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.

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56 Replies to “Revenge of the Clones”

  1. Who needs Carbone when you can have TiBone? Nice to see the upgrades from the last pic you posted (tape-o-phelia maybe). Lovely Steed and great story.

    And nothing says Rule #11 like buying a new bike and hiding it from your wife at the LBS.

  2. Gotta’ love old Merlins. Mine is also too big, and a half dozen years older! Presently wearing 10 speed Microshift bits and riding like a dream. Merlin certainly isn’t the company it used to me, but there are more little Ti builders than ever. Luckily my ’92 should last until I can afford a new Ti bike, even if takes decades.

  3. A great story, well told! I don’t know anyone with whom I could reach consensus on tape color, saddle type, etc. Has Lary since changed his name to ‘Lauro’?

    A friend was told by his significant other that he could not buy any more bikes, only parts. Well, an entire bike can be built from parts, one piece at a time…

  4. @pjanda1

    Merlin certainly isn’t the company it used to me, but there are more little Ti builders than ever

    We were all bummed when Lightspeed ended up owning Merlin but I have to admit they have improved the bikes, my wife bought the aforementioned George’s latest Merlin and it is lighter and stiffer than mine.
    A lot of the workers at Merlin ended up at Independent Fabrication and they make a nice looking Ti bike but as you say, many others have taken Ti and run with it. It’s still a great material for bikes.

  5. @Pedale.Forchetta
    And you have a Ti Moots! Well played. There is an American living in Italy making really fine looking custom Ti bikes, his welding is even more fanatic than Merlins was. In fact, I believe the lightest production racing bike right now is Ti, but it costs many euros and might snap if I sat on it.

    You will be handing that 1992 Merlin down to someone, or selling it, either way, it will live longer than either of us.

  6. Nice article. I have a mate who rides a 10 (or 15?) year old Lightspeed. He is older and heavier than me, and breaks many of the Rules. But he still kicks my arse up hill. I console myself with the thought that Ti has magic properties which I don’t understand. As clearly it does. And one day I will pluck up the courage to sell the kids and buy a Moots.

  7. @Marko
    Yea, Brett shamed me into a different stem. What a hard-ass. I should have a close up of the cockpit as I “Franked” up the finish to the handlebar tape.
    merlin cockpit

    Regarding Bryan, the guy who hid his bike, he lived too close to the bike shop, spent too much time hanging out with George. Still he deserved every Merlin he owns as he has raced the ironman worlds in Kona and finished very nicely.

  8. @Gianni
    Probably good you ditched Elizabeth’s old pink tires as well.

    I hear you may be giving a tour up Haleakala in the coming weeks. Bury him!

  9. @G’phant

    And one day I will pluck up the courage to sell the kids and buy a Moots.

    A moots won’t require bailing out of jail at age fifteen, or tuition. To quote our US miscreant ex-CIA head, “It’s a slam-dunk”

  10. @Marko
    That is correct sir! I had forgotten about those tires, yikes. I’m back to my drab grey Michelin pro 3s.

    Frank will be burying his own bad seff on Haleakala as I cheer him from the support car. But it will all be captured on video to see if he brings up the V volume.

  11. @Gianni

    What, you’re not going to shock and awe him with your magnificent stroke up the world’s largest climb? Nevertheless, sounds like it’ll be a great time. Don’t forget how loud he gets with alcohol.

    Also looking forward to your contributions on the ongoing, never ending, recirculating, futile, and otherwise always under the surface compact debate, now that you’ve switched.

  12. @Marko
    Re: Frank/alcohol, I’ve warned landlord and I’m looking forward to the loud dutch monkey experience.
    Compact thesis could take a while, amusing Mr amd Mrs Monkey could take all my brain power.

  13. Genius on so many levels! Who said ex Cape Coders couldn’t write or climb – oh oops one out of two is not bad. I remember (yes miracles do happen) a ride back in the day when you two were still in the swap the bikes mode and I do not think I fully appreciated the subtleties of the arrangement, thanks for finally making it clear to me, now it all makes sense – sort of. Love the image of the “cockpit”-
    really – its just not a view you get everyday and it is the one that is there for all the time we spend on the stupid machines, it gives me the feel of your bike, very clean and functional.

    Having spent one of the weirdest nights of my life in Newark,NJ (don’t ask) with one half of the Monkey’s (and it wasn’t the pretty half) I think you and she who is the better climber should have a back up plan for dealing with him when he gets wound up. Maybe tacks strewn across the road 100 meters from the top of the volcano so he has to spend all night walking down?? Just saying…

    Hey one for the lexicon “Frankohol” BOOM!

  14. @Rob
    I guess we don’t need to go public with our sylvan three-some at the fabled Jockey Cap motel the night before the Mt Washington Hill Climb. The horror…actually that could be a worthy post.

    For Frank I have my usual assortment of blow gun darts loaded with anything from dilaudid to ketamine to salt-peter. You never know. Yes, Frankohol

  15. Ciao Gianni
    Darren Crisp! He is a great frame builder and person, he lives in Toscana.
    A life one can envy with good reason!
    I can’t sell my Merlin we lived togheter too many adventures from speedy criterium to the roads on the Dolomites, the Milano-Sanremo to a ride with Pantani, Moser, Gianni Motta, Indurain… tell me how I could sell this bike.
    (I really like your ‘mezzo’ above)

    [Mezzo in Italian Vernacular stands for: means of transport, ie I’m showing you my new bike and you say: bel mezzo!]

  16. Yeah man, what a shit-hot bike. That just ain’t going out of style any time in say, oh, the next fucking millenium…

  17. @Gianni
    Oh god I forgot that little episode but you know the OZ and kiwi crowd would relate to what you were doing to the sheep apre the climb, behind the motel… cue banjo music…

    Glad you have thought out a plan for dealing with Frank – he is being awfully quiet here, must be trying to get futile last minute hill climbing fitness. But I told him if he mentions skiing and riding a bike on Haleakala in the same sentence I would never talk to him, that is just not right.

  18. @all
    Bel Mezzo added to lexicon. Thanks @Pedale.Forchetta.

    I have to say, this post had me perusing ebay for at least an hour last night looking at Ti frames. I figure I’m getting old, having a baby, and am firmly in the middle class. All pre-reqs for Ti frames. No scrill right now though for bike parts. Maybe if the BMC ever shits the bed I’ll buy a nice Moots, Serotta, Lynksey, or the like and swap the parts from #1 over. Thanks a lot Gianni.

    And I’ll add this. I’m now more than ever digging the lines, cleanliness, and aesthetic of traditional geometry and round tubes. I must admit, I love the look of Brett’s Il Progetto, Gianni’s Hot Tub Clone Machine, Oli’s Bianchi, and even my Il Progetto Serotta over the modern look of say, my BMC. Pass me some more of that Kool-Aid BrettOk.

  19. Awesome story! I cannot believe you shared a bicycle with a friend. That is great, but something I never even considered.

    Nice bike too. In a few years I’m going to pick up a nice Ti frame. I’m still having too much fun picking up and selling off bikes so need a few more years of that before purchasing my last-ever bike.

    And yeah, traditional geo. and round tubes are by far the most pleasing to the eye. I like riding my modern carbon but I definitely don’t find myself staring at is the way I do my steel Tommasini.

  20. @Pedale.Forchetta
    Bel mezzo, molto grazie. That translates directly to “nice ride” but it sure sounds better in Italian.

    the Milano-Sanremo to a ride with Pantani, Moser, Gianni Motta, Indurain

    I’m without words…what a memory, that ride alone does mean you could never part with your Merlin. I’m such a Moser fan, to me he is the MAN.

    Yes Darren Crisp, toscana, building Ti bikes, a life I envy too. Who says Americans are so stupido?

  21. @All
    Molto grazie for all your kind words on this post. I was reluctant to even write this tale, perhaps it was too strange a story. I had forgotten my audience, we are all bike crazies, it is good to live among you.

  22. Nice bike and write up. After the flood of shaped carbon and aluminum frames – those plain round tubes in steel or Ti look better and better.

  23. lovely. I was just in my local shop picking up some cables and a guy came in with a Merlin mtb with a Moots rear end. I was drooling over it. And I not an avid off-roader (‘cept for cross)… wicked.

  24. @Gianni
    I’ve always scruples at using those names, I’d not pass as the guy who use big names to show off,
    but if you have the chance to live in Italy I can say is not so difficult having the same experience with the pro I had.
    Moser is still very active into the Italian cycling movement and the ‘Sceriffo’ as they call him is still the fittest ex-pro that I know.

    Yay! I’m in the lexicon!

  25. @Rob
    Yeah, the president of my company remarked after a dinner, “Frank, giving you a drink is not the way to make you more quiet.”

    Rob, it sounds like our rendezvous in Jersey was not your first?

    Yes, my VMH and I just spent a few days skiing in Wyoming, and now we are packing up the bikes to visit Gianni and Beth. I will ride Hawkaloogie and try not to vomit. I have no takers on climbing companions, everyone but me is too smart for that shit. I need lyposuction, STAT.

    Frank out. That beer in the fridge won’t drink itself.

  26. @Gianni
    By the way, your Merlin looks fantastic; loving the white saddle and bars. That Alpha Q is the tits. We have 3 of them between us – by far my favorite fork. I didn’t even know they made stems. That stem gives me stembone.

  27. @gianni @pedale.forchetta Que bellezza! And what a great story.

    Twenty years ago I remember going to my LBS (@Frank: Andy Los in Vlaardingen) every friday night, before hitting the bars, and drooling over all the beautiful parts he had on display. He used to sell all the exclusive brands that weren’t for sale elsewhere, like Klein, RockShox, Chris King, Control Tech, AMP and at that time I think it was the only shop in Holland that sold bikes by Litespeed and Merlin.
    Wifey and I both bought the same model Trek’s at his shop, 950 Singletrack, bikes we actually still ride, she commutes on hers and I converted mine in a singlespeed.
    Allthough I was ever so happy with my Trek, drooling at those ti beasts never ceased. Besides not having the money to afford one, I felt then and I actually still feel I’m not worthy of owning one.

    But after having had some tough personal crisis during the past few years I kinda got the feeling that maybe I finally do deserve one. There’s this small bike manufacturer in Holland called Van Nicholas that has been building some beautiful numbers. The frames are designed by VN and built in China so owning ti had become a little bit affordable.
    The quality is guarded closely and they stand behind their products 100%, offering a lifetime warranty so it all sounds solid.
    Luckily for me wifey didn’t need that much convincing and so by February I will ride my first (and probably) last titanium wonder, a Van Nick (get it?) Euros. It is no Moots, Merlin, Litespeed or Lynskey but it will be a lovely ride I’m sure!

    For some reason I feel I’ve grown up… But somehow I still feel like a little kid waiting for his birthday…

  28. @Niek
    Nicely put. You know this will require pics in the Bikes section when your steed arrives? Cheers.

  29. frank:
    Yeah, the president of my company remarked after a dinner, “Frank, giving you a drink is not the way to make you more quiet.”
    Rob, it sounds like our rendezvous in Jersey was not your first?

    Yes I noticed that effect when we were handed that free rum shot in the first skanc bar we were in…

    On NJ – that is true I have spent the night there many times with my cousin – Gianni knows her too. Wait that doesn’t sound very good does it?

    Back to the subject: I have known Gianni way to long and even saw the mighty TI steed in its original shared reincarnation. I am partial to old school bikes but my 753 Raleigh (circa 1983) was retired this summer after many miles of intense joy and pain. temporarily I am on an old Bertoni that is really a stock Bianchi and it is not the ride of my dreams. As a metal smith carbone is just wrong. The point is that this post has inspired me to think along TI lines. Now I have the winter to find the ride that may take me to the end of the road…

    I suppose I should have got this message years ago – Gianni is a quiet sort of genius and if I had more brains I would have followed his lead more. Also to all who have waxed poetic on this post thanks for the inspiration.

  30. Thanks Marko, no worries, there will be pictures for sure!
    Just realised how well the color and design of the Euros decals match my awaited Velominati jersey!
    There is no such thing as coincidence.

    @all I would value your recommendations on choosing a carbon fork. I am about to order a Ritchey comp fork, which would look very nice with my Wcs parts but just found a Easton EC90SLX used but in good condition for the same price! What do you think?

  31. @Niek
    My wife’s Merlin has that Easton EC90SLX, chosen by George the all knowing bike shop owner. That speaks well for it. Also, it’s light as hell, you would not make a mistake going with that Easton model.

  32. @Rob

    my 753 Raleigh (circa 1983) was retired this summer.

    Oye, I feel a little weak hearing that news, that bike should be raised to the rafters in some Belgian bar. You and that bike struck fear into a lot of skinny racer’s hearts. Are you sure another bead blasting, paint and 11 speed gruppo wouldn’t bring it back to life?

    It’s funny so many velominati have an interest in titanium still. I thought I was an anachronism. You could do worse finding a good Ti frame and lashing it with a new Campy gruppo. Then we can all go to Italy and get dropped by Sceriffo and Eros Poli.

  33. @Gianni
    Yes very sad and I am not sure about it, my mate here is sure its dead and I have doubts… it will never be out of my life (hung in the workshop with the old purple and white Condor hairnet).

    I am so in on that EyeTaliano trip when I get my new ride!

  34. I’ve had my Merlin since 1996,this year made it my crit bike with an upgrade to Campy and carbon Bontrager wheels. Keep my Litespeed for road races,easier angles.Would like to get another Merlin someday,but hard to justify a new bike when the old one still looks like new!

  35. Gianni – I have a big time interest in Ti. I almost got one last year but went carbon! I was still in my 20s so figured the “end of the road” bike needed to wait a little bit.

    My needs are as follows:
    – shed, basement, garage, spare room to turn into a bike shop and store all of my bicycles
    – cross bike
    – mountain bike
    – Ti road bike

    And then I’m all set!

  36. @Ron
    I’m not particularly thrilled to think my Merlin is the end of the road bike even though you could argue that. I’ll do a Viking funeral somehow strapped to Merlin and launched into the sea or a gultch or a fuming volcano crater. I’m now liking the argument that since I’m old as hell I might need a lighter stiffer bike just to offset old age. It’s like remarrying to a hot younger new wife, without the legal troubles and expense and as much snickering from your peers.

  37. @Ron
    I’m with you on the Cross bike. It’s a disgrace I don’t have one. Saul (from SpeedyReedy) and I vowed to buy one this year and his the race circuit. It will be awesome.

  38. and, I should have mentioned, your Merlin looks superb Gianni.
    I’ll have to consider some white tape for my ti machines.
    Nice site!

  39. Gianni, the more I stare at your bike, the more I want Ti. It just oozes Maximum Bicycle Awesomeness.

  40. “Love affair” is the best way to describe your piece. Great writing. There’s just something about these gray-tubed Ti bikes.

  41. Marko:
    And nothing says Rule #11 like buying a new bike and hiding it from your wife at the LBS.


    I once had to leave a frame at my mates shop for 3 months. I waited until my wife was out of the country at a conference so I could take some leave to actually build it up.

    The bike now lives in my office. To ride it, I either have to smuggle kit out of the house (and then back in) and ride it at lunch, or leave the house early for the Saturday morning ride and swap bikes. The first time I did this, I was nearly home before I remembered I had to swap it back.

    I’ve had her (the bike, that is, for all bikes are female) for nearly 18 months now and my wife still doesn’t know…

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