Merlin Cycles' Malt-G1X Apex 1 sits atop its alloy gravel bike range, and for the money there is a fair bit to like: a decent quality triple butted aluminium alloy frame, a full carbon fibre fork, a full SRAM Apex groupset and Zipp finishing kit. It isn't all show and no go either, as with a decent weight and a fair bit of stiffness it'll have you covering those off-road segments with a grin on your face.
Mat tested the Malt-G, the little brother to this G1X model, around this time last year and overall he was impressed, although he did have a few issues, one being the weight. The G uses a Shimano Tiagra groupset, cable disc brakes and costs just £649, so there are bound to be compromises, but in creating the G1X the frame and fork have had a couple of tweaks too, which sees the whole bike shed 800g.
That sort of weight makes a noticeable difference, especially when it comes to acceleration and climbing, which certainly made the Merlin plenty of fun when bashing about on the local gravel tracks.
It's still no lightweight, but it has some sprightliness there and I enjoyed sprinting up the short, sharp climbs, and the rather small bottom bracket shell only gave the smallest whiff of flex when I was absolutely smashing it from bottom to top.
With chainstays around the 440mm mark, helping to create a long and stable wheelbase of 1,050mm, plus a 71.5-degree head angle, the Merlin has a very easy ride to live with on an unstable surface like gravel.
There is some decent feedback going on through the frame and fork, so you can feel what is going on beneath you, and the almost subdued handling (compared with some of the more aggressive gravel bikes I've ridden) can be cajoled into getting you out of trouble if needs be.
This doesn't mean the Malt-G1X is boring to ride if you are a seasoned off-roader, as Merlin has specced a much shorter stem than you would normally find on a road bike of similar size to keep things interesting.
All this means you can have some fun when descending, and it's only when things are really steep or technical that you have to work hard to keep the Merlin hitting each apex.
Our 50cm model (565mm top tube) has a 165mm head tube length which isn't over the top. Take out the spacers and you can get quite an aggressive position if you are used to riding race bikes.
I actually enjoyed the G1X a little more upright; it's a relaxing ride and I enjoyed cruising for miles on the gravel just enjoying the scenery.
The Merlin will even take mudguards and racks if you want to tackle a bit of light adventure work or touring on the road.
Speaking of the road, sitting on the tarmac probably isn't the G1X's strongest area as that steady and neutral handling on the gravel finds it a little uninspiring for quick road work. Although, with the tyre clearances and mudguard mounts it'd make a decent winter commuter, where you could find yourself on dodgy road surfaces in less than ideal weather conditions.
The Malt-G came with a double butted 6061 aluminium alloy tubeset, but for the G1X that has been upgraded to a triple butted setup, which not only removes a small amount of weight but also ups the comfort by promoting flex where stiffness isn't critical.
It's a decent quality frame and apart from the welds looking a little bit agricultural, I like the overall finish, even if I'm not totally sold on the green/orange paintjob.
Up front you get a tapered head tube to add stiffness to cope with the forces from the steering and hydraulic discs.
The rest of the tubes aren't massively profiled like some frames we see, but you still get a chunky down tube as it heads into the threaded bottom bracket shell.
Like I said, the bottom bracket junction isn't exactly massive and I could get a little bit of flex out of it when really going for it, but I'm really looking for it – if you're concentrating on other things you probably won't even notice.
The chainstays are swooped along their length to offer plenty of heel clearance but Merlin has managed to do it in such a way that it doesn't affect tyre width. It recommends a maximum of 38mm for a 700C tyre but there is plenty of room there and on the fork, and I managed 42mm with ease, which were the biggest tyres I had knocking about.
The Merlin is also 650B-compatible and a set of 47mm WTB Byways went in without issue.
Apart from rack and mudguard mounts you also get two sets of bottle bosses, plus the G1X has internal cable/hose routing for the front half of the frame before it exits near the bottom bracket and then runs along the outside of the frame.
It's good to see a full carbon fork for this money, and the model fitted is plenty stiff enough for dealing with the brakes while also having enough compliance to take the sting out of the gravel.
For this model it is good to see that Merlin has switched to flat mount for the disc callipers, and 12mm thru-axles are catered for as well. It's the same when it comes to the frame.
There are four sizes in the range, all labelled in relation to their seat tube length – 50cm, 53cm, 56cm and 59cm – but the effective top tube lengths are 56.5cm, 58.5cm, 60cm and 61.5cm. They sound a lot bigger than they really are, as the stack and reach of this model, at 580mm and 390mm respectively, is about where I'd expect it to be for something with a 55cm top tube.
With Merlin speccing that shorter stem as well, it does mean that the bike doesn't feel overly stretched out at all.
The Malt-G1X comes with a decent build, most notably that full SRAM Apex 1x hydraulic groupset.
Going for a 1x or 2x chainset on a gravel bike divides opinion, and while I prefer a double if I'm going to be using the bike a fair bit on the road or the local long flowing gravel trails, there is no denying that 1x does have its advantages on the shorter, sharper technical stuff.
The Merlin comes with a 42-tooth chainset paired with an 11-speed 11-42t cassette. It lacks the top end if you like to pedal downhill, but you get plenty of bailout gears down in the basement.
The shifting is pretty good once you get used to the action and the way it responds to a light or firm touch for an up or down shift. It works well under load, too, something that happens a fair bit on unknown tracks and trails.
Compared with Shimano's 105, Ultegra or Dura-Ace hydraulic levers, the Apex units have quite a large and tall shape but they are still comfortable, and it does give a good platform to grip when the terrain is rough.
The SRAM brakes are great as well, with loads of power and plenty of modulation giving you excellent control on a loose surface without locking up a wheel unless you want to.
On bikes at this price you'll pretty much find basic own-brand finishing kit but Merlin has upped the bling factor by fitting a seatpost, stem and handlebar from Zipp. The post is a Service Course Alloy while the stem and bar add an SL to that moniker. It's good kit, offering plenty of stiffness, and the shallow drop of the bar offers plenty of hand positions.
Merlin does provide the saddle and it's a shape that suited me, with padding that is firm enough for support but allows a bit of squidge to soak up the vibration from below.
Stick a set of Schwalbe G-One tyres on a bike as standard and you are on to a bit of a winner, especially if you are expecting the bike to be ridden on and off-road.
The slightly knobbly G-Ones roll really well whatever the terrain, and as long as the going isn't too muddy they have excellent levels of grip, although the 35mm width fitted is quite slim by current gravel standards.
These aren't the tubeless-ready options, so if you want to ditch the inner tube you're going to be looking at an upgrade, but for straight out of the box tyres you can't complain. Puncture-proofing works well enough and I certainly didn't have any issues during the test period.
Nor did I with the Mavic XM 319 wheels. Built with 32 spokes front and rear, they are some tough wheels and coped with everything I put them through, including high-speed descents on large rock-strewn gravel tracks and whacking tree roots through the local singletrack.
They are a bit weighty, though, and an upgrade to some slightly lighter wheels would make a big performance boost to the Merlin, but again, on a bike at this price they are perfectly adequate.
We always review bikes on their full RRP, but since its release the Malt-G1X has been discounted from £1,499 to £1,099 and Merlin has confirmed that it will remain at this price, so that is what we are basing it on.
Looking back through the gravel bikes we've tested recently on road.cc and off.road.cc, not a lot comes close to the Merlin when it comes to kit and price.
Mike Stead really liked the Merida Silex 300, which comes in at £1,200 and a smidge over 10kg. The only compromise is that you get cable-operated discs rather than hydraulic.
Or there is the Saracen Levarg SL, which has a mix of mechanical/hydraulic setup for £1,350.
The only bike that really does challenge on the value front is the limited edition model of the Triban RC 520 Gravel model tested here. It'll set you back just £849.99, if you can find one in stock. It has an Apex 1x groupset but again uses TRP Hy/Rd brakes.
Overall, the Merlin is a decent quality gravel bike that is fun and easy to ride, especially off-road. It may not be the most responsive bike out there, but that will be its charm for many.
A fun and stable bike on the gravel backed up with a decent frame and a quality spec list for the money
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Merlin Malt-G1X Apex 1 Gravel Bike
Size tested: 50cm
About the bike
List the components used to build up the bike.
Triple-Butted 6061 Series Aluminium with Thru-Axle & Flat Mount
Internal gear cable routing
Internal disc brake hose routing
Flat-mount disc fitting for neater look
Axle Size: 12x100 / 12x142
Bottom Bracket: Threaded (English)
Seatpost Size: 31.6mm
Front Mech Mount: Band-On 34.9mm
Headset: Internal (Included)
Disc Mount: Flat Mount (Fork & Frame)
Recommended Tyre Size: 700x38mm
Merlin Full-Carbon with Thru-Axle & Flat Mount
Wheels: Mavic XM 319 Rims with 6-Bolt Disc Hub – Thru Axle
Tyres: Schwalbe G-One 35mm
Gear/Brake Levers: Sram Apex 1 – 11 Speed
Front Derailleur: N/A
Rear Derailleur: Sram Apex 1 – 11 Speed
Chainset: Sram Apex 1 - 42T
Cassette: Sram Apex 1 – 11/42T
Chain: KMC - 11 Speed
Pedals: Not included
Saddle: Merlin Black
Seatpost: Zipp Service Course Alloy
Handlebars: Zipp Service Course SL Alloy
Stem: Zipp Service Course SL Alloy
Brake Calipers: Sram Apex 1 Hydraulic
Tell us what the bike is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Merlin says, "The Merlin Malt-G1X is our top of the range bike in the ever-expanding line of Merlin Malt-G gravel bikes. Following hot on the heels of our original Malt-G the Malt-G1X features a number of updates to the frame and forks; constructed from lightweight triple-butted 6061 aluminium it is paired with a light, full-carbon fork making the G1X the lightest and most agile frameset in the Malt-G range; the addition of a simple, efficient and lightweight Sram Apex 1 groupset with hydraulic disc brakes makes this our best gravel bike yet!
"The Merlin Malt-G1X can handle a wide variety of terrain including gravel tracks and green lanes allowing you to combine sections of road with more challenging segments meaning more of your adventures can start at your front door. The Malt-G1X has a full complement of mounts the bike is ready to sport mudguards and even a rear pannier – so if you want to head off on a touring adventure or simply commute to work you can, no problem.
"The Merlin Malt-G1X gravel bike frameset features a new lightweight triple-butted 6061 Aluminium frame with thru-axles front and rear to ensure that wheels are kept securely in place, disc brakes are always perfectly aligned and steering precision is further enhanced thanks to the wheel hub and fork essentially becoming one unit. The Malt-G1X frame includes flat-mounts for disc brakes and internal cable routing for brake and gear cables giving a cleaner, less cluttered look to the bike as well as enhanced protection from grit and grime meaning your bike will run smoother for longer.
"With a comfortable, confident geometry that encourages all-day riding the Malt-G1X features a carbon thru-axle fork that stops the ride feeling too harsh when you're on the ruff-stuff. We've spec'd the G1X with a Sram Apex 1 groupset giving you a wide spread of gears for any terrain and any gradient; this simple setup with a 42T single ring up front combined with a wide ratio 11/42T cassette won't leave you struggling to find the right gear regardless of whether you're climbing loose tracks off-road or zipping along on flat roads. The Malt-G1X comes fitted with tough Mavic XM 319 wheels featuring 6-Bolt thru-axle disc hubs and fast rolling, gravel-friendly 35mm Schwalbe G-One tyres which provide great traction while giving plenty of mud clearance between tyre, frame & fork. Finishing components include high-quality Zipp bars, stem and seatpost."
The Merlin will tackle a fair amount of different challenges and is especially suited to those not so confident off-road.
Where does this model sit in the range? Tell us briefly about the cheaper options and the more expensive options
This is the only G1X model in the range, although you can buy the frameset for £299.
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
The overall quality is pretty good with the welding looking as I'd expect for the money.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
The frame uses triple butted 6061 alloy tubing while the fork is full carbon fibre.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
The geometry is pretty typical of a gravel bike with a reasonably tall head tube, a long wheelbase and slack head tube.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
For the size of the frames the top tube is quite long, giving what you'd expect to be quite a long reach figure, but paired to a slightly taller stack than most it comes in about as I'd expect.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Yes, reasonably. I've ridden more refined alloy frames but the Merlin is far from harsh.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
Yes, for the majority of riding. I could get the bottom bracket shell to flex under hard climbing, though.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Yes, it does a decent job of dealing with your pedalling efforts.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively neutral or unresponsive? Neutral.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
The slack head angle means the steering is easily controllable on unstable surfaces.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
The Schwalbe G-One tyres offer a good ride quality.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
The SRAM Apex chainset is very stiff.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
The large spread of gears helped efficiency off-road.
SRAM Apex does a great job of shifting and braking considering the price point.
Wheels and tyres
Solid enough wheels, if a little weighty.
The G-Ones are one of the best crossover tyres out there.
Quality finishing kit for the money.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? Yes
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
How does the price compare to that of similar bikes in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?
It offers very good value against pretty much all of the gravel bikes we've tested lately. Many brands at this money are using lower specced groupsets or mechanical disc brakes.
Use this box to explain your overall score
It's a very good all-rounder with a solid frame and some decent kit fitted to it.
About the tester
I usually ride: This month's test bike My best bike is: B'Twin Ultra CF draped in the latest bling test components
I've been riding for: Over 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!