The Evolution of a Timeless Mountain Cruiser: Merlin Bikes’ 2023 Newsboy LTD

According to the internet, The Beatles’ song “Yesterday” has been covered between 1,200 and 3,000 times, which even on the low end of that range makes it the most covered song in history. The spare lyrics, describing the ever-relatable ache of lost love, and string arrangement make it a simple yet sophisticated work that has managed to transcend the six decades since Paul McCartney first dreamed (literally) up the melody. The uncluttered elegance has rendered “Yesterday” truly timeless.

While first unveiled in 1994—incidentally, the same year that both LeAnn Rimes and Boyz II Men covered the McCartney classic—Merlin’s cruiser-inspired mountain bike, the Newsboy, has also reappeared in various forms throughout the intervening years. Like McCartney’s paired down lines, the Newsboy shares an on-the-surface simplicity and a nostalgia-driven design that has contributed to its lasting appeal. Merlin has just launched its latest Newsboy redesign, let’s take a look below…

Founded in Cambridge in 1986 by a group of MIT grads, Merlin Metalworks was among the earliest framebuilders to bring titanium—an at-the-time known material in aerospace engineering—to bicycle manufacturing, with DEAN and Litespeed emerging on the scene in close proximity. Gary Helfrich, Gwyn Jones, and Mike Augspurger built the brand’s identity around performance mountain and road bikes; the company garnered attention by building its first mountain bike for then-reigning National Champ Joe Murray, and for its three-year association with the Subaru Montgomery road team (which included Lance Armstrong) beginning in 1989. Tom Kellogg and Rob Vandermark would join the crew as early designers and add to the collective expertise. It was Rob, future founder of Seven Cycles, who first envisioned and built the original Newsboy, which launched as a limited 100-batch run in 1994. (MOMBAT Bicycles’ Merlin overview from 1986 to 2002 is largely credited for this historical context).

1994 Newsboy

Reminiscent of 1950s Schwinn cruisers, the original 26-inch wheeled Newsboy was simultaneously a classic throwback and a technical flex; the arcing curvature of the frame’s tubeset was a novel display of titanium engineering prowess and internally routing the cables furthered the sleek aesthetic. Furthermore, the S-bend chainstay was a Merlin original carried over from a 1991 mountain bike design and a framebuilding technique that has since been imitated a hundred times over. Merlin’s original Newsboy copy describes the bike as follows:

“Classic style in a modern package: The Merlin Newsboy is a pure race bike ready to mix up with the rabble on the muddiest singletrack. And look great doing it. Can the voluptuous style of the classic American cantilever frame coexist with the gritty demands of modern off-road racing? It can and does in the Merlin Newsboy.

Lovingly crafted from Merlin’s MTS325 seamless titanium tubing, the Newsboy’s flowing curves are anchored by a 1 1/2-inch downtube that creates a rigid power path from the 1 1/8-inch head tube to the 6-4 titanium vertical dropouts. Combined with the oversize 1 3/8-inch seat tube, this stout construction creates a flex-free platform for climbs, sprints, and descents.”

Merlin’s choice to qualify the Newsboy as particularly capable for the “muddiest” singletrack was, in retrospect, ill-advised as a major critique of the first run was the lack of mud clearance. Perhaps motivated by the same desire for clean lines achieved by the internal routing, Merlin mounted the rear WTB Speedmaster Rollercam brake beneath the chainstays, drastically decreasing the mud clearance. Still, the Newsboy’s retro-modern silhouette, the breakthrough ride quality of titanium, and the limited production made it an instantly-coveted bike. Longtime cycling journalist, Mike Ferrentino’s original Newsboy review (published in Winning) illustrates the bike’s enthusiastic reception:

“On the trail, the Newsboy feels anything but cruiserlike, begging to be hammered like any good 22-pound titanium race bike should. It is a quick handling, agile bike that floats up hills and accelerates with ethereal ease. The Newsboy seems built for those sections of hard, middle-ring singletrack where the rider has to get down and dirty and muscle the bike where it’s supposed to go. In this type of terrain, the Merlin can be flicked around and pointed where needed with almost arrogant impunity. Power along the straights, weight outside pedal, and jam the bike into turns. [T]he bike snaps around like it’s on rails.”

Ferretino goes on to credit the Newsboy’s sinuous handling to the ⅞-inch chainstays, borrowed from the Merlin Mountain frame. At the time, this specific tubing spec was noticeably larger and stiffer, as compared to the more standard ¾-inch stays. According to Ferrentino, this resulted in “greater lateral rigidity and improved cornering and climbing power,” while the S-Bend profile could “swallow a 2.5-inch knobby with room to spare, yet they also accommodate any low-profile crankset.” Additional standout features of the original design included suspension-corrected geometry and a lightweight aluminum seat cluster designed around a standard 27.2mm post. Ferrentino’s highest praise though was, of course, for the overall look of the bike:

“[…] the Newsboy’s most prominent feature is its unfettered, sweeping style. In a world of look-alike race bikes, the Newsboy eloquently refutes the contention that form must bow to function. Instead, form and function are combined as in no other bike in the world. And the result, quite simply, is sublime.”

2002 Newsboy

It would be nearly a decade—plus, a move to Chattanooga, TN, and several changes in ownership—later before the second iteration of the Newsboy arrived. While the Newsboy V2 was largely derived from its predecessor, notably, it displayed a flared head tube (and internal headset), was available in two (swappable) wheel sizes, and updated with disc brakes to remedy the low-mounted Rollercam misstep. Townies were on the rise in the early 2000s and these trending bikes informed the Newsboy V2’s wheel size demarcation: 700c for “urban” use and 26” for the trails. The frame silhouette also showed a more elongated arc in the top tube, somewhat diluting the aesthetic impact of the super swoopy original. If we can continue the “Yesterday” analogy, the 2002 Newsboy might be most akin to reggae group Mankind’s cover—same words but smoooothed out.

2018 & 2020 Newsboy

By 2018, there had been a bit of a rinse-and-repeat refrain internally at Merlin: Acquired by American Bicycle Group in 2000, Merlin was bought by Competitive Cyclist/ in 2011 before being picked up by Janus (which already consisted of DEAN and Velo Sports Imports) in 2018. The new ownership saw a return to US-handmade manufacturing for Merlin (in Boulder, CO) and another Newsboy reboot.

In 2018, just nine 29er models were custom fit for the most eager and eight were then offered in 2020. Ironically, the bikes were sold for $5,000 (in 2018; $4,800 in 2020) which was also the original going price 14 years earlier! Still, Newsboy aficionados were dismayed to find torpedo-shaped caps abutt the ends of the curving crossbar as opposed to the original rounded caps. In light of the turbulent brand transfers of Merlin and the pall of the pandemic, we might relate these two Newsboy collector releases to the Bob Dylan and George Harrison live studio jam recording of “Yesterday,” which had long been whispered about and sought after in bootleg form. While originally captured in 1970 when Harrison and Dylan met up for a day in the studio following the Beatles’ break-up, the recording wasn’t officially released until late 2020 (and, just after this Rolling Stone copyright PSA). Like the Dylan x Harrison “Yesterday” recording, the late 2010s’ Newsboy exemplifies a deviation from the original that’s still harkening back to the past. But don’t worry, the latest Newsboy model firmly leaps the classic design into the modern age.

2023 Newsboy

Today’s Newsboy, announced by Merlin just over a week ago, brings an exciting and welcome update to the now-familiar, cult classic. The 2023 Newsboy LTD is, according to Merlin:

“Not just a reproduction, the new Newsboy is designed from scratch using the most advanced titanium manufacturing techniques. We sought to elevate the classic mountain cruiser with the latest titanium manufacturing techniques and mountain bike standards, while still embracing the nostalgia and character of the original.”

Due to discontinuity behind the curtain at Merlin, the Newsboy LTD was retro-designed by framebuilder and head of operations, Pete Olivetti, with little else to go on aside from an original Newsboy frame. He described that the main challenges involved bridging modern consumer expectations (e.g. larger tire clearances, shorter stems, 1x vs. 3x drivetrains and wider chainlines) with the Newsboy’s exaggerated curves, while acknowledging that the original group behind Merlin were still well ahead of their time:

“They did some pretty mind-bending shit back then! These guys were engineers, so they had their collective mental horsepower, to make something that was really aggressive. They must have developed some specialty tooling to make [all] that happen. The plus side to that was in 1994 your clearance aspirations were for a 26 x 2.2” tire and you were running a triple; 80mm of travel was extreme (a stock SID was 60mm of travel). And, your stack and reach were essentially road spec. So when you think of that big rainbow arc, but with the bike being compacted, they had more room to play with.”

As Pete shared with me, Merlin’s Newsboy LTD is the brand’s first step in implementing 3D-printed titanium frame elements, each engineered by Daniel Yang, of Neuhaus Metalworks. Additive manufacturing, as it’s known, is an exciting forward-looking shift for American framebuilders at large, as it greatly improves efficiency. At Merlin specifically, building around Daniel’s printed weldments at key frame junctures*—like an h-shaped seat tube cluster and BB yoke—allowed them to tighten tolerances and increase consistency across the Newsboy size models. The original Vandermark model was Pete’s inspirational benchmark but, as he concedes, might not have been possible without the advent of Daniel’s 3D-printed additions:

“The early Newsboy had a pretty dramatic radius and the way a modern mountain bike is built isn’t necessarily conducive to doing that—shorter seat tubes, longer front ends, etc.—so we had to take into consideration how to design the bike to emulate that look in a modern way, but stay consistent across sizes. We didn’t want to have a L that looked perfect and an XL and S that looked wonky. The cool thing about 3D printing is that you’re not as limited in how you manufacture. The design aesthetic I was aiming at and the intelligent engineering that Daniel can do, created a symbiotic relationship and allowed us to create a really consistent product, across sizes.”

(*The Newsboy LTD is using Paragon dropouts.)

While custom geometry is still available (for an upcharge) the Newsboy LTD is being offered in five stock sizes (S,M,M/L,L, and XL; frames only at $6,380, build kits available) and being made from grade 9 CSWR tubing. Each stock size features bespoke tubing spec for an optimized ride feel; M/L and up frames will ride on 29” wheels and are built around 100mm of front travel, while S and M models will roll on 27.5” and are specced for 120mm. In addition to the external downtube cable routing (internal available at an upcharge), other design modifications more firmly emphasize the mountain in mountain cruiser; for the first time the Newsboy LTD features boost spacing and a default 31.6 seatpost diameter.

We haven’t seen any 2023 “Yesterday” covers that fully capture the bridging of past and present as illustrated by the Newsboy LTD but, you know, there’s still almost five months to go. Who knows, we may yet see any artist—from an up and coming indie group to hip hop icon—put a cutting-edge spin on this lingering classic. Or, more fitting still, a viral Tiktok video.