How I Came to Unintentionally Own the Bike of the Year 2020

How does one end up unintentionally buying a dream bike?

Chainstays with "Potato Chip" cutouts
Chainstays with “Potato Chip” cutouts would allow room for wider tires

It all started innocently enough. Ever since I bought my Merlin Works CR in 2008 I’ve been very happy with it. Titanium frames are a great foundation to build on gradually so I gave myself a modest annual budget for upgrades and throughout the years I moved from mechanical shifting to electronic, and decorated the bike with a number of better fitting, lighter and stiffer race-ready carbon parts.

Back in November 2019 I was ready to make the jump to all-carbon wheels with some slightly wider 25mm tires but found that would not work with my frame. Back in 2006, 23mm tires were considered wide for a race bike and in an effort to prevent flex Merlin left a mere 1mm of clearance on each side of the tire. There was absolutely no room for a wider tire.

After researching options a bit I found a frame builder who offered a frame modification which adds what are called ‘potato chips’ to the chainstays. Basically a section of frame is cut out to make room for wider tires and a Titanium plate is welded in its place. It actually looked completely reasonable and given the price of titanium frames, a bargain at only $500.

So I set up the service and shipped off my frame, my new wide-profile wheel and instructions to follow the contour of the tire and wheel to ensure that nothing rubs.

This is what I got back:

chain stay chip clearance
1mm of clearance is not enough for structural carbon! Wheels do flex under load!

This was obviously horrifically wrong and after talking it through with a few different frame builders it looked like my only salvage option was to replace the chainstays entirely for close to $2,000. This was still less than a new frame and I almost went for it since this bike fit me perfectly and I was loathe to have to reconfigure from scratch–not to mention the new wheels were going to finally bring the bike below 17lbs for a size 56cm frame. As it turns out everyone was booked through the end of the summer and I wanted a road bike to ride this year.

I had been faced with a situation like this before. When I was in college my apartment was broken into and my brand new tangerine iMac was stolen. This was the tool I was going to use to learn my trade. Like Naruto, I was not going to let a setback stop me. I was strapped for cash so I took out my very first credit card and didn’t just buy a replacement–I bought an upgrade–a PowerMac G4 with more power, more RAM, and room to fit my hard drives inside. It turned out to be a good investment and while I may not be an animator today, I am doing the other thing that I was studying at the time: I build websites.

Naruto is angry

So I’m getting a new frame. A modern frame with mounts for disc brakes and room for wider tires. A frame that pays Americans for their labor and attention to detail. A Goldilocks search followed. Seven was a bit too traditional unless speccing a fully custom frame. Litespeed’s new T1SL looked amazing but sucked that “titanium feel” out of it in exchange for weight savings. But then there was Moots. They passed the vibe check and I hastily assembled a plan to sell the Merlin frame and wheels and move all the remaining parts over to the new frame. I found a local dealer that took measurements and got my order submitted in February… just in time for COVID-19. After delays and parts substitutions my bike arrived and was assembled mid June.

How it looks

We’ll start here because Moots has a well-earned reputation for building beautiful frames. The base finish uses two different kinds of bead blasting and the way it diffuses light gives it this kind of otherworldly glow. I’ve come to think of it as a giant, high-performance piece of industrial jewelry. I’ve been pretty committed to the sport of cycling so why not put a ring on it?

The Moots logo uses a different sandblasting pattern than the frame, giving it an etherial glow.

How it rides

So I’m not a car guy but I’m going to use a car story to describe my transition from my Merlin Works CR to the new Moots Vamoots RSL Disc. I haven’t had access to drive any exotic cars so you’ll have to forgive me if its a bit low-brow.

Some years back I took a trip to Seattle and rented a Volkswagen GTI and took it out on the winding roads north of town. It was lively to the point of frisky. It jumped off the line and attacked the turns. With a little practice I was able to tame it but now and again I found myself in a position where I could feel like I was getting into sketchy territory. It was a blast, if not slightly dangerous.

Fast forward to another car rental in which an overbooked lot scored me a free BMW 5 Series upgrade. This car was just as capable as the GTI, if not a little more so–but I just didn’t feel it as much. Acceleration was smooth and I was surprised on more than one occasion to see the speed readout after pushing hard out of a short acceleration lane. The car was planted and stable and never felt rough or like it was going to lose control.

The Merlin was the GTI and the Moots is the 5 series. That the two bikes have such different characteristics despite the same geometry, build kit, and material is very interesting. The Moots is definitely the Merlin’s older, more experienced brother.

The frame doesn’t “snap” back after a hard pedal stroke like the Merlin did–there isn’t any perceptible flex when you’re out of the saddle. The bike just quietly turns your effort into forward motion without any fanfare. Despite this, rough pavement is smoothed out from beneath you. You can essentially cut the frame in half horizontally and you’ve got two different bikes in the top half and bottom half.

There are a number of little things that led to this increase in efficiency over the old bike: apart from the thicker frame and larger diameter head tube, the Enve fork is stiffer to accommodate the forces of disc braking, the Thomson X4 stem is stiffer than the X2, and the Metron 4D handlebar is one of the stiffest aero-profile bars on the market, especially when compared to my old FSA K-Wing which could be visibly flexed with my arms.

The compliance and the wide profile wheels make this bike much more stable than the Merlin, especially in crosswinds and at speed. I bombed some breezy downhills and the bike just sliced straight and smooth in whatever direction I pointed it. Pair that with disc brakes and wider 28mm tires and my confidence just leveled up.

That said, part of me misses the youthful spring of the Merlin but I’m coming around to comfort and stability, especially as this does not seem to have come at the cost of any speed–I’ve already set a number of PRs on local descents and sprint segments on the Moots. I know that the labs all say that 28mm tires have nearly as good of rolling resistance as 23’s but it is definitely going to take me some time to get used to the lower-PSI 28’s feeling like a slow leak would have on my 23’s.

Overall, though, I think this bike is the reward you get for putting the miles into the sport of cycling. It has the kind of ride quality that makes training rides and Fondos a blast (and it turns out that Bicycling Magazine agrees). If you’re comfortable with racing geometry you can take this as far as you want. The only thing I wouldn’t do with this bike is race it, just as you wouldn’t take your Ferrari out to a mass start race–you want something cheaper and a bit lighter with all the seats and trim stripped out. The Moots is a couple of pounds heavier than a good racing bike but not to the point where it feels like a penalty. I live in a hilly area and I stomp up the climbs the same as I always have.

Build Kit

No need to cover everything but here are the parts that matter:

  • Metron 4D handlebar is aero, stiff and attractive. The top is really comfortable without tape
  • TRP brakes are non-hydraulic and thus easier to maintain. Plenty of power and they work with my Gen 1 SRAM eTap, which, by the way, are still the best “rev 1” product I’ve used in any category in any industry
  • Selle SMP Dynamic Carbon saddle is really comfortable as well as lightweight.
  • The Dinotte tail light is 100% form-is-function with zero f****s given for weight or design, this light is obscenely bright. I started using this for commutes and after I all of a sudden started getting a full lane to myself I decided us this on all of my bikes. Later in the season I swapped this out for a dimmer Garmin Varia RTL 510 and the radar changed my life. I’ll write a separate post about that some day.
  • Zipp 303. Good price, great aerodynamics and also, pretty good comfort with 28mm Conti Grand Prix 5000s
  • Frankendrivetrain: Yep, I’m still running a mix of Shimano and SRAM I had on the old bike because those are the parts I have. They run quietly and shift flawlessly.


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