Talk to any oldtimer and the two most coveted titanium brands from the late 80s and 90s are likely Merlin Metal Works and Spectrum Custom Titanium Cycles. The two brands were connected by frame building legend Tom Kellogg. Kellogg consulted with Merlin to help develop the company’s first frames and then also offered his own frames under the Spectrum brand.
Merlin has since taken an adventuresome, bumpy path from its early Somerville, Mass. days. It got gobbled up first by Saucony and then by Tennessee-based Litespeed, left roots in the Boston area that turned into Seven Cycles and then emerged as a mail-order house brand for Competitive Cyclist.
In 2018, Merlin finally found a titanium-focused home in the hands of John Siegrist, founder of Dean Bikes. We first saw the impressive initial line-up of bikes at the 2018 Sea Otter Classic, and Merlin has since made newsworthy splashes with the limited re-release of the curvy, iconic Newsboy and electric gravel bikes.
We took temporary possession of a Merlin Sandstone gravel bike earlier this year to see if the combination of coveted metal and heralded brand can turn a gravel grind into gravel glory. Read on for the review.
Merlin frames are built in Boulder, Colorado. The company offers hand-bent stays, a beautiful head badge and custom geometry, all included in the price of a frame or complete bike. The frames are built in the same shop as Dean Bikes, which also offers custom frames, so one could argue there’s not a huge difference between the brands in that both brands aim to please. Yet Merlin is undoubtedly the flagship brand of the Janus Cycle Group.
The Sandstone utilizes cold worked 3/2.5 oversized titanium tubing to create a frame that delivers many standard gravel bike features: flat mount disc brake mounts, a 142x12mm thru-axle, 68mm BSA threaded bottom bracket shell (PF30 and T47 are options) and 27.2mm seat post.
Of course, because custom options are available, should you have your heart set on something like a 31.6mm oversized dropper post, Merlin will do it.
Merlin offers stock geometry for its models. Our size Large bike featured a 71.5-degree head tube angle, 73-degree seat tube angle, 56.5cm effective top tube, 43.5cm chainstays and 70mm bottom bracket drop. That all translates into a calculated 390mm stack and 574mm reach.
Tire clearance is listed at a whopping 48mm. That allows you to roll on almost any gravel tire on the market, but the spec looks to be a real-world estimate rather than the conservative big bike company, regulated specification.
Frame weight is estimated at 3 pounds—we did not weigh the naked frame and received a complete bike.
Our Merlin Sandstone arrived with an eclectic but functional parts choice that likely quite different than the typical customer build.
Merlin typically offers the frame with an ENVE fork, but ours came with an unbranded carbon fork gravel fork from Alan (which the Janus Cycle Group also sells) that comes with internal routing for the hydraulic hose or cable housing.
The Thomson cockpit was a nice touch and kept the control points stiff and reliable. The NoTubes Grail wheelset was an easy choice for reliable tubeless performance (albeit with loose end caps). Pairing them with the non-tubeless Challenge Gravel Grinder Race tires was a little odd, but again, when you buy a Merlin, you get to build it up as you’d like. We swapped the tires out quickly so we could avoid pinch flats.
While the SRAM Force 1 HRD levers and crankset are pretty standard, they were paired with a non-clutch Force 22 rear derailleur. It’s what the team at Merlin had around, and the company stressed it’s not a standard pairing for a build. Still, we found it a bit odd for a test bike. To be fair, we only dropped the chain once but surely would have enjoyed a quieter ride with the clutch model.
Merlin’s iconic head badge and finish quality are just two attributes that separate it from its Dean cousins. Of course, both brands offer upgrades should you want to add some polish or paint or particular cable routing, but Merlin aims to be the top-shelf titanium option and is priced accordingly at $2,800, frame only.
If you were to draw a Venn diagram that illustrated the overlap between “all-road” bikes, cyclocross bikes and adventure/bikepacking bikes, you might find the Merlin Sandstone sitting directly in the center.
The stock geometry emphasizes versatility and mixed terrain proficiency. On gravel, it's relaxed enough to let you focus on the scenery on long rides and doesn’t make you nervous when you see washboards ahead, and yet it is nimble enough to do dual duty as a group ride road bike without feeling like you’re the 18-wheeler in a line of sports cars.
On the trails, it felt right at home, especially on descents and seated climbs. With its 7cm bottom bracket drop rolling on 38mm-wide tires, pedal strikes weren’t an issue, and it's nimble enough for low-speed navigation through technical terrain
We even took out the Sandstone for a muddy cyclocross race. While we might have wished for shorter chainstays to take tighter lines in the hairpins, the Sandstone was actually the perfect choice for plowing through the muddy, rutted course. Its generous tire clearance offers great mud clearance that kept us rolling past the pits, and the stable geometry helped us avoid being derailed by each deep rut and moving forward.
As for the actual ride quality? Titanium gets plenty of accolades, but when you’re riding a titanium bike, you’re riding not just a metal but the result of countless decisions on tubing diameter, alloy, geometry, construction and butting. We’ve ridden flexy pure titanium frames and quite stiff modern frames.
Merlin uses cold-worked straight gauge 3/2.5 titanium tubing in building up the Sandstone with the aim of serving up the ride qualities that titanium frames seek—an efficient, light ride that doesn’t punish you.
Does the Merlin Sandstone hit the mark? Without a doubt. It’s odd in that the Sandstone was most memorable in that nothing about its handling or ride is shocking or distinct. That almost sounds disparaging, but it shouldn’t be—it’s the highest compliment.
Your dream bike hopefully lets you focus on the scenery and adventure without demanding your attention, and the Sandstone in ride quality and aesthetic doesn’t aim to be unforgettable. It simply enables unforgettable rides without punishing you or shaking your confidence in hard turns or sprints. Isn’t that the dream?
If you’re going to spend $2,800 on a dream gravel bike frame, the titanium Merlin Sandstone gravel bike could be one of the safest choices. Its metal and finish should prove durable to last a lifetime, it is light enough to fulfill most weight weenie fantasies while the ride and design are capable of handling any type of riding well. Want something different? Merlin’s no-charge custom geometry aims to please.
It’s great to see the Merlin name back in the hands of titanium specialists. The Sandstone presents a strong case that the brand is climbing its way back to the top of many dream bike lists. Better start saving.
Merlin Sandstone Specs:
MSRP: $2,800 frame only, stock or custom geometry
Frame: 3/2.5 cold-worked titanium, hand-bent stays
Fork: Alan carbon (ENVE Gravel carbon is standard)
Rear Derailleur: SRAM Force 22 WiFli
Crankset: SRAM Force 1 GXP 40t
Cassette: SRAM XG-1175 11-32t
Shift/Brake Levers: SRAM Force 1
Brakes: SRAM Force 1 HRD flat mount
Rotors: SRAM Centerline Centerlock
Wheelset: NoTubes Grail Mk3 alloy, 20.3mm wide, Centerlock
Tires: Challenge Tires Gravel Grinder Race 700c x 38mm non-tubeless / Ritchey Megabite 700c x 38mm tubeless
Handlebar: Thomson Alloy
Stem: Thomson Elite
Seat Post: Thomson Elite
Saddle: San Marco Aspide
Weight: 17.9 pounds without pedals (with Ritchey Megabite tires), 11.4 pounds without wheels
More info: merlinbikes.com