Cycling is a sport with a long history of function following form. Or fashion. We bike racers (and for those of us staunchly opposed to the pursuit of greatness, “riders”) shave our legs, ostensibly because it makes road rash easier to clean up. Bullshit. We do it because it looks damned good, just like we follow a ridiculous list of rules published by a self-appointed board of cycling chic. Tan lines, sunglasses over straps (NEVER under), proper water bottle sipping technique, stem positioning, and nutrition are just a short list of victims of dernier cri. Yes, nutrition – I’m told by a sports drink company that he-who-must-not-be-named refused to drink their pre-race electrolyte formula because it kept his veins from popping out. The extent to which vanity rules our sport rivals the runways of Milan. And I’m perfectly okay with it.
So, when the element titanium is mentioned in hushed tones around my employer’s latest venture into bike-building, trepidation is a running theme. The moniker “Ti” conjures up visions of moneyed, fleetingly OCD gentlemen in the 60+ age bracket laboring up local climbs on custom Sevens with headtubes roughly the size of baseball bats. The kind of guys who have mirrors hanging from their helmets, love triple cranksets, obsess about gear-inches, and haven’t updated their wardrobe since Pantani parked his ass on the tarmac in Tarascon-sur-Ariège. Note: If offense is taken, this isn’t the review for you. Over a decade has passed since the carbon ascendancy to the throne of road racing, and titanium – the metal of the Gods, Soviet fighter jets, and African mining accidents - has fallen by the wayside into the abyss of slightly-kooky construction materials. Fashion, it would seem, is not titanium’s forte, save a few outliers.
The Merlin Extralight, party to a storybook corporate brand revival, is on a mission to change that perception. The tubeset is 3-2.5 titanium, which, to me, means absolutely nothing. Apparently it’s fancy and used to build things like starships and expensive beverage straws. Also, per the luscious copy at Competitive Cyclist, it rides really well. Like this:
This isn’t a fib. The ride is sublime, especially compared to previous Ti bikes I’ve carted my carcass on. Lively and smooth – not dead – yet, stiff, not unlike a good Italian carbon bike, which brings me to my next point: Geometry. Dialed. Period. Why? It’s a send up to the masters in Treviso. This page is lifted straight from the Dogma’s book, and with the tubeset’s pertinent ride qualities, a tapered headtube, ENVE 2.0 fork, PF30BB, and big chainstays tipped with gorgeous hooded dropouts, it works damned well. I’d even dare to call it a titanium Dogma. Frankly, it rides eerily similar to the Dogma 2 I piloted for the entirety of 2012. Planted and smooth, yet unbelievably fast, especially from speed. Pressing the bike into corners, especially aboard the spec’d ENVE 25/King wheelset, results in an ethereal experience usually reserved for shredding a groomer on razor-sharp downhill race skis. The Extralight carves. This is the titanium bike the racerboys have been missing since the late 90s, and currently fabricated by former Titus welders in Arizona – but it isn’t perfect.
I’m a child of the Playstation generation. Pressing buttons to cause invisible electrical
impulses to do my bidding comes second nature. Hence, I’m a little disappointed about the lack of an electronic routing option on the Merlin. Campagnolo EPS and Shimano Di2 are my groupsets of choice, and while the supplied mechanical Dura-Ace 9000 is quite fine, punching holes in a $3200 frame with a DeWalt (Can a standard bit even get through Ti?) to run my preference isn’t my cup of tea. The lack of a fully internal headset and resulting added stack height is irksome for someone like me, who runs more drop than a Flux Pavilion concert. The frame alone can’t be expected to do battle with the likes of composites in the flyweight arena, and that’s reflected in the roughly 1,400g frame weight. Flinging poo at the Merlin from certain corners is expected on account of its portliness, but when standard ProTour issue bikes are running ballast (WITH a powermeter) to meet the magic UCI weight limit of 15.9lbs, .5lb of extra weight is rarely a detriment to a frame’s overall quality, especially if it causes it to ride so well. I never put the ENVE/DA9000 spec’d test bike on a scale, but my well-calibrated pinky finger pegs it in the 15lb range as built with the tubular wheels.
Where does this all leave the Merlin? I’m not quite certain. The branding is slightly garbled, reaching back to a time when Ti (briefly) ruled the two-wheeled world with the original brand typefaces and logos. The founding passion of Merlin, the idiosyncrasies that brought us the brilliance of the Newsboy, and the panache that comes only from building bikes ridden in Grand Tours is an aspiration of the brand’s new masters, but not quite arrived at yet. If we’re to focus on the merits of the frame alone, it’s a truly special bike – one I’m lusting after, electronic routing and chunky mass or not. But if we look at the package as a whole, as anyone dropping several thousand dollars on a bike should, there is a small degree of uncertainty. Does Merlin deserve more than just namesake resurrection? Perhaps. Perhaps these bikes – Merlin in name and material, deserve the racing heritage of the Extralight, of a time when Ti (and by extension, Merlin) dominated the pavement. Time will tell.