He’s riding his grandfather’s MTB from the early 90s and winning races 🏆

Nathan Peterson is racing his grandfather's 1994 Merlin Mountain titanium hardtail mountain bike, and in spite of the dated geometry, he's winning.
Provided photos.

Several weeks ago, an interesting reel came across my Instagram feed. While it was about mountain biking — most of my IG feed is — it was a bit out of the ordinary compared to the mountain biking content that usually rolls across my screen.

The clip shows a teenager trying cycling shoes at his local bike shop. Behind him, a bike mechanic wheels in a new mountain bike for the teenager while his mom catches the surprise on film. He notices and stares at the bike, mouth open, presumably trying to find words.

The young man is 14-year-old Nathan Peterson, and the bike the mechanic rolled out predated him by nearly 20 years. The look on his face was due to seeing his grandfather’s 1994 Merlin Mountain refurbished, rebuilt, and modernized for Peterson’s XC race season.

It’s one thing to rebuild your grandpa’s old mountain bike and race it. Standing on the podium is another thing, which is precisely what several other posts showed Peterson doing. Hoping to learn more about this retro build, I connected with Peterson and his dad, Karl von Beckmann, and chatted about racing, the Merlin build, and Peterson’s future in the sport.

Who is this kid with Grandpa’s bike?…

Peterson took no time to let me know what he is all about. “I am 14 years old and love mountain biking,” he told me. Peterson and his family live in the Bay Area of California, where riding is accessible from their front door. 

As early as seven, Peterson tackled some of the more challenging climbs on some of the trails near his house. His parents noted that his skill was growing a bit quicker than his age, and Peterson has the scars to prove it. But it wasn’t until Peterson was around nine years old that he really thought of mountain biking as “his thing.”

A 26-inch Giant Trance Junior and some Santa Cruz singletrack had Peterson hooked. “We went down a flow trail. I hit the first berm, and I screamed pretty loudly, ‘This is better than Disneyland!’”

At the bottom of the trail, Peterson was stoked on the ride but experienced equal amounts of disappointment due to the ride being over. As he climbed back to the car, Peterson looked forward to the next time he would ride Santa Cruz or any place where he could relive that experience.

When he was about 12, Peterson had outgrown the Trance Junior and commandeered his mom’s Juliana. He was also dipping his toes into racing, participating in his first mountain bike race alongside his dad at Northstar’s Livewire Classic. Unfortunately, the race didn’t go well for von Beckmann, Peterson’s dad. 

At the top section of the course, von Beckmann wiped out, overshooting a jump that resulted in some internal injuries and a helicopter ride off the mountain. Peterson met his mom at the finish of his first run, and they promptly left for the hospital.

Despite Peterson’s first race not going as planned, he kept finding himself between the tape weekend after weekend, picking up a new discipline when one ended. This year at Sea Otter Classic, Peterson participated in four races—DH, Enduro, Fuego XC, and an e-bike race. He podiumed in the enduro and downhill races and was less than a second off the podium in the XC race.

Multiple disciplines

Don’t ask Peterson to pigeonhole himself into one discipline of racing. As the 8th grader continues to branch out into other racing categories, he is seeing results. A few days after we spoke, he found himself on the top steps of the California Dirt MTB Series.

“I started doing enduro to work on my fitness for downhill,” Peterson explained. “ Enduro led to XC.” 

While Peterson loved the jumps, berms, and tech of gravity-oriented racing like DH or enduro, he was drawn to the head-to-head action that XC racing brings. “Lately, I’ve been liking XC a lot. You’re not just racing against the clock,” Peterson said. “And, apparently, I put up the most podiums.” 

Peterson loves the action, the mass start, and having other actual racers he is going up against in real-time. And he is pretty good at it. At Peterson’s first XC race, a NICA event, he finished 19th, overtaking nearly 100 racers from his starting position. The following race, he was on the podium.

And he is doing it all on his Grandpa’s 1994 Merlin Mountain.

Merlin Mountain

A vintage bike like the one Peterson is racing needs a good story—and this is no exception. Peterson’s grandfather, an avid road racer, bought the Merlin brand new to see what this mountain biking fad was all about. 

“We still have the receipts,” von Beckmann told me. But, the Merlin wasn’t ridden nearly as much as it should have been and eventually found its way to a new owner. With his son’s interest in anything mountain biking, von Beckmann remembered his dad’s old mountain bike and thought it would be a special connection to the past if they could have it once again.

Fortunately, Peterson’s family was able to track down Grandpa’s old bike and buy it back. But now the real work was beginning. While it was top of the line in 1994, the Merlin required some changes to race in 2024. 

Think: modernization. “Everyone I know calls it a vintage bike with new components,” Peterson said. Finding some of those components was a bit of a chore.

Originally, the Merlin was rolling on 26-inch wheels, and Peterson and von Beckmann wanted to bring that into modern times. Knowing 29er wasn’t an option, they realized they could squeeze a 27.5-inch wheelset into the frame. However, this would be contingent on finding a fork that would also work, which needed to fit the Merlin’s one-inch steerer tube.

The hubs needed to be appropriately spaced and with appropriate axles for the frame and this unicorn fork they searched for. They were eventually able to track down an older Marzocchi fork, most likely for a 26-inch wheel, that could fit a 27.5″ wheel. A Whisky wheelset followed, allowing for a modern one-by drivetrain handled by SRAM’s GX AXS groupset. Fewer cables, fewer problems.

Local bike tech and mechanic Cody Neumann was instrumental in helping von Beckmann and Peterson track down parts that would fit and complete the build. Bike builder John Caletti removed old brake mounts and converted the Merlin to fit SRAM Level disc brakes.

Peterson immediately clicked with his grandfather’s 1994 Merlin, grabbing podiums at the next few races. “I like climbing with it,” Peterson told me. “It just feels like you’re like you’re floating. It’s so fast.” 

But, although the bike is refurbished, racing a vintage hardtail does have its downsides. Peterson explained that he definitely gets rattled a bit on the descents but knows that’s not where XC races are won.

Grandpa’s old bike was slowly becoming a 2024 XC race bike, and the geometry wasn’t too far off modern race bikes. Compared to a Canyon Exceed with a 69° headtube angle (HTA) and a 75° seat tube angle (STA), the Merlin has a 71° HTA paired with a 73° STA. A large Exceed has a 628mm top tube length, while the Merlin’s is just a bit shorter at 600mm. Peterson’s Merlin has a wheelbase of 1074mm, while an Exceed is just a bit longer at 1154mm. 9mm separate the chainstays, with the Merlin having 425mm chainstays and a large Exceed having 434mm stays. 

So, a modern 2024 XC race bike like the Canyon Exceed is a bit longer and slacker overall. But keep in mind that this is comparing geometry numbers from a 29er to the geometry numbers of a 26-inch bike converted to a 27.5.

What’s next for Peterson?

I wasn’t the only one who noticed Peterson’s Instagram reel—nearly 500,000 others did as well. Among some of those viewers were the folks at Merlin Bikes, who asked Peterson to be a brand ambassador. 

After showing some interest in gravel and road racing, Merlin sent Peterson their Sandstone 40, which crosses the boundaries between road and gravel. Switching wheelsets will allow Peterson to race both disciplines on the same bike, although he might keep up on his Merlin Mountain.

Peterson’s dad told me about a road ride with his buddies that Peterson joined. The ride took the group up Mt. Diablo, a 4,000-foot peak in the Bay area. Peterson, on his Merlin XC bike, waited for his dad and the group at the top. 

“He [Peterson] leads out a pack of road bikers on a mountain bike with knobby tires and fork,” von Beckmann said, “and then just demolishes all of us.”

Peterson anticipates competing in his first road race on June 18th.

At just 14, Peterson has a lot going on for him. While XC seems to have his heart for now, Peterson’s love for gravity keeps him racing enduro and downhill. And now he has added road, gravel, and his partnership with Merlin Bikes.

As an ambassador for Merlin, I wondered if Peterson planned to keep riding his grandfather’s old bike or if Merlin might be hooking him up with a new one. 

Peterson was quick to answer; he’ll stay on Grandpa’s bike. “It’s all about the looks and the steez.”