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The Merlin Acquisition, And Other Catch-Up

– Yes, we bought a bike brand. Why? There are lots of reasons. But like much in the history of Competitive Cyclist, many of them are rooted in emotion rather than rigorous strategic planning. Perhaps the best answer is another question: Who wouldn’t want to own their own bike brand? Along with Colnago (too expensive) and Fat Chance (un-buyable, take it from me), my crush on Merlin was white hot in my youth. The intervening years of separation made the reunion a blisteringly hot affair.

Moulins-EngilbertFew people would disagree with the notion that your all-time favorite bike is the one you rode when you were fittest.*One of those peaks for me came around 1996. I trained all winter with my crosshairs on the region’s big race, Jackson’s Tour Le Fleur. It was there that I was first exposed to PRO by walking into a hotel elevator with a fully-kitted out Odessa Gunn. While her current fame now is for the animal thing and Levi, back then she was leg-crushing crit royalty and trembling in the presence of her ultra-cut leanness remains as memorable as any race I’ve ever done. It’s funny what you remember. They were (mostly) fun times back then, and I felt wicked fast on my Merlin. The lazybones minimalist in me loved its austere brushed finish. (Anything in life you can clean with WD-40 and a rag is good in my book.) And I don’t know of anyone who rode a Merlin and didn’t fall under a similar spell. The stock geometry? Just right. The smoothness? Untouchable? Its raceworthiness? Unquestioned. I’ve never felt the same about any bike since then. Although that might only be partially due to the bike itself, the pure joy of those memories was the motivator behind the acquisition.

As I recall, a Merlin Standard road frame (without fork) ran about $2,200 back then. An Extralight was $2,800 and the XLM was in the same ballpark. After inflation I’m unsure how these sums convert into 2011 dollars, but Merlins were never forbiddingly priced compared to other high-end options in the marketplace. In the new era of Merlin, our goal is to keep it that way.

While their exteriors were austere, like a Brancusi, Merlins offered simplicity so sophisticated it was anything but simple. Our goal is to keep it that way. And Merlins were always made in the US by talented craftsmen. A contrast to an otherwise rapidly de-industrializing economy. Our goal is to keep it that way.

When will we begin offering Merlins for sale? We don’t know.

Will it become Competitive Cyclist’s ‘house brand’? We don’t know.

Will Merlin be available for wholesale sales and international distribution? We don’t know.

Will there ever be dalliances with materials other than titanium? We don’t know.

What we do know, however, is that just a decade ago, Merlin, along with Colnago and Serotta (and a few others, of course), was part of an elite group of treasured manufacturers. It’s been on an M&A roller-coaster for awhile. Bringing it back to its past glory — its lack of embellishment, exacting quality, and accessibility — is a high bar to reach. We aspire to get there in due time and that adventure begins today.

Rapidly de-industrializing economy, part 2. An academic’s strained effort at solidarity with the working class makes my gag effort kick in. But, then again, I get it. I own a Carhartt coat. There must be a bike analogy to this article. What is it?

Rapha scarf– And since we’re talking fashion, let’s give credit where credit is due: Rapha caught no shortage of hell when it unveiled its’ silk scarf a few seasons back. Now let the record show that the undisputed star of the 2011 Paris-Nice was Vacansoleil’s Thomas De Gendt, and he won Stage 1 (and the maillot jaune) with his skinny Belgian neck bundled in luxury.

My favorite photo of Leopard-Trek boy toy Linus Gerdemann. A more revealing photo comes from Paris-Nice. How shall we interpret his use of a tall headset volcano cap and an upturned mountain bike stem? We’ve all become so accustomed to seeing PROs with a flat headset cap, zero spacers, and a slammed 73 degree stem that a position like this is the stuff of debates.

Maybe Linus has a back ache? His Madone comes in 2cm increments. That should be adequate for fitting, given that his teammates all ride flat, slammed stems. Indeed some PROs ride a frame a size too small by conventional standards to get their bars as low as possible. My guess is that a hell of a lot of experimentation happened before Linus’ stem was turned toward the Heavens. Looking at photos of him from previous seasons — riding a Focus and a Giant — show that his upturned stem debuted this year. His ferocious attacking in the final stages of Paris Nice make it clear that his unconventional stem position isn’t holding him back. But Linus has a long standing reputation for caring deeply about personal appearances. Surely his new look, whatever its merits for his back, must hurt his heart a bit.

– Headtubes may be one of the reasons why we still haven’t seen the Lion King’s MCipollini’s bikes in the US yet. To call their geometry aggressive is to say Cipo is synonymous with macho. The brand’s signature model, the RB1000, in size Large (it has a 56cm top tube) has a headtube of 12.7cm. That is seriously short. By comparison, a 55cm Pinarello Dogma (55.7cm top tube) has a 16.3cm headtube. It’s one thing to get a PRO to fit geometry like that. But an American consumer?

An interesting comparison is the Wilier Cento1 SL. It’s another ravishing Italian machine. But in size Large (55.5cm top tube) it has a 15.5cm head tube. For the PROs (and for super-hardcore consumers) Wilier also produces what it calls the ‘SLR’ version. It’s the same bike, but with a longer top tube and shorter head tube. Might we say it’s ‘Cipollini-ified’?

The RB800 is a bike from MCipollini with a perfectly reasonably 15.2cm headtube in size Large. But the company’s marketing push is completely behind the MB1000. By comparison, the SLR is almost an afterthought for Wilier, accounting for only 5% of its Cento1 SL sales. Someday MCipollini will be a true global player. Before that happens, however, there will have to be more of a marketing emphasis on bikes like the MB800. Bike lust is powerful. But fit and positional vanity will always triumph.

– The hype around Cipo’s skirt-chasing antics was an essential trope of the 1990’s PRO race scene. He did, after all, arrive at the start of a stage in the 1999 Tour de France dressed as a Roman and accompanied by ‘Cleopatra’, a stripper of unknown nationality who later offered a performance. It strikes me, then, as impossible not to note this mention of ‘his tool.’

– A recommendation: Rouleur Issue 22 has 8 pages of insanity about time trialing called ‘The Basic Time Trial Papers.’ Shall we call it a cartoon prose poem? In the proper frame of mind, it’s brilliant. It’s worth buying the issue just to sink your teeth into this one section.

– First Ricco. Now Patrik Sinkewitz. We need to invent a word for recidivist doping. And did you hear that barista comment from Ricco?

– Milan San Remo is a race that lends itself to video coverage. This may be my favorite: