Review: Merlin Fat Beat
When I asked Merlin's designer to describe the concept behind the Fat Beat, he told me he wanted to make an XC bike with enough suspension to take the edge off, without wasting pedaling energy or inducing a lot of waggle.
By Karl Rosengarth
When I asked Merlin's designer to describe the concept behind the Fat Beat, he told me he wanted to make an XC bike with enough suspension to take the edge off, without wasting pedaling energy or inducing a lot of fork waggle which could compromise handling accuracy. Well, Merlin's quest for the ultimate XC bike has made for some strange bedfellows. My French ain't so good, so I'll call it a three-way: Cannondale Hedshok, Moots rear end and Merlin frame. Let's examine each element of this partnership.
Merlin decided on Cannondale's Ultra Fatty fork up front because they felt that it's precise steering was very close to the precision you get with a rigid fork. I couldn't agree more. Telescopic leg forks just seem to flop around, when compared to Hedshock standards (I wrote the same thing in 1994, when I first tested the Hedshock, and my opinion hasn't changed.) With its 70mm of travel, the Ultra Fatty is not a "big hits - out of bounds - cool rad bro" fork, but it is a sweet XC fork. Folks who still have a bike or two with rigid forks (I do) should appreciate the Fatty's true tracking. This is an air shock, and I have a love-hate relationship with air shocks. I love their tunability and progressive spring rate. I hate the fact that I'm never sure how much air is in them and that I have to frequently hook up the pump to check (and top off) the shock pressure. The Ultra Fatty worked quite well-so, I'd say that love was in the air.
Merlin chose the Moots rear end because they wanted the bike to pedal like a rigid frame, yet suspend the rider enough to take the edge off. Bingo! Pedaling the Fat Beat feels like pedaling a rigid bike. The only time I could get the rear suspension to move enough to become annoying was when I got really sloppy and started mashing the pedals in clunky square strokes. On washboard trails, small roots and even railroad ballast, the rear suspension had enough travel to feel a lot cooshier than a rigid frame. No, the rear suspension won't help much on those bomber downhills, best to get behind the saddle and ride it rigid style. The rear suspension did help maintain rear wheel traction when climbing over uneven terrain. I should mention that the Moots suspension is a so-called "pivotless" design utilizing a coil spring that provides just over one inch of suspension travel. An elastomer captured within the spring provides some damping. The rear suspension can be locked out (isn't that like jumbo shrimp?). I'd have to say that the Moots rear is a great XC suspension and the perfect match to the Ultra Fatty up front.
Now, the frame. This beautifully welded titanium alloy frame is looks different than the typical Merlin because the Fat Beat's overall geometry must accommodate the Hedshok. The head tube sits very high off the ground; therefore, Merlin assured proper standover clearance by giving the Fat Beat a radically sloping top tube. For durability reasons, the pivotless rear end is made with straight gauge tubing (seat stays, chain stays and seat tube). Merlin decided to continue the straight gauge theme up front, since butting the top, down and head tubes would add a lot of expense and save very little weight. Merlin's attention to detail shows through in practices like CNC machining the bottom bracket shell after welding (not simple), instead of threading it before welding (simple) - that's a lot of effort to assure perfect bottom bracket thread alignment. Ok, wannabe metallurgists: the Fat Beat is built using aerospace grade 3/2.5 titanium alloy tubes and 6/4 titanium alloy dropouts.
My XTR equipped test bike came with Mavic CrossRide wheels (new for 2000) and Hutchinson Python gold tires. I screwed on my Time Al pedals and she weighed 24 lbs. 10 oz. She weighed 25 lbs. 8 oz. after I customized her for my riding style: switched to beefy Hutchinson Alligator 2.00" tires, removed the flat bar and put on a wider Profile Fiber RS riser bar, added a bottle cage and my dingle bell. The brochure weight for a 17.5" frame is 4.3 lbs. Here are some more numbers on the 17.5" frame: 73°/71° seat/head angles, 23" nominal top tube length, 16.8" long chainstays, 30.4" standover height, 1.8" fork rake and 11.5" high bottom bracket. The bottom line: about $3000 for frame, HeadShok and stem.
One thing I've learned over six years of test riding mountain bikes is that every bike has its own character. Bike testing is an education - ride, pay attention and learn. Not all bikes feel instantly comfortable, but a good bike will eventually show it's true colors. That's how it happened with the Fat Beat. At first, I had a hard time finding that "oneness" with the bike. I'm not sure why I had a hard time. Perhaps it was the high stance of the head tube, which is quite a departure from my personal ride. Perhaps it was the flat bar and negative rise stem combo, which I eventually switched to a riser bar and low-rise stem. Happily, I can report that, by the end of the test, I was completely in sync with the Fat Beat. Merlin says the bike is designed to handle like the other bikes in their lineup: traditional XC-racer neutral handling, neither too twitchy nor too slack. I'd say that's an accurate description. Once your body gets its muscle memory in tune with the Fat Beat, the bike is so well-behaved you can switch off your brain and just ride her without thinking about it. I've ridden the Fat Beat for two months, and the only crash I had was a clear case of pilot error. I pushed her hard, and very rarely did she even begin to feel sketchy. With that track history, I have to give the Fat Beat a top-notch rating on my ride-o-meter.
Normally, my bike review would have ended with the prior paragraph, but I feel compelled to continue. There is another story here. A story of a bike company (Merlin) that was willing use technology created by two other bike companies (Moots and Cannondale), instead of trying to re-invent the wheel. Merlin did not borrow or pilfer the technology. Instead, they went above board and asked if they could use the technology. That's refreshing, as is the fact that both Moots and Cannondale were hip enough say: "Sure, Merlin you can use our design." Moots even shared their expertise to make sure that Merlin's frame was designed to properly utilize the Moots rear end design. Merlin showed respect by using the Moots and Cannondale logos on the bike. Can you feel the love? If not, you need to cop a test ride like I did. Contact Merlin Metal Works, 40 Smith Place, Cambridge, MA 02138; www.merlinbike.com; 617.661.6688.
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