Revenge of the Clones
My #1 bike is about fifteen years old, it’s more than second-hand, it’s too big and it’s not made of carbon fiber–shocking stuff for a Keeper to admit, but there it is.
Years ago, our humble LBS was the second largest seller of Merlins in the USA, despite Falmouth Massachusetts being a relatively small town and not particularly full of wealthy cyclists. But once a good thing gets started, it just can’t be stopped. For you kids out there, alloyed titanium was the carbon fiber of its day and Merlins were perhaps the best ti bikes you could get, providing you had $3200 US (1998 dollars no less!) just to buy the frame. A good friend bought one and kept it at the LBS for weeks because he didn’t dare tell his wife, god love ‘im. George, the LBS shop owner, somehow had everyone but me on a Merlin, even the old fat fire chief. Obviously George had subtle but mad sales skills.
I was happily slogging away on my old steel bike. I loved my bike. It was perfect. My best friend, Lary Ball (family so poor they couldn’t afford a second “r”, he is also known as Fabio Baldato), rode a steel Tommasini. He is also my clone. It was hard not to discuss these gleaming silver non-ferrous steeds over a pre-ride espresso as they were everywhere–Jesus, there goes the fire chief again, that’s just not right. We were happy with our cycling lot in life. Talking about buying a Merlin was like saying you were planning to upgrade your car to a Lamborghini. Lary and I are cheap yankee bastids and a few people were going to have to die before we could afford those bikes.
The Call came without warning and it’s import was shrouded in confusion. George called me, possibly meaning to call Lary, the Clone, as fucking everyone thought I was Lary (a hazard of being a clone, except it was always a one-way mistake, Lary was never mistaken for me. Am I a bitter person, perhaps.) George asks if I know anyone who could ride a 63cm Merlin Extralight?…because I’m tall I should know taller people? Yeah, yeah, I’m John not Lary and I’ll talk to you later. Click. The details: the european sales rep’s 63cm Merlin Extralight was at the factory–frame, carbon fork, and record crank for $1000. It needed an owner. An Extralight was the top of the Merlin line. Thinner walled, oversized tubes made this the stiffest and lightest ti bike of all.
Too expensive and too big–but Merlin measures their bikes to the top of the top tube not the center, so really it’s 61.5cm and I ride a 60cm. What is 1.5cm between friends? Or what is $1000 between friends? Lary and I hatched up a plan so brilliant we could barely believe the genius of it. For $500 each, we have a Merlin. Did I mention we are clones? Same frame size, same seat height, same pedals, same unholy thirsts. Granted he is much smarter but in most ways, we are clones. We explain this plan to wives, friends, George, and get the blank stare from everyone. What part of genius don’t you people understand? We both own one Merlin, we are clones–enough said.
I drove up to Cambridge to the Merlin factory. Matt, the head of sales, and I removed the old decals, buffed the frame with Scotch-Brite strips, applied fresh decals, money was exchanged and I drove back to Falmouth with a perfect new Merlin in the trunk. I was so so excited it was fairly perverse. I should be saving this excitement for my first- born, or world peace but no, I’m all in with this. Lary and I rendezvous upstairs at a bar where no one cares that I’m carrying in a bike frame. We stand it on the table in front of our faces and toast our good fortune. Even in the dim light of this dump, the frame glows. Oh we are in, baby.
Luckily George finds us amusing and is upgrading his Campy Record gruppo again (bless the shop owner who always upgrades his bike components) so we put together The Bike from lightly used 8 speed ergo components, some glossy deep profile Campy Vento wheels, a trick 8 speed ti cassette, ti bottle cages, ti stem and a sexy green Fizik saddle. I finish the build-off with an inexcusably bad taping job, by far the worst I’ve ever done, but we are so anxious to ride this thing, it’s close enough.
The fun really began on our training rides, one on ti, one on steel. At the halfway point we would switch. The difference was obvious and perplexing. The bike’s weight difference was about 1.4 kilos, 15% just comparing bikes, but bikes and riders only 1.5%, yet the Merlin floated up hills with less effort and more speed. On the flats it would go at least 3 kph faster for the same effort. There is an effect going on here but I’m not sure I understand it. If you lost ten kilos wouldn’t that make you faster than riding a lighter stiffer bike? No, this bike upgrade defied physics.
Sure there were some slightly contentious arguments and moaning about where the halfway point of a ride was but as clones we worked this co-ownership out much more easily than everyone else expected. As this went on it was painfully obvious that steel was not real and somehow another Merlin would have to be ours. Eventually it was and I became the proud sole owner of our original Extralight. That was the good news, the bad news was that was the last bike I would ever need. Unlike steel, this will not oxidize and rot. Unlike aluminum, it won’t work-harden and break. Some Scotch-Brite and new decals and it’s a new frame. Need and want are two very different words in any language; someday some little minx of a carbon bike will catch my eye and I’ll be baying at the moon for something lighter and stiffer.
Presently #1 bike is mostly Campy Chorus 10 Speed with Record levers, factory Scirocco wheels, Connex stainless chain, Specialized saddle, Alpha Q fork, Speedplay pedals. I recently installed Chorus 11 Speed compact crank and front derailleur as they are easier to find than 10 speed cranks and they are reputed to have a longer lasting finish. I like the simple classic lines of the frame, no paint to chip, perfect tig welds, no electronics. It is a simple bike. I’m not ready to remove the water bottle cages just yet but I did recently amputate my saddle bag. This bike, like any Velominatus bike has evolved over time to its present and nearly perfect form. Beyond the frame, only the Speedplay pedal axles and Chris King headset are left from our original build.
I sense tubeless Shamal wheels somewhere over the horizon. It never ends.