Mark’s Merlin

Mark approached the shop a few months ago with a sweet Merlin frame and the idea of a gravel bike. He entrusted us with finding available parts and getting it put together for him. After a month or so of waiting for everything to be obtainable, we got the bike all set up for Mark! We snapped some pictures, and then he tore off into the sunset. Mark wrote us a little essay detailing his experience with this bike, and bit of his personal history with cycling and with Merlin bikes. Check it out below!

Photo of Mark’s custom built Merlin


In 1986 my company transferred me from Brooklyn, NY to Tokyo, Japan.  Mountain biking was just trending there and bikes manufactured there were very expensive and tended to be too small for 6’1” Americans like me.

In the US both mountain bike downhill and cross country were booming and, as in road cycling, teams and riders were looking for ways to lighten up for long climbs and endurance events. Two contenders to replace heavy steel frames were aluminum and titanium.

Cannondale (founded in Cannondale, CT, 1983) moved from bicycle bags to aluminum bicycles. In 1990 they experimented with oversized down tubes on their mountain bikes with 3.0 frames.

Merlin Metal Works was founded in Somerville, MA in 1986 to build custom-welded bike frames from titanium, which was rigid but “compliant”.  The first frame made was a MTB frame for mountain bike world champion Joe Murray.

So in 1990 I made a trip back to the USA to buy a MTB that fit me and that I could afford.  Although Merlin appealed to me, their bikes were nearly twice as expensive as Cannondale’s welded aluminum bikes, so I bought a Cannondale SM 700 manufactured in November 1990, and fit out with Shimano Deore DX and Ritchey fork and wheels.

From 1990 until October 8, 2020 my mountain, road and gravel bike was my faithful 1990 Cannondale. Rail trails, mud, sand, snow, rock gardens, grass and singletrack.  But my dream bike of 1990 is heavy by today’s standards, and my big knobbies are slow on pavement.

Mark with his 1990 Cannondale and his new Merlin frame

Fast forward 30 years.  Now I’m half retired with time and energy to ride.  It’s time for me and my bike to lose some weight:

2020 is time for a “gravel bike”.

I thought again about my 1990 decision for aluminum instead of Merlin and thought “this time conjure me up a Merlin”!

So I contacted Merlin and looked to see what they had for a gravel bike.  I was lucky to connect with a senior consultant looking for a gravel frame I could have built out when economics permitted. He found me a perfect fit based on 8 body measurements and I became the proud owner of a custom frame – a Merlin Sandstone Gravel.

The day the frame was delivered, the box was so light I couldn’t believe there was anything in it. But when I pulled out that beautifully crafted curvaceous titanium frame with the  Merlin head badge, I knew this would be the two-wheeled love of my life!

Merlin head badge

The COVID pandemic was worsening by the day and we were sheltered-in-place in Florence, not far from Amherst.  As the summer dragged on I got to thinking about an amazing bike shop, The Laughing Dog, where I went for service and had had a stimulating conversation with the owner Parker.  Wondering how they were surviving the lockdown, I rang and asked if Parker might be willing to build me a gravel bike.  

Two days later I took the Merlin over and we began talking about building it out for gravel.  Parker said I needed to know that many high-end components were almost impossible to get due to production and supply-chain shutdowns so it might take until late September to ferret out the ideal components.  I was convinced this was the shop with the talent and experience to build a dream machine so we agreed to do it.

Although Laughing Dog moved fast to procure the ideal components, the Shimano cassette for the 1 x 11 drive chain was on backorder as were the Shimano brake rotors. 

Shimano Cassette

Late one afternoon in early October I got the call.  The Laughing Dog Merlin was completed. Hallelujah! I couldn’t wait to get on it. It was too dark to ride that night, but shortly after sunrise on October 7 I mounted The Laughing Dog Merlin at Lawrence Station on the Norwottuck Bike Trail.  The trail runs through Amherst and Hadley, crosses the CT River on the old railroad bridge, and continues to downtown Northampton. Then I decided to get off-road.  Starting with a detour on the dike along Honey Pot Road, then singletrack on dirt and grass to the levee along the CT River, before looping back and returning to close the 21 mile route.

Here are some photos of my new gravel bike The Laughing Dog Merlin!

Merlin Mark