I’ve reflected on my bike stable, where it started and where it is now.

Peugeot PX10-LE. 1977. A champagne gold hunk of French madness. It was advertised as Monsieur Thevenet’s current racing model but I doubt he got this. The frame was nothing out of the ordinary but copper wire wrapping at the spoke crossings, sew-ups, 52 x44 Stronglight cranks with drilled out inner chainring! Mon Dieu! French diameter tubes, French threads, French components, all evidence that the French should not be operating so many nuclear power plants. French or not this ride was a totally different experience from the mongrel bikes I had owned or borrowed before.

Bella. 1984. Ed Blank, a Somerville, Mass. builder built me a standard 60cm Columbus steel lugged road frame, a Bella. Ed was a one-man shop. His decals were outrageously detailed and beautiful. He had apprenticed in Italy and his decals were homage to it. I picked up the frame, put it on a table and stared and stared. It was the most beautiful thing in the Universe. It was then built up with Campy Record, the ride was smooth, the handling quick and precise, a profound improvement from the factory produced Peugeot.

Merlin Extralight. 1998. It was the result of the shop owner asking one of those loaded questions, “What size frame do you ride?” My local shop was the second largest Merlin dealer in the state so the town was totally contaminated with shiny Ti bikes. These frames were so expensive my best friend(also my clone) and I went in together on a used frame and fork. I went to the factory to retrieve it. An employee and I buffed it with scotchbright pads, reapplied decals and I walked out with a seemingly brand new Ti frame. That evening my clone and I met at a bar, which had a quiet upstairs. I put the frame on a coffee table in front of us and we toasted our new bike and ourselves repeatedly. We owned a Merlin!
We would go on rides with the co-owned Merlin and one of our steel bikes where a midpoint switch over was required. Moaning ensued but this direct comparison was amazing. The Merlin was much faster for the same effort on the flats and going uphill was completely different, faster effortless floating up. It was the death knell for our trusty steel bikes.
Since then I have assumed I owned the last bike I would ever own. This Ti bike would never rust or fatigue and it was the pinnacle of cycling materials and design.

Last Spring my wife and I were behind the scenes at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico and every racing bike was carbon, if one poor suffering bastard was on an aluminum bike I didn’t see it. I was slightly off put, “really, titanium? Is it that retro? Am I that retro?”

My local shop rarely sells a Merlin now and Trek is its main line. My friend PJ, an ex-racer who puts in 6,000 miles every year on one of his two Merlin Extralights threw down money for a Madone and sent me this report. His reference to the scene of the crime was where a car recently hit him.

The Madone is simply amazing. I’ve owned a whole pile of bikes, but I’ve never ridden anything like this. First time down the street, it felt stiffer and faster.

I’ve ridden 280 miles since getting back on in a little over a week. 150 have been on the Madone. On the usual bridge ride, the Madone feels light, comfortable — the 2010 bikes have a little bit longer effective top tube and it is exactly what I wanted so the fit is perfect. The BB stiffness is very noticeable. It handles very well, very crisp, likely due to the stiff front end. The BB just doesn’t move. At all. It just feels like all effort goes into making it go.

On the Service Road, once I passed the scene of the crime, the thing just came alive. I was just going along up and down, and got to the end thinking “how did I get here already?”. The thing just jumps up hills, and when I’d get near the top after a normal effort, I’d still have a lot left to just spin the thing up and over. I did the ride in just about three hours, about normal time, and felt a lot fresher than usual after — even after two months off the bike — the thing seems to soak up road shock. Not feeling soft, but just that the shock doesn’t get to you.

All in all, the thing is just incredible. It makes the Merlin feel sluggish if you can believe that. All in all, I’d be loosing some competitive advantage if more of ’em started showing up on the bike path.

The whole point of this overworked wordy ramble is two-fold. For each of the new bikes I have owned they seemed an order of magnitude better than what came before. Each new one has brought happiness and renewed my love for cycling.
Secondly, I really thought the Merlin was IT, this carbon thing was a nutty fad like Vitus frames, it would pass. OK, I guess this is no surprise to everyone else in the world but I’m wrong and that means I get a badass carbon frame sometime in the future. Oh sweetness.

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19 Replies to “Bikeography”

  1. Dude. I don’t know where to start, but “rainy season” has started in Seattle, and after my first ride on the steel this week (after a full sunny summer on the R3), I was struck by the opposite of your buddy’s comments: the steel feels great, is responsive, but handles no where as well as the carbon (due to the softer front-end) and it just feels like I spend so much energy bending crap and not propelling the bike forward.

    For whoever said, “Steel is real”, they’re right. It’s real. But “real” is way less awesome than carbon.

    That said, I desperately need a ti frame. I am a shell of myself without one.

  2. PICS! I want pics of the Bella. Nice post btw. And having made the jump from aluminum to carbon this year, I agree.

  3. I wasn’t knocking vitus, i was commenting on my link to the new carbon. You’ll all be riding it in less than 3 years. Any list of cool things to come out of Ireland must include Sean Kelly.

  4. @frank
    F, I do enjoy my steel bike, up to a point. It’s fun to train on the steel bike during the week then change to the good bike on the weekend, makes ya feel like The Killa on some sweet sweet Pot Belge.

  5. @Marko
    Thanks Marko, The Bella, in it’s heyday preceded digital photography(you kids might not understand this concept) so I have to hammer some photos into a digital format because it was fucking beautiful. Maybe I can find some in the internet tubes…..

    And why would I slag Vitus? If Kelly didn’t break it it must have been tough, he broke all the strongmen who tried to beat him. Still, they didn’t last long on the market, something else came along like formed and welded Aluminum frames.

    The Edge……he is lame. There, I said it. I don’t own any U2 ablums! I’m out.

  6. @frank
    Alright Frank. He is a massive douche.
    Love that photo of Kelly. At the height of his powers no one could match him, tough as nails.

  7. @john
    I can hear him say it, “Fook yer clipless pedals, ya wee lassies! Give me my toestraps and get me a fookin’ Guiness!”

  8. @Velominati

    Someone do a post about cyclo-tourism. Not travelling by bicycle but travelling to spectate bicycle racing and doing some riding. I’m inching ever closer to going to Italy in May to travel and I’d like to take in a couple stages of the Giro.

  9. @Marko
    Absolutely. Consider it done. I’ve never been to the Giro, but I’ve been to the Tour twice and I know Brett has been all over the place following races. Also, Jim was recently at the Vuelta.

  10. Being semi old school guy – I wanted to poo poo carbon bikes. After test riding various bikes, carbon included, yup – wound up with one. There’s something about the ride quality that I totally dig. It feels super smooth, super light, and super stiff where it needs to be. It is the wonder material.

    Sure, we’ve all seen examples of exploded carbon frames. Impacts like that would have wasted any frame – and dumped you on the ground anyway. As for long term use, probably won’t last as long as a steel bike. Even so, I know people riding 10+ year old Trek carbon frames without any issues. And if carbon is that fragile and doesn’t last – there’s a few zillion people out there on carbon forks. Almost everything comes with a carbon fork now.

    A Trek Madone was mentioned in your post. I almost bought one after several long test rides – nice bike. Really nice bike. I wound up with a Ibis Silk Carbon instead – it’s great, I love it.

    Even with the carbon mania – there are steel, Ti, and even aluminum frames that also ride insanely well. It all depends on the builder skills and fit. Steel does have a history and cool vibe to it though.

    When I ride my older steel bikes – they feel great. But I’ll take the carbon bike hands down when possible. After spending much time on the carbon road bike, I really want to try a carbon hardtail mountain bike. Light, stiff where it needs to, and that carbon damping quality. Add some tubeless wheels, Fox fork – yes please.

    Even after saying all that. If the Brinks truck crashed into my house allowing unlimited funds for a road bike – I’d probably wind up with a custom steel frame and fork. Add in Campy Chorus or Record. The carbon parts on the steel frame look cool to me. A mix of old and new.

    Oh yeah – that is a great picture of Sean Kelly. Further proof that bike doesn’t really matter after all. That dude could rip your head off on a Huffy. Check out those legs. Incredible.

  11. If I had a bike like that I’d be putting my name down for the Tour de France as well, no matter how much suffering it entails!

  12. I am way, way late to the party, but: I remember Ed Blank and the Bella factory, over near Lechmere in Cambridge near the Somerville line. Ed was a quiet, nice guy: I could not afford an actual Bella but I’d often ride in the evenings with Ed’s assistant, Mike Battersby, who was student at Northeastern and a wonderful guy. He lived in a basement apartment on Comm Ave with a nice girl. Mike was learning the trade and convinced Ed to let him build me a custom. This was 1982. The deal was I paid for the price of the Columbus SP tube set (like, $150 back then) and Ed brought Mike through the process. I was a tall, long-legged guy (still am, but older) and Mike built me a crit frame with a 61cm seat tube and 57 cm top tube, which does not come in stock bikes. Plain Imron spray in a weird green, which was fine. I raced that bike in hundreds of races in MA, GA, FL and CO before retiring it. In ’01 I was moving in with a woman and had too much bike stuff; had a yard sale in which a guy jumped right on that frame. A minute after he was gone I regretted it – too much history. That bike fit me like old shoes. Anyway, I haven’t seen a Bella in 29 years but wonder how Ed and Mike are. Guys, if you ever come across this, get to me at [email protected]. Love to hear!

  13. this article showed up under recent & random.  but still a gem nonetheless, and given the origins of both the merlin and bella, strikes a chord with me.  ive made myself a promise to get a local bike if and when i move.  the choices arent too shabby either, with firefly now putting out some stupid good looking frames.

    to wit, i’ve seen a bella once on a studio ride.  and another guy i ride with is silky smooth on his mooney. i had no idea what either frame was or where they came from until doing some googling.  the gentlemen atop both have a warm smile and pleasing demeanor.  there really is something to be said about the person you are and the bikes you love.

    @Ted your story unfolds like a romance movie.  but where is the part you and the old bella cross paths walking down the street to fetch a coffee?

  14. @roger

    Notice how the comments above were all from Frank and Marko? The site was so old there were only four readers and commenters.

    There is a good article in VN about getting a 853 steel IF. Would one call them local anymore? Close enough. You should have an IF or Mooney but I’d go with the 853 because it will be much lighter and groovier. I was lucky to end up with a Bella and the Merlin, I was a locavore!. And I did get in touch with Ted from comment above. He was a bad boy to sell his old custom frame.

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