Anyone who has seen my other online posts on various topics will have noticed an air of optimism and enthusiasm, to the point where one might think I am a lover of all things. This is not the case; as it turns out I spend most of my time loathing all of the the poor design, “shortcuts”, rip-offs and bad ideas of the world. I only write about the things I end up liking.
This review, then, is about a very exceptional bike. I’ve had the lucky opportunity to be able to spec, build and custom-fit my dream bike this year. After riding it for over 2000 miles I can safely say this is one of the most beautiful bikes I may ever own.
The world of cycling is pretty diverse, with each group having it’s own personality (or multiple personalities). In road racing you find a lot of Type A’s, as well as number crunchers and introspective analytical types. The one thing that the Road Racing subgroups all have in common is that they are very pragmatic. They look at their bikes as tools before art; machines that must perform before anything else.
With the dawning of the $2,000 Carbon Fiber racing bike, titanium has been rendered irrelevant by many in the peleton. It is expensive and hard to work with (true), is widely believed to be heavier than Carbon Fiber bikes (not always), and unable to be “controlled” to produce a bike with the handling characteristics desired for racing (not true).
When balancing my upgrade options with my design aesthetics and living conditions (small New York apartment with no external storage) I had two options:
(1) Keep my steel racing bike for training and buy a Carbon Fiber bike for racing or
(2) Sell the steel racing bike for a single Ti which would be used for both
While I already knew what my biases were, I decided to test ride a few Carbon Fiber bikes from Specialized and Giant. While I was impressed with their apparent value (price per weight), these bikes seemed rather “indifferent” to my out-of-the-saddle sprints and big gear accelerations. They did not feel like they would be an ally on the race course.
I’d read all of the criticism of Ti before (including a rather interesting piece from a master frame builder who wasn’t sold on 6/4 titanium’s advantages over 3/2.5) but the designer in me still wanted a Ti bike that would satisfy my desire for something carefully crafted by a highly skilled expert. Part of me wanted a frame fused with perfect fish-scale welds that would hold up for a lifetime. Something built both to race and to last.
When I came across one of the only online reviews on the internet for the Merlin Works CR I knew this was my bike.
Throughout this spring and summer I’ve thrown it at many different situations: rain, dirt roads, mountains, races and centuries and am surprised to say that it has met or exceeded every expectation I’ve pinned on it, including some I didn’t even realize I had.
Right the right set of legs (of course), the Merlin is *fast*. The stiff, oversized rear triangle combined with the Mavic Ksyrium wheels make for almost instant acceleration.
After a fork upgrade it carves a very confident line on hard corners and over rough patches.
The slight compliance of the frame, along with the Continental Grand Prix 4000 S tires mean no skittering or jumping of the bike in all-out sprint efforts. In short, it is perfectly behaved in every situation I’ve thrown at it.
While this is all very satisfying, what came to me as a complete surprise was the comfort it provides day in and day out. One expects a racing bike to be very stiff and transmit every pebble on the road to the rider for control, which this does. But one also expects that this “feel” for the road brings with it a harshness. On my very first spring ride, a 60 mile trip over pothole-laiden roads, I was thrilled to be outdoors after a long winter but picturing in my head the soreness that would follow the next few days as payment for this freedom.
It was pain that never came. Nor has it at any point this season. Tom Kellog and the guys at Merlin have worked it out.
- Hand made in USA; excellent build quality
- Custom tubing addresses Titanium’s main performance criticisms
- Lightweight but not at the expense of durability
- Finely crafted work of art
The only item I can think to put on this list is that this bike is no longer in production. As I understand it, Merlin can make you one of these through their “custom builds” department, or you can purchase their “extralight” which is similar, but with a less “compact” geometry. Either way the bike will end up costing more than it did when it was mass produced.
Bottom Line: 5 stars
If there are any flaws I have yet to find them.
This bike is the type that takes to customizations very well. Any time you’re considering spending more than $2k on a bike, you should definitely have it professionally fit. While at it you may also consider some aftermarket parts to customize it to your tastes.
Below is a list of noteworthy parts found on or added to this bike, in mini-review format:
Ciamillo Negative G brakes:
Far and away the reason you see these on so many bikes is the dramatic weight savings. I was actually a bit startled when I pulled my dura ace calipers off the bike– I couldn’t believe how heavy they felt by comparison. These also fit well with my “quality made USA parts” fetish.
The Negative-Gs use a different clamping mechanism than SRAM or Shimano and as such they do feel different. The best way I can describe them is like an “anti lock” brake for bikes. It could be the yellow swiss stop pads, but I have a very difficult time locking up these brakes. That being said I’ve ridden them down mountain passes at over 50mph and have always felt confident in the stopping power.
The modulation is a personal preference; these are “softer” feeling than the Dura Ace’s.
To get the power curve that they have they employ a little torlon ball that “drags” on a pivot arm. While torlon is essentially self-lubricating, I found that I’ve had to hit it with Boeshield on occasion to keep the brakes operating smoothly and keeping them from seizing. Also you’ve got to keep the sand out of them otherwise the quick-release lever becomes very difficult to rotate.
Toe-in is not adjustable, but it appears to be built in to the pad carriers. I haven’t worn them down enough to know for sure, but the yellow brake pads do not seem particularly susceptible to squeaking or chatter.
External review at Pez Cycling News
Mavic Ksyrium Wheels:
I wouldn’t have really considered these separately (due to cost per weight savings as compared to other wheels) but I’m glad they came with the bike.
The first thing I noticed (aside from the aggressive looks of the flat spokes) is how quickly they spin up. The next thing I noticed is that lower rotational weight means less speed is maintained on the downhill. Such are the trade-offs in life…
On the downside, crosswinds are a bit of a drag and I noticed a little more side-to-side flex in the rear wheel as compared to my old Ritchey OCRs.
I know a bunch of guys that have been riding on these for thousands of miles and can attest to their durability, which make these a very impressive wheelset for combining such low weight with performance and durability.
FSA K-Wing Compact Handlebars:
People either love or hate this bar due to the flat transition between the top and brake hoods. If your bike is fit properly you won’t really rest in this place on the bar so the point *should* (in theory) be moot.
The point that I’d like to make is more about the “compact” sizing. This basically means that the handlebar is 1cm shorter and there is 2cm less space between the top and the drop.
Last year I found myself *only* using the drops for sprints because I would have to reach down so far. A professional fitting determined that a compact bar would allow me to remain comfortable in *all* of the positions these bars allowed, meaning much greater comfort both on long rides as well as races.
Almost everyone I know who’s had a fitting has gone compact and I’m really unsure as to why compact bars are not standard issue with the longer reach bars being the aftermarket extra.
Douglas Grip Tape:
It’s not often you see grip tape in a review but George turned me on to the Douglas grip tape this spring and it has changed my world. Grip tape is your connection to your bike, your feel for the road, your clamping surface for the sprint. This tape (in combination with the carbon fiber bar) gives you a wonderfully tacky grip with no twisting which translates to excellent control. If you have a flat-top handlebar you don’t need to tape it; just your gloves will work here.
SMP Glider Saddle:
I will begin here by saying that this is not a cheap saddle. I will also reiterate what has been said many times out on the internet: a saddle is a very personal choice. Without doing a professional fitting you probably will not be able to sit on a lot of saddles to try them, which is a shame; this is really the only sure-fire way to know if a seat is right for you. After spinning on a number of them for a few minutes each it will become perfectly clear to you what is comfortable and what is not.
Barring this, you should at least have your LBS fit you for a width of saddle so your sit bones are aligned properly. If you don’t have a good selection or aren’t willing to spend a little for long term comfort at least get something with a proper ergonomic cutout.
I tried the SMP evolution and glider and the slightly softer foam of the glider won me over. Bar none this is the most comfortable saddle I’ve ever ridden on and worth its weight in gold.
Edge 2.0 Fork
I was happy to discover another American-made part as an option for upgrade. My bike came with a Real Design fork (standard fare on all Merlin Bikes — largely due to Real’ being owned by Merlin’s parent company American Bicycle). Most everyone on the online forums trash this fork and I can’t say I fully agree with their critiques. The fork is fairly lightweight, has a unique aesthetic, tracks a decent line and is very comfortable.
The problem is that it feels more like a touring fork which is fine for the Cyrene or Extralight, but this is the Works CR — the R stands for “Racing”. When I would torque back and forth on the handlebars I could easily create an audible click (there were no stress fractures in the fork and we were dealing with a properly tightened Chris King headset).
Replacing the standard fork with the Edge not only gave the bike a more aggressive look, but it also notched up the performance immediately.
The matte finish and bold decals were also, I felt, a perfect match for the frame.
Dura Ace 7800 w/Flight Deck computer
Not having much to say about this kit is actually quite the compliment; it means that it is good enough to be taken for granted. Noteworthy:
I don’t like the narrow brake levers as compared to the 7700s. I’m sure other guys with even bigger hands agree
The Flight Deck computer is rather expensive add-on (for what it is) and not found in many bike stores. It’s a shame, actualy, as the integration with the brake levers is fantastic and the pre-programmed cog #s allows it to calculate cadence on-the-fly using your speed + gear ratio — no extra cadence sensor needed!
Chris King Bottom Bracket
Just a year into it’s life my Dura Ace BB started to creak so I pulled it off thinking it would be a quick Ti-prep + teflon tape and be done with it. When I got the cups out they had already coroded and a chunk of metal had broken off the non-drive side.
Seemed like the perfect opportunity to upgrade so I tried out the Chris King.
This is one of those parts that you don’t interact with using your hands so it’s tough to quantify if it’s better and if so, by how much. I can say this about it, though:
- It is gorgeous and clearly of a better build quality than the Shimano stuff
- There is comfort in knowing how easy it is to rebuild, or simply flush new grease through
- Out of the saddle sprints are creak-free and without any apparent drag; very positive forward drive
Thomson Elite Seat Post and X2 Stem
Like my Ritchey Peleton pedals, I like parts that are not only towards the lighter end of their spectrum, but also built to be stronger than comparable parts of their weight. The Thomson seat post does not have the backwards curve that most have and it makes sense for anyone with a compact frameset. You’ll need the extra cm or two of forward movement to get your saddle in the correct position over your pedals. I purchased the X2 stem to “match” as I like to pair seat posts and stems — it’s just a personal aesthetic. As it turns out the X2 is also a great part.
Continental Grand Prix 4000 S
Like the grip tape, I was not expecting that this is something I’d write home about. I’d been happily racing on the blue Vredesteins that you see everywhere, the Fortezza SE that as a clincher, inflates to a mad 160psi. While the rolling resistance was fantastic on those, it did come at the expense of some comfort, and after each season they’d begin to feel “dry” and lose their grip.
By contrast the Continentals have a fairly stiff sidewall (which makes up for some pressure when running at 120 psi), and have incredible grip by comparison. I’ve been very happy both training and racing on them and they haven’t left me longing for more.
It’s likely that I’ll try out their sister tire the Grand Prix 4-Season for the off season.
Speedplay Nanogram Bottle Cage
So these bottle cages are three good things:
(1) The lightest cage you can buy
(2) Probably the most attractive cage out there (IMHO) and
(3) Very easy to get bottles in and out of (especially in race conditions).
Unfortunately they aren’t aren’t the most secure way to hang on to a bottle. Speedplay recommends that you use the *short* 20 oz Specialized bottles. No not only can’t you use the full-sized 24 ouncers, but after the carbon fiber grip loosens over the course of a season you’ll be throwing even the small ones on the slightest of road bumps.
So I’m letting these go and giving the similarly-styled King Cage Iris a try. Will report back once I’ve logged some miles with them.