Reviews / Hard Tails
When Merida announced their 2017 lineup, I thought it would maybe feature a few new models or a colour change here and there. What I wasn't prepared for was an almost complete overhaul of the range, changes to style, geometry, specs and nearly everything else. Hidden amongst this brand new set of machines was the Big Trail, an aluminium hardtail that looks at odds with what Merida usually does with a bike like this. Plus tyres to start, but look further, and you see a longer, lower and slacker bike, more so than any Merida hardtail that ever came before.
The press release contained quotes such as 'fun factor' and 'downhill focus', could this be the same Merida from 2016? Fun hardtails are usually the reserve of the quirky British trail rider or crazy Canadian, but maybe the rest of the world is taking note. A glance at Eurobike showed this little number looked ready to hit the trails hard and have lots of fun, not endorphin induced exertion fun, but like, you know, real fun.
It looks the part, long and low with a whopping 60mm bottom bracket drop making this a proper low slung vehicle and an angle of attack of 67.5 degrees up front. The frame has good stand over clearance and is roomy enough to run a 35mm stem without being cramped. Plus sized tyres from Maxxis look good and have a bit more edge to them than some of the early plus tyres; these are mounted on the superb DT Swiss Spline XM 1501s. A knee-friendly 30t chainring keeps the gearing down, a 125mm reverb keeps the seat up (or down), and a boost 130mm Pike keeps thing pointing straight down.
This is the top 900 model, but two other models are also available, the 800 and the 600 and share many of the characteristics.
Firstly the most notable thing on the Big Trail was the bottom bracket height, this being especially evident due to my choice of rocky trail. Pedal strikes were the order of the day, and although usually expected, the frequency was way up, and it was clear that I would need to pick my way carefully through the rocks. Also, I felt for my poor chainring on a couple of occasions as I hoisted myself up and over rock steps which more than once gave rise to some metal on rock sound effects.
As a stiff aluminium hardtail, pedal power was always going to be well transferred into speed, and climbing felt solid. Grip levels with plus size tyres are fantastic, and the bike felt exceptionally stable on technical climbs, seemingly able to ascend anything. The plus grip forgives a multitude of pedalling sins, as even stomping on the pedals fails to create any slip in the back wheel, for technical climbing this was a fantastic machine. The wide tyres and low bottom bracket gave incredible low-speed stability, and I was tapping into my miss-spent youth as a trial rider on every climb, looking for the hardest lines! If you avoided the pedal strikes, there was nothing to stop this climbing beast.
On more flowing trails, the low height of the bike makes it very stable, and railing corners and pumping feel fantastic, the modern trail geometry creating a very playful style. The short chainstays give no excuse for not spending plenty of time on the back wheel, and hopping and manualling were regular features of time spent on the Big Trail. As Merida said, the fun factor is high, and they've created a highly entertaining ride. When the hill gets steeper, it continues to perform well, though I would have preferred a 150mm drop post on the large size frame. I always find I need to get lower on a hardtail, especially on steep terrain, and being on the upper limit of size, 150mm would have been great. The relatively slack head angle does keep the bike moving through the rocks, but the lower pressures of plus tyres now and again conspired to stall the bike in big rocky holes. The front tyre can sometimes deform onto a square edge of a boulder and just can't quite get over it, whereas a higher pressure 29er tyre (same diameter) would have rolled over. This effect was rare and only found on low speed technical descending so was no big deal for everyday riding.
The tyres again came into play as always with big volume tyres, as getting the pressure correct is crucial. The front can be less accurate in psi, but the rear on a hardtail is essential, as a few psi change the character, grip and feel instantly. Run too low and the rims won't thank you as they clang on every rock, too high and the back end goes solid. With the stiff frame, too much pressure made everything feel wooden, so a sweet spot had to be found to balance traction, grip and rim protection. Obviously tubeless is essential and thankfully DT rims are a dream to set up in this way. The Maxxis tyres were okay, but if you ride hard, or on rough ground they may not survive too long, and my rear tyre was short lived. This is still a problem for plus sized bikes, especially given the price of new tyres! But they are improving, gradually.
With pressures sorted, the Big Trail won me over to plus size, I've been pretty sceptical up to now. They felt like they added to the ride, and weren't just a new gimmick. The bike has been designed around these wheels, and it all makes sense, the low-slung frame allows you to try and find the limits of grip, which is nearly impossible to find!
With all that grip, a playful style and a forgiving back end thanks to the high volume tyres, the Big Trail makes for a very competent bike. The Plus tyres make a lot of sense here, on a full suspension bike, they can make the whole bike seem vague, but with a rigid rear end, I feel they come into their own. Just enough bounce to make seated climbing comfy and find massive amounts of grip to propel you as far as your legs can push.
Merida have done a great job in creating a very new and different style of bike for their range. It's playful and very competent to ride, making full use of the advantages of bigger tyres. This is a very comfortable hardtail which itself is very comfortable on every type of terrain and a great all- rounder. I would perhaps want it a bit slacker to really open up the potential for descending, but overall I think its a good balance between climbing and descending abilities. It is well specced, and the lower price point models in the range would give an excellent introduction to mountain biking without going down the full bounce route or breaking the bank.
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By Ewen TurnerEwen Turner is a self-confessed bike geek from Kendal in the Lake District of England. He runs a coaching and guiding business up there and has a plethora of knowledge about bikes with an analytical approach to testing. His passion for bicycles is infectious, and he’s a ripper on the trails who prefers to fit his working life around his time on the bike.
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Dan, Joe and Edgar