Jim Merz and the All-Star Team

Jim Merz and the All-Star Team

Of the many framebuilders who have made a name for themselves in the U.S., few have had as unusual a path as Jim Merz. Initially, he was producing frames in Portland, for a time employing Mark DiNucci. And then Mike Sinyard came calling when Specialized was to begin producing complete bikes. The full range of what Merz did at Specialized—and later with DiNucci working under him—is the stuff not so much of another post as the stuff of a whole book.

Top view of the bottom bracket lug.

This, obviously, is not that book.

Bottom view of the bottom bracket lug.

This is a look inside one of his many projects, one that came together in the wake of Ned Overend’s victory in the cross country at the 1990 World Championships held in Overend’s home of Durango, Colorado.

Top view of the brake bridge.

It’s 1990 and Specialized is going to make a special Stumpjumper for Overend. Merz was in charge of the project. The Epic Ultimate, as it became called, wasn’t just a Specialized project; it called on talents found elsewhere in the industry these days. Merz designed the bike, then sourced carbon fiber from DuPont that was made for use in satellites. Mike Lopez, who worked for Specialized at the time, took the fiber and wrapped it into tubes. Lopez has had a few stops in the bike biz, but his latest gig is making the tubing and lugs for Bill Holland’s carbon fiber bike.

Drive-side view of the head tube with top tube and down tube lugs.

Merz decided he wanted to make the lugs from titanium. Merz asked Peter Johnson, who is arguably the best framebuilder most people have never heard of. Merz had known Johnson since the late 1970s when Johnson won a frameset made by Merz. Johnson was a formidable sprinter on the track who’d won nationals.

Non-drive side view of the seat lug.

Johnson has made his career as a machinist, often producing hard-to-create prototype parts, often for automotive racing programs. It was Johnson who took the tubing that Merz sourced, coped it and then welded it into lugs of Merz’ design. Once the parts were made Merz then assembled them into the frame that Overend won the World Championships on. Merz says that original frame came in under one kilogram, making it arguably the first frame ever to do so.

Top view of the seat lug.

The tubing shifts from a dull gray to refined sheen more typically associated with titanium because it is butted. The shiny ends of the tubes have been thinned to allow the tubing to fit over the lugs and provide plenty of surface area for bonding. However, these are not those lugs. The lugs above are a mismatched set of production lugs from the first production run of the Epic Ultimate. The creation of these lugs involved one other person whose name you’ll definitely know.

Right dropout with derailleur hanger.

After Johnson coped the titanium tubes for the lugs they were shipped to suburban Boston and Merlin Metalworks where Rob Vandermark welded them into lugs, which is why the welds are so much cleaner than most of what was seen at that time.

Left dropout.

Merz, Johnson, Lopez and Vandermark. In all my time in the industry I’ve never run across a project in which so many talented people were involved.

To learn more about Jim Merz and his work, visit the Merz Bicycles page on Facebook.


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  1. Stoker

    Fascinating story. I can certainly see the Merlin/Vandermark influences in those dropouts. Quite a bit of future innovation would be inspired by that project!

  2. Peter Johnson

    You got the story pretty correct.The first frame was for Ned.Jim designed it.Mike Lopez made the tubes (I think they were around 7 grand !) I machined all the lugs, made the welding fixture and did the welding too.I got some advise and help from Gary Helfrich Some one at Specialized glued it together.It won the worlds that year.The tubes were soooo thin that the down tube was punctured by a rock from the front tire.I did all the machining on the production epic’s.Jim designed the welding and glueing fixtures and I made them all too I think there was 5 frame sizes.Merlin did the production welding,Specialized guys did the glueing and Dick Speece in Portland did the paint.It was a fun and challenging project at the time.Pretty advanced for the early nighties.

    1. Author

      Peter, thank you so much for helping clarify the story. That’s awesome. My favorite part is how many different (and disparate) talents came together in that one bike.

  3. Peter Johnson

    I don’t know if you remember,but prior to the Ti lugged epic ultimate,there was a steel-lugged version (epic ?).I think the steel lugs were Japanese ,but I don’t know where they were glued together.Jim would know.
    I’m not sure if the steel or even the Ti lugged frames used the super trick carbon tubes or not.I remember Jim and I went to Pasco ,Washington to the Sandvic Ti tubing plant to see if they would make us custom sized 3/2.5 tubes for the production epic frames.I taper-turned all the Ti lug tubing and did the finish reaming /threading after Merlin did their super nice welding.They also made the rear drop outs.

    1. Author

      I do recall the steel ones. I’ve always been curious how each of the iterations differed. There’s a whole story in how we thought of it as a single bike, but that wasn’t the case at all.

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