The headset pictured above was manufactured the year Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States. The year the U.S. celebrated its bicentennial. The year Frampton Comes Alive! was released. The year Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men and Rocky hit the theaters.
I was riding a kid’s bike. Because I was still a kid.
I didn’t know who Chris King was or even what a sealed-bearing headset was until I moved to Massachusetts shortly after Greg LeMond’s second Tour victory. It was while working in one of the bike shops that served the huge college population that the shop manager educated me about the wonder of Chris King headsets. He showed me how well they were made, convinced me how little service they needed, demonstrated how they were impervious to nearly everything—including ham-fisted wrenches inclined to over-tighten a headset.
I’d long-since learned how a headset adjusted too tight would pit. The technical term is brinell. Whatever, we all called a headset ruined by over-tightening “indexed.” It was one of my favorite shop jokes.
King headsets were the most unlikely of devices. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that some little company in Santa Barbara, Calif., had come up with an answer to the headset that had no flaws, at least, none that I could find. Sure it was expensive, but if you never had to replace it and knew it would survive almost any event, then wasn’t it easily worth the price? Sure, the Campagnolo headsets were wonderful, but I’d had the fear of God instilled in me by another mechanic who taught me that if you over-tighten a headset—no matter how briefly—you’ve already started the brinelling. It’s bearing cancer. The headset is dead, but no one knows just yet. To this day, I’ve never run across an indexed King headset. I’m sure it has happened, but not often enough for me to encounter it.
So I began purchasing Chris King headsets. Every time I overhauled a bike I owned, I’d replace the headset in it with a King unit. I even figured out how to overhaul the headset that was in my Merlin mountain bike. I had some dental tools that would allow me to remove the C-clips so I could clean out the bearings and races and then squirt fresh grease back in. When I sold that bike 11 years after first building it up the headset was as smooth as it was the day I installed it, and that was no small feat given that the first five years I had that mountain bike I rode it with a Ritchey fork. Put another way, it was rigid, and that means that headset took a beating.
Ultimately I sold each of those bikes and I suspect that no matter how many parts have been replaced on them, the headsets are still going.
King came on as an advertiser last week. Enthusiast media and advertisers have a curious, symbiotic and sometimes grossly incestuous relationship. Readers often wonder (understandably, if we’re honest) just how much of that love was earned rather than purchased. I count Chris King himself an acquaintance. Two of his employees are friends. We’ve been circling around one another, professing our attraction, flirting a bit, but never heading out for the date.
So last week, they finally asked me out. It means a lot to me both personally and professionally. I always wanted our advertisers to be a collection of companies that I believed it, that in aggregate it would be an implicit statement about not just who believes in RKP‘s content, but also an indication of what we respect.
I plain, flat-out, like these guys and this company. At this point it would be easy to request a Cielo bike, a set of wheels, just a set of hubs, or yet another headset. I’ll probably review something of theirs in the not-too-distant future. Why? Like I said, I like the stuff and it would be fun to try something of theirs I haven’t had the chance to ride much, if at all.
That said, I’ve wanted this blog to be transparent in how it works, what the relationships are, and it occurred to me when I received the new ad from King that what I really wanted to talk about were those headsets I no longer own. It’s funny, but once a company starts advertising, getting product to review usually becomes exponentially easier. It’s an odd phenomenon.
Because RKP started so small, we weren’t on everyone’s radar. And despite amazing readership growth, there are still companies that don’t return my phone calls. This, despite my 20+ years in the industry. So there are times when the publication of content about a company and the arrival of a company’s ad can seem oddly coincidental. In our case, it’s just taken some time to get some of these relationships going. Because what we are doing isn’t published by one of the traditional, mainstream publishers, there are loads of companies who have taken a wait-and-see attitude.
We’re talking to a bunch of companies about advertising with us. We’ve also got a fun announcement looming. These changes, these additions are part of a larger plan. I want to offer more of the kinds of content that RKP provides. I’d like to bring in a few new voices, people I think would fit with what you’ve come to enjoy here. Advertising is the engine that will drive that. And to the degree that we end up writing about those advertisers, it’s because we liked what they were doing long before they requested our media kit.
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.