The Return of Merlin
It is my firm belief that it is within the nature of men to covet things. To develop passions that steal our senses from us and cause us to do things like drive to Montreal by moonlight on a Saturday night after the bars close with the lights off and the cassette player blaring Tom Waits.
This is not a statement of mankind, but specifically of men. It is in our nature to fall in love with well-made inanimate objects. Art, yes, but also: cars, record albums, bottles of wine, chairs, guitars and, of course, bicycle frames. As a young person there were many things I loved, but the first object I can ever remember summoning a nearly sensual response in me was a Merlin mountain bike frame.
The year was 1989 and titanium was Hollywood starlet exotic. It was shiny, lustrous, of immaculate proportions and even when motionless promised a ride unlike anything I had ever experienced. I think this is how eight-year-old girls react to pictures of unicorns. It was no less magic in my eyes.
Little more than a year later I bought one. I had been in a car accident and lost the better part of a summer. I took a fair chunk of my settlement and bought a Merlin mountain bike frame. It was my most cherished possession, ahead of my handmade Miele equipped with Super Record. And yes, the experience of riding that bike lived up to the fantasy I had spun in my head. The geometry of that bike gave it a poise Grace Kelly would have found remarkable.
Unfortunately, the three founders of Merlin—bright guys all—turned out to be terrible businessmen. The company managed to squander a clear lead in the ti bike market that ultimately resulted in the company’s purchase by its chief competitor, Litespeed. Suddenly, I knew how Paul McCartney felt when Michael Jackson bought The Beatles’ catalog. Ouch.
Merlin’s bad luck didn’t end there. While the owners of American Bicycle Group (Litespeed’s parent) certainly meant well by the brand and were better businessmen than their predecessors, two titanium brands in one house is as pointless as a band with two drummers. Trust me on this, I’ve been there.
Prior to the purchase the big differences between Merlin and Litespeed were geometry, finish appearance and the double-pass weld (Merlin) vs. the single-pass (Litespeed). In broad terms, the double-pass weld is believed to result in a better-aligned frame with better-looking welds. I’ve heard a few people claim even greater differences, but we’ll leave it at that. There was no denying that the satin finish of a Merlin had a rich appearance that the unpolished frames from Litespeed lacked. Geometry was a slightly different matter. Merlins benefitted from the expertise of Tom Kellogg and Joe Murray on the road and mountain frames, respectively. They were some of the finest handling production frames on the market. Litespeeds, on the other hand, were all over the place. While the Classic handled great, the geometry on the Vortex changed almost as often as the Litespeed decals.
To make clear the differentiation between the two brands, ABG began engraving the Merlin frames. I can only surmise, but I’ve talked with many friends and they all came to the conclusion I did: If the tubing was thick enough to be engraved, then it was heavier than necessary and therefore not really the perfect titanium bike. Ultimately, even ABG couldn’t save the brand and shuttered it.
Enter Brendan Quirk and Competitive Cyclist. Last week Competitive Cyclist announced it had purchased the former belle of Boston. For Quirk, the acquisition was personal, like a rally nut trying to revive Lancia, though perhaps a little less Sisyphean a task. In his post on his blog “What’s New” Quirk talks of his love for Merlin as only a former flame can spin. What’s amazing isn’t the way he plans to return the brand to its former glory—exactly—but that he’s honest in revealing he hasn’t fully decided just what will become of the brand. When will they be available? Unknown. Will it be sold to bike shops? Unknown. Will it be their house brand? Unknown. Will they include a box of Girl Scout cookies with each purchase? Unknown.
Clearly, this is a purchase that wasn’t made following a thorough examination of a business case. MBA students all over the country are ruing the lost opportunity. You’ll pardon me if I’ve had a bit of fun here; the circumstance begs for a few chuckles, however, there’s a more serious observation to be made.
I haven’t been shy about professing my respect for the bunch in Little Rock. It’s easy to bad-mouth Internet retailers but the fact is that any time an Internet retailer drives a brick-and-mortar under, that shop wasn’t doing its job well. Whenever I am researching a product and want to know more than what I read on the manufacturer’s web site, I go to Competitive Cyclist. It used to be people went to bike shops to learn about a product before purchasing online. Today, I can’t think of too many shops who have an employee half as knowledgeable about every product in their shop’s inventory as the product descriptions contained on the CC site. Imagine walking into a bike shop where every single employee had exactly the same level of knowledge and competence. That last wasn’t meant to get a laugh.
It may be that Brendan Quirk’s greatest talent isn’t in understanding what shoppers need to know about a product, but in how to spin a yarn about a brand. Quirk might turn out to be the best shepherd Merlin could ask for. He may have been just what this brand needed all along.
I’ve missed that Merlin handling, though I think my Seven Cycles Axiom is very close. The only way to know is by getting one to review. And to do that, I’ll send him every box of Girl Scout cookies I can get my hands on.