Merlin Extralight: Reviewing a Legend
When the Merlin Extralight arrived, we found ourselves stuck in the dichotomy of knowing exactly what to expect, while really having no idea at all. Sure, we knew the Merlin story by heart, we read the specs, and we gawked at the pictures. But, after all, the Extralight in the box was a new bike, not new-old-stock.
In the quarter-century since the Extralight first debuted, bicycle design has changed dramatically. And while the first Extralight was very much of its era, it was easily distinguishable by its brushed finish, perfect welds, and either a steel or aluminum fork. But, once the 90s arrived, Kestrel carbon fiber forks quickly controlled the zeitgeist. So, in this sense, the new Extralight is both of the past and the present. Its naked finish, round tubes, and decals all evoke the original, while the increased tubing diameters, PressFit 30 bottom bracket shell, new dropouts, and oversized head tube deliver pure modernity.
This theme continued to the build itself. The frameset was finished with a tapered Enve 2.0 fork, a Chris King Inset 7 headset, and a Thomson seatpost collar. All of these pieces, despite their low weights, were designed with durability at the forefront — not to mention that they’re all American companies. For components, we had the pleasure of riding the new Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 group set, along with a Chris King PressFit 30 bottom bracket and a full Enve cockpit. Saddle duty was handled by a Fi’zi:k Aliante saddle, while we rolled on Enve Classic 25s that were laced to Chris King hubs and cased in Vittoria Corsa CX tubulars. Out of the box, the build for a 55.7cm came out to14.99lbs (6.8kg). And after adding Arundel Trident cages, Speedplay Zero pedals, and a Garmin 500, it only tipped the scales at 15.76lb.
It was time to ride. First, we went for an easy spin. Not surprisingly, the bike felt stable and was free of any noticeable flex. And, despite the seemingly tall head tube, the bike felt low through turns. Rough roads yielded neither the disconcerting ‘crack’ of carbon fiber nor the high-pitched ‘pings’ of aluminum. Instead, they produced something of a lower tone. Taking it out a bit farther, we found that the bike didn’t dance underneath us when we were out of the saddle on steep rises. Now, this isn’t to say that the bike was slow, just that its distinctive sway didn’t feel as frisky as some carbon frames. On the other hand, this characteristic created a reassuring sensation on the descents.
Now, none of this caught us off guard. After all, titanium has long been associated with having an Achilles’ heel when it came to out-of-the-saddle sprinting. Between the lateral and vertical flex, titanium bikes have a tendency to scrape the chain and not feel like they’re moving terribly straight or fast. But, the Extralight’s increased tube diameters and bottom bracket certainly addressed this flaw, and happily, we didn’t feel any loss to flex. Instead, when we wound up our flat sprints, the bike responded perfectly.
In terms of comfort, the Extralight responded evenly on both pave and gravel. Frankly, it was easy to handle. For example, we rode a rough 1.3km stretch with plenty of high-frequency bumps. Typically, we’ve been inclined to avoid it, but on the Extralight, our perspective changed. Yes, the ‘thumps’ remained, but so did the Extralight’s comfort and handling. And with all of the excitement surrounding races like the Almanzo 100 these days, we were particularly excited about this revelation. This truth became even more pronounced after viewing what constitutes an ‘endurance bike’ these days. Often, these are simply carbon fiber frames that have been weighed down with extra plies and senseless curves. Additionally, they typically feature a relaxed geometry that substitutes carbon’s natural rigidity for comfort. In our opinions, carbon provides a very specific directional flex and stiffness. But, at the same time, carbon proves itself to be a very complex solution to simple problem. In a rough surface setting, titanium often outperforms carbon, and it does so with less manufacturing complexity and at a better overall price.
For our final test, we approached our own ‘White Whale.’ The route is 1.4 miles up, followed by a winding, 14% descent. On the way up, the bike kept straight through a consistent Zone Two effort. On the way down, it tracked confidently through blind turns and fast straightaways. All in all, its handling wasn’t overexcited. Instead, we found that it was predictably responsive at speeds well past 40mph.
Interestingly, one of our favorite aspects of the Extralight were people’s reactions. With so many design cues taken from the original Extralight, many people assumed that it was an older model. But, after assessing it more carefully, most took notice of the design updates. In this sense, we found the Extralight’s subtlety to be one of its greatest features. The bike doesn’t scream about itself, which is a nice personality trait when compared to the loud paint and designs of today’s frames.
Likewise, the parallel top tube and oversized head tube aren’t viewed as particularly contemporary. However, functionality reigns supreme here, as well. You see, at a given length, frame tubes are generally lighter than seatposts. And with today’s compact geometries, you’re forced to compensate by running more post and headset spacers. The longer seatpost adds grams, while headset spacers decrease rigidity. For this reason, you’ll find that brands like Cervélo are also developing frames with taller head tubes.
After over a month of riding the Merlin Extralight, we found that it was largely what we were expecting. It’s a bike that’s designed for the long haul, both in terms of the road and life. It has no pretentiousness and very few nods to fads. More importantly, though, its design updates address the few flaws that the original Extralight ever had. So, in a way, it perfects upon perfection.