Merlin CR 3-2.5 Works

My last association with a Merlin was at Mallory Park in 1977.  It was six weeks past my 17th birthday and I was sitting in my first racing car, a Merlin Mk 20a, waiting for my first test at the Jim Russell International Racing Drivers School.  Previous world champions had been through this school and sat where I'd sat.  I was now waiting to take my race tests to see if they'd accept me.  As I was under 18 I had to get a note from my mum to allow me to drive.  Because I hadn't even passed my road test at this point, obviously, it was forged!   This had been my life long dream.  Admittedly, I'd only had a very short life up until then but for over half of it I dreamt of being a racing driver. I was slightly nervous, very excited and couldn't wait to get going.

Roll forward nearly thirty years and I'm standing in my workshop looking over a Merlin CR 3/2.5 Works Titanium race bike.  It will be my first real ride of a titanium bike and to be honest I wasn't that nervous, however I'm so sad that I was still quite excited and couldn't wait to get going.  I set the frame variables to my measurements, put my pedals on, pumped the tyres up and set the brakes as close to the rims as they'd go. Then it was off into the unknown; or St Ouen's as it's called in these parts.

The Frame
I've seen a lot of high end bikes in my time that to be honest have a less than high-end finish to them.  The Merlin, quite categorically, isn't one of them.  It has some of the smoothest, best and neatest welding I've ever seen on a bike.  The rear drop outs are marvels of engineering only a geek like myself can appreciate, because you can actually see the design and care that's gone in to them. 

The positioning of the front cable guides should be an example every bike manufacturer should follow; no more patches, worn paint or rubbed frames.  Not that it would happen on a Merlin anyway!.  The badge engraving on the head tube and the "baby-Merlin's" on the bottom bracket and drop-outs are almost worth the price itself.  This is a bike that's been crafted and designed by artisans, not thrown together on a CAD machine.  All in all an excellent first impression, and I haven't even ridden it yet.

So what does 3/2.5 mean? 
Pure titanium isn't very good for making bike frames.  However, titanium alloy is about as good as it gets, depending on the outcomes you're after.  By weight titanium is one of the world's strongest readily available metals, making it ideal for bicycles.  It is 45% lighter than steel with comparable strength, and twice as strong as aluminium while being only 60% heavier; which means you can have the same strength for a fraction of the weight. 

3/2.5 represents the mix of alloys with the original titanium.  The three represents aluminium, the alpha stabilizer and 2.5 the vanadium beta stabilizer.  The mix is crucial.  A 6/4 frame is 10% stiffer than a 3/2.5 frame.  But that isn't necessarily a good thing!  Because a 3/2.5 frame has a 2% higher resistance to torsional stiffness than a 6/4 frame.  And torsional stiffness is what it's all about when you're racing.  If long distance or ultra comfort is your bag, go for the 6/4.  

Also the yield force needed to damage a 3/2.5 tube is phenomenal, although for 6/4 it's even higher!.  I once saw someone drop their front wheel on their aluminium top tube when changing a puncture.  The frame dented like you wouldn't believe ~ very low yield.  You could drop a brick on a titanium bike and wouldn't even scratch it.  Although I'm not advocating this type of behaviour and take no responsibility for your actions; because it might not be a 3/2,5 frame!  To grasp the concept, a coke can has a yield strength of about zero.  Even I could crush one.

So what does it all mean?  Basically you get a very workable, durable, resilient and extremely comfortable frame.  The Merlin, with it's brushed finish will literally last a lifetime.  It wont age or fade like painted frames and it wont degrade like aluminium ones.  If you get one you better make sure you like it because it will outlast you, your racing career and probably your grand children.

The Tube Set
I've never seen a metal frame with such manipulated tubing.  No two ends, middles or joints are the same.  The top tube is swaged front to back, for vertical compliance.  The down tube is ovalized top to bottom to max out at the bottom bracket and complement the join with the top tube in the head tube area,  The seat tube is again flared at the bottom bracket to beef up the power train area.  Flex in this area isn't good and Merlin have done all they can to address it.. 

The seat stays form a beautiful hour glass shape to make the rear end super comfortable and they remain separate all the way to the seat tube ~ top tube junction. The chainstays are a massive one inch diameter, which mean they have to be hour-glassed as well.  To ensure clearance between the tyre, the chain rings and the pedal cranks the chainstays, they have to enter the bottom bracket area parallel to the cranks, not angled like on most of our bikes.  This really is a sexy area of the bike, with a small bridge between the stays to add extra torsional stiffness.

Merlin call it "force specific tube shaping".  Basically it means make tubes strong and wide where they have to be and less strong and less wide, to save weight, where they don't have to be.  Makes sense to me.

There are two flavours of geometry for the Merlin, traditional and compact.  Both offer identical angles and measurements, it's just that the compact has a sloping top tube to produce a lower centre of gravity and faster response to directional changes.  Good for crits!  The compact was the one I tested and I can testify to the front's lightening direction changes and manoeuvrability.

Merlin are from the same American Bike Group family as Litespeeds, so share some of the same components, the forks are Real Design HP Signature full carbon jobbies.  They're curved, with a 4 cm rake, although their lateral stiffness was a little down on some I've tried, they go a long way to adding to the comfort of the frame, .  They were direct and well damped, with no road-buzz coming through the bars, even when ridden over the hideous St Ouen's Manor main road.  Stiffer forks would transmit these shocks to the rider; so the choice of forks was obviously a good one. 

Wheels
The wheels are Real Design Ultrasonics, with carbon hubs.  They look like a cross between Rolf's and Mavic's.  They have a Rolf-like 40mm carbon profile and an aluminium braking surface; the best of both worlds.  The aero, straight pull spokes are laced radially on the front, with two cross on the back drive side and radial on the non-drive.  They felt strong, stiff and zippy and complemented the bike perfectly. 

On the sexy wheels were Continental's Force and Attack tyres.  These are uni-directional and position specific.  Which means you have to put them on the right wheel facing the right direction.  The front is narrower than the rear giving a sharper turn in.  As well as being wider the rear also has extra puncture protection because that's where most punctures occur.  Obviously a lot of thought has been given to the design of these tyres but they did make me think about the effect they had on the handling of the bike when I had a few unexplained cornering sensations. 

Groupset
Once again, to prove the Pavia test wasn't a fluke, the 10 speed Ultegra groupset was impeccable.  The gear changes, both up and down, were silky smooth and the braking was solid and dependable. The lever hoods, although I thought they looked bulky and ugly, were comfortable throughout the ride.  My only gripe on Shimano levers is an aesthetic one; those floppy cables just don't look nice.

The chainset had 175 cranks fitted and they are ideal for most of the people racing bikes in Jersey.  The vast majority of people have a low to moderate cadence, with very few people who can average a 100 rpm for an event.  The longer cranks allow those with less leg speed to make better use of their torque by applying a greater turning force through a larger lever that's further from the centre of the bottom bracket.  These cranks could make a climber of you. 

From a gear change point of view I was surprised to find you can only change one gear at a time and the front mech is either in or out.  With Campag you can multiple up and down shift and feed the front mech across the chainset.  However, come the end of the test I again went to extremes across the chainline, 39x12 and 53x23, and the chain didn't rub.  So still no need to feed the front mech then.  So the gears passed all the tests and the lever hoods were a triumph of function over form.  Top marks all round.

Finishing Kit
The 31.8, ITM Mantis Wingshape bars were mounted in an obviously, 31.8, ITM Mantis stem.  They really were solid in every department.  I'm still not overly convinced of aero and anatomical bar advantages over a round, strada bar, but as I've said before I'm a traditionalist and luddite when it comes to my handlebars.  Loads of other people love them and that's all that matters.  The headset was a Cane Creek S3, a-head, traditional, external  headset. Which was super slick and so easy to adjust, even though they never need adjusting.

The saddle is the excellent Fizik Aliante and that sits atop a Thompson straight over seat post.  The craftsmanship and comfort of them both matched that of the frame.  Once again the pedals can be specced to match your particular shoe system.

The Ride
This was most definitely a bike of two halves.  The front end is so solid, planted, stable and accurate that it changes direction in an instant.  At first I thought it was over nervous and wasn't sure what was going on. 

To be honest I was a little dubious of fully committing to the corners, which isn't how I like to ride.  It has to be all or nothing otherwise you become complacent and accidents start to happen.  It was unlike any bike I've ridden and didn't react the way I was expecting.  Was the fault with me, the tyres or the bike. So after my first perplexed ride of a couple of hours I took it home and did some investigating. 

Was it the tyres?  These were my first concern because I'd never ridden them before and they were one of the variables.  But all my motorbikes use the same principle and I can handle them okay.  No one else seemed to diss them, and I ride Conti's in the winter and on my cyclos and they are perfect.  Let's look elsewhere before changing them.

I looked at the wheels; they seemed the same as those on the Pavia, only better, so it shouldn't be them.  Lateral stiffness was okay and they had perfect spoke tension.  Next, I checked and adjusted the headset.  Never needed it!  Then came the forks.  Not the stiffest in the world, but again that's not a bad thing you have to look at the whole.  Anyway, forks wouldn't give the sensations I was getting.  So I went to the back.

There it was on the left hand chainstay, a clue.  "Geometry by Tom Kellog".  Who the hell is Tom Kellog and why should his geometry be acknowledged on a bike?  Well it seems he's "the man" in titanium bikes.  Litespeed, bitter rivals of Merlin in the past, couldn't out perform this man and his band of Merlin-ers, so they bought the company.  Kellog knows how to tune a titanium bike and that's what he's apparently done here.  So out came my tape measure and spec sheets and it all began to fall in to place. 

Day Two
The second day of riding, with my increased understanding and therefore confidence, proved beyond doubt what a capable bike this was.  Once I grasped why it handled like it did, it all made sense.  I could now throw in that final 10% all or nothing, that only comes once you are confident in your bikes ability to get you out of the trouble you've been foolhardy or unlucky enough in which to find yourself.

The reason for the trepidation?  As I said, this is a bike of two halves.  The front end is an out-and-out race bike.  Stiff, quick, responsive and forgiving.  The rear end is so comfortable it seems to s-l-o-w-l-y follow the front round.  It doesn't feel bad or slow in itself, it just feels different.  The reason is, the 41 cm rear wheel base. 

All my Colnago's have a 40 cm wheelbase and they turn like you wouldn't believe.  The Merlin turns, it just seems to drift the back end in to the corner.  Now this only matters at full on race cornering pace.  Any other time the comfort factor far outweighs this minor consideration.  The rear end of the Merlin is so stable it can afford itself the luxury of an extra centimetre in the rear wheelbase.  If you really want to dial it out you can always up the rear tyre pressure by ten pounds, or lose the tyres for CX's.  That will stop the front falling over itself to get in the corner before you do.

It's also such a good climbing machine you don't feel that you're losing anything through the extended back end.  Descending though gave a different feel to some bikes I've ridden.  I checked with a few other titanium riders and they agreed that a titanium bike's main strongpoint isn't in the descending arena.  So, adding length to the chainstays does little to enhance this perception, but then it may tune out speed wobbles on big descents.  Like everything else in life, it's a compromise.  Anyway, how long do you descend for?  A hell of a lot less than you do climbing that's for sure.  So let's not dwell on it too much.

Tech Spec
For some the following numbers mean nothing, for others they'll be studied for hours as all the variables of seat, top tube, stem requirements are all worked out to the nth degree.  For most of you the first two and the last measurements are the important ones.

S M ML L XL
Seat Tube 47.5 49 51 53 55
Top Tube 54.5 55.5 56.5 57.5 58.5
Head Tube  11 12.5 14.4 16 18.3
Head Tube Angle 73 73.5 73.5 74 74
Seat Tube Angle 74 73.5 73 73 72.5
Chainstay Length 41 41 41 41 41.6
Wheel base 98.4 98.3 98.3 99 100.2
Front Center (cm) 58.4 58.3 58.8 59 59.5
BB Drop (cm) 7 7 7 7 6.7
Fork Rake (cm) 45 43 43 40 40
Weight g  1115 1160 1190 1275 1365

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion
To sum it up, a beautifully crafted bike that will give years of comfortable, stable, predictable racing.  Class never goes out of fashion and this bike has both; class and fashion.  The unpainted frame and the black and white decals draw an understated attention to the fact you're riding something special.

At 18lb it's right in the ball park for most race bikes and well below most in its price point.  Of course Merlin's are expensive but then they're so exclusive.  If they were cheap everyone would have one!  Anyway, look at the value, not the cost.

The Merlin comes in two flavours; 3/2.5 and 6/4.  Don't be swayed by the 6/4.  They're lighter but less race specific.  The qualities of the 6/4 frame material are less conducive to out and out race bikes as the price performance benefits become blurred.  Stick to the 6/4 for long days in the saddle, that's when the price becomes worth paying. 

Merlin's also come in two geometries; compact and traditional.  If you're a smaller person compact is best.  Even if you're not you'll find that the lower centre of gravity and frame dynamics of a compact frame give the sensations of climbing easier and cornering faster.  Don't take my word for it, get down to Pedal Power and try one for yourself.

The Deal
If you're still unsure if the Merlin is the bike for you, get down to Pedal Power and ride it for a weekend!  They have a race ready demonstrator available for you to try.  A brand new, Ultegra equipped, Merlin CR 3/2.5 Works is 2,150.  All you need to add are the pedals.  The bike I tested is available with a massive 20% discount, that's 1,750 plus pedals.  I've seen the same bike in Cycling Weekly for 2,799!  This is a great price for a great race ready bike.  Get down and try it before someone else does.  You'll kick yourself when it's gone.

By the way, in case you were wondering I passed my race test and was in.  Life would never be the same.

The Tester
What makes me think I'm qualified to write articles and critique bikes? Click here and I'll try to explain.