Allied Cycles, based in Little Rock, is trying to ignite American carbon-fiber manufacturing and steal China's thunder
If you ride a carbon-fiber bike, chances are it was manufactured in one of five factories in China. If you ride an American-made carbon model, you probably bought it from a boutique brand and paid through the teeth for it. All this might change thanks to Allied Cycles, which launched in February in Little Rock, Arkansas. Allied wants to make American-built carbon bicycles that can compete with their Asian counterparts on price as well as performance.
And they want to make a lot of them.
The Alfa Road, the company’s signature 875-gram frame, is hand-built in Little Rock and sells for $4,000 when equipped with Shimano Ultegra components and Mavic Aksium wheels. (It’s $2,700 for the frameset.) By comparison, a similarly equipped, likely heavier, foreign-built Specialized Tarmac starts at $3,600, and a Cannondale Evo at $4,200.
“We don’t want to be just another $10,000 carbon-fiber American bike, because we would only sell 100 of them,” Tony Karklins, founder of Allied Cycles, told me when I visited the company’s Arkansas headquarters last week. Allied’s current facility can produce 2,700 frames a year, which dwarfs boutique U.S. carbon brands such as Alchemy, Argonaut, and Calfee, and the company is already looking to expand. “The goal is to be a big company. There’s no reason we can’t take on the big three,” Karklins says, referring to Giant, Specialized, and Trek.
That’s lofty talk for an upstart brand, but this isn’t Karklins’s first bike race. He founded Orbea USA in 2004 and grew that brand so successfully that, a decade later, the Spaniards bought him out. With Orbea, Karklins began to wrestle with the challenges of the cycling industry. “Most bike brands don’t manufacture anything anymore. They’re paying a factory in Asia, usually the same one that’s building bikes for other brands, to produce it for them,” he explains. “That puts everything out of your hands. The design process is slow and always a compromise. Product is often late. It’s getting more expensive to manufacture. And it’s difficult to react to trends because you’re ordering two years out and shipping bikes across the ocean. I didn’t want to do that again.”
With Allied, Karklins doesn’t just want to make bikes—he wants to piece together a whole new model for the industry. How can you make bicycles in the U.S. and be competitive?
The answer, he believes, is to bring everything in house. “We have to cut out all the middle men, all the fat, all the bullshit,” he says. Unlike most brands, with manufacturing, assembly, painting, and shipping all happening in different places, Karklins wants one facility to handle them all. He knew he’d have to cut out the distribution and inventory process, too, as well as the sales force, all of which cost money and add to the final cost of a bike.
While Karklins was formulating the plan for his new company, Guru, a custom-bike maker in Montreal, went out of business. Then, in February 2016, Karklins bought the company’s manufacturing inventory at auction. He suddenly owned the second-largest carbon-bike factory in the country, after Trek, which builds some bikes domestically and some overseas. About the same time, engineers Sam Pickman and Chris Meertens, formerly at Specialized, were exploring business opportunities in carbon-fiber manufacturing. It was a perfect fit. “I was moving to Colorado when Tony called,” says Pickman, who now runs Allied’s development. “I ended up in Little Rock.”
Admittedly, nobody is lining up to buy a bike that’s labeled “Handmade in Arkansas”—yet. “Everyone wants to be a California brand,” says Karklins. “But our factory space costs $6,000 a month. Rent for the same space in San Diego would be $70,000.” That’s the kind of thinking that explains how Allied is able to create an American-made bicycle at such a low price.
That Allied could go, in less than a year, from being a smart idea to producing a polished bike like the Alfa speaks to Karklins’s drive and savvy and Pickman’s expertise. When he bought Guru, Karklins also purchased the rights to its custom Photon road bike, not because he wanted to be a custom manufacturer, but because it was a good bike and he could use it to train his manufacturing crew. Allied began rolling these bikes off the line, as the Founder Edition, a little over six months after the Guru auction. (The bike, still fully custom, is now called the Echo.) Meanwhile, Pickman, who was lead engineer on the current Specialized Roubaix and had a hand in several iterations of the Tarmac, began creating the Alfa, which was unveiled in late January.
The Alfa I rode in Little Rock lives up to the promise. Over two days, I pedaled the bike just shy of two and a half hours. That’s limited saddle time, but I could immediately tell that the Alfa is quick, fast steering yet stable, and pleasingly stiff and responsive up front, with rear-end compliance that belies its racy nature. It stands up fine next to bikes like the Evo, Tarmac, and Trek Madone and probably outperforms them in some ways. “We are not limited by the same manufacturing and commercial processes as the big brands,” Pickman says. “Coming here was about realizing the dream of using everything at our disposal to create a bike, from start to finish, that’s both competitive and unique.” In addition to smart layups and manufacturing efficiencies, which are important but arcane, Allied’s built-to-order ethos and custom paint options set the company apart.
Allied also benefits from the growing trend of direct-to-consumer sales. Brands such as Canyon, Evil, and YT sell quality bikes online for around 30 percent less than the big brands, avoiding the substantial markups that come with distribution and retail. (Allied and Evil also sell through select brick-and-mortar dealers at the same prices offered online.)
It all adds up to a sea change in the bike industry, and there’s nowhere this is more apparent than on Allied’s factory floor. One woman operates a press that cuts complex patterns from bolts of carbon fiber, and half a dozen others hand-piece them into tubes, joints, and, finally, machined aluminum forms. There are technicians curing frames, others fabricating small parts like drop-outs and seatposts, and still others sanding and painting finished frames and building them into complete bikes. It’s a small-scale production line that still manages to encompasses every part of the manufacturing and assembly process. Right now, the factory is producing about four completed bikes per day, and Karklins is confident that output will increase as efficiency improves.
Made in America has never really resonated that strongly with me, but here, watching three dozen people who might not otherwise have such good-paying jobs build high-quality bikes, it struck a chord. Many of these workers have no connection to cycling, really, yet they’re turning out machines that will bring riders a lifetime of joy. Plus, they’re doing it in Arkansas. Admittedly, there are a lot of great bikes out there, produced all around the world. But seeing Allied’s employees at work, with their dedication and precision, made me want to support the company. If you can get a great bike made in your own backyard, with the added value of custom parts and paint, why wouldn’t you?
“I want to be the comeback brand of American manufacturing,” Karklins told me. Allied has a long course ahead to meet that goal, but it’s undoubtedly on its way.