Interbike 2013 Outdoor Demo: Rejuvenated Merlin Goes ‘Back to the Future’ with Magical XLM 29

29er Cross Country

The XLM 29 combines new school features with old school Merlin mojo for a magical riding experience.

Though many people remember the mid-’80′s classic “Back to the Future” as a movie starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson, car buffs are quick to add the film’s inanimate star to the list–the iconic DeLorean DMC-12. Clad only in stainless steel, the car’s bodywork spoke volumes of its performance and craftsmanship, exuding a certain so-good-it-doesn’t-even-need-paint confidence.

At about the same time, craftsmen in Massachusetts began turning out similarly confident, bare-metal performance machines–handbuilt titanium bicycles under the Merlin Metalworks moniker. And while the brand faded into relative obscurity over the last decade-and-a-half, their new mountain bike frame–the XLM 29–has us very happy someone found Merlin’s flux capacitor. That “someone” would be the guys behind online bike retailer Competitive Cyclist who bought the brand in February 2011, then were bought themselves by Backcountry.com a few months later. Backcountry also saw potential in Merlin.

“Merlin is one of those classic brands people have a great deal of affinity for,” said Backcountry.com Marketing Director Adrian Montgomery. “The XLM 29 is the first product we created since the acquisition and we really wanted it to be worthy of the Merlin name.”

The XLM’s tapered headtube highlights the bike’s craftsmanship and build quality.

Though our test ride at Interbike’s Outdoor Demo was short, it certainly feels like they got it right. The beautifully crafted hardtail 29er’s oversized, double-butted 3Al-2.5V titanium main tubes provided torsional stiffness that belied the ride’s silky demeanor. On Bootleg Canyon’s rocky, rolling terrain, the XLM felt deft and confidence-inspiring even on trails probably best suited to dual-suspension trail bikes, though line choice definitely mattered. A smartly spec’d pair of 2.25-inch Schwalbe Nobby Nic tubeless tires inflated to the mid-20 PSI range helped mitigate the sketch factor.

As-ridden, with its 70-degree headtube angle when running a 100mm-travel fork, our test bike landed squarely on the cross country end of the spectrum. Switching up to a plusher 120mm fork would put the XLM in hardtail trailbike territory, raising both the front end and bottom bracket slightly towards a more laid-back geometry. Plushing it out even more with tires up to 2.4-inches wide and adding a dropper post–easily found for the 31.6mm inner seat tube diameter–gives the XLM just that much more rally bike versatility. Short–and curvaceously sexy–17.5-inch chainstays make for a sprightly climber no matter what the configuration, as did the bike’s light, 18-pound curb weight.

In line with the XLM’s futurist leanings are a host of other modern framebuilding touches, including a PressFit 30 bottom bracket shell, a 12 x 142mm thru-axle rear end, and an IS standard rear disc brake mount that verges on sculpture. Perhaps not so futuristic–thankfully–is the employment of US craftsmen in Arizona to handbuild these bits into finished frames.

Merlin added this beautifully crafted rear disc brake mount to the package when updating the XLM. In person the parts border on sculpture.

While our test rig featured a fittingly high-end build kit–SRAM XX-1 drivetrain, Rock Shox Sid fork, Industry Nine wheelset, and Thompson cockpit components–custom configuring your bike online component-by-component makes the Competitive Cyclist buying proposition pretty cool. CC’s slick–dare we say futuristic–interface shows you what your ride will look like, how much it weighs and what it will cost you…which, with a frame-only price of $2650, will likely be quite a bit. But to paraphrase Doc Brown “if you’re gonna ride a time machine of a bike, why not do it with some style?”

Merlin XLM 29 Frameset

  • Type: 29-inch mountain bike frame
  • Frame material: 3AI-2.5V titanium
  • Fork travel: 100-120mm recommended
  • Rear axle: 12×142 mm
  • Head tube diameter: 44mm
  • Bottom bracket: Pressfit BB30
  • Front derailleur: 34.9mm clamp-on (top-pull)
  • Seatpost diameter: 31.6 mm
  • Sizes: M (17.5″); L (19″); XL (21″)
  • Weight: Titanium (L): 3.6 lbs/2,000g
  • MSRP: $2650 frame only

For more information visit merlinbikes.com.

Interbike 2013 Outdoor Demo: Rejuvenated Merlin Goes ‘Back to the Future’ with Magical XLM 29 Gallery
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Merlin XLM 29

The XLM 29 looks fast coming or going, though this is the angle most other riders will see it from.
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Merlin XLM 29

The XLM 29 combines new school features with old school Merlin mojo for a magical riding experience.
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Rear Disc Brake

Merlin added this beautifully crafted rear disc brake mount to the package when updating the XLM. In person the parts border on sculpture.
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Tapered Headtube

The XLM's tapered headtube highlights the bike's craftsmanship and build quality.
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About the author: Don Palermini

Chicago-born editorial director Don Palermini became a cycling-based life-form in the sixth grade after completing a family road bike tour of his home state. Three years later he bought his first mountain bike to help mitigate the city's pothole-strewn streets, and began exploring the region's unpaved roads and trails. Those rides sparked a much larger journey which includes all manner of bike racing, commuting, on- and off-road bike advocacy, and a 20-plus-year marketing career in the cycling industry. Now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area and pedaling for Mtbr, his four favorite words in the English language are "breakfast served all day," together in that order.


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