When it comes to legacy bike brands in America, Merlin definitely rates high on the list. Founded in 1986 and originally known as Merlin Metalworks, the back-then Massachusetts-based frame shop was regarded as America’s first house of titanium. At the time, a burly welder by the name of Gary Helfrich was the main torch man. Merlin was also an early home for Robb Vandermark, who would go on to found Seven Cycles. As well-known as Merlin became for developing a variety of inventive mountain bike designs, the classic road bike was the one model that best defined the brand.
In the years since titanium’s heyday, Merlin has switched hands a few times. Today, the etched head badges and clean welds come to us from Boulder, Colorado, where they share space with long-time titanium builder Dean Bikes. After meeting up with the Merlin folks, we made plans to test their sole road bike, the Extralight XLR.
As of now, the Extralight is Merlin’s only road-specific offering (they have a gravel bike too). The frame is constructed with cold-worked Reynolds butted 3/2.5 oversized titanium tubes and can be ordered with rim or disc brakes. There are nine stock sizes, but you can get custom sizing at no extra charge. On top of that, there are a few other options like the choice between a 27.2mm or 31.6mm seatpost. If you have a preferred bottom bracket interface, then you can choose between BSA, English, BB30, PF30 or T47. Our test bike was built to fit a 27.2mm seatpost with a BB30 bottom bracket and outboard bearings.
“The Merlin feels incredibly stiff and tugged at the wannabe racer in everyone who rode the bike.”
The wheelbase on our size-56cm bike is 99.5cm with 41cm-long chainstays. The seat tube is 52cm long and there is a virtual top tube length of 57cm. The 15cm-long head tube sits at 73 degrees and is matched to an Enve road disc fork. All cables and wires are run internally through the downtube. The brake hose then exits just above the bottom bracket and is routed externally along the chainstay. Our Di2-equipped frame runs the wires internally to the rear dropout and the seat tube.
Our Extralight test bike was built up with a tried-and-true Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 drivetrain. The 50/34 crankset was matched to an 11-28 cassette. The bike rolls on a set of Rolf Prima Astral Veil3 disc rims that are laced to a pair of instant-engagement Onyx Racing hubs and mounted with a pair of 25mm Challenge Strada tires. The tires are fast and supple for their size, but unlike the wheels, they were not tubeless-ready. This is one of the few places we would have liked to see a bit larger tire that was set up tubeless. All the hard parts were supplied by Enve, and atop the post is a Selle San Marco Aspide saddle to finish out the build.
On the road this bike is a blast to ride. The handling is responsive no matter the speed and no matter if you are in or out of the saddle. The Merlin feels incredibly stiff and tugged at the wannabe racer in everyone who rode the bike. Compliance is left to the tires and wheelset you choose. Our Astral Veil3 rims were on the light and stiff side, making an already stiff platform even more performance oriented. The rims are laced to what might be some of the best hubs on the market. Onyx Racing uses a sprag clutch for instant engagement that is silent and has very little drag. They have a long history in the BMX world and have loads of colors and options to choose from.
We rode the Extralight on our normal group rides, as well as the seemingly never-ending climbs through the steep Hollywood hills. Not only does it respond instantly to efforts, but it was a blast on the tight, fast descents that define the hillside routes. On the flats there is little to complain about, and the only shortcoming is that it doesn’t have any color and just looks like another boring metal bike in the pack.
It’s an unfortunate fact of modern carbon fiber marketing that we have to repeat that, like steel, titanium is a great frame material. Not only is the Extralight stiff and responsive, but being titanium, it has a good amount of durability cooked into the tubes. This bike is for that cyclist who has a racing spirit that burns deep inside. The component selection is top notch on our build and just missing a bit of selective color flair.
• A titanium legacy
• Clean welds
• Made in the USA
Price: $3800 (frame)
Weight: 17.75 pounds
Sizes: 46, 48, 50, 52, 54, 56 (tested), 58, 60, 62cm and custom sizing
Helmet: Poc Octal
Jersey: Cuore Terroni LA
Bib: Cuore Terroni LA
Shoes: Specialized S-Works 6
Socks: Ridge Supply The Skyline
Glasses: Giant Stratos Lite NXT