When people find out that your bicycle costs as much as a small car, there are a couple of standard reactions. One group concludes that Thorstein Veblen (author of The Theory of the Leisure Class) was right when he came up with the concept of conspicuous consumption: You are a consumerist fool on an overpriced status symbol. But then there are the enthusiasts, who drink in the details of a machine so perfect, so fast and so beautiful that it defies description. The Merckx EMX-525 racing bicycle I recently had the opportunity to test drive sells for $13,500, but you can spend up to $15,000, depending on options.
This is an elite-level bike that you could use to win the Tour de France. Well, someone could, but probably not you. Here, we arrive at the bicycle engineering problem that no amount of money can overcome: The rider is the engine.
I loved the Merckx. It's a dream machine, with a carbon frame, electronic shifting and Swiss-made Edco wheels that look like they were crafted by genius elves with a supercomputer and an autoclave. It is a work of industrial art, and the fastest bicycle I have ever ridden. Unfortunately, this only heightened the pain when a young, spandex-clad rider with the body mass index of a half-starved coyote blew past me on a long hill.
Rolling up on a machine like the EMX-525 places you on the top rung of cycling's fashion ladder. You are a Ferrari in a pack of Corollas, an F-35 among a Cessna squadron, which is fine until you get underway – installing the average rider on the saddle Merckx is like yanking the V-12 out of a Lamborghini and replacing it with a weed-whacker engine.
Never mind. On downhill stretches, the Merckx's slick aerodynamics and perfect geometry made me king. And riding it was pure joy, no matter how many times I got lapped by lean, hard-eyed youngsters. The electronic Shimano shifting system whirred through the gears with silent, robotic precision. The frame geometry was perfect. I was Lance Armstrong, less the lung capacity and the banned substances.
The ownership of ultra-high-end bicycles is generally confined to a couple of splinter demographics: young, ultra-fit professional racers who are paid to ride them, and over-the-hill wannabes who have spent their lives toiling to accrue the funds necessary it takes to buy something this perfect.
There are two ways of looking at a $15,000 bike: It is either an incredibly expensive bicycle, or a really cheap Ferrari. The dream machine holds a lasting power over many of us. We paper the walls of our childhood bedrooms with the objects of our desire. No one grows up dreaming about owning a Honda Fit – we long for the Bugatti and the Learjet, no-holds-barred machines with exquisite parts and brilliant engineering.
Most of us will never own a supercar or a private jet. But the ultimate bicycle may actually be within reach. There is no shortage of options. Mass-market companies like Specialized, Giant and Trek all make elite-level machines with carbon frames and state-of-the-art components. But some cyclists prefer brands with unique cachet and historical resonance, like Colnago, Pinarello and DeRosa (all high-end Italian builders with serious snob value). Then we come to Merckx Cycles, which is something special thanks to its famous president: Eddy Merckx, the winningest pro rider of all time.
Since professional cycling is a virtually unknown sport outside Europe, you will be forgiven if you don't know Merckx. Aside from the brief surge of popularity it experienced when the now-disgraced Lance Armstrong ruled the scene, cycling's North American profile is only slightly higher than that of lawn bowling.
In Europe, Merckx is an enduring superstar, with the status of Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan combined. I learned about Merckx in the 1970s, when my family moved to Belgium. Not long after we arrived, a guy on a bicycle passed me as I cruised along a road near my parent's house in a Fiat. I was doing more than 60 km/h at the time.
This was my first encounter with Merckx, the man who is generally agreed upon as the greatest bicycle road racer of all time. He won the Tour de France five times, part of a professional record that includes 525 major race wins. This number is what gives the EMX-525 its name. As a rider, Merckx was famous for several things, including athletic aggression (his nickname was "The Cannibal") and an obsession with strong, light bikes that had perfect geometry. (Merckx was known for carrying a hex wrench in his pocket and adjusting his saddle while he zoomed down mountain passes.)
The EMX-525 is a perfect embodiment of the man and his style. The frame is a complex set of carbon shapes that are designed to smooth the ride and position you perfectly. The entire bike only weighs 7.2 kilograms, but is massively strong. Every component works with aerospace precision.
Out on the road, the Merckx disappeared beneath me. It was a perfect machine, converting every kilojoule of energy into forward motion. On one ride, my GPS told me that I'd hit nearly 90 km/h. This was downhill, of course. Never mind.
I had experienced a great machine, cost be damned.
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