you’re looking for bikes with clearance for 2-inch tires.

  5. Velotastic

    1. > The Alfa All Road, unlike any similar bike from the competition uses a single fiber.

    I think you left a few words out of that sentence. Single fiber what?

    2. The front center distance is still too short. The size 56 frame has a front center of 597 mm, which is at least 10 mm shorter than what it should be, in my opinion.

    3. How do they justify jacking up the price by $1,000 over the regular rim brake Alpha?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Well, the only structural fiber I’ve referred to is carbon fiber, so I think the referent is clear.

      It’s easy to look at a geo chart and take issue with a dimension; that’s why it’s so important to ride a bike. Given how well this bike rides, it’s hard to say they got the front center wrong. However, you’re allowed your opinion. Maybe you should start a bike company.

      Generally, bike companies set prices for bikes based on materials used, engineering time and difficulty of construction. Given the price of this frame relative to the prices of frames from some of their competitors, I don’t see how any reasonable person can cry foul.

    2. Velotastic

      > Well, the only structural fiber I’ve referred to is carbon fiber, so I think the referent is clear.

      It’s not at all clear. Searching for the term “single fiber carbon fiber” on google doesn’t reveal what you are referring to. So what are you referring to?

      > Given how well this bike rides, it’s hard to say they got the front center wrong.

      The size of my feet do not change. For 28 mm rubber, a front center of 605 mm is enough for me. For 38 mm rubber, 615 mm would be good.

      > I don’t see how any reasonable person can cry foul.

      Actually any reasonable person should cry foul. The price of a motocross motorcycle is around $7,500. Motocross motorcycles are very sophisticated machines with sophisticated four-stroke engines, sophisticated suspensions, etc. The engineering time in motorcycle is probably over 100x that in a bike frame.


    3. Author
      Padraig

      Toe overlap is a reality of gravel bikes. I’ve yet to ride one where that doesn’t happen with tires larger than 33mm.

      The engineering that goes into a carbon fiber bike is substantially different than the engineering that goes into a motorcycle. It’s a profound challenge to produce a carbon fiber frame that weighs 900g and won’t break on a rocky descent with a 200-lb. cyclist astride it. No one says you have to buy that bike, but the industry universally agrees that you’ve got to charge several thousand dollars for a reliable, lightweight carbon fiber frame.

  6. gary

    Thanks. Great report, Padraig. I’ve been waiting to hear more about this bike. This sounds like my perfect all-around, but it’s way too much $$$$ for me to justify.

    I think I read that Allied would be doing some models in steel and aluminum. Did you hear any details about those future models during your visit? I sure hope they offer something similar to this model in AL or steel.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I haven’t heard a word about them doing steel or aluminum, and I’ve heard a lot about their plans.

    2. Gary

      Hmm, maybe I imagined that. Could have sworn I read that at some point. Wishful thinking maybe. Thanks-

  7. hiddenwheel

    How does this compare to the Felt VR, a similar bike that you’ve favorably reviewed in the past? The Allied can run slightly bigger tires while the Felt is cheaper (and has fender bosses). Any other observations comparing the two?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      The Felt VR is still, fundamentally, a road bike. It can take bigger tires than most road bikes, but it’s not meant to be used for mixed-surface riding. So if I wanted a road bike with some versatility, I’d consider the Felt, and honestly, I’d look at the Allied as well. For a versatile mixed-surface ride, the Allied kills the Felt, and it should. I’m seriously considering selling one of my road bikes so that I can buy the Allied frame; it can handle any riding I do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *