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Looking back at previous Merlin Cordite models, you can see that the latest 2018 model has taken on a more endurance-based theme than those earlier race spec models. The head tube has grown in length, and a heavily sloped, shorter top tube creates a more relaxed riding position. It's still responsive, though, and with plenty of stiffness and an impressive 8kg weight, it's well equipped for a crack at racing too.
Merlin has an impressive history when it comes to own brand bikes, and I was certainly impressed with the Nitro SL when I tested it last year. The Cordite continues that great theme of excellent value for money.
For your £1,599 (currently discounted to £1,399) you are getting a full carbon frameset, high-end Deda finishing kit and what is probably the icing on the cake: a brand new, full Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset. Very nice indeed.
The only thing crying out for an upgrade is the 2kg Shimano WH-RS010 wheelset. You can change those; more on that later.
You instantly notice that the frame and fork are on the stiff side, offering quite a firm ride. Much firmer than I'd expect for a bike of its style, really, it being aimed at long rides and the odd sportive.
It's also a very responsive ride; it reacts to your pedalling or steering in a very efficient manner. Swap out that weighty wheelset for something much lighter and you find out just how good the Merlin's frameset is when it comes to sprinting or climbing. At a claimed 990g for a medium frame, paired with a 385g fork, it is pretty impressive, and power transfer isn't an issue.
Even with Merlin keeping the bottom bracket shell size sedate, sticking with outboard bearings rather than the oversized BB386 Press Fit, there is little feeling of flex when you really stamp on the pedals to crest a steep ascent or sprint for the village sign.
Our 52cm model has a 551mm top tube and 175mm head tube, so you can see just how upright a position it is compared to something more race-orientated like the Focus Izalco Race, which I tested at the end of 2017, for example.
That doesn't mean the Merlin feels lofty; I got plenty of use out of the drops while on the flat roads without it bringing on any shoulder or neck pain after hours in the saddle. Even if you aren't that flexible you can still make full use of all the hand positions on offer and get out of the wind for instance.
It benefits descending too, as you can achieve a lower centre of gravity than when on the hoods, to aid stability.
The steering isn't as razor-sharp as a race bike, which is what you'd expect, but it's a very capable machine. The handling is pretty neutral and you certainly don't get any surprises.
The Merlin does feel a little muted in terms of feedback from the frameset; you pedal it and it'll get where you want to go, and quickly too, but if you want any kind of engagement or feedback while on the journey you ain't going to get it here.
It's quite marked compared with something like the excellent frameset of the aforementioned Focus Izalco Race.
When you look at the Cordite it's obvious that this frame is about performance over comfort. The front end is beefier than the rear, admittedly, but it's not by much compared to others.
The head tube is tapered to add a bit off stiffness for steering and braking loads, which is pretty much the norm now.
The top tube starts wide, tapering back until it meets the seat tube, while the down tube starts off oval in the vertical plain before switching to the horizontal one as it reaches the bottom bracket. This is a common theme used to counteract the differing forces from steering and pedalling.
The rear triangle is quite chunky too, with rectangular chainstays, and the seatstays – which a lot of brands slim down to promote flex – are quite large on the Merlin, too, which probably contributes to the firm ride.
Cable routing is completely internal and enters the frame via alloy inserts on the down tube and top tube. It's not quite as smooth and integrated as we're used to seeing on some of the newest carbon frames, but you don't get any rattling over rough surfaces.
At this price, the latest Ultegra groupset is pretty much unheard of, and is what makes the Merlin really stand out.
The R8000 shifters are just a joy to use. The hood shape, and especially the new lever shape, just make them feel natural in your hand no matter where you sit your fingers.
The larger paddle sitting behind the brake lever makes for an easier shift and the actual gear change feels quicker and crisper than the previous version.
The rear mech has had a complete redesign and uses the Shadow technology found on Shimano's off-road mechs and the latest Dura-Ace (you can read Mat's full review of that here). The main body sits much further inboard than the previous version, which not only keeps it out of the airflow a tiny bit but also means it is less likely to be damaged in a crash or wipe out the mech hanger.
The front mech is neater too, with a new cable feed design looking more compact.
Our test model came with a 52/36 semi-compact chainset and an 11-28t cassette, but you can spec whatever you so desire with Merlin's bike builder options before you buy, and the price will update accordingly.
Ultegra brake callipers have always been brilliant and these latest versions are no different. With a new squarer style profile they offer loads of stiffness which translates into stopping power and excellent modulation.
The contact points are another thing you can customise at point of sale, but what you get on this model is pretty impressive for the money. Deda supplies the front end with a SuperZero winged handlebar matched to a SuperZero stem. On bikes of this price we're used to seeing basic alloy components, so kit of this level is a real bonus; you can even upgrade to the carbon SuperZero for an extra £80.
The bar here has a 75mm reach and a 130mm drop, which makes it a compact option, allowing even the most inflexible people to use the drops on occasions. The wing-shaped top is a comfortable perch for your palms and Deda has left a reasonably sized centre section of round bar for attaching a light bracket or Garmin mount.
Deda also provides the seatpost, an alloy Zero 1 in a 31.6mm diameter, adding further to that frame stiffness.
Perched atop is a Pro Falcon Ti Rail saddle which I got on okay with. It is quite firm, with minimal padding and a centre relief channel.
I mentioned the wheels earlier, and if you want to make a real difference to the way the Cordite responds to acceleration and climbing then definitely upgrade them. Merlin offers a pair of Fulcrum Racing 3s in the drop-down list for an extra £235, for instance.
The Shimano wheels may be chunky but they are hardwearing and durable. We see them on quite a lot of test bikes and I've ridden them through all sorts of conditions and terrain without any issues at all, so they do make great training wheels.
In its standard setup this bike would come with a set of Continental Ultra Sport II tyres, which again are pretty common at this price point. We have a £30 upgrade to the same company's Grand Prix 4000 S IIs, which are downright excellent. Their Chilli compound is tacky, giving loads of confidence-inspiring grip in the corners, both wet and dry. Puncture-proofing is great too, and a set that I've been running on my own bike show that wear isn't excessive either for such a soft compound. (Add this option and the price changes to £1,633.29 rrp, £1,429 discount.)
Merlin only offers 25mm options for tyre selection, and I'd say that is about as big as you can go, especially at the fork as there isn't massive amounts of clearance around the 25s.
With a full Ultegra groupset and that Deda finishing kit, the Cordite looks to be good value for money at its £1,599 rrp but there are a few other bikes on the market to challenge it.
That Focus Izalco I mentioned earlier has a much better frame in terms of feedback, and costs £1,699 for the Ultegra-equipped version. It also comes with Mavic Aksium wheels. I'd happily drop to the 105 model, which uses the same Shimano wheels as the Cordite for just £1,399 (the same as the Cordite at its current discount). It's a slightly different bike to the Merlin, having a 35mm shorter head tube, so you'd have to decide if you can cope with the lower front end.
If you want to go for a more endurance-based machine then there is the Trek Emonda SL 5 that has recently received an excellent write-up. It's £1,800 in its Shimano 105, carbon fibre framed guise, more proof of the Merlin's value, but it's worth noting that the Trek's frame was highly praised in that review.
The Cordite may not be the bike for me (I like a little more spark from the ride), but it is a very competent performer and well specced.
If you want a bike that you can just get out and ride for miles on with little issue then it is certainly worth considering, plus you can tweak and upgrade the components before you buy to get the exact balance of weight versus cost and performance that suits.
Competent, easy-to-live-with mile-muncher that's great value for money
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Merlin Cordite Ultegra R8000
Size tested: 52cm
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
Frame: Carbon Fibre
Fork: Carbon Fibre
Shifters: Shimano Ultegra R8000
Brakes: Shimano Ultegra R8000 dual calipers
Chainset: Shimano Ultegra R8000 52/36 170mm
Cassette: Shimano Ultegra R8000 11-28
Front mech: Shimano Ultegra R8000
Rear Mech : Shimano Ultegra R8000
Bottom Bracket: Shimano Ultegra BBR60
Chain: Shimano Ultegra HG701
Wheelset: Shimano WH-RS010 Clincher 10/11spd
Handlebars: Deda SuperZero Alloy
Stem: Deda SuperZero Alloy
Seatpost: Deda Zero 1 31.6 x 350
Saddle: Pro Falcon Ti
Tell us what the bike is for
Merlin says, "The Merlin Cordite Ultegra R8000 is our versatile, lightweight carbon road bike which we've specifically engineered to perform excellently in sportives, all-day epic rides and even your local weekly crit race. Our 2018 version of the Merlin Cordite mixes rider-friendly geometry with clever carbon fibre engineering to put you in a neutral position on the bike while isolating you from road buzz and rough road surfaces thanks to its cleverly engineered seatstays that give a little extra compliancy.
"The Cordite can be successfully raced too, being particularly light and responsive. To achieve this we combined the Cordite's compliant features with a large downtube and bottom bracket junction as well as super-stiff square chain stays to create a frame that is not only comfortable to ride but is also very responsive to pedaling input allowing you to accelerate and hold your speed during fast-paced training rides or races."
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
It looks and feels to be well made and the finish is hardwearing. There is also a yellow/grey paintjob as well as the black/red you see here.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
70% 24Tons Intermediate Modulus Carbon
25% 30Tons High Modulus Carbon
5% High-impact strength Liquid Crystal Polymer Carbon
High Modulus Full Carbon
Frame: 990g (Size Medium)
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
The Cordite is aimed at the endurance market so it has a shorter top tube and taller head tube than a similarly sized race bike. This gives you a more relaxed, upright position.
Full geometry details here - https://www.merlincycles.com/merlin-cordite-ultegra-r8000-carbon-road-bi...
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
Very similar to the recently tested Vitus Venon CR Disc 105 which has also become more endurance-focused for 2018.
The Merlin has a stack of 578.6mm and a reach of 380.2mm
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
The ride quality was okay but it is quite a firm bike, which could lead to fatigue in the contact points if you spend a lot of time on poor road surfaces.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
Stiffness is good but it would be nice to have a bit more compliance in the frame; I couldn't feel very much.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
There are no issues with power transfer at all, the Merlin just gets on with it.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so
Yes a little.
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively Neutral
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
The handling is very easy to live with and you'll get no twitchy surprises from the bike.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
Everything about this bike is stiff so if you want to increase the comfort I'd say go for a plusher saddle and maybe some thicker bar tape.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
If it's stiffness you're after then everything in this setup will suffice.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
Those wheels really need upgrading to get the best out of the frame when it comes to climbing or acceleration.
Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?
The latest version of Ultegra feels to be a massive leap forward from what was already an excellent groupset.
Wheels and tyres
Tell us some more about the wheels.Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the wheels? If so
The Shimano wheels make for a great training set but if you want a more performance-orientated ride you need to upgrade.
Tell us some more about the tyres. Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the tyres? If so
The Continental Grand Prix 4000 tyres we had fitted are well worth the £30 upgrade. Loads of grip and excellent durability.
Tell us some more about the controls. Any particularly good or bad components? How would the controls work for larger or smaller riders?
The Deda kit is very good to see at this price point, plus it's plenty stiff enough if you are the type of rider who really likes to yank on the bars.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? No, I prefer a bike with a little bit more feedback.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
The Merlin Cordite looks a very good package on paper, and if you want a bike that is easy to ride with endurance-style geometry then it's a sensible choice. There are bikes out there that are more fun to ride, though, with quicker handling, and if that's your thing then maybe this Merlin isn't for you.
About the tester
I usually ride: This month's test bike My best bike is: Kinesis Aithein
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: time trialling, commuting, club rides, sportives, fixed/singlespeed
With 20 years of road cycling and over 150,000 miles in his legs it's safe to say Stu is happiest when on the bike whatever the weather. Since writing his first review for road.cc back in 2009 he has also had a career in engineering including 3D-CAD design and product development, so has a real passion for all of the latest technology coming through in the industry but is also a sucker for a classic steel frame, skinny tyres, rim brakes and a damn good paintjob.
His fascination with gravel bikes is getting out of control too!