Neil Shirley: Inside ALLIED CYCLE WORKS

Neil Shirley is an ALLIED Cycle Works ambassador and brings over 20 years of biking experience to the program. After a professional racing career spanning a decade, Neil was editor of a cycling publication for six years where he found his true calling: the gravel riding scene. He now enjoys all-day adventures that tend to start and finish in the dark. He recently traveled out to visit the ALLIED facility, and this is his story.  

By Neil Shirley

Neil Shirley

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a trip out to Little Rock, Arkansas, to see first-hand what HIA Velo–and their first brand, ALLIED Cycle Works–all about. Over the course of nearly a year, I, like most others in the cycling media, heard bits of info about former Orbea USA owner Tony Karklins starting a new composite frame manufacturing facility in Arkansas using tooling he purchased from the bankrupt Canadian-based Guru brand.

It sounded cool, but not entirely ground-breaking. There are already a handful of US-based brands manufacturing their own composite frames. A couple are even doing molded frames and not just tube-to-tube or lugged construction, which can be more cost efficient than a molded monocoque frame. Then word spread about Sam Pickman and Chris Meertens, two of Specialized’s brightest minds in composites, moving from their beach houses near Santa Cruz, California, to Little Rock. I thought to myself, “Hmmm, maybe that HIA Velo has grander plans than I had given it credit for.”

My visit came about a week prior to the launching of the company’s master plan, a bicycle brand called ALLIED Cycle Works that falls under the umbrella of HIA Velo. As I walked into the modest industrial building that has been home to HIA Velo for nearly a year, I thought I knew what I would be seeing from a crafty, niche frame builder. What I actually saw was something completely different.

In the six years I spent as a member of the cycling media, I had the opportunity to visit a number of composite frame and rim manufacturers, including Easton’s mega-sized composites facility in Tijuana, Mexico, down to Calfee’s modest setup in La Selva Beach, California. Of the lot, the “Project California” facility in Garden Grove, California, where Cervelo’s $10,000 RCA framesets are made was the outright most impressive in terms of the overall process and product. Of course, Project California was really just the engineering and R&D wing of Cervelo; the production technology was packaged and shipped overseas for Asian manufacturing of the remainder of the line.

So, already confident in knowing what I was going to see before even stepping foot into HIA Velo, I was taken aback once I was actually, physically there. The production area, which begins with a clean room where half a dozen workers begin the layup process with small pieces of composite fabrics cut from large rolls of material, was equal and every bit as impressive as to what I witnessed at the Project California facility–only three times the size.

The remainder of the tour was no less intriguing; I saw the process of a frame coming to life. I watched as a hundred swaths of composite fabric transformed into a cured form coming out of the molds, all the way to the paint booth where they’re given a unique personality by Jim Cunningham, a man who has literally painted thousands of frames. This year, HIA Velo is set to produce up to 1500 framesets exactly this very same way. Comparing that to the approximately 300-400 frames that the larger boutique US manufacturers produce, HIA Velo and their ALLIED brand have set off on a trajectory that has never been done with composite frame production within the US borders.

It was while visiting with Sam Pickman in the test room that my eyes were really opened to what ALLIED had achieved. Even with a huge budget and access to incredible resources while working at Specialized, Sam told me he was so limited in what could be done due to the painstaking process of dealing with an overseas vendor and the amount of time it would take to revise a layup. “About a month,” he said that process would take. Now, it can be done in 24 hours. Revising the design, prototyping it, and then testing it is all done under one roof at HIA Velo.

As I left Little Rock, on my way back home to Los Angeles, I thought about the company and how clear it is they have found a better way to create a bicycle. Their way might not seem so different than what you might think is the standard procedure of the major brands out there, but I assure you it’s completely different; and the fact they can do it in the US while still coming in at highly competitive prices is simply having your cake and eating it too.

Wanting to really place my finger on the aspect that truly separates HIA Velo and ALLIED Cycle Works from the majority of the industry, I kept looking for that one differentiating element. I finally realized there wasn’t one single thing that makes them who they are, it’s the sum of their parts–industry experience of Tony Karklins that dates back to his teenage years, Sam Pickman’s bright, engineering mind, Jim Cunningham’s artistry in the paint booth, and the e-commerce savvy of Dustin Williams. And all that is under one roof.

Those are the distinguishing parts that already has HIA Velo making waves in the industry by simply going about their business in a different way, a better way. And now, I can’t wait until my ALLIED shows up and I can throw a leg over it, knowing exactly where it came from and who had a hand in every aspect of developing, producing and painting it. That will give me pride in a bike that I’ve only experienced a couple of times before in the dozens of bikes I’ve owned through the years.