There are plenty of cheap and free underground events. The easiest way to find them? Start making friends, and do the following:
Become a Regular
Go to your local bike shop and pick the staff's brains about races, events, and gatherings. (Bringing a six-pack along from time to time never hurts.) And don't forget to check the shop's bulletin board. There you'll find all manner of grassroots races and, more important, in-the-know riding partners.
Join the Club
Most local riding groups are open to everyone, and while the clubs often participate in official paid events, some members like to compete in underground ones as well. American Trail Running Association and USA Cycling are great resources for teams and clubs nationwide.
Mtbr.com, dedicated to all things mountain bike, posts detailed regional listings of trails, while Bikepacking.net keeps track of endurance routes around the U.S. At irunfar.com, you'll find information about local running clubs. To find truly underground events, join these sites' forums. No matter how secret organizers try to be, eventually someone will let it slip in a chat room.
Start with Small Races
Sure, the hush-hush races are the coolest, but there are plenty of gateway events. The Southwest Endurance Series is a loose-knit association of locally run, low-key bike races across the western U.S. The movement is spreading, including a newly formed Virginia Endurance Series. Ride a couple of them, hang around for the -parties after-ward, and you'll be on your way to the lesser-known invitationals.
One of the most anticipated bikes for the Outside bike test arrived near the end. I’ve eagerly waited to ride the EMX-525 ever since Interbike, when Merckx’s new US rep, Peter Vanham, told me that was this frame was the first bike in the company’s line-up with full design direction from Eddy Merckx.
When the most winning cyclist in history—his record of 525 victories may stand forever—creates what’s, to his mind, the perfect bike, you have to expect it’s going to be one hell of a ride. So we waited all autumn as the company brought the bike from concept to product and waited some more to get our hands one of the first U.S. samples. Finally, just days before the trip to Tucson, it arrived.
The EMX-525 was worth the wait, though it's not exactly what you might expect. At 16.1 pounds for our Dura Ace-equipped size 56, it is no willowy climber. And in spite of some decidedly aero touches, such as the way the fork melds smoothly into the frame and the foil-shaped seat post, it’s not as slippery as the fully aerodynamic wind-cheating bikes we tried, like the Boardman Air 9.8 or the Felt AR.
It’s a muscly frame, with huge chunks of carbon tubing and somewhat harsh, angular lines reminiscent of, say, the Look 695. The fork has a raked-forward kink at midway, and there’s a similar hitch in the seat stays, both of which ostensibly provide additional compliance. And though the lines are decidedly mod and arguably strident, we didn't mind the look.
The seat post clamp, too, is a brawny, reversed-out dual bolt design, and the BB86 bottom bracket is equally meaty and oversize. All said, the EMX-525 has the air of a big, strapping bicycle, not unlike The Cannibal himself. We were told, too, that our tester was purposefully equipped with a Dura Ace 9000 drivetrain as Eddy prefers the mechanical parts to electronic ones.
So it’s not the lightest, nor the most aero bike around. Yet out on the road the EMX-525 absolutely roars with speed. It is incredibly stable and powerful on flats and rollers, and it holds a line like a roller coaster on fast descents. The jags in the fork and stays seem to provide the hoped-for comfort. But despite all that muted road feel and steadiness, the steering is quick and precise.
This is the type of bike you’d want for all day rides, out in the wind, even by yourself. That makes sense given Merckx’s inclination for just this sort of long, hard, solo efforts. But if you’d told us before we rode the EMX-525 that it could so aptly embody the legend, we wouldn’t have believed it.
Our tester retails for $8,500, though the bike will sell for between $5,500 and $12,000 depending on spec. A bare frame set, including fork and seat post, goes for $4,250.