Podcast: A Conversation with Allied Cycle Works CEO, Sam Pickman

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The Gravel Ride Podcast

Our friends at The Gravel Ride Podcast had a conversation with Allied Cycle Works CEO Sam Pickman diving ,into the Allroad and Allied’s US-based production operation. You can also find The Gravel Ride on iTunes and Spotify.

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The Allied Alfa Allroad.

Check out our video review of the Allied Alfa Allroad and Rotor Uno Groupset!

Automatic Transcription (please excuse all errors)

Sam, welcome to the show today.

Thank you for having me.

Yeah, I’m excited to get into it with you and learn more about allied cycles. Um, we’ve got some of your bikes in my local shop, studio Velo last night I was just there admiring the craftsmanship, so I’m really excited to dig in there, but I always like starting off by learning a little bit more about you as a cyclist and how riding off road on drop bars came into your life.

Okay.

Yeah, sure. So I, um, you know, I’ve been riding racing bikes ever since I was a little kid. I did my first mountain bike race I think when I was 14 or 15. And uh, I’ve always been in love with the machine itself, but also competition and, and just getting out there and writing these days. Don’t do any more racing, but that’s still love to get out. And uh, a ride. In terms of the off road, you know, I started out in the mountain bike side, um, and then when I went over to riding more road bike, I would still try to find sort of the dirt connectors. And stuff like that. I think that’s a pretty pretty common thing. And um, and it was amazing how much more fun it was to ride the road bike off road. Uh, and so I just, I’ve always loved that idea and being able to sort of link really cool week together with a, um, a long dirt section through a true state forest or something’s always been, I mean that’s always just a great, great addition to a ride.

That’s amazing how much that opens up the ride when you’d can just accept that you can go off road with a drop hard bike. All of a sudden you can link things together that weren’t possible before.

I mean, it’s amazing even with road tires, how capable it is. You know, obviously you gotta watch out for things, flats or whatever, but today with tubeless to everything and then you can get away with quite a bit.

Yeah, I think I’m guilty of probably more gingerly riding my road bike then I need to be, because I certainly see plenty of people in Moran who will, you know, ride up one of the fire roads on our full on road bike without issue.

Yeah.

Oh yeah, no doubt about it. Do it all the time before gravel riding was cool. We were kind of giving crab or hiking all the time just on are just on a road bikes.

So let’s talk a little bit about your professional background before allied because I think it’s interesting and it, it does, um, it lends some interest to your story and where you found yourself an ally.

Sure. Yeah. So I graduated school mechanical engineering degree. I was a bike racer. It’s time, uh, not a good enough bike racer to want to, uh, actually taken on as, as like a Gig. So I got a job at specialize working actually down in the test lab. And this was back when specialized in the suit? No, 14 years or something. Yeah, about 14 years ago. Specialized was not the specialized that we know today. They weren’t quite a bit smaller and still had under that small business feel. And, and uh, you could, you could make a big impact in that company if you had some ambition. And, and coming into the test lab that was there was just loads of fun. I mean, we were, the company was growing so quickly. We were learning so much about, about carbon fiber time. We were learning so much about the role that a test lab could play in development of a bike.

We were, uh, learning a ton about sort of all the tools available that acquisition and, and uh, it was just, I mean it was just so fun. And right around that time they also started sponsoring quickstep, which was just a cool journey into learning the true rigors of what a professional athlete does to or bike. Um, and, uh, through my time there I just sort of moved, you know, we’ll give him tons of opportunity and, and, uh, it was able to move up the ranks. And when I left there, I was the engineering manager for research and development.

So with all those tools, it’s specialized. And given that they weren’t manufacturing in house, what was the cycle like if you did an analysis on a road frame or a mountain bike frame and started to make some notes on it, how long before you could get a kid I knew version of that frame set to test.

Yeah. So specialized know obviously messes a business now with, with loads of resources and, and loads of resources in research and development. And what they are able to do as specialized is sort of build this arsenal of tests that that proves that a bite is going to do something without actually having to ride it. So they can say with a high degree of confidence that the bike is going to do x before you even step on it, which is a really powerful tool in, in development. Um, and it also takes away a lot of the sort of the subjective feedback that you get and you’re, you’re working in just sort of this objective workflow all the time, uh, until you get to a point where you have a bike that you think is ridable and then obviously you tweak with rider feedback. But to answer your question, you have, um, it’s complicated working with an overseas vendor or just you’re working with the vendor at all. When you’re not controlling the manufacturing, you’re basically asking somebody else to take over what I would argue is the most complicated part of the process, which is actually getting that thing made. And, um, there’s so many decisions that get made when you’re manufacturing something and if you’re not in control of every one of those decisions, you know, there can be some, some loss and fidelity of what your vision was and what that part initially [inaudible] your vision of that apart was initially, you know what I mean?

Yes, absolutely.

And so, and then the, the flip side of that, I still haven’t answered your question is things take kind of a long time. So you would, uh, send off your drawings to a manufacturing facility. They would generally speaking, subcontract the tooling. So they would design the two only first of all. Then they would subcontract the tooling they get to, they would make parts, um, with, uh, you know, a combination of your suggestions for the layup and also their suggestions for our lab. And then eventual you’d end up with a part that gets tested, broken. Of course it fails because the first one always fails or, uh, or you’re not trying hard enough. And uh, and then you enter this cycle of revision iteration. Um, and that cycle from when you’ve broken one, two, making the changes, um, to getting another one paid to getting it broken again and your tests last in dissecting is making revisions. It takes about 30 days to do that cycle when you’re outsourcing a product. Um, so it’s, it can be pretty long and you consider, you know, a bike that, I mean, going through six, seven revisions is not uncommon at all. And so you’re talking about spending several months, uh, six, seven months just through the revision process after the tools aren’t doing quizzes.

Yeah, and I’ve got to imagine that there’s some very specific demands when you’re a manufacturer of that scale in terms of the timeline in which new products are released. Obviously the industry has its cycles where the dealers are expecting new models, et cetera. So I imagine that at a certain point you have to stop development of that cycle and say we need to mint the 2018 model. Even if we have ideas that we think are going to come to bear in 2019

absolutely. So like a, you know, whatever the model year is 2018 and you have to, if that product is getting close and you think you’re going to make the timeline, you just have to cut it. You say, okay, we are done developing, this is as good as we’re going to get it. And generally speaking you will never revisit that and change it to 2019 it’ll just stay in that until that product is, is it’s way out of it. The product line.

Right? Yeah. I suppose that’s all some of the compromise and when you’re, when you’re working within a large manufacturing supply chain that you have to make business decisions like that because it’s product needs to ship at some point.

It do it, it has to ship and it’s never, it never done. You’re never like satisfied at the end of the day. Okay I’ve done it, we’re done.

Yeah.

Anybody who says no compromise is completely full of crap because engineering is all about compromises. That’s how you, that’s how you do it and you have, you have decisions to make all the time and you just hope that you’re making the best decision at all times.

Yeah, absolutely. I also imagine other offshoot to your experience there was having been exposed to a lot of different frame materials, cause I’m sure at the time specialized in must’ve been building in aluminum, steel and carbon.

Yeah. Not as much steel. It was a little bit of steel but we didn’t, I didn’t, wasn’t involved in relief and back it aluminum for sure. And carbon. Yes. The stuff that I was involved in was really predominantly carbon.

And was there something, was there something about that material as an engineer that you were really drawn to and is it something that,

oh yes.

Is it the, is it the material you feel like is the highest performance material for bikes today?

I think there’s absolutely no doubt.

It’s

like I said, nope, no material is without compromise. I think that anybody who argues that it’s not the, the most high performance material is kidding themselves, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t other areas that have a place. So don’t, yeah, I mean for sure it’s titanium. In certain scenarios it has its place, but if you look at what you can do with fitness and weight and uh, performance and strength, if you take those things all together, you cannot meet the performance of carbon fiber. You just can’t.

Well, I’m excited to get into that and I interrupted your professional journey. Let’s finish off how you ended up at allied and then let’s definitely dig into carbon fiber and what our listeners can, can sort of take away as its attributes as a frame material.

Sure. So, um, I was, I had been a specialized in last time. I have no bad things to say about my journey through that company. I had just after 11 years of being there, I had never had another job. I know that we’ve had a job. Um, and uh, although that’s not totally true, I worked in by the bike shops he had and everything. But so my first professional, um, they use my obsession degree was that specialize. So after 11 years I was just sort of, you know, looking for something different and to be totally honest with you, the cycle that we described a kind of always having to go through an Asian vendor, it had on me a little bit. I was, um, you know, when you’re, there’s something really amazing making the thing that you design. I think that filling that circle is, is really critical.

And it’s not just because making things as smart and it’s because when you, when you look at our country, if you sort of strip out all of the jobs that have to do with making things, then you leave, uh, an entire class of people who without really anything to do other than work in retail or food service or whatever. And you know what, not everybody’s meant to go to college. And not everybody’s meant to have a, uh, you know, big professional degree or everything, anything. And if we don’t have some work for those people to do, then things get kind of dicey. And I think that’s the position we find ourselves in today in the u s there’s, there’s just something very important about sort of maintaining that balance. Um, and, and I wanted to be part of kind of bringing those jobs, bringing some jobs, having some impacts and bringing jobs back to the United States. Um, so that, that’d be at allied led me to allied. So I was um, actually had, had left, um, got contacted by a gentleman by the name of Tony Kirkland’s and uh, he, he’s kind of spoke to me about what ally and was trying to do and it just felt like a really natural fit and we just incredible opportunity.

For those of our listeners who haven’t heard of allied before, can you give us a little summary of where the business is located and why it was founded?

Sure. In actually has two spots. We have a headquarter in Bentonville, Arkansas and our bikes are made in Little Rock, Arkansas and a big,

how far away are those locations from one another?

It’s a couple hundred miles. It’s, it’s a few hours drive. Um, so the company was founded for a couple reasons. One, I think we live in this time and you know, talking to the guy in the studio bell, that’s how you the same thing. This is a very sort of strange time in the bike industry. You know, the, the rest of the consumer market has sort of shifted to online. There is um, you know, a couple of, a few large players in the retail space for bikes. Uh, but other than that, everybody else is just sort of been sort of squeezed out and uh, and the retail market other than just the best of the best cause essentially dried up and it’s created kind of a funky sort of time in the bike industry, um, where people are sort of figuring out what is, how, how are we going to sell bikes to people in the, and to be effective, you can be to dealers.

Is it going to be some sort of Omni Channel? I’m saying? And uh, and what we realized when starting this was that basically every company out there was, was set up in their, in their nature to be able to sell large volumes into warehouses. Um, and it’s sort of creates that kind of tension, right? Because you have to sell preseason orders to dealers in order for that business to work. Yup. Um, and fundamentally we believe that that is not the right way to do business and not a healthy way to do business. And one of the main reasons why majority of dealers have really struggled because they leveraged themselves hard in the, in the winter to be able to do these preseason orders. And then if they have a bad year or there’s tough weather or whatever, you know, you know, maybe the, the manufacturer or whiffed on a, on a model and it doesn’t sell well, well there they’re kind of stunk.

And, uh, and because of that, a lot of those smaller dealers, they struggled and eventually went out of business. So the one thing is we really wanted to flip that. We didn’t want to, um, sell inventory, big inventory into businesses. We wanted to make this more of just in time where it consumer or a dealer could just call us up, say, hey, we want, you know, this and this size and this color, and we’d be able to deliver that in, in short order. Um, and then the other part was, is we really wanted to do it here. We felt like, um, really the only way to do the, just in time manufacturing was to do with here in the states. Uh, and then we also felt like there was just enough, had enough had changed since bikes had left being made in the United States. Um, that it was possible for it to happen again in terms of being competitive and the cost of good sold.

And how much, how much of the manufacturing and materials are you able to bring in house in Arkansas?

So we do it all. So the material we buy from a prefigure in Irvine, but you know, we’re taking prepregs sheets of carbon and making the frames and forks 100%.

Wow, that’s amazing. We’ll have to get some pictures of your factory to share some. So, uh, she has some of the listeners in the show notes.

Yeah, please do. We do. We put it out there. We’re not hiding. Um, you know, it’s part of, part of our mission is to just be super transparent how it works. We want to show you the people that are making your bike. We want to show you where it’s made and want to show you the materials it’s made with. Because I mean, we’ve got nothing to hide. We’re doing this. We’re trying to do the right thing every step of the way.

Going back to our earlier conversation, it must open up is just incredible possibilities for you and your team as designers to sort of tweak the frames along the way and figure out what really is the best placement of the, of the carbon fiber and the thickness of the walls and all kinds of things.

Yeah, I’m getting there with it being made, I mean you just see it opens and we have a for all types of stuff. I mean, without a doubt there’s huge complications to doing it yourself. I mean like if you’re standing at the top of the, you know, before we got on there that you, you get done manufacturing as well and manufacturing’s hard. I mean there’s a lot of complexity that goes into making something.

Yeah. And I think, you know, the real world is the real world. And if you’ve ever built anything from Ikea at home, you know, you’ll strip a nut, something will happen, something one aligned correctly and you just need to make adjustments. And, and whether you’re putting a, a piece of art, like an allied frame out there and Ikea a couch, there was a journey in getting it to its final incarnation. And it’s not always pretty.

No, no, we can, we try to make it as pretty as possible. But yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard work. I mean it is, it’s a lot of steps and, and making bikes is a hundred percent hand labor there. There’s very, very little automation that goes into making a carbon fiber bike. And so every single piece of that thing is done by hand. And it takes, you know, in terms of labor hours, it takes 35, 40 hours to make a bike from beginning to end. It’s a, it’s an out of work. Um, but to get to your point, I mean, as an engineer, when you’re, when you’re sitting there with the operators and laying up parts together, I mean it’s just the light bulb goes off on solutions for issues you’re having or you know, you, you, you, you’ll go through and you’ll make a full part and you go and break it in the test lab and a and see where it breaks.

And then inevitably you go back into the manufacturing process and you can pinpoint, you’re like, oh, this is exactly why this is happening here. Because you know, the way these three forms are coming together or, or you know, I’ve got this one area that just doesn’t have sufficient thickness or you know, I need more in zero degree. You reinforcements along this. I mean, it becomes really obvious when you’re just seeing it get made. Um, and then instead of making another one the same way, you just say, okay, stop. We’re going to do, you know, we’re going to make these adjustments. You jot down there that he changed and then you make a new version going right back to the test lab. And, and that cycle, instead of taking the 30 days that it may have taken for an outside vendor, it takes us, you know, 24 hours to do a full turn on a, on revision. It’s really quick.

Yeah. And then I think to add on the feedback you can get from consumers, consumers can bring to light minor things that can be improved that you can then in turn bring into your production flow immediately if it’s warranted. And I think that’s, it is such a amazing thing about us manufacturing is that you can constantly be improving the product and have these really tight cycles with your customers so that you’re getting real world feedback.

Absolutely. And we have done that a number of times. You’ll see like this is the thing, right? When you buy a bike from big brand, they’ve been producing that bike for already a long time before it gets launched and they have a bunch of a maid. I mean they’ve got, you know, thousands of those bikes already produced by the time you get to buy one. Right? So if something happens in those first three months where they’re getting some rider feedback, well, too bad because they’ve already got a thousand made and they’re not going to go make adjustments. Right? It’s what’s done is done. Um, but for us, if something comes up, you know, we’re doing just in time inventory, we don’t keep inventory of our frames and so, you know, we can make an adjustment super quick. I mean they can just be done in a day and then moving forward we just, you know, a rolling revision and, and um, it just goes right into right into production.

Well, I can geek out all day long on us manufacturing as you know. But I’d love to transition a little bit into one of your models, specifically the all road and just hear from you in your words about what, who is that bike design for? What, what was the intention when you guys brought that that off road capable bike to market?

Sure. Well, the funny is it’s always, the answer is always, it’s for me, and that’s the best part about design and bikes is that you get to decide things that you want to go second, uh, rather than, um, you know, I think that there are, you know, the, the, the gravel market is getting disparate sized quite a bit, right? You, you’ve got all these sort of little segments that bike’s fall into and it’s fun, right? Because like, as a, as a consumer, it might be a little bit confusing, but if you dig in and you really understand the kind of riding it you want to do, you’re going to be able to find a great bike to suit your needs. And that’s really fun. So, um, for, for me personally, the type of riding that I love to do is I first of all, don’t like to drive to ride.

So when I’m keeping my house going to go for a ride and then I want to find, you know, smooth single track and fire roads to be able to link together, you know, anywhere from 60, 40 dirt to road to, you know, just the all road is, is not best for bike, you know, going 100% to her super rocky nasty stuff. But if you can link together, you know, 50, 50 dirt road or even up to 80% direct to road, um, it’s perfect for that. But you know, the thing I always like to say is like, you’re, you’re on the dirt road or you’re on a road, I’m sorry. And you’ve always seemed like that little spur, a single track that goes off and you don’t know what it does. A bike like the just gives the ability to just give it a shot, you know, see if you’re able to do it. Um, and it just opens up that, that sort of freedom that you would not necessarily get on a road bike, that freedom of exploration.

So how does it differ from the Alpha Circle House

actually in geometry? It’s in fit. It’s extremely close. So it, and that’s the thing I really like about it is um, more of a rowdy and so when I moved from a road bike to like a traditional gravel bikes, sometimes I find the geometry, the geometry takes me some time to kind of get used to right when I go back and forth between a road bike and the old road, it just, they feel so similar. You know, on the road it feels, it just feels like a road bike. Uh, so the change stays are longer by 20 mil. The front end is taller by, I think it’s three or four millimeters. It’s very close and uh, and that’s all obviously to fit the, the larger volume tire

and that the head tube size gives it a little bit slightly more relaxed fit. Then the road bike,

it’s a teeny, teeny amount, but it’s almost imperceptible. Yeah. I mean you could set up, you could set it up essentially. Exactly. If you would set up your road race bike

and I imagine those longer stays on the road translate to pretty darn stable descending bike.

Absolutely. Yeah. It’s a great, it’s actually a great road bike.

It’s, so I’m this, I’m this podcast, we talk a lot about sort of tire width and the pros and cons so that the all road kind of tops out. Was it around 35 millimeter tires?

Yes. Dirty 35. I mean there are, so like the tire don’t even get me started at a tire, that thing because it’s just so the, as a bike designer and the tire was thing just drives you crazy because what it says on your sidewall is not necessarily what you’re getting. And it’s a lot of times it’s a lot bigger than what you think. Right? Um, especially with all the, the, the of, with standards and everything. I mean you’re 35 could very easily be a 38. Uh, so we say 35 when the sidewall to be safe. Um, you know, measured if you could fit bigger than that, but,

right. Yeah. It’s interesting. We were, we were jokingly talking about before, you know, this would be a road plus bike as opposed to a mountain bike bike. Correct. And that’s one of the interesting things. We’re always trying to tease out when we’re talking to different manufacturers and, and athletes about the gravel market is just an understanding of what these bikes are good for and what they’re not good for. I mean, the bottom line is this, you mentioned early on road bikes, pure road bikes are capable of going off road, particularly when you add tubeless tires into the equation. So it starts to come down to what type of writing is in your backyard. Are you hitting the dirt immediately from Your House or are you riding 20 miles riding an hour to get to the trails and just touching on them at the end or the middle of the ride?

Yeah, to me it’s more about, to me it’s more about the rocks. I mean,

if you have, if you have like,

you know, dirt roads and stuff, I mean 32 is tons of tire for that. I mean, we just really don’t need any more than that in almost all second cross bites. I think that UCI limited sacker cross bike is what, 35 mils or 33 meals or something.

That sounds about right.

It’s, um, it’s not a big tire, you know, and those guys are doing all types of stuff with those bikes. I have found that, I think the tire volume thing is so the gravel market is still fairly nascent. People are all excited to have like real big tires and you know, now you’re seeing 50 mil tires on gravel bikes, which is essentially we’re talking about not by tires now really. Um, but I think it’s going to come back and down. I do think that is 40 mil is a lot of tire. I mean I’ve been playing around with them, you know, different bikes with different tire volumes just to try to get a feel for it ourselves. And uh, I, I do think that the tire Paulien thing is, has gotten a little out of hand for people just wanting more and more. And I do think it’s going to draw back to, you know, sort of 38 as being kind of like the, the sort of magic for all things gravel.

Yeah, I think it depends. I mean there’s clearly from talking to people, it feels like the majority of people who are getting drawn into dry gravel or coming from the road side. But at the same token when you are coming from a mountain bike experience, I think there’s some value in the wider tire because it may match with your cycling lifestyle off road. So if you’re coming from the the bike packing set or you know, the ultra distance riding off road riding set, you know there still may be a home. And I think it’s interesting and it’s certainly worth debating where that line is drawn and it’s going to vary based on where you live and who you are and what’s your intention is.

Absolutely. Absolutely. In my intent, generally speaking is I’m trying, in the bikes that we make, generally speaking, we’re making more like a performance oriented bikes. So this is for Nolan fast. Um, and for, I’m not going to say racing or anything, but it’s definitely, you know, we’re, we’re trying to make bikes to go to go fast without a doubt.

And that’s one of the many things I appreciate about what you guys are doing because you are very clear in your marketing with the intention of the bike.

Thank you. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And I think bike packing is awesome. I think it’s Super Fun. I would not take an old road bike.

I don’t know that it’s the right bike. Wouldn’t maybe not be the most comfortable thing in the world out there.

It would not be the greatest it without the grades.

So you mentioned sort of thinking that the world of gravel cycling may end up around a 38 see tire and I have to ask, since that’s wider than the all road, do you have a vision for a bike or the future for allied that’s going to be in that category that could accept the 38?

Uh, well, Geez, that’s a great question. Um, I mean we’re always sort of working on new stuff. This is the lamest name. Yeah,

a

I, I mean the answer is for sure. Yes. I mean we’re looking, we’re looking down that path and, and a bike. It’s a little bit more capable than the already. I think the old road is awesome. It’s to me the perfect bike for most people. I think that there is sort of a level of, of off road. Yeah. The tire is not going to get you quite what you need, but for that, for most people out there, and I, and I know that they do a similar type of writing that I do, which is, you know, you’re just sort of connecting with trails and dirt paths from home. Uh, it’s, it’s just such a great bike for that. And I do think that the all road is really a quiver killer because it is a great road bike. I mean it really sacrifices very little. Um, but you know, given that 35 mil tire volume, it’s just amazing what you can get away with, especially if you have it set up to bliss.

Yeah. So that’s going to say, it feels like, it feels like the all road is, is likely to cannibalize your Alpha customers more so than it would any bigger, you know, bigger tire capable bike that you come up with in the future.

Okay.

For sure it does. I mean, if there’s just no doubt that it does, we fell

majority

all roads people, it’s just for one it’s, it’s, it’s the higher growth segment in the industry right now. But the other thing is you should just, it just strikes a nerve with people. You know, most people you could race in all red and there’s people that do on the road. I mean, they raised him, Israel fights, um, and, but most people don’t and they loved the idea of having that to be able to have a second set of wheels or just be able to swap tires and be able to go do this and some different stuff. Yeah, a lot. I think that that’s the great appeal for that bike.

Absolutely. And a lot of it, as you sort of alluded to, it’s, it’s sort of your timing in the market. You’ve been around a number of years, people have been dreaming about getting one of these bikes. The category they’re looking to get into typically a is this all road kind of category to give them just a little bit more versatility for what was formerly there road bike. So it makes a ton of sense that the all road,

yeah. A lot of people run in 30 30 twos on the road slips, you know? Yes. Yeah. I buy that.

The more I ride higher volume tires, the more I want them on my road wheel set.

Yes, for sure.

Cool. Well, I appreciate it, Sam, you’re giving us an overview of of what you guys are doing over there at allied and the all roads specifically. It was really interesting and I’ll put links to your website and different social media platforms and the show notes. Everybody can check it out and see if the all roads a fit for them.

That’s great. Appreciate it. Yeah, it’s been fun chatting. Right on. Thanks Sam.

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