Friday, May 23, 2014

Will the Real Hour Record Bike Please Come Forward?

After the previous post on the Hour Record, I thought a good follow-up would be to look in more detail at the bike that Eddy Merckx used in his 1972 record. Over the years there have been a number of bicycles shown or displayed claiming to be THE bike that Merckx rode, and they all have subtle differences between them, but there can be only one. To find out more, I put the question out to members of the Classic Rendezvous group because they have proven to be a fount of knowledge on vintage bikes. Oddly enough, we found that identifying the true Merckx Hour Record bike to be a bit of a puzzle.

First, let's consider what is known about the bike. The bicycle frame was built by Ernesto Colnago especially for the record attempt. A Bicycling! magazine article from July 1974 stated that Cino Cinelli also had a hand in the design of the bike, at least in an advisory role. Several sources have claimed that it was built with specially butted steel tubing from Reynolds, with wall thicknesses of 0.7 mm, and about 0.37 mm in the thinnest section! By comparison, typical Reynolds 531 tubing would have been 0.9/0.6 for the down tube (0.8/0.5 for the top and seat tubes). It is generally known that the Campagnolo crank was milled out and the chainring cut away for lightness. Gearing has been widely reported to be 52x14. 

Here are a couple of photos and a video taken during the actual ride:

Eddy Merckx on the velodrome in Mexico City. The hubs on the bike shown above are Campagnolo, but sources say that hollow axles were used, and the dustcaps left off to further shave weight -- same goes for the pedals, though that isn't so clear in the photos. Note that the stem used on the bike above was custom-made from titanium by Pino Morroni of Detroit, MI. Morroni reportedly also made a special titanium seatpost, but it is unclear to me whether Merckx used it during the actual ride, or if he used a heavily drilled Campagnolo Record seatpost, and I believe photos from the event are inconclusive on that point. The tires used were extra lightweight Clement Seta track tires with a super-thin latex rubber tread that would have appeared to be almost white in color (at least before being used -- they were sometimes referred to as "onion skins"). Note the lettering style of the decal on the downtube, and the "Windsor" stickers (a Mexican-based bicycle company) on the head tube and seat tube which were stuck on at the last minute, much to the consternation of Mr. Colnago.
From the front, one can see again the Windsor stickers on the head tube and seat tube. Note the handlebars. Much as been made of the fact that Merckx used bars that were heavily drilled out to save weight -- but from this photo and the one above, it would appear that that may not have been the case for the actual ride. It's possible that these bars were drilled and it just can't be seen in the photos, but other photos taken either before or after the record ride show bars with visibly large holes drilled over nearly their entire length. I'm inclined to believe that Merckx indeed had several sets of bars and stems ready for the attempt -- and perhaps decided at the last minute to go with the less risky option. An interesting point worth mentioning is that Cino Cinelli apparently advised using a special narrower hub for the front wheel to reduce air resistance, but that suggestion was not followed (Bicycling! July 1974).
Here is a shot of Merckx's bike, apparently just prior to the record ride. Note the extra set of bars off to the left. Below is a short video of the Hour Record ride.

Though not totally conclusive, this still-shot from the video above leads me to believe that the seatpost is in fact a Campagnolo Record. Images I've seen of the custom-built seatpost look like a much darker-colored metal.
As already stated, after Merckx's record ride, a number of bikes have been represented as THE Hour Record bike. Various and reliable sources have reported that there were at least two bikes built by Colnago for the record attempt -- a primary bike and a backup bike. I also have no doubt that at least several sets of wheels, bars, stems, and other components were brought to Mexico City in preparation for the event, and since components can be swapped so easily, it would be difficult to say exactly which parts were used and which were the spares. It is also indisputable that replicas have been made. The aforementioned Bicycling! article stated that replicas of the bike were making the rounds at bicycle industry shows as early as 1973.

The following are several bikes that may or may not be the real Merckx Hour Record machine:

Dale Brown, of Cycles de Oro and the Classic Rendezvous, snapped this photo some time in the late 1970s at the New York bicycle show. For authenticity I believe this one has a lot going for it. Some things to note: the downtube decal looks "right" compared to the bike in the velodrome photos above. One can also clearly see the Windsor sticker on the seat tube, though it appears that the one on the head tube was removed. Campagnolo seatpost. Pino Morroni stem with drilled bars (no tape left on the bars). The crank has been heavily milled, and the chainring cut away with the name "Eddy" engraved on it. Campagnolo hubs and pedals, both with duscaps removed and bearings visible. If there are any tires left on those rims, they are completely shot. 
This bike was photographed for a 1991 Bicycle Guide magazine article. The bike had been on display at Il Vecchio bicycle shop in Seattle, WA, on loan through arrangements with Gita Sporting Goods which was the U.S. importer for Eddy Merckx bicycles. Ultimately, though, the bike was reported to have come from Eddy Merckx himself. Many of the componentry details appear authentic. Campagnolo seatpost. Pino Morroni titanium stem. The milled crank and chainring, the hubs and pedals minus duscaps, and other details also seem "right." Note that unlike the bike in the photo from the NY bike show, the bars on this bike are wrapped, and the tires have black tread and are intact (still hold air, too, apparently). The biggest question mark to my mind comes in the frame itself. The "Eddy Merckx" downtube decal on this bike is of a different style than the one in the velodrome photos. It also lacks any sign of the Windsor stickers. Jan Heine, of Bicycle Quarterly magazine, had the opportunity to examine this bike closely (and ran an article in BQ, Vol. 3, No. 2), and it was his opinion that the decals had been changed, but that this was the authentic bike.
This photo was taken by Tom Maloney for Cycling News, and can be seen on the Classic Rendezvous site. It also appears to be the very same bike that was on display at the Giro d'Italia Hall of Fame induction for Eddy Merckx in 2012. This bike has a titanium stem, though to my eye looks very subtly different from the ones seen on some of the other bikes (it's slightly "thicker" at the junction of the quill and the forward extension). Drilled handlebars have no tape on them, like the NY show bike. The hubs are black, and not Campagnolo. The tires are totally shredded, as one would expect for the age -- so I'd suggest that the wheels and tires might be the right age, but are not the same ones used on the actual Hour Record bike. The Campagnolo crank has been milled out, though the chainring appears different from the other bikes shown, and there are no pedals either. Note the seatpost -- almost black, and probably custom-made (by Pino Morroni?). Regarding the frame itself, there appears to be the remnants of a Windsor decal on the seat tube, but it also has a picture of Eddy Merckx in the center of it. However, the downtube decal is totally different from the one in the 1972 velodrome photos. One other small detail to note: the fork crown appears to have some engraving on the shoulders -- probably a little Colnago "club" icon. The NY show bike seems to have that detail as well, but the Bicycle Guide/Il Vecchio bike does not. Hmmm. . .
A Classic Rendezvous friend called attention to this video on YouTube: an interview between Paul Sherwen and Eddy Merckx from 2002. In it, Eddy shows off the Hour Record bike -- without a doubt, the real deal.

Here are a couple of still-shots from the interview video above. Though not the highest resolution or the best lighting, it would seem that the bike looks a lot like it did on the velodrome in '72 -- apart from the Windsor stickers having been removed, and new tires put on. You can see the Pino Morroni stem, and in this case, clearly drilled bars with some pretty vintage-looking tape on them. One other small detail: no engraving on the fork crown. In the video, Sherwen asks Merckx, "How much do you reckon this bike might be worth . . . $100,000?" Eddy says, "I don't sell it, I never sell it . . . they're going to put it in a museum in Brussels." 

The photos above are from The Vicious Cycle Blog. This bike has been displayed in the Eddy Merckx Metro Station in Brussels, Belgium, since about 2003. Is this the museum Eddy was referring to in the Sherwen interview? The crank and chainring as well as many other components on this bike appear identical to those on the Bicycle Guide/Il Vecchio bike and the NY show bike. Some differences include handlebars that appear to be undrilled, and a seatpost that is dark -- almost black. Like the Il Vecchio bike, it has black-tread tires that are intact. The downtube decal looks like the same style as both the NY show bike and the bike in the 1972 velodrome photos. Also, looking at the seat tube, you can see two bands -- one yellow for Eddy's Tour de France victories, and one pink for his Giro d'Italia victories. Those do not appear on any of the other bikes shown above, but they do appear on Eddy Merckx-branded bikes painted in reproduction Molteni colors. Also, there is no engraving visible on the fork crown. I would suggest that if this bike is the same one shown in the interview with Paul Sherwen, then it has been repainted.
Okay - any verdicts? Well, although one could potentially say these photos represent as many as four or even five different bikes, it is also plausible that what we have here is really just two different bikes that have gone through a few parts swaps and several changes in paint and/or decals.

I think it's safe to say that the bike shown in the Paul Sherwen interview is the "real" bike. That's an easy one. What about the others?

The bike from the NY bike show photo has a lot going for it for authenticity -- most of the components match up with what is known of the real bike, though that can also be said of the Bicycle Guide/Il Vecchio bike (are they the same parts?). The NY bike also still has one of the Windsor stickers on the frame. Then again, it also seems to have that engraving on the fork crown that is missing on the bike from the Sherwen interview.

Several reputable sources, including Jan Heine, believe in the authenticity of the bike from the Bicycle Guide story. If that is the bike, then it had to have had its decals changed at the very least, but otherwise matches up well with what is known of the 1972 record bike from contemporary sources.

The bike in the Eddy Merckx Metro Station in Brussels looks like it has many of the identical components to the Bicycle Guide bike and the bike from the NY show. And of course we see Eddy himself saying that his bike is going to a museum in Brussels. The paint and decals appear to be new, so if it is the same bike, then he had it repainted before donating it.

The one that seems to be the most different is the bike displayed at the GdI Hall of Fame. The frame still has what appears to be the remnants of a Windsor sticker on the seat tube, but the downtube decal is different. Some of the components don't match up to the other bikes shown or to what we know of the actual record machine. Was that possibly the backup bike, built up with a mishmash of parts from the period?

If we are to accept that the bike from the NY show, the Bicycle Guide article, the Sherwen interview, and the Brussels metro station are all the same bike, then we have to assume the following: The bike had a different fork when it was shown in NY in the 70s; It had new decals and possibly new paint applied before being photographed for BG in 1990 - 91; It had new paint and/or decals applied again in the early 2000s before Eddy showed it to Paul Sherwen; And the bike had a complete repaint done before going to the metro station museum. There also would have to have been a few minor parts swaps (such as handlebars, etc.) along the way. On one hand, it seems like a lot of new paint and/or decals -- then again, it was also over a roughly 30 year span. It is plausible. Not only that, but any of us who are total bike nuts know that we all have at least one old bike that we never stop fiddling with -- always making little changes, swapping parts, etc. If we assume that Eddy Merckx is a total bike nut like some of us are, perhaps he looked at his Hour Record bike as just another bike in his collection, constantly evolving -- not as some kind of museum piece to be preserved exactly as a historical artifact (well, that's what it is now, I suppose).

Sorry -- no definitive answers, but an interesting puzzle.

My thanks go out to my Classic Rendezvous friends for all their input and insight.

Thoughts and comments are welcome.

UPDATE 5/27/2014: I recently received the following message from Nelson Frazier of Gita Sporting Goods, which had arranged the loan of the bike that was in the Bicycle Guide article from 1991: "The hour record bike that we loaned to George Gibbs at Il Vecchio in Seattle is the same bike that is now on display in Brussels. I think there were only two bikes, but of course can't confirm that." Thank you, Mr. Frazier -- that is very helpful!

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