Our Reader’s Rig of the week comes from Josh Modney in New York City, who shares the 1989 Merlin he found collecting dust at a sporting goods shop for $50 and has lovingly converted into a drop-bar gravel machine. Learn more about Josh and his unique titanium rig here…

Words by Josh Modney, photos by Matthew Rotjan

Hello everybody, my name is Josh Modney. I am a violinist, composer, and cycling enthusiast based in New York City, and I’m excited to share my 1989 titanium Merlin, recently refurbished and rebuilt into a gravel bike by Nomad Cycle (@nomadcycle) in Queens, NY. As a musician, my work is focused on performing and promoting the work of adventurous and underrepresented contemporary artists, and on developing my own projects as a composer and improviser. I am a co-director of the Wet Ink Ensemble, a collective of composer-performers that has been presenting contemporary music in NYC and around the world for over 20 years, and I am a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble.

  • 1989 Merlin Titanium
  • 1989 Merlin Titanium

I got into cycling as a teenager in upstate New York after watching the Tour de France on TV and have been an avid rider and fan of the sport ever since. In recent years, most of my time on the bike has been spent commuting to gigs around NYC on my vintage Puch Bergmeister singlespeed with my violin on my back or going out for road rides along classic NYC-area routes such as River Road and 9W on my trusty 2005 Specialized Allez. I’m a relative newcomer to the gravel and bikepacking scenes and am grateful for all of the resources and community here on BIKEPACKING.com!

I couldn’t believe my luck about a decade ago when I came across a vintage Merlin mountain bike on sale for fifty bucks at a used sporting goods store. The bike was a top-of-the-line model in its day, sporting a handbuilt titanium frame with Merlin insignia and a “Geometry by Joe Murray” decal, complete with a Shimano Deore XT-II groupset (the highest tier Shimano MTB group in 1989). Those old XT parts were built to last, and I rode the Merlin in its original form on Colorado singletrack for several summers while I played in orchestras in Breckenridge and Aspen. I’ve always wanted to do something special with the bike, and it recently became clear to me that a gravel conversion was the answer and that Damon Strub, owner and operator of Nomad Cycle, was the best person for the job.

  • 1989 Merlin Titanium
  • 1989 Merlin Titanium

Nomad Cycle is a small bicycle shop in Queens that specializes in custom builds and period-accurate restorations, as well as offering repair services and advice for the local cycling community with generosity and care. Nomad is an exceptionally welcoming, unpretentious, and artist-friendly space, and the attention to aesthetic detail that Damon puts into his work is impeccable. I met Damon by chance several years ago because his shop happened to be along my route when the frame on my steel Motobecane singlespeed cracked. He not only replaced the frame with a distinctive Puch from the 1960s that he had on hand but also totally refurbished and rebuilt the bike.

  • 1989 Merlin Titanium
  • 1989 Merlin Titanium
  • 1989 Merlin Titanium

There were certain things that I knew I wanted for my Merlin gravel conversion, such as flared drop bars and a SRAM Force 1×11 drivetrain, and Damon worked with me to pick out the rest of the components. The frame was designed to accommodate a particular Shimano U-brake on the rear, so the vintage brake (which still works great!) and the 26-inch wheels were there to stay. Damon refurbished the U-brake, and re-dished the wheels to accommodate a new 11-40 cassette while keeping the original hubs and rims. He also removed the tattered Merlin Metalworks decals, polished the frame, and selected a mix of new and reconditioned vintage components that would give the bike a clean aesthetic uncluttered by branding (we may restore the Merlin decals at some point, though for now, I’m loving the raw titanium look). The old shock on the front of the Merlin was worn out, so we commissioned Bilenky Cycle Works in Philadelphia to make a custom rigid fork. Bilenky delivered an elegant, lightweight steel fork that makes the bike feel wonderfully nimble and responsive.

  • Frame Merlin titanium
  • Fork Custom steel by Bilenky Cycle Works
  • Rims Specialized GX26 (original)
  • Hubs Shimano Deore XT-II M730 (front) / Shimano Deore XT-II FH-M732 (rear)
  • Tires Panaracer GravelKing SK 26 x 2.1″
  • Handlebars Easton EA70 AX
  • Headset Aheadset 1” threadless
  • Crankset Restored vintage Shimano FC-B126 w/ new 40T chainring
  • Pedals Shimano XT
  • Cassette Shimano XT CS-M8000 11-speed, 11–40
  • Derailleur SRAM Force
  • Brakes Shimano Deore XT U-II Brake (rear) / Tektro CR720 Cantilever (front)
  • Shifter(s) SRAM Force
  • Saddle Specialized Power Expert
  • Seatpost Specialized S-Works Carbon
  • Stem Dimension threadless alloy
  • Front bags Ortlieb Handlebar Pack 9L
  • Frame bags Ortlieb Top Tube Frame Pack 4L
  • Rear bags Restrap Saddle Bag 14L
  • Accessory bags Restrap Top Tube Bag
  • Other accessories Velo Orange Retro Water Bottle Cages, DiPell Leather Bar Tape, Garmin Edge 530
  • 1989 Merlin Titanium
  • 1989 Merlin Titanium

My new and improved Merlin weighs in just shy of 23 pounds and is an absolute joy to ride. Getting all of these components from different eras to work together was not easy, and I’m very grateful to Damon for all the hard work that went into making a bike that rides like a new machine while retaining its own special character.

The Merlin and I took our first bikepacking trip together this past autumn, a three-night stint in the Catskill Mountains, and I look forward to many more adventures. I’d also like to give a shoutout here to Max from Rubber N’ Road, who is an experienced bikepacker and gave me a lot of great advice for my trip and made some key gear recommendations for my kit such as the Restrap bags and MAAP Alt_Road cargo bibs. Thanks so much for reading, and happy riding!

You can see more from Josh on Instagram @joshmodney.

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