Lancashire-based Merlin Cycles has been quietly turning out good value, well built trail hardtails for years. One of the best aspects of its mail order service is that it offers a degree of customisation that the big names just can’t match. Fancy an upgrade? No problem – just check the appropriate box and tap in your credit card details. Our test Malt 1 came with '08 Deore components, a RockShox Recon fork and a surprisingly low £525 price tag.
Ride & handling: Feeling of quality that belies its modest price
We’ve always got on well with previous incarnations of Merlin’s Malt, so it came as no surprise to discover that this version offers the stability that defines a well-sorted bike. Planting the rider’s weight just-so between front and rear wheels is a good start, while short chainstays and a lanky bottom bracket make for a lively rear end and plenty of ground clearance for pedalling full tilt through the lumpy bits.
The shortish stem and plush air-sprung fork back up the Malt’s get-up-and-go character with quick, accurate steering and a subtle suppleness that the coil-sprung competition can’t quite match.
The low weight and tight chainstays make their presence felt if you put the boot in, but the fork’s good enough to allow you to let the front wheel do more of the work and leave the rear to its own skittish devices.
And it’s not just skittish, it’s loud too – the rear mech clanks noisily against the chainstay in the rough. But that’s nothing a decent neoprene chainstay protector wouldn’t sort.
The slick-shifting transmission, grippy tyres and comfy contact points give the Malt 1 a feeling of quality that belies its modest price. A bike for all reasons? It could well be.
Chassis: Frame is showing its age, but air fork is a boon
If you want the latest in aluminium frame technology from Merlin, you’ll have to stump up for the kinesium-chassised Malt 4. But while the Malt 1’s older design shows in the lack of hydroforming and complex tube profiling, it’s still well thought-out. Top and down tubes flare where they meet the seat tube and bottom bracket, adding a dose of rigidity to combat pedal-induced twisting forces. There’s also a welded gusset at the junction between the down and head tubes to strengthen this vulnerable area.
Shapely stays contribute some curves to what would otherwise be a rather angular frame, their tidy lines reinforced by the lack of rim brake bosses. The chunky disc mount and plain plate dropouts are functional rather than beautiful, which isn’t a grumble at this price. Double bottle cage bosses mean that Malt 1 owners needn’t be reliant on backpack hydration, but there’s just a single set of threaded eyelets at the rear (confined to the dropouts) and there’s no provision for bolting on a Crud Catcher – a surprising omission on a modern UK bike.
Scoring the air-sprung RockShox Recon fork is a big bonus. Different weights and riding styles are easily catered for with a shock pump and a tweak of the single air chamber’s pressure, while adjustable rebound damping prevents things from getting too bouncy. We’ve found the Recon’s 32mm diameter lowers give accurate steering and long-lasting, low-maintenance performance in all weathers too.
Equipment: Handbuilt wheels, Shimano drivetrain and big name finishing kit
Big name brands WTB and RaceFace make up the Malt 1’s list of finishing components with solidly functional kit. Panaracer Fire XC tyres provide decent cushioning and grippy performance in all but the slimiest of conditions, while the full Shimano Deore drivetrain works flawlessly. For some reason we didn’t have the two-way shift levers on our test bike though.
The wheels are worth a special mention. Merlin’s wheels are legendary for good reason – they’re superbly built. With Deore hubs, Mavic 317 disc rims and double butted stainless spokes, the Malt 1 boasts just about the best – albeit not the lightest – wheelset you’re likely to find on a bike for £500.