Reviewed: The Merlin Empire
Photos: Ben Kuhns | Location: Empire Pass, Park City
Alright, alright, I’m sure that there’s at least five forum members out there who’re either grumbling, or shouting, something heinous at your screen right now, so let’s go ahead and address what might be on your mind. You could be thinking that a carbon Merlin is pure blasphemy. Fair enough. To me, though, it’s nothing short of progress. Not surprisingly, this sentiment is also shared with some of the original Merlin staff. As it’s been explained to me, titanium was never used and propagated solely for the sake of warm fuzzies, instead, it was used because it was simply the best material available at the time. And sure, there are many out there that still believe that titanium, in fact, is the best material to build a bike out of — we wouldn’t have a Seven Cycles otherwise. But had today’s carbon fiber technology been in place at titanium’s inception, I’m of the opinion that titanium probably wouldn’t have been used in a race context.
Though, for a handful of you, I’m sure that there’s nothing that I can say to sway your mind from the Team Z days of the Extralight. Sure, I could call upon the C110 or the ti-lugged Cielo, but your retort about it being an ABG model would be correct — not to mention that lugged carbon has been a disaster since the days of Vitus. For the sentimentalist, though, I only ask you to recollect on why LeMond picked Merlin in the first place. It’s because it was lighter, stiffer, and faster than the steel bikes of the era. And along these lines, I find it justifiable that today’s Merlin follows the same path in regards to carbon vs. titanium. Haters always gon’ hate, though. So, regardless of trying to bring the naysayers into the fold, I’ll just say with confidence that the Empire is hands down one of the top three bikes that I’ve ever ridden. Seriously. No bullshit. Now, let’s get into why.
Hopefully, my review doesn’t come across as anything like this:
The lines and finishing details of the frame are simply flawless. I really don’t want to gush about it, but the fact that this frame is handmade in Veneto, Italy through a tube-to-tube construction method couldn’t be more evident.
Without a doubt, this is solely accredited to the master hands of its Italian builders.
This damn thing is light. Pictured in this review is a Di2 build with a Fi’zi:k Aliante saddle and Michelin Pro 4 tires — it weighed 14.30lb with an Arundel Sideloader. My mechanical 9000 version had a Selle Italia SLR & Continental GP4000s and tipped the scales at 14.11lb without a cage or pedals. It’s worth noting that you could easily shave another 200 grams or so by opting for the SES 3.4 tubular wheelset instead of the clinchers.
Since January, I’ve been putting the Empire through the wringer — long before we even had a release date slated. In fact, the version that I’ve been riding still has the prototype name on the top tube — it was XLC if you’re curious. In this time, I’ve been trying to find an implicit weakness, some kind of flaw to make the inevitable review seem more objective. Surprisingly, though, the best that I could come up with came after my first ride (seriously, this is true), when I said that the bike almost seems too fast. Now, that’s admittedly a lofty cry, so let me explain.
This statement was in context to descending. The tube-by-tube fiber selection, joints, and geometry equate to a bike that’s stiffer than hell, meaning that it just rails it on descents. And to couple this with the sensation of, well how to put it, kind of resting within the frame when you’re tucked into the drops, the experience was far faster than what I’m used to.
Now, this isn’t to say that it felt like a bike that’s intended to get up the mountain first and get down last (BH Ultralight, I’m looking at you), it’s actually incredibly stable. It wants more through the turns, feeling it like it’s redlining when you slow it down. Granted, much of this could be accredited to the wheels, but the total package was awesome no matter which way you cut it.
Now, in terms of climbing, the Empire provides a rather surreal experience. It’s snappy, it’s nimble, and it begs you to get out of the saddle and go. However, I also feel that the rear triangle lends itself exceptionally well to seated power slogs on those 4 to 10% gradient ranges.
Really, the power transfer is pretty awesome for any climbing style, and the complete’s feathery weight doesn’t hurt either. Altogether, if I had to classify this bike, I would say that it’s a climber.
Comfort & Flats
But for the sake of painting the whole picture, the frame also excels on the flats. The geometry isn’t stuffy, but then again, it’s no comfort racer either — given some recent threatening of IP lawsuits in Canada, I’m pretty sure that I’ll be sued if I say the name of the bike that I’m thinking of. In other words, the geometry isn’t compact, while the head tube is short and stout, much like the BB86 bottom bracket shell. So, by the frame coupling a power position in the saddle with slightly oversized junctures where they’re needed, the bike really drives on the flats.
I’m also happy to say that this bike doesn’t beat you up — a common side effect of sprightly carbon frames. The razor thin seatstays really do a fine a job in providing, wait for it, vertical compliance. Now, to put it straight, I think that this is one of the worst, most overused marketing terms to describe comfort, but it’s sort of accurate. But for the sake of this review, let’s just say that pairing thin seatstays with a 27.2mm seat tube makes for a comfortable experience and just leave it at that.
The model tested for this review featured a Dura-Ace 9000 groupset (not pictured) that worked harmoniously with the frame. But if you’re electronic-minded, you might be a little frustrated that the Empire is only Di2 compatible with a seatpost-mounted battery. A little under a year ago, this would have been sort of a big deal, but there are plenty of adaptors on the market these days that still allow you to run your post of choice. For example, we’ve built the Empire pictured below with an ENVE post with absolutely no troubles.
Outside of this, I would warn that this isn’t really a bike for the faint of heart. Most likely, the price point alone is going to deter most of the weekend warrior contingent, but I find it prudent to readdress that this bike is, in fact, rather aggressive. If you’re used to a bike that resides in the ever-growing gran fondo category, which there’s absolutely nothing wrong with, you’re probably not going to feel at home on the Empire.
I’ll admit that this might have read as a puff piece. But look, I get to ride some of the nicest gear in the world as part of my job, and admittedly, it’s made me a bit of a snob on everything from bib shorts to bikes. In a way, the experience sucks because I approach every piece of kit trying to find its flaws almost immediately. However, the Empire really is in the top three of my favorite bikes that I’ve ridden in the past few years — the TMR01 & Aernario are probably somewhere up there with it.
Ultimately, the Empire is a bit confounding, because it’s a pure climber that’s also an all-rounder. It’s a little confusing in this sense, but in the best possible way.
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