Bike Review: Merlin Works CR 6/4

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.

Merlin Works CR 6/4

Merlin Works CR. Frame Material: 6/4 Titanium. Size: L. Final build weight: 17.0lbs

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.

Chris King Bottom Bracket and nice weldingHeadset Detail

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:
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
star-5
If there are any flaws I have yet to find them.

Add-ons

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:
star-3-and-one-half

Ciamillo Negative-G Brake Calipers

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:
star-3-and-one-half

Mavic Ksyrium SL 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:
star-3-and-one-half

FSA K-Wing Compact=

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:
star-4-and-one-half

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.

Grip tape on top of bardouglas grip tape


SMP Glider Saddle:
star-4-and-one-half

Selle 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
star-4

Edge 2.0 Carbon 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
star-4

Shimano Dura Ace 7800

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
star-4

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
star-4

Thomson Elite Seatpost

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
star-3-and-one-half

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
star-1

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.

12 thoughts on “Bike Review: Merlin Works CR 6/4

  1. Max Pendleton

    Hi from the UK, I’m glad that someone else thinks the CR64 is probably the best ride ever. I’ve tried Van Nicholas, Litespeed and Btwin titanium, and whilst the Litespeed comes close the 6/4 is just 100%. I’ve got it with a Shimano Anniversary (9) groupset and Ksyrium wheels.

    See you out on the road.

  2. matthew thomas

    Hi from Australia,
    Really enjoyed your review, Aaron. Interesting that you ended up with a CR 6/4 for pretty much the same reasons as myself (lack of storage space and need for a single bike that ‘does it all’). I absolutely agree with you (and Max, above) that the Merlin is an awesome bike.

    I was interested in your comments on the Real Design fork that came with the frame, Aaron. I’ve still got the Real Design HP Pro forks that came with mine and am wondering whether or not I need to upgrade them, too. I’m getting the same clicking noise that you got when riding out of the saddle and, more worryingly, a squirrelly front end on descents (at times) and in cross-winds. My head set (Cane Cree solos) is fine, as are my wheels (American Classic CR 45s). Given that you mention that after an upgrade, your bike ‘carves a very confident line on hard corners and over rough patches’, I was just wondering if you’d had similar problems?

    Cheers,
    Matt

  3. Aaron DeutschAaron Deutsch Post author

    Hey Matt,

    For me I didn’t notice the clicking until I was in a quiet bike shop during my fitting. We were able to study the bike a bit closer when applying various kinds of torque, and we all agreed we didn’t like what we were seeing or hearing.

    If you’re hearing that clicking while riding you might be looking at a more serious situation.

    Due to the geometry of the Merlin I didn’t have many choices for forks that had the same rake (and would therefore maintain the same steering characteristics). If I remember correctly there were only three:

    - Alpha Q
    - Edge
    - Easton (not recommended by LBS)

    In researching the forks a bit online I ended up liking “coloclimber”s description of moving from an Alpha Q to the Edge in this post:
    http://weightweenies.starbike.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=46412

    He said “…it was akin to pushing the stiffer suspension button on my mother-in-laws S-Class. Same Mercedes ride quality but tighter”.

    While many others defended the Alpha Q the combination of the rave reviews and the aesthetics of the Edge won me over, though it ended up costing more.

    I’d say the difference between the Real fork and the Edge was noticeable–the bike immediately felt stiffer in the front. The fork absorbs bumps quickly and keeps you going in the direction you were pointed with no waver. I did notice that I had to get a little stronger in the upper-body to hold the bike on my desired line since it’s so light and the steering so tight (again, due to geometry).

    Just this last weekend I had a chance to race a course that was a perfect test for this wheel/fork combo: Bear Mountain. It contained some rolling hills through a forested section with patchy roads littered with little potholes and some monster descents, one of which catapulted you straight down at 50mph followed by a 180-degree hairpin at the bottom that turned you around and sent you back up.

    The Fork, in combination with the carbon handlebars kept the bike steadfastly in a straight line over the rough stuff (not so stiff that I was bounced around) and was firm enough to handle the *hard* breaking and cornering on the big turn. It didn’t feel like the fork was flexing under the stopping stress at all.

    After passing that test I knew there wasn’t anything else I could throw at it that wouldn’t be downright dangerous.

    Re crosswinds: I’m not familiar with those wheels but I noticed crosswinds more immediately after moving from my standard-spoked Ritchey OCR wheels to the flat-bladed Ksyriums.

    Sometimes I’ll be riding in a crosswind cursing the wheels thinking that I’m working way harder than I used to, then I’ll glance at the speedometer and notice that I’m pulling 2mph faster than last year and it begins to make more sense.

    Of course to respond to the circling skeptics: yes, I did train harder over the winter and early spring so yes, *I* was what was more likely faster, not the bike. But I can say with certainty that the new bike is more fun to ride.

  4. matthew thomas

    Thanks, Aaron, that’s really helpful.

    I’ll have to check out availability of the Edge fork here in Australia. Had been looking at Reynolds Ouzo Pro and Easton EC 90 forks (both of which seem to have had mostly favourable reviews) but am seriously considering the Edge fork on the strength of your recommendation.

    I think you may be right about the wheels being a part of ‘the problem’ in crosswinds. The spokes are flat-bladed and the rims pretty deep (42mm) and, like you, I didn’t notice that I was being buffeted around so much with my old standard-spoked wheels.

    Thanks again, Aaron. Oh yeah, Bear Mountain sounds like fun!

  5. Morten Reippuert

    I’ve got a Merlin Works CR 2.5/3 (Campy Chorus 07, Thomson parts, and Open Pro Ceramice rims with 27mm tires) and i can only agree that its the best bike i have and will own.

    Tried out the top of the line Carbon frames from Scott, Cervello, Look and Pinarello back in 2006 – they where a bit lighter but not nearly as nice a ride as the Works CR.
    I really love the stiff backend, low point of gravety and the direct and precise handling of the front end, the road feel and complience. It’s a lot of fun for commuting in the Copenhagen area, comfortable enough for century rides, Stiff and light for climbing in the Alpes or Sierra Nevada and secure for descending those same mountains at 80-100km/h.

    I still ride the supplied fork – i haven’t had any clicking problems though i’m a big rider at 90-95kg. Have decided that if i crash it i’ll get a Woundup for ultimate control. Tom Kellog thinks that the Real Design fork is a great fork, similar to the Ouzo Pro witch he helped develop.

    If i ever crash the frame or someone steals it, the replacement will be an identical build Custom Merlin/Spectrum – perhaps with build with a slightly taler headtube. Tom Kellogs compact design in the CR is just awsome.

  6. stef van oppens

    Hi,

    I own a merlin cr works with dura ace 7900 and easton carbon EC 90 fork. I have this bike for a bit more than 1 year and i was very satisfied….until now. Last two weeks I was in mallorca for biking and during a climb the bike begin creep and peep. Changed the chain, the bottom bracket, reinstalled the headset but the noise comes back everytime I put pressure on the pedals. Ideas?

    Tnx

  7. Aaron DeutschAaron Deutsch Post author

    Hey Stef,

    I forgot where I read this, but one experienced bike mechanic had an entire article online dedicated to creaks. Apparently in many cases people misdiagnose bottom bracket creaks with chainring bolts. (yes, chainring bolts).

    Basically any bike can develop creaks if you get water and dirt into high stress areas. Used to happen ALL the time on my mountain bike. Since I’m a hater of creaks I decided to go all the way with this bike. You will want the following four items:

    (1) grease
    (2) TiPrep (a grease-like substance that prevents metals from bonding to your Titanium frame preventing them from being removed. TiPrep has copper as one of it’s main ingredients. Also prevents creaking.)
    (3) plumbers silicon tape
    (4) carbon fiber “assembly paste” (a recent development, this is also like grease, but has tiny plastic BBs in it that help prevent carbon-on-carbon from slipping. Also reduces the torque required on the bolts. Also prevents creaking)

    - Grease your: pedal spindles, chainring bolts, headset bolts
    - Carbon fiber assembly paste your stem if it is in contact with carbon handlebars or a carbon steerer tube
    - TiPrep your Bottom bracket and wrap it in two layers of plumbers teflon tape before assembling

    Double-check that all of your bolts are staying tight the first few rides and you should be set with the basics.

    Beyond that, less common creaks would most likely be:
    - headset spacer stack order (sounds weird but I’ve seen changing the order work)
    - worn pedals (I had some ritcheys with soft alloy which, once they developed a creak, could not be silenced by anything. Switched to Shimano and has been quiet thus far)

  8. Orv M

    When I bought my Merlin Works there were very few reviews other than bicycling magazine. So I took the chance on a great close out deal on the last production year for the Works CR. 2.5/3 the whole kit cost $2800. The Merlin folks stopped using the Real Design fork and went with Reynolds Onzo Pro. Outfitted with Ultrgra and an inferior FSA Gossamer crank to help drive down the price which iI never installed I replaced it with Dura Ace. I got this bike fitted and set up for me and have had one of best riding machines ever. The combination of the Reynolds Onzo Pro and Merlin frame makes this bike carve tight turns, has a quick agility and is virtually stiff without any movement. I ride in a town that has been dominated by carbon fiber. On several rides I hear people complain about how there bike shimmies and feels loose on fast descents over 40 MPH, as well as other complaints and noises. I have seen this bike beyond 50 MPH and have never felt anything like the carbon fiber riders were experiencing. Since I have been riding the Merlin with my friends there has been quite a few that has turned to titanium, from used Litespeeds all the way to one fella getting a new Lynskey Helix, and they all did this because they wanted a smooth comfortable high performance ride like me, call it envy but I never complain and always keep fellas chasing hard to stay on my wheel.

  9. Martin Y.

    I’d be careful with the thomson x2 stem. The two bolt fastened front plate looks very light being milled out to the max. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of material to close to the bolt holes. Mine cracked after I hit a half inch pot hole going 20 mph. Not too fast, not too deep. But the stem face plate cracked.

  10. John H

    Hello from Canada,

    Aaron, your website is one of the few on the internet about the Merlin Works lineup. How is the bike and do you still have it? I’ve read your post on Battenkill and you’re still riding the Merlin.

    I’ve acquired a Works CR and slowly accumulating the km’s. What are you thoughts on the bike now that you’ve given much more time on the saddle?

    Cheers,

    John

  11. Aaron DeutschAaron Deutsch Post author

    Hey John,

    You are right that the Merlin is still my primary workhorse and I would say getting better all of the time. I’ve added some goodies for training/analysis as well as another set of wheels for fast, flat courses:

    Merlin Works CR 6/4

    The thing that is so great about this bike is that the geometry is still considered current even after 10 years, and keeping choice parts new keep it looking fresh. I was out on a training ride last spring and was asked if my bike was new!

    The latest generation of Ti bikes use an oversized head tube to make the front end stiffer. In all-out sprint efforts our bikes will flex a little more than a high-end carbon bike. That said, I have not lost any races by a cm and wished I had that little extra pick up and go. I have, as you pointed out, raced Battenkill and have been glad to have the mixed comfort and performance which left me feeling fresh after finishing.

    I think you’ve got an excellent platform to build on which has only this year found its first limitation: since it was built specifically for racing, and since 23mm tires were the norm in 2006, the frame does not have the clearance to size up to the now common 25mm and larger tires and oversized wheel rims. For the time being Zipp and Mavic have plenty of options to upgrade and still fit, but I found that interesting.

    How has yours been treating you?

  12. John

    Hi Aaron,

    Thought about the bike and came across your thread/reply again. Life took a different direction and priorities was reshuffled. I sold the Merlin in favor of keeping a cyclocross disc bike thinking the Merlin was too much of an overlap compared to my carbon road bike. Definitely regretting it now.

    Anyways, hunt continues as life is closer to the norm again.

    All the best,

    John

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