Merlin, the original titanium bicycle manufacturer, is back.
There are few small American bicycles brands as storied and fraught as Merlin. The company started by building the first-ever full titanium bikes in 1986, and, based on ride character and quality of build, earned a reputation both for the brand and for the metal as a viable material for constructing bikes. Both Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong rode Merlins during their careers. But the company fell out of favor in the mid-2000s after a series of acquisitions and departures of the original founders.
Three years ago, online retailer Competitive Cyclist bought the brand and announced plans to revamp it. First came the Extralight, a remake of the brand’s trademark model complete with new geometry and Enve carbon fork and wheels. And last fall, Merlin unveiled a new mountain frame built around 29-inch wheels: the XLM 29.
In some ways, it’s a tough time to get into metal given the popularity of carbon fiber. Then again, heritage brands are also booming: Last year’s GT Edge Ti won over some two dozen of our testers, even though it was stacked against a full roster of carbon roadies.
And for those of us who both grew up with Merlin and have ridden titanium for years, it’s frankly refreshing to see the brand and the material fortified.
It’s difficult to explain the appeal of titanium to those who haven’t ridden it. I’ve been on a Moots Mooto X Ybb for almost a decade, so it’s safe to say that I'm an admirer. If the tubing is high quality and the construction is done right, titanium is both as stiff as aluminum and just as forgiving as carbon fiber. But the comparisons don’t do the material justice because there’s a certain road feel—compliant and snappy and buttery all at once—that you get only with ti.
The XLM 29 isn’t built from the lightest 6A/4V titanium, and yet our tester tipped the scales at 20.8 pounds (4.4 pounds claimed frame weight). Yes, there are lighter carbon hard tails on the market. But the material gives it a light, yet solid feel relative to most other bikes on the market
Though it’s a throwback, the XLM 29 has been updated with all the frame fixins’ we expect from a modern bike: tapered head tube for steering precision, Pressfit 30 bottom bracket, and 12x142 thru axle. Geometry is also fairly modern, with a 70-degree head tube and relatively short 17.5-inch chain stays, though we’d have preferred a smaller gauge seat post than 31.6mm seat tube, for added compliance.
The frame held up fine over six months of testing, but we do worry about the long-term durability of the cluster of joints at the very short head tube. Having said that, the frames are built by Sedona-based Form Cycles, with over a decade of experience in titanium, so the integrity of the welds, which are gorgeous, is not a question.
On the trail, the XLM 29 has that delicious, smoothed-out, crisp feel of good titanium. When you step on the pedals, accelerations are brutally quick, and the steering is fast and agile as should be expected from a hard tail race bike. Merlin seems to have found a good balance, however, as the XLM is also relatively stable, even at high speed on steep downhills. And the titanium, combined with the big wheels, takes the edge off trail chatter in a way that aluminum and most carbon does not. Though it’s quick and light enough for XC race duty, where this bike would really excel is on endurance outings with lots of big climbs and rough, but not rugged, trails.
Though you could get an XLM 29 for under $5,000 built with Shimano XT parts and Easton EA70 parts and wheels, the bike is intended as a premium machine and our tester came equipped as such.
At 100mm of travel, the Fox Float 29 CTD shock seemed right in line with the fast, lightweight aspirations, and though we liked the clean look of nothing on the bars, we’d probably opt for the remote lockout lever— we often found ourselves riding this bike fully rigid. We also wondered what the 120mm fork would have felt like, adding a bit more cushion and slowing down the steering a touch by slackening the head angle. It could be worth it, even for the small weight penalty.
The SRAM XX1 drivetrain also seemed perfect in this application, as the featherweight of the bicycle meant we never were left wanting for more gears. In fact, for once, the 34-tooth ring up front didn’t feel like too big of a gear. Stopping duties were left to Shimano XTR brakes, which have to be considered the benchmark in the XC and trail category, though we personally would have opted for the Race model rather than the spec’d Trail version for the little extra weight savings.
The rest of the kit was all top-shelf stuff, as well, including a Thomson Masterpiece seat post, Selle Italia Flight SLR Carbonio saddle, and Thomson stem. Perhaps our favorite piece of gear on the entire bike is the titanium Thomson bars, which not only complete the bike’s classy look but also afford a softer ride than would aluminum bars.
Our only reservation with the build was over the wheels. Prior to this test, we’d never ridden an Industry Nine pre-built, in this case the Trail 29s, and for the most part we were impressed. The hubs are extremely fast-engaging and stiff, and the aluminum rims also seemed relatively rigid, though a few bigger testers did complain of some flex.
The niggle, then, is that while these wheels are just fine, for a premium build like this one, we’d choose something lighter and stiffer. We liked the I9 hubs so much that we’d really love to get a set laced up to the new Enve M50 rims, which would perfectly complete this bike. Of course that would drive up the price by another $1,500, but at $7,200 for a hard tail the bike is already in the price-be-damned realm.
With the popularity and flexibility of building with carbon fiber as well as the rapidly diminishing weights in full-suspension bikes, the XLM 29 starts with two strikes against it. After all, you can now get a four-inch carbon racer as light as this ti hard tail. And yet, this bike was adored by almost everyone who rode it, both because the ride quality is unlike anything else out there, and the gorgeous aesthetics set it apart from the parade of plastic bikes.
I can already hear the naysayers complaining about the price and slagging off the XLM 29 as a bike for doctors and dentists. Such criticism is often leveled at titanium bikes. But most bike brands (think: Specialized, Cannondale, Trek, etc.) sell carbon hard tails that cost at least this much. Those are all great bikes, too, but the Merlin stands apart for the reasons mentioned above, and also because it's hand built in the U.S. by a small-scale craftsman.
The Merlin XLM 29 won’t be a bike for everyone, but for those looking for a hard tail who want something different than every other bike out there and who appreciate the feel of titanium, this bike is worth a look. From my experience, while it’s easy to upgrade from year to year when buying carbon fiber, which tends to feel like just another commodity, a ti bike is a long-term investment. I’ve been on my Moots for nearly a decade and am as happy with it now as when I purchased it.
Finally, the XLM 29 is also about preserving the art and heritage of bike building: Purchasing one not only supports a quality small business like Form cycles, it also helps an enduring brand like Merlin to live on a little longer. Most people aren’t buying bikes for high-minded reasons like that—at least not exclusively—and the good news is the XLM 29’s performance and fun factor lives up to its ideals.