- by Michael Bachman
- Published: 27 February 2013
Does an Italian heritage mean much in this carbon age? When Eddie Merckx rode at the head of the Molteni team, winning all of the big tours and monuments, he did it on a De Rosa bike. Ugo De Rosa and his company made steel frames for all of the big teams: Faema, Tbac, Max Majer and Samson. But that was decades ago and many of the big names in bike building have become merely stickers on a generic frame. Has the rose wilted too?
There aren’t many regular cycling enthusiasts who, at some stage, haven’t coveted one of the well known Italian (or European) marques as part of their collection. A De Rosa has always been high on my list of dream bikes, but budget has always been an issue. Fortunately, decreasing manufacturing costs for carbon fibre and simply striving to be competitive means that they are becoming more affordable. So when I unpacked the De Rosa Merak, with Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 groupset, I was excited by more than just the opportunity to ride a new bike, I was excited to be riding one of my dreams.
Before I talk about how it rides, let me run down the specs of this Italian beauty. The Merak Evolution is equipped with offerings from Easton (bars, stem and wheelset), Prologo (seat) and Vittoria (tyres). Aside from the dark grey of the Ultegra Di2, everything else is either matt black (acres of it), white or red. There are a few items on the bike where you will notice the choices De Rosa have made to keep the retail price down. The first are the wire beaded Vittoria Rubino tyres – I have no problems with how they perform but they are at the lower end of the price range. The next is the chunky looking Easton stem – it doesn’t have any markings to indicate a tier within the group range, but the stem profile and lack of markings do not overly detract from the overall presentation. Finally, the wheels; there are two ways to look at the Easton EA70 wheels that come with the bike – either they’re a good training wheelset (not light at ~1,750g) or they’re wheels that can easily be sold and something better installed, saving some weight in the process.
The ‘Aero’ marked handlebars are alloy and, while they look suitable, for me they just don’t work. The flattened top section is awkwardly canted rearwards at ~100 , forcing the wrists into an uncomfortable position when climbing, and the two bend ‘ergo’ drops are almost as bad. If it was my bike they’d be binned before the first ride, but that is personal preference. The Prologo Kappa saddle is a combination of matt/gloss black and small red highlights and is both comfortable and matches the bike in style and colour.
As far as the groupset goes, the superb Shimano Ultegra Di2 ensemble speaks for itself (I can hear the tifosi shuddering and muttering “Shimano on an Italian steed? Sacrilegio!”). My main gripe with the Ultegra Di2, the single downshift, can now easily be resolved with a quick trip to an obliging local bike shop for some firmware updates/reprogramming. The standard gearing on the Merak is a 53/39 crankset with 11-28 cassette – my preference is that a compact should be the norm or at least a low cost option. Initially a 12-25 cassette was supplied on the review bike though Cycling Express quickly followed up to provided a 11-28 cassette which better suits my hilly area. The bike tipped the scale at 8.1kg for the XL frameset, which is not bad given the Di2 is not a light groupset, and neither are the wheels. Curiously, this is the largest frame that De Rosa have available for the Merak, so anyone taller than my 184cm will struggle to get a good fit on this model range.
Aside from the bold yet understated graphics, the Merak’s frame stands out for one obvious reason – the huge trapezoidal shaped downtube with its very un-aerodynamic shape. This “feature” overshadows the rest of the tubing on this frame, which is almost equally beefy. It’s almost as if the Merak is saying “If you need an aerodynamic frame to ride fast, then this isn’t the bike for you”. That’s not to say that there aren’t pleasing lines; the way the top tube splits either side of the seatpost and melds into the seat stays, and the aesthetically prominent tyre cutout in the seat tube. I applaud the fact that the styling shows restraint, yet clarity. You know it’s a De Rosa, the decals say so, but the frame isn’t festooned with marketing acronyms that spoil the designer’s efforts. The large white painted dropouts initially seemed a bit much, but I grew to accustomed to them.
The Merak has several small, but very noticeable, clever design touches that seem only to come with higher end bikes. The mounting of the Di2 battery low on the downtube means that it’s out of the way, but is also easy to access. My only issue is that due to its position, it’s in the direct line of fire from debris hurled at it by the front tyre, especially on rainy day rides. As there is no real seal between the battery and the mount base, it should face the other way to prevent water ingress during wet rides that could cause shorting or corrosion of the contacts over time. A minor issue in the overall scheme, but something to be aware of.
The other neat touches were in the seatpost area. As the seatpost is an aero style that is mated with the frame tube profiles, it also requires a specific clamp – the two piece, two bolt clamp is designed such that the small plastic insert in the rear section minimises clamping damage and also grips on to the roughened section of the seat post to ensure no slippage. Clever design and neat integration, but also done with flair. My only gripe with the seatpost is that it may be a bit short for some. I had it at full extension and at 184cm tall, but without overly long legs, I felt that taller or longer legged people may have an issue.
The seatpost top is a two bolt style, but the nifty aspect of this is that one of the bolts (the front) is replaced by a thumbwheel allowing micro adjustment to the seat angle. My fat fingers found it a bit tight to get in there, but the ability to quickly and easily make fine adjustments was very welcome.
For my first adventure on the Merak Evolution, a friend and I set out on a 63km loop of the Adelaide Hills heading up Montacute Road, across to Ashton and then headed down Greenhill Rd for a fast descent back home. I was expecting a pretty harsh and solid ride given the size of the frame tubes and the wire bead Rubino tyres but, to my delight, the Merak had a solid road feel and, even on choppy suburban roads, the harshness was well muted. As we struck the steeper parts of the climb, the bike responded with every pedal stoke with no apparent loss of energy. Getting out of the saddle made that direct power transfer even more noticeable. The flowing smooth and slightly downhill road towards Ashton was where I started to notice the great stability and cornering talent of the bike. It felt like it knew where it was going, and mid corner bumps were ignored. I found myself forgetting about my ride partner and going for it. Then came the Greenhill Rd descent and the real fun began.
The descent is fast, flowing, bumpy and scenic…and fast. The thoughts racing through my mind as I powered from one corner to the next, hardly braking, was that “I wonder if this is how Cancellara felt when he was chasing his way back to the peloton on Stage 7 in the 2009 Tour?” I have never felt so secure going down this stretch of road at that speed. I wasn’t much faster than I had ever been, but the sensation of stability and the communication back through the bike was fantastic. Straight after the descent my ride partner commented, “That was a quick descent for your first ride on it!” My only reply was a huge grin. You might think that this confidence inspiring handling could lead a rider to overestimate their ability and cause a crash. I certainly overstepped my ability on a few occasions, but found that some more guidance on the bars or a gentle dab on the brakes had everything back under control, such was the capability of the frame to respond to altered inputs mid corner.
This feeling of stability and fine control was echoed on every other road that we headed down, regardless of the road surface. The many routes through the Adelaide Hills provided great opportunities to test the capabilities of the frame and supporting components, and it responded with aplomb. On the odd occasion where the speed overtook my ability, maximum braking at the front had the rear skipping, but still in full control, and able to make the corner safely.
In my short time with the bike (I received it just after Xmas), I’ve covered 1,500km over 24 rides and managed to climb in excess of 16,000m as I built up towards the Alpine Audax in late January. Whilst the climbing on the Merak was pretty good, it was the descending that made all of the hard work worthwhile. Its descending ability was enhanced when, mid way through the test, I put on a set of Michelin Optimum Pro 25C tyres. The frame has plenty of clearance for these large 25C tyres and they helped mute the solid response from the rear a little more.
When we do reviews at BNA we like to try and define who the bikes and cycling equipment would and wouldn’t suit. With the Merak, if you are tall then be conscious of the frame sizes available. When the size is right, the Merak is a very compatible ride; it’s not overly racy or overly harsh and it’s good on the eyes.
I covered all sort of riding – commuting, big mountains (Mt Buffalo & Falls Creek), small hills, beach rides and local loops over all types of road surfaces. Every ride was an absolute pleasure with the descents an absolute standout. I initially thought, due to the frame bulk, that this wouldn’t be a sportive type bike,perhaps more suited to the sprinter/power oriented rider. But as my journeys proved, this was not the case. Even with 23C tyres, this bike was very comfortable for 3+ hours in the saddle.
If I were to pinpint the standout feature it would be the handling. If the Merak represents the evolution of De Rosa’s road racing capabilities, I can seee why the professionals sought out De Rosa bikes to ride back in the 70’s. The Merak is the closest that I have come to not sending a review bike back and paying to keep it.
The Merak Evolution is offered with Ultegra Di2 for $4,349 or with SRAM Red for $4,399. If you have a keen eye and some good timing, you may pick it up even cheaper. So is this Italian thoroughbred for everyone? Despite the desire, some cyclists may just feel that such a bike is out of their budget’s reach, but I urge you to at least try and organise a test ride, even if it is to let you experience what I did, and what you are missing out on.
The De Rosa Merak Evolution with Shimano Ultegra Di2 was provided for review by Cycling Express who retail it for $4,349, with shipping $49 for metro areas and $99 for regional Australia.