Wednesday, December 12, 2018

1989 Merlin Titanium (Update)

You wouldn't know it at first glance, but behind the subtle and unassuming facade of this bike hides a truly amazing and fun machine. It's taken a little while but I think I pretty much have this bike dialed in and would love to share this update with you.

I originally bought this bike back in 2012 and it took me just under two years to complete the restoration and my initial build. Back then I was just getting my initial exposure into the world on WTB and the Marin culture and this was to be my first bike bearing a nearly complete WTB group. 

My first attempt was pretty good (see original post here), but not great. I lacked a proper fork capable of running roller cam brake and a few details remained to get sorted out, but despite that I quickly fell in love with the ride.

Fast forward a year and a Potts CCR donor and my original vision for the bike was nearly complete. While the original Koski fork was actually quite nice, it did chatter a bit under heavy braking and the combination of rear RC and front Shimano cantis felt imbalanced. Adding a custom painted Steve Potts Type 2 and a WTB SpeedMaster roller cam gave the front end a welcome shot of adrenaline. A couple small changes and mods including swapping the white turbo for a nice perforated black, the somewhat boring M730 crank was replaced by a much cooler Cook Bros RSRs complete with matching caps, a wide Titanium bar and a few small tweaks like adding black anodized RC cam plates and color matched o-rings on the Ringle cam twists completed the build. I came very close to getting a WTB fixed angle seat post and a fillet brazed Potts stem which would have been the icing on the cake but that didn't pan out.

I'm incredibly happy with the end result. The build sticks with an overall WTB inspired theme which although may not have been a default configuration for most back in the late 80s, it makes for a sophisticated and yet highly capable off road group.

I've had the chance to build a couple Merlins over the past couple years, and they builds are always challenging. Well, at least in my opinion. Personally I find that Merlins, compared to other bikes have a pretty narrow range of build options. I think WTB or IRD angles are pretty much the best two routes aside from a classic Shimano or Suntour build, but aside from that I feel like loud builds just don't work for these classic frames.

Among the 1" Merlin frames this particular design is more or less the most trail worthy one. The very early bikes (check out this 86 Fat Chance Ti which is really one of the first Merlins) are quite unique and arguably more desirable but due to limitations of materials the tubesets were small diameter and the resulting bikes were flexy and not very memorable off road. By contrast this design was one of the more refined and short of the s-bend stay bikes which are hard to find with 1" head tubes and roller cam mounts which is something I really wanted for this build. By the time this design went into production Merlin had developed its own Titanium 3-2.5 tubeset. The 3-2.5 designation refers to the alloy of Titanium used in the construction of the tubing, it's 94.5% Titanium, 3% Aluminum and 2.5% Vanadium.

It's sort of funny that back in the day words like Titanium, Carbon or the type of Aluminium alloy used in the construction of the bike were prominently featured as a part of the branding. In fact, here it's dual use as it's both the model name and primary material of frame construction.

While there are multitudes of forks capable of mounting roller cam brakes, the Potts Type 2 stands a head above the rest. Not only is the design an absolute classic, but it is a simple joy off road. It's lighter and stiffer than most forks of the era, and yet highly forgiving and compliant. Keeping in theme with the orange o-ring of the WTB / Chris King Grease Guard headset thee fork received a little bit of orange pin striping at the transition between the crown and blades.

Drivetrain options for the late 90s were still pretty limited and if you want reliable performance, then Shimano's XT group was the way to go. This bike is equipped with Shimano XT derailleurs, thumbshifters and brake levers. The bottom bracket is a press in unit with a 17mm Titanium spindle. I'm not sure whether it's a testament to how much I've ridden this bike or the fact that the BB bearings are grossly undersized, but I'm on my second set of bearings in less than three years. The hubs are WTB classic with a custom built, wide range Dura Ace freewheel. Cook Bros RSR cranks with Shimano SG rings round out the drivetrain package.

There is a lot to talk about on this bike, but perhaps the most noticeable are the WTB SpeedMaster Roller Cam brakes. As I said earlier this was my first WTB equipped bike and having grown up on cantilevers and Shimano U-brakes, these brakes were an eye opener. It took a while to learn how to set up these brakes, and I'm sure have room to improve, but they are simply amazing. As this bike is a full on rider I usually switch to modern Kool Stop Eagle pads, and I didn't have time to put on the proper WTB pads to complete the package, getting vintage tires on was enough of a chore. Also, I'm noticing that this bike has yet to receive upgraded pad holder washers like the rest of my WTB fleet. The beveled washers look nice, but are prone to cracking so I had some replacements made in the style that Charlie Cunningham used on his bikes.

I've always loved the seat cluster on these bikes. It's tidy and simple but then you get this cool cable guide made out of Ti tubing and precisely bent around the seat tube. This little bit gets me everytime, it looks like they must have filled them with sand or used a mandrel bending machine as there is no evidence of any deformation as a result of the bends. In addition to that the seat binder was machined out of a solid Titanium rod to ensure durability over a long expected life. Just a testament to the craftsmanship and thought that went into these bikes. 

I'm not very big on stickers on my bikes, but this one seemed not only fitting but also kind of subtle and so it doesn't really feel ostentatious.

The water jet cut dropouts were made out of solid chunks of 6-4 Titanium alloy which was much more durable than the 3-2.5 used in the tubeset. While I'm not sure how much use the bike had when I restored it, but the derailleur hanger was in perfect alignment. No matter how you cut it that's over 25 years of use, worth every penny.

Back in the day Titanium bikes came with a variety of finishes. GT and Litespeed were known for their highly polished look, while Merlin, Dean and a few others went for a more satin finish. The latter is definitely not as exciting, but it tends to hide scuffs and scratches and ages really nicely, and is very easy to maintain.

The cockpit is pretty basic with a Salsa Moto stem, a wide WTB Titanium bar and Shimano XT controls. I suppose a Cook Bros or IRD stems might be a bit more saucy, but the Salsa Moto is a classic design and was commonly spec'd on Merlins back in the day.

 head on

Final comment on the BB, I think you can clearly see how small the tube and the corresponding bearings are. This is the only real design flaw on this bike, and the only thing that keeps me looking for a 1" s-bend frame with roller cam mounts. The BB junction is quite flexy and the bearings are prone to frequent failure. While this is by no way a deal breaker, I would much rather have a larger diameter, threaded BB shell and a stiffer frame.

While this bike lacks the later model's Grease Guard equipped bottom bracket, all of the remaining bearings are so equipped. This system though long forgotten and a bit of a joke in some circles represents the way some people used to think about bikes. They were meant to not only perform, but last and be easy to service. Sure sealed bearings are nice and can be replaced, but not infinitely. I've had several Ringle hubs that would no longer retain the bearings firmly after pulling the original pair. I've seen modern carbon bikes exhibit the same problem. With this system your year end ritual is quite simple, just inject new grease and wipe away the old, done!

While this Merlin is hardly rare or truly exotic it's easily one of my favorite bikes and at the top of my keeper list. It's a bike I can spend hours on an feel comfortable and one I can go out on and hammer for an hour. At least hammer as much as I can on any bike, which isn't all that much. Suffice it to say, it's a great all around bike that has very few if any limitations when compared to other bikes of the era, and is in fact more durable than most. Lately biking has been became a much bigger part of my mental fitness, I need a good ride to keep myself sane. For that I need a bike that becomes an extension is not something I have to think about, and this bike is just that. You just got out and ride and the bike is there with you, doing what you want and accommodating your mood and ability right then and there. I feel like I never have to worry about gearing, braking, or scratching the bike. It all just works and adds to my enjoyment and ability to stay in the moment. Maybe that's why I like this bike so much.

If you're on the lookout for a vintage Ti bike I strongly recommend an early Merlin (see my review of the 1996 XLM for comparison), you can easily put together a competent build for under a grand and have a cool and historic bike that you can ride on any given day and come away with a big smile. Trust me on this one!

Monday, November 12, 2018

1987 Steve Potts Deluxe

Unless you've been living in an ice cave or under a rock there is a very good chance that if you're into mountain bikes you've heard of Steve Potts. Steve is among the few of the early mountain bike pioneers who never stopped building and will still deliver you an amazing mountain bike to this day. This 1987 Deluxe is an amazing example of Steve's fillet brazing and one of the nicer fades I've seen on his bikes. All in all it's a really sublime bike with flowing and graceful lines, a true work of art that looks equally good in a gallery and on the trail, as long as it's a mellow trail!

The matching Potts stem is one of the nicest steel stems ever made. These stems fit over a brazed on stub on the fork steerer so the end result is sort of a hybrid threaded / threadless setup.

One of the cooler pieces on this bike is the Fixed Angle Seat Post (FASP) which was a custom option on WTB related bikes. Commonly found on Cunninghams it's a far less common sight on other bikes as it was custom made for each frame to match it's geometry exactly, as you couldn't adjust the angle of the seat once it was made.

A fillet brazed Type 2 forks fitted with a WTB Speedmaster Roller Cam brake rounds out the front end.

I really love this paintjob, it reminds me of classic American cars with the long, drawn out pool cue style fade. The choice of white, blue and gray gives the effect a degree of subtlety while still really standing out.

For some reason the combination of the slim tubing, narrow tires and lack of a seat stay mounted brake doesn't really look good on this bike. Maybe it's the extra large frame that results in the extra length of seat stays above the tire line, but it's just a bit drawn out for my taste.

Wide spacing with a huge bail out rear gear. Good odds the freewheel was custom built to achieve the spread, especially given the attention to detail on the rest of the build and the shop that originally sold the bike.

This bike has stays for days!

The detail of the fillet brazed Type 2 crown is really amazing, really one of the nicest fork designs ever made. Not the lightest, especially in full bling mode, but it simply oozes style.

I find it sort of funny that a bike with so much attention to detail just runs the cables directly over the BB shell. I never really understood this. Not only does it result in excess friction but every shift and brake actuation wears away at the frame. At least CC added a plate to his bikes...

Now, where can I find some 30 year old electrical tape to seal up that grease port???

In the end bikes like these are just a bit too elegant for my taste. I love looking at them, studying the details, and I suppose it would be fun to ride on a smooth fire road on a cool crisp fall day wearing old hiking boots, jeans, flannel shirt and a bandana. However once the looking and admiring is done my cup runs fulls. If I can't find constant joy in exploring a new trail or just having fun ride without worrying about damaging the bike then my interest is diminished. That being said this is a refined bike for a connoisseur to appreciate and take out on nice, leisurely days to hang out at a get together and discuss with other like minded folks, which is something I just don't do that often.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

1996 Merlin XLM

I fell in love with Titanium when I got my first Merlin, coincidentally that's also when I fell in love with Merlins. My first Merlin is an 88/89 and though not the earliest Ti bike it's hardly the pinnacle of sophistication as far material and frame design. By the time the mid 90s rolled around Titanium had been fully embraced by the bicycle manufacturers with no fewer than 15 offering Titanium models. In response to the increased adoption of Titanium alloys by the bicycle industry the metal manufacturers began offering custom drawn tubing to meet the individual demands of the manufacturers. Merlin being the first adopter and one of the largest builder of Titanium bikes was definitely pushing the envelope of ultra light frame construction.

The XLM (Extralite Mountain) was first introduced in 1995 and was meant to be the most advanced and lightweight Titanium mountain bike Merlin could make. As such the tubing was custom drawn and unlike other Merlin models is double butted on most sections. Merlin first introduced the ultralight concept with the Extralight road bike in 1993 and transferred their experience from building ultra light yet stiff frames to mountain bikes. The result was a sub 3 pound rocket ship designed to work with the latest mountain bike suspension forks and components on the market.

I set out to build this as an aggressive XC bike and wanted it to be something I could ride and be about as modern as a vintage MTB could be. With that in mind I decided to try a somewhat more modern suspension fork over the recommended Judy (more on that later) and breaking with tradition opted for Shimano's M950 grouppo. While I didn't intentionally set out to make an ultra light bike, I ended up using an all Titanium cockpit with Seven Cycles stem and bar and a Syncros Ti post. With all that thrown together the XLM tips the scales at 21.38 lbs with modern 2.25 tires to boot. In comparison, my rigid 1988 Merlin is around 24.7lbs and the 97 Titanium Phoenix with a Judy SL is around 24.2 lbs.

Though not really period correct the Seven Cycles bar and stem work really well and from a lineage perspective are well suited for a Merlin. An Ibis Titanium bar and stem would be more appropriate but I wanted to get this thing built and ridden and wasn't too concerned about making a 100% period correct bike. Given I'm not too inclined to build very colorful bikes and prefer a clean and subtle build most of my Titanium bikes end up looking rather stark. I find that a little dab of color is often needed and like to use different color headset caps, here I ended up going with blue after trying out green and mango. It's not much, but just a little pop of color to offset the otherwise spartan build.

While I am of the opinion that arrival of the M950 grouppo heralded the end of the vintage mountain bike era I must admit that it was some really good kit. Even by modern standards, at least to the limited extent I have experience with actual modern stuff the M950 group stacks pretty well, brakes aside obviously.

I absolutely love Shimano's M900 XTR group, I run it on most of my personal bikes and have always felt it was a remarkable product. I have to admit that Shimano crushed it with the M950 and the overall performance is far better. Shifting is crisp, precise and by comparison effortless. With M900 and most of the groups before it you really had to plan your shifts a few moments early, with M950 that's mostly gone. You can have virtually any gear on demand anytime. While still relatively easy to find today, I predict that in a few years time M950 will be highly sought after and aside from just normal attrition will become as scarce and expensive as M900 is today.

I mentioned the brakes earlier, and of course while not nearly as good as modern disc brakes the introduction of V brakes, which again were a first with the M950 group really drove the nail into the coffin of many of the cottage industry brands making fancy cantilever brakes. I should point out that linear pull brakes had been around for a long time before Shimano made the V brakes, but none were executed as well from a setup and usability perspective as the M950 XTR Vees. I will point out that the pads were a weak point and were loud and chattery. One of the first things I did was change them out for Kool Stops which further improved the performance of these otherwise great brakes. Love it or hate it, the carbon booster is period correct and functional. The XLM is not the flexiest frame, but with the booster in place the rear brakes feel very solid and responsive.

I really like the detail of the seat post collar. The whole design is quite functional and clean. Obviously the larger diameter seat tube would have necessitated a larger diameter seat post, which while increasingly common by the mid 90s was still not as easy to source as a 27.2. So Merlin added an insert to the seat tube effectively shimming it down to 27.2 and then wrapped in a custom seat collar that evenly distributed the clamping force over a larger area. Nicely done boys!

I love the sculpted cable stop for the front derailleur, it's about as minimalist as you can get and a testament to both the craftsmanship and dedication to weight savings Merlin poured into the XLM. All of the stops on this frame seem smaller than other frames, at least the frames I have seen.

Though not rare, the classic 5 bolt spider was a less common option for the new M950 group which was I believe the first to introduce the 4x100 BCD standard which is still dominant today.

It's really amazing to see how far Merlin and the Titanium suppliers progressed in a relatively short amount of time. At the onset of the Titanium bike tubing was so simple, sizes were limited and the builders were still learning how to work with it. Therefore the designs were simple, if not crude. Most notable was the rear triangle. The early bikes had a very simple form enabling the stays to route from the seat tube / bottom bracket to the rear dropouts. Little allowance was given for tire clearance and the end result was not as stiff as it could have been. Fast forward a few years and the rear triangle is a compound shape made of double butted tubing with multiple bends and curves resulting in a beautiful and functional design enabling the use of larger tires and a very laterally stiff yet still compliant rear end.

Not exactly sure why Merlin decided to add rack mounts to this frame, maybe the dropouts were common with the other bikes or maybe they considered that hole added weight savings.

So, what the verdict??? Well, the ride is pretty good. The bike is light, responsive and very predictable. Now, you take any older bike and put on a relatively modern fork and modern large volume tires on it and it's immediately transformed. So, it's hard to say what is really in play here but while going out on some of my favorite local trails the Merlin felt at home in most terrains. Despite its relatively large size the handling is quick and the bike feels agile. Being taller I often opt for a larger sized frame (20" in classic terms) and I feel like often times those larger frames feel a bit sluggish and are not easy to throw around by adjusting my CG, this is less of an issue here. I was trying to think back to my days on Newsboy and see how the XLM compared to it. I remember being wholly unimpressed with the Newsboy, and aside from a sort of unremarkable feel I remember thinking it was a bit of a gate in anything technical (both were 20.5" frames). So, there's that. In terms of comparisons I feel that the XLM is really most like my 94 Klein Adroit. Now, while the Adroit is rigid both bikes are very light and made of just about the thinnest, largest diameter tubing available. In my opinion while that makes the for the lightest and stiffest bike possible, it really makes the bike feel kind of dead or well, hollow. I found that it was sort of bouncy and unlike say the Cunningham or Ti Phoenix it got perturbed rather easily. All that means is that I can't lose sight of my line or track, especially when going through technical sections. This is further exaggerated by fatigue, especially on longer rides and result in a loss of confidence or more frequent offs. The other issue I have, and this is less the bike rather than my build decision is the way it feels with the 80mm SID. The XLM was designed around a Rock Shox Judy and the frame was corrected to support a fork of that travel range. As I mentioned I went with an 80mm SID thinking it should be ok, but that 17mm ended up making more of an impact than I imagined. So, while I appreciate it on technical flat and downhill sections, steep and punchy climbs cause the front wheel to lift and clearing obstacles is also more challenging than on some of my other bikes. In the end I'd probably chose to go back to a Judy or try to limit the travel on the SID and drop the front end down a little bit.

I'll try to get a couple more rides in on this bike this season, but I can't really see keeping it long term. The Ti Phoenix while a couple pounds heavier and running less advanced drivetrain is just a ton more fun than this bike. I can't imagine that swapping in a lower travel fork on the XLM will all of a sudden bridge that gap. So, for now as far as thinning the heard is concerned this bike is a goner!