I’d long since parted ways with my impromptu Colombian friend. That was the way it went there. By now I’d become accustomed to these on-the-road friendships and acquaintances. An oddity in my homeland, in South America a regular occurrence. Fellow riders. Soldiers. Bakers. Truck drivers. Tienda owners. What’s increasingly a function of the internet – giving something a like, a follow, was a much more tangible interpersonal experience in the Cafetero. The genuine interest strangers had in my everyday life was nothing short of a humanizing, grounding experience.
Edivan worked for the coffee federation. Had a sip of Folgers? Chances are Edivan’s hand was in it. We chatted in broken Spanglish. He lived in Chinchina, a poor city at the base of the monstrous 3,000ft climbs to Manizales, my temporary home. He is crazy – about cycling. Dirt, mountain, and everything in between. He’s also, like so many other native Colombianos I met, strong. Really strong. Genetic? Maybe. Maybe it’s being accustomed to suffering to go anywhere on two wheels. My awe at having to work – to suffer – to drop farmers on Huffys from the 80s passed after my first two weeks in-country.
We wandered the backroads around Chinchina, lacing their way through the coffee farms with little regard for topography or gradients most civil engineers shy away from. Huge grins were exchanged, even as we dipped deep into our own wells of pain to crush the incredible, short grades. My Peter Pan lifestyle in South America, unfortunately, wasn’t compatible with the schedule of my companion. Something about work. Edivan and I said good-bye, but not before he (ironically) hunted me down on Facebook. When I come back, the first six shots of guaro are on me.
Dawdling up a local climb – Emigration Canyon. A mild, pleasant cruise up a slight hill with a wide shoulder, conveniently located adjacent to Salt Lake City. The cocktail results in the cycling equivalent of a Screwdriver, a Whiskey Sour, a Jack & Coke – that ride everyone knows, and everyone can ride. To wit, it’s the closest Utah gets to a recreational cycling highway.
Inevitably, no matter the pace, there’s always someone going slower in Emigration. It’s perfectly fine. I’ve accepted that I generally ride faster than 99% of the population, even when I’m riding slow. Rocketing past gaggles of folks trundling the drawn-out 1,200ish feet of vertical to the summit is normal. It doesn’t bother me, and I hope it doesn’t bother them.
Except for, occasionally, The Guy, with his knees bobbling outside his slow pedalstroke like a Cossack dancer. There’s a decade-old helmet on the back of his head, and a two-sizes too-big Sierra Nevada/World Cycling jersey draped over his leathery, slightly-paunchy 45-65 year-old skeleton. His tongue is on the stem as he ekes every last ounce of power from his misaligned knees, and his unflinching rivet face is reminiscent of a powerful bowel movement. Every time I fly past The Guy, his reaction is a variation on the same theme:
“Just wait ‘till you’re my age!”
My ears bristle, and my back tinges when I hear the verbal retort of his own physical humiliation. The Guy, I have bad news: It’s not your age. When 42 year-olds (no matter how checkered their past) are winning Grand Tours, when my former coach, 20 years my senior, can ride ProTour racers off his wheel, and when Ned Overend (whose birth certificate was inked in 1955) can effortlessly drop me (and the rest of the break) in a race on an HC climb, it’s certainly not your age.
I remit to perspective: This is The Guy who’s been riding ten times a year for several eons, and is mystified by his poor performance relative to others. He’ll go home after shrieking at passersby, investigate his latest copy of Bicycling for training tips on how to improve his cadence, and likely not look at his bike for another two weeks.
But, The Guy, there’s hope. See, it’s not the age – it’s the commitment. I, and many more like me, are faster because we want to be. We put the hours in. We slave away on trainers while working full-time in the dead of winter. We leave our homes at 4 AM in a Coloradoan January with lights on our bikes and chemical handwarmers in our chamois so we can get our kids to school at 9. We suffer. We sacrifice. Belittling our suffering and sacrifice with petty excuses, excuses we didn’t want or care to hear? Magnitudes worse than just being slow up the local hill.
So, The Guy, next time one of us flies past you on the road, don’t make excuses. Smile. Return the polite “hi” I’ll toss out. Enjoy the day. Enjoy pedaling. Ride your own ride, and if it irks enough that I’m that much faster…learn to suffer. Discover the passion. Slurp it down in Super Big Gulp-sized servings. Join us, there’s still time – but don’t ever make excuses.
Cycling is a sport with a long history of function following form. Or fashion. We bike racers (and for those of us staunchly opposed to the pursuit of greatness, “riders”) shave our legs, ostensibly because it makes road rash easier to clean up. Bullshit. We do it because it looks damned good, just like we follow a ridiculous list of rules published by a self-appointed board of cycling chic. Tan lines, sunglasses over straps (NEVER under), proper water bottle sipping technique, stem positioning, and nutrition are just a short list of victims of dernier cri. Yes, nutrition – I’m told by a sports drink company that he-who-must-not-be-named refused to drink their pre-race electrolyte formula because it kept his veins from popping out. The extent to which vanity rules our sport rivals the runways of Milan. And I’m perfectly okay with it.
So, when the element titanium is mentioned in hushed tones around my employer’s latest venture into bike-building, trepidation is a running theme. The moniker “Ti” conjures up visions of moneyed, fleetingly OCD gentlemen in the 60+ age bracket laboring up local climbs on custom Sevens with headtubes roughly the size of baseball bats. The kind of guys who have mirrors hanging from their helmets, love triple cranksets, obsess about gear-inches, and haven’t updated their wardrobe since Pantani parked his ass on the tarmac in Tarascon-sur-Ariège. Note: If offense is taken, this isn’t the review for you. Over a decade has passed since the carbon ascendancy to the throne of road racing, and titanium – the metal of the Gods, Soviet fighter jets, and African mining accidents - has fallen by the wayside into the abyss of slightly-kooky construction materials. Fashion, it would seem, is not titanium’s forte, save a few outliers.
“3-2.5 expresses less deformity under stress than aluminum, but more so than carbon fiber. This characteristic translates to a highly responsive and direct feel under load. However, unlike carbon fiber, which strategically redirects shock energy throughout the frame, 3-2.5′s elastic modulus creates a natural dampening of vibration and shock. The Extralight benefits from less abrasive handling without diminishing any of its natural stiffness.”
This isn’t a fib. The ride is sublime, especially compared to previous Ti bikes I’ve carted my carcass on. Lively and smooth – not dead – yet, stiff, not unlike a good Italian carbon bike, which brings me to my next point: Geometry. Dialed. Period. Why? It’s a send up to the masters in Treviso. This page is lifted straight from the Dogma’s book, and with the tubeset’s pertinent ride qualities, a tapered headtube, ENVE 2.0 fork, PF30BB, and big chainstays tipped with gorgeous hooded dropouts, it works damned well. I’d even dare to call it a titanium Dogma. Frankly, it rides eerily similar to the Dogma 2 I piloted for the entirety of 2012. Planted and smooth, yet unbelievably fast, especially from speed. Pressing the bike into corners, especially aboard the spec’d ENVE 25/King wheelset, results in an ethereal experience usually reserved for shredding a groomer on razor-sharp downhill race skis. The Extralight carves. This is the titanium bike the racerboys have been missing since the late 90s, and currently fabricated by former Titus welders in Arizona – but it isn’t perfect.
I’m a child of the Playstation generation. Pressing buttons to cause invisible electrical
impulses to do my bidding comes second nature. Hence, I’m a little disappointed about the lack of an electronic routing option on the Merlin. Campagnolo EPS and Shimano Di2 are my groupsets of choice, and while the supplied mechanical Dura-Ace 9000 is quite fine, punching holes in a $3200 frame with a DeWalt (Can a standard bit even get through Ti?) to run my preference isn’t my cup of tea. The lack of a fully internal headset and resulting added stack height is irksome for someone like me, who runs more drop than a Flux Pavilion concert. The frame alone can’t be expected to do battle with the likes of composites in the flyweight arena, and that’s reflected in the roughly 1,400g frame weight. Flinging poo at the Merlin from certain corners is expected on account of its portliness, but when standard ProTour issue bikes are running ballast (WITH a powermeter) to meet the magic UCI weight limit of 15.9lbs, .5lb of extra weight is rarely a detriment to a frame’s overall quality, especially if it causes it to ride so well. I never put the ENVE/DA9000 spec’d test bike on a scale, but my well-calibrated pinky finger pegs it in the 15lb range as built with the tubular wheels.
Where does this all leave the Merlin? I’m not quite certain. The branding is slightly garbled, reaching back to a time when Ti (briefly) ruled the two-wheeled world with the original brand typefaces and logos. The founding passion of Merlin, theidiosyncrasies that brought us the brilliance of the Newsboy, and the panache that comes only from building bikes ridden in Grand Tours is an aspiration of the brand’s new masters, but not quite arrived at yet. If we’re to focus on the merits of the frame alone, it’s a truly special bike – one I’m lusting after, electronic routing and chunky mass or not. But if we look at the package as a whole, as anyone dropping several thousand dollars on a bike should, there is a small degree of uncertainty. Does Merlin deserve more than just namesake resurrection? Perhaps. Perhaps these bikes – Merlin in name and material, deserve the racing heritage of the Extralight, of a time when Ti (and by extension, Merlin) dominated the pavement. Time will tell.
Colombia. A piece of me is still a hemisphere away.
I miss your people. I miss your food. I miss your mountains. I miss your air.Dearest Grancolombia, you have captured mi corazon, more than I’d like to admit. The zenith of my love for pedaling, for crushing myself – it was on your breathtaking escarpments, it was wolfing down arepas and pandebono, it was laughing at my monito compatriot in his attempts to seduce the local populace. The grass is always greener, and it will always be, but you were where this lifetime grazer found somereally goddamned green grass.
Letras. The tail end of our Colombian escape. Fittingly, the largest, longest climb in the world of road cycling. Period. The Alps pale. The Rockies – they succumb to the sheer magnitude of this extension of the Andes. Nowhere else on earth can you ascend from a humble elevation of 1,900ft to a towering 14,000ft in a mileage in the double-digits. Few other pais are so ingrained into their literal height than the Andean South Americans. Their massive population centers, bustling with activity, cultural richness, culinary depth – they’re built at climes, at levels incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Who builds their capital city higher than anywhere else? The nations and people of Sud America do.
We started the climb, like so many others, with a descent. The trip from Manizales to the tropical burg of Mariquita would take two hours. By the hour of debarkation from the oversized Peugot, the cyclists in question nauseous at best, pushing choleric at worst – at a stinking panaderia, guzzling sticky carbohydrates into twisted guts. Frantic Coke downing, in an attempt to calm the frothing cauldron of enraged GI tracts would prove to be as effective as pissing on the surface of the sun.
With remnants of forced-down corn cake and pandebono fresh on the lips, we shimmied sweaty limbs into skin-tight cycling kit and began the long march upwards. The atmosphere was thick and staid, legs responding to cursory impetus like a pair of stubborn toddlers refusing the beck and call of a parent. The blare of the Citroen’s horn behind announced the the return of the photographers, and suddenly, motivation. Bend after bend flew by, lungs adapted to life in the high mountains wallowing in the thick buttercream-like oxygen at 2,000ft. Dancing Salsa on the pedals became easy, effortless. Locals in the pueblitas stared, pointed. Monitos on bicycles – an oddity. Monitos on bicycles riding Letras – insanity.
The duo fractured, left in splendid isolation up the massifs and grades of the Andes. Riding is best when shared, but riding Letras – like so many other quasi-spiritual experiences – might be finest alone. Feeling the rhythm of the road as she pitched, seeing the visceral grandiosity of the world’s greatest climb, it’s simply ethereal. One could certainly rip themselves apart on the ascent, but the sensations would be lost.
A hatchback, overbooked with six occupants riding standing-room-only, crept by on a grade with its three-cylinder engine mustering the best of its 38 brake horsepower to lug itself up the mountain. Its denizens gazed upon the author with intense curiosity. Kilometers rolled by, as the cyclist knifed through thermal layers of the atmosphere and sprinted from wayward campesino mutts. Around a bend, and there waited the hatchback in its multi-colored glory on a restroom break, occupants once again mesmerized by the gringo. In a few short minutes the tiny motor sputtered by, barely overtaking the rider. The woman in the front seat smiled – not just a grin, but a genuine smile, accompanied by a sheepish thumbs up.
The drop at kilometer 60. On most climb elevation profiles, small downhill bumps are usually ignored, brief in length and a respite from the pace of the uphill. On Letras, the downhill bumps are a descent unto themselves, with this one looking out across a vast gorge that could easily swallow the whole of my home city in the United States. Speeds approached 80kph, skirting across a ridgeline to the continued climb, and the remaining length of the monster. As the descent was left behind, trademark signs of Colombian road construction reared its head. A line of cars. Street vendors ambling from car to car, peddling Postobon and bocadillos.
The hatchback. Latin positivity for eons, contrasting with the suffering of four hours of incessant climbing. Now smiles joined by cameras. And…cheering. My favorite shout in the thin air of Colombia: “VENGA, LUCHO!” Herrera, but not, slipping through the construction, darting between 10-ton excavators and warnings of “Cuidado!” from the underage flagger staff.
The essential gas for life – oxygen – rapidly became scarce. Legs struggled to turn with the same zest as in the putridly hot climes below. Gasping became the norm, even at a moderate pace. Power ticked down as the road ascended, and the temperature began to tilt towards chilly.
The summit. Hot chocolate with cheese – a sultry delicacy unique to the high altitude regions, steaming chocolate acting as a simple delivery vehicle for a slab of the finest farmer’s cheese in the country. The waiting for the lost Peugeot, for the compatriot hours behind. Sipping my chocolate, chewing my morcilla. Home felt distant, yet all around. The smiles. The warmth.