Merlin 5.25 Works - First Ride review£2,799.00

Boutique titanium trailster from the USA

BikeRadar score3/5Find prices on Bicycle Blue Book

US titanium pioneers Merlin’s new mid-travel full-suspension mountain bike frame costs a hefty £2,800, but while there’s no doubting the build quality of the 5.25 Works, it’s a bike with a confused personality. 

It’s light and fast enough to be a fine all-rounder but it requires imagination to get the best out of it. However you set it up, the high bottom bracket is always an issue. At its best, it feels awkward at slow speeds but romps along at high speeds with a 120mm fork, the rider sat back with lots of shock sag and the back doing more work than the fork. At its worst, it feels more gawky giraffe than careering kangaroo.

Ride & handling: Surprisingly efficient at speed, but feels a bit gawky on slow, technical singletrack

It’s been years since we’ve had a Merlin Metalworks bike on test. The titanium specialists have only created a few full-suspension frames, and while the mainframe of the 5.25 bears all the classy tube forming hallmarks of the brand, we’ve never been persuaded that titanium tubes offer any advantages when it comes to full-suspension chassis design. 

The 5.25 is said to be designed with 120-150mm travel forks in mind, so we were surprised to find that our test bike came with a 100mm Fox 32. As always, we only took our measurements after the first ride. A 100mm fork resulted in static 69-degree head and 72-degree seat angles, and a lofty 14in bottom bracket height. This encouraged a soft rear shock and a firm fork setup. 

We plugged in a RockShox Revelation fork with 110-140mm of U-Turn travel. At full length this relaxed static geometry by a couple of degrees but lifted the bottom bracket by half an inch. Crucially, it also allowed for more fork and shock sag, which dropped the bottom bracket again. A floaty fork setup seems to suit the back end.

The best setup compromise seemed to be a soft 120mm up front combined with a medium-soft back end permanently set to middle stage ProPedal platform damping. Whatever we did though, that high bottom bracket and slack head angle still felt awkward on slow speed terrain. 

The 5.25 takes some  fi ne tuning but delivers a  solid trail ride: the 5.25 takes some  fi ne tuning but delivers a  solid trail ride
The 5.25 takes some fi ne tuning but delivers a solid trail ride: the 5.25 takes some fi ne tuning but delivers a solid trail ride

We began to see why, contrary to the marketing spiel, our sample was equipped with a 100mm fork. As one tester put it, after an awkward slow speed tumble: “Like a kangaroo, or a giraffe, it’s surprisingly efficient once it gets up to speed but feels a bit gawky on slow-speed, technical singletrack.”

The high bottom bracket may suit you if you like to ride with a long-forked front and soft rear setup. This allows you to pedal hard and fast through rough terrain with minimum pedal strike risk while feeling at ease on rough downhills with the fork set to full travel. This, of course, makes for a wallowy ride on anything that involves lots of body language – such as hills. 

If you like a floaty setup like this you’ll be using the ProPedal settings a lot, and you’ll probably use the suspension lockout on long uphills. To avoid the high centre of gravity caused by that lofty bottom bracket at other times, the perfect fork choice would be one you can lock down on climbs rather than lock out fully extended.

If you want the Merlin to feel tighter or firmer, a shorter fork and generous use of the ProPedal shock settings is the best way. The Revelation set to 120mm offered decent hard-riding cross-country trail performance and enough tuning adjustments to make it feel at ease with the back end on most terrain. But it took us a while to get to a point we were happy with, and we still felt the bottom bracket was too high.

The boutique ti 5.25 works surprisingly well with mismatched travel: the boutique ti 5.25 works surprisingly well with mismatched travel
The boutique ti 5.25 works surprisingly well with mismatched travel: the boutique ti 5.25 works surprisingly well with mismatched travel

Frame: Well thought out titanium chassis with Merlin's legendary quality control

A look at the technical specifications and forming expertise in the 5.25's tubes gives you a clue as to why Merlin have been around since 1986. Every 3/2.5 (three percent vanadium, 2.5 percent aluminium) tube on a Merlin is custom drawn to a ‘Merlin Tubing Specification’ standard that exceeds aerospace industry standards for straightness, ovality and wall thickness. 

Merlin's quality control requires testing processes that are generally ignored with non-aerospace tubing and its cold worked precision tube forming processes, while not obvious to the untrained eye, are the envy of the industry. In short, a Merlin frame has gone through a lot to earn its price tag. We love the engraved head tube too.

Merlin’s previous full-susser, the 4.0, used an Ellsworth Truth’s back end on Merlin’s titanium main triangle. Merlin designer Brad DeVaney’s loved the 5.25-inch travel Epiphany but Ellsworth wouldn’t let Merlin use the patented ICT (Instant Centre Tracking) four-bar linkage back end on the 5.25, so Brad designed it without ICT.

The cam-link rocker system on the 5.25 dictates the wheel-to-shock travel ratio in a way that optimises the 5.25in of travel without any overly plush or unwanted ramp-up spots within the stroke. Unsurprisingly the back end looks like an Ellsworth but the dropout pivots are on the seatstays and the rocker is shorter than on the Epiphany so the lever ratio and resulting ride feel are different.

The rocker is shorter than an ellsworth epiphany’s: the rocker is shorter than an ellsworth epiphany’s
The rocker is shorter than an ellsworth epiphany’s: the rocker is shorter than an ellsworth epiphany’s

Riders and manufacturers sing the praises of four-bar linkage bikes with chainstay pivots, but shock tuning and platform damping can allow seatstay pivot bikes such as the Merlin to work as well in most trail scenarios.

Despite its plain looks, there’s a lot going on in the 5.25’s mainframe. The big down tube has been formed to create the ideal mix of low weight and high strength, with a big weld contact area into the reinforced head tube. The sloped top tube has plenty of standover clearance and is tube-braced across to the seat tube to allow for ideal placement of the main rocker pivot. The seat tube base is heavily sleeved to hold the main swingarm pivot and lower shock mount. 

All the tubes are 3/2.5 titanium, machined parts are super-tough 6/4 titanium and tube wall thickness varies according to frame size. There’s also a custom build service for those who can afford it. The back end is tough but light box-sectioned aluminium, with premium quality pivot bearings, and there’s lots of mud room. 

Equipment: Pick your own – but put some thought into your fork choice

The air shock – Fox’s RP23 with three-stage ProPedal platform damping – and headset are included in the hefty price, but the rest is up to you. 

Our test bike came with a Shimano XT drivetrain and brakes, Bontrager wheelset, Maxxis Larsen TT 2in tubeless tyres, Thomson seatpost and stem, Ritchey Pro Rizer bar and a Fizik Gobi saddle. The all-in weight was just over 27lb.

Tester’s thoughts

“I wanted to like the 5.25, especially as I love the Epiphany. Unfortunately its confused personality and a frame price that would buy a complete Epiphany didn’t impress. I prefer climb on, pedal and steer bikes rather than fiddling with suspension settings on the fly.” Steve Worland

Designer's thoughts

We asked Chris Hewings, director of international sales for the American Bicycle Group, about the Merlin brand.

What sort of rider typically buys a Merlin, and who do you think will buy the 5.25?  

That’s very hard to answer as we do no after-sales research to identify our customers, but I would guess at wealthy enthusiasts who recognise Merlin as one of the oldest, most reputable and experienced frame manufacturers, and want to buy into that reputation and experience. A lot of sales come from existing Merlin customers who want to try our new products. We make them, and they sell!

Does a depressed economic climate have a negative or positive effect on top-end bikes?

Again, very difficult to answer as I’m not an economist. I’d guess at this level of bike purchasing, the customer is wealthier than the norm so they should be more insulated than the average man in the street from the economic downturn. We’ve not noticed a slowdown in sales over the past few months — in fact it’s been the opposite.

What is Merlin’s best selling frame these days?

The XLM hardtail in the mountain bike range — we sell more Merlin frames in Europe than in the USA.

What sets Merlin apart from other top end titanium frame builders? 

They’re all designed and manufactured in the US, using the highest grade titanium available, with no shortcuts on material or design. The tubing manipulation on the downtube cannot be matched by any manufacturer. It’s why we manufacture titanium for aerospace applications for NASA.

There's no bike company on the planet that comes close to our titanium manipulation expertise. As different parts of a frame undergo totally different stresses during a ride, tubes need to be tuned (by manipulation and butting) to handle different forces that act at different points on the frame. We also manufacture different tubesets for each size of bike. It does cost us a small fortune to do this, but we won’t – and don’t – compromise.”

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