- Merlin Malt 2
- Great value hardtail
- Various component options
Lanchashire retailer Merlin Cycles has been producing its own range of frames and bikes for several years and has built a reputation for great value and top quality. The frames offer a great starting place for building your own bike, but if you’re starting from scratch you’re better off taking advantage of their semi-custom build option. With Merlin’s ability to spec decent components for not much money, you’d be hard pushed to build yourself a better-value bike.
The Merlin range consists of three frames, and they all share similar features. They’re all built by Kinesis, with the entry level £140 Malt 1 frame habing plain-gauge 7005 aluminium tubing nad the £200 Malt 2 saving some weight with butted tubing. The £300 Malt 4 gets a Kinesis Kinesium tubeset, featuring hydroformed down and top tubes.
In its matt blue livery (which looks more like black a lot of the time) the Malt 2 looks smart, attracting admiring glances from most people. The bold yellow graphics divided opinion, though – we think some subtler decals would go down better. The frame is well put together and the welding is all very neat. Cables run along the top tube and there are well-placed disc hose fittings to keep the rear brake hose in place.
Up front there’s a standard issue gusset clinging to the downtube, while out back beautifully curved seat and chain stays give plenty of mud and heel clearance. The frame is disc-specific, so no V-brake studs to ruin the lines. The dropouts are the area of some possibly redundant extra attention. The dropouts themselves are stout forged items, rendering the additional bracing tube between the stays largely unnecessary. There doesn’t seem to be much of a weight penalty, though, with the frame weighing just under 4lb.
Bucking the trend for ever-longer forks on hardtails, Merlin has designed the frame for a conservative 100mm travel fork. All the numbers are entirely conventional – angles are a fairly standard 71 head and 73 seat, with a 22.5in top tube on our 17in test bike. Chainstays are 16.75in, and the BB is a low-slung 11.5in.
Merlin doesn’t just sell frames on their own. Its trump card is offering complete bikes. For example the Malt 2 here gets a can’t-fault-it Deore transmission, Magura Julie hydraulic disc brakes, Magura Vidar forks, Mavic rims on Deore hubs shod with Panaracer Fire XC tyres, with an FSA finishing kit (including oversized bars), all for just £600. That’s a bargain whichever way you look at it.
It’s all good kit that will withstand a beating, but if it’s not to your taste then fear not. Merlin lets you change the spec on each bike when you order. Fancy a better groupset, no problem. A higher spec Magura fork or Marzocchi options are available. The FSA finishing kit can be upgraded to Easton EA50 if preferred, and to match the rest of the black components you can choose black Mavic rims over the standard silver.
The Magura Vidar fork worked surprisingly well. It’s clearly a budget fork, with non-adjustable damping and a simple coil spring (spring preload is your only adjustment). But it’s fairly stout, the single damping setting will be fine for most riders and they should be reliable.
The 17in bike we tested felt nicely balanced and reassuringly solid, and was very direct when putting the power down. It’s quite a compact frame and demonstrated an ability to be chucked around with reckless abandon. Despite the lowish bottom bracket we didn’t experience much pedal-to-ground interference, and the low-slung frame made for confident tracking. It happily tackled a whole variety of terrain with a determined attitude, and rarely did we feel out of depth, even down some of the rockier descents in the Peak District.
We even found it comfortable on longer rides, possibly thanks in part to the curvy stays although having several yards of seatpost sticking out will have helped. We had to dial in a bit of preload on the forks to prevent them from diving through their travel to eagerly, but they coped admirably with everything. A higher spec fork would make a nice upgrade, something like the currently popular Reba with adjustable travel would suit – the bike would still handle just fine with another smidge of fork travel.
On our scales the Malt 2 came in at 28lbs, a respectable weight for the price. It’s no race whippet (check out Merlin’s range of Rock Lobster packages for lighter steeds), but there’s scope to shave off some weight if you feel the need. It never felt heavy when riding, and was a bike we could confidently take out and know that we would return happy.
Positives: Great value for money, spec can be tailored to suit wallet, tough, solid and fun to ride
Negatives: Not for brand snobs, shorter stem would suit our tastes better
The ability to start with a decent frame and custom spec a bike, matched with Merlin’s ability to offer fantastic value for money is a winning formula. This £600 package could find a home with a new rider but won’t disappoint the more experienced on a budget.