By Doug Pippel
You don’t buy a bike like the XLM because it’s a radical departure in hardtail design. What this frame is all about comes down to four things: craftsmanship, titanium, weight and moola. Merlin Metalworks, formerly of Cambridge, MA and now based in Chattanooga, TN, has been in the frame business since 1986. That’s when Gary Helfrich of Fat City Cycles founded the original company along with Mike Augspurger and Gwyn Jones. They were amongst the pioneers of the technology. Now they’re owned by the same company that owns Litespeed, Quintana Roo and Tomac USA. All of the brands, including Merlin, are built in the same facility. Prior to the acquisition, Merlin developed a reputation for producing some of the finest titanium bicycle frames in the industry. The XLM is certainly a testament to that reputation. Quality and workmanship have not been victims of the change in management.
Merlin has been building the Extralight Mountain (XLM) since 1995 and it is undeniably a thing of beauty. The finish is, of course, natural brushed titanium. There were no nicks, scratches or blemishes anywhere on the tubing. The welds were incredibly well executed and smooth, the blending exacting and precise. There was no evidence of undercutting anywhere on the frame, and I went over it thoroughly. The workmanship around the bottom bracket shell and the seat tube/seat stay junction was particularly gorgeous. These guys know what they’re doing with a welding torch and it shows. Merlin uses a custom speced variant of 3Al-2.5V (3% aluminum, 2.5% vanadium, 94.5% titanium) 105 aerospace grade butted titanium alloy tubing that they call MTS325 (MTS stands for Merlin Tube Specification) for their mountain frames, and harder 6Al-4V (6% aluminum, 4% vanadium, 90% titanium) titanium plate for the machined vertical rear dropouts. They claim to require more stringent tolerances for their material than the Aerospace Materials Specification standard for hydraulic tubing, and that’s why they developed their own spec. They purchase exclusively from US manufacturers (there are only three) and employ a tracking system that can trace every piece of tubing back to the ingot it was drawn from. There you have it.
This 17.5” suspension-adjusted frame has a 4.3” tall head tube angled at 71°, a seat tube angle of 73°, a 23” top tube, a bottom bracket height of 11.8”, a standover height of 30.3” and a 41.6” wheelbase. Together, it tips the scales at a mere 2.9 pounds. Equipped with a 2001 XTR group, Manitou MARS Elite fork, Thomson Elite stem, Easton EA50 XC bar, Chris King headset, Thomson Elite seatpost, Selle Italia Flite titanium rail saddle, Mavic X 517 rims, Hutchinson Mosquito Air Lite tires and my beat up Shimano 525 spuds, it’s only 22.5 pounds. This is one lightweight ride. It’s the lightest butted titanium hardtail mountain frame on the market according to Merlin, and that was what they were shooting for when they designed the XLM. A half-pound was shaved from their Mountain to produce this ultralight frameset.
So how did the bike perform? Even if you’ve never strapped on a titanium bike before you’ve probably heard the word supple used to describe the feel of the ride. Energetic is more fitting in my opinion, particularly where the XLM was concerned. Balanced? Oh yeah. Very balanced. This is one of the sweetest hardtails I’ve ever ridden – period. And if you like picking your way through tough, technical climbs, then this bike is your ticket. It’s a goat. It goes up, and I mean it. You almost feel weightless cranking it up a hill, yet the rear triangle and the entire frame are surprisingly stiff. The oversized 3/8” s-bend seatstays and 3/4” s-bend chainstays (16.75”) are beefy and can accommodate 2.6” tires with good mud clearance. I noticed very little lateral torque even when really putting it to the cranks, power transfer to the rear wheel felt rock solid and there was no detectable flex at the bottom bracket. Pointing the bike in the other direction resulted in a slightly different experience. Rocky descents tended to throw the XLM around a bit. I believe this was due primarily to the low mass of the bike. After a few dozen miles I became accustomed to this aspect of the ride and worked with it instead of fighting it. On smooth singletrack we flew effortlessly together. It was fast. I could stand on it hard and power down the trace, all the while feeling as if I had some sort of perpetual motion machine between my legs. Picking through rocky sections required balance and a good feel for exactly where I wanted to go. Steering was a bit unforgiving on a twitchy or hesitant line, but that can be a beautiful thing. I was forced to become more precise to clean an obstacle. The bike becomes teacher and you become Grasshoppa, wanting to snatch the pebble. Eventually you do. To me, precision is an essential bike handling skill, yet a facet of riding that can get lost in a world where full suspension is king. The XLM will take you back to your roots, and the roots of the sport itself. I guarantee you’ll have a big, fat smile on your face the entire time.
The best way to approach the purchase of a bike like the XLM is by looking at it as a lifelong relationship and an investment. This is a bike you’ll still be riding ten, maybe even fifteen years from now. It will almost assuredly last that long and you’ll probably be keeping it that long. Merlin warrantees the frame against defects in materials and workmanship for the lifetime of the original owner, which means that it is non-transferable. Something to consider if you’re looking for a used frame on Ebay. There is some downside here as well. First of all, Merlin doesn’t offer a braze-on rear disc brake mount on this frame. Discs require the purchase of a $65 international adapter (51mm only). Translation: no Hayes. Secondly, if you want this puppy, be prepared to take out a second mortgage on the homestead or have a lot of disposable cash on hand—a bare frame will set you back $2715. That’s comparable to some other high-end titanium frames in this weight range (Litespeed, Seven Cycles, etc.), more than others (Dean), and you’re buying off the rack. You could pick up a custom rig for this amount of change that’s close to the same weight, or you could go with a slightly heavier titanium frame for about half the money. A complete rig outfitted identically to my test bike will really bite ya at $5085 clams. That’s a lot of beer, and that’s about what a built-up XLM will cost in the end unless you get deep discounts on components from your LBS. Now you know why some people call it “unobtainium.” Yes indeedy, this precision crafted sub 3-pound frame comes at a steep price. Only you can decide if it’s worth all that green.
Contact: Merlin Metalworks, PO BOX 23463, Chattanooga, TN 37422, 1.888.5.MERLIN; www.merlinbike.com