Merida has hit the ground running in 2017, they have launched a barrage of bikes into the arena to do battle with the trail, enduro and e-bike establishment.Buy XC Bikes on
With bikes like the Big Trail, the ONE SIXTY and their electric equivalents, this has been a special year for the brand. But what of the heritage, the kind of bikes Merida is known for, with carbon, lightweight frames designed for those who like to ride fast. Well, here we have the Big 9, a classic Merida model in this the XT version, which is perhaps not the most imaginative name but it gives you the gist.
This is a race ready carbon hardtail, 29-inch wheels, step cast Performance Fox 32 fork and tyres that look only just gripper than those on a gravel bike. This is a vehicle to travel far, fast and if you like, painfully as you torture yourself up every climb. But modern XC bikes are moving on, no longer are there 120mm stems and bar ends. Gone are head angles so steep they can trip over a kerb, some world cup racers have even been running dropper posts.
I have a dark side that likes pounding the miles; I wanted to get back to some proper pedalling, ditch the kneepads and put some miles in.
The spec sheet gives us a race ready machine, with full XT kit covering transmission and braking. The front mech seems unusual as surely the type of rider who's into this bike would have strong enough legs to push a single ring but hey, you can always take them off. The wheels are Deore hubs, which lack any bling, but are very serviceable and are built with Merida's own brand rims. Things stay lightweight with a carbon seat post, and the classic long stem and narrow bars are again from the Merida catalogue.
The forks get a lock out remote for those long smooth climbs, and there are even some glue-on foam grips for absolute minimum weight. The package is classy, lightweight and ready to race.
Crucial numbers on the frame are a 70-degree head angle, and a 454mm reach on the Large (21inch) giving a roomy front end, especially with the long stem. Bottom bracket gets a 65mm drop, keeping things stable, but as it's a hardtail, it'll never get much lower than that, so a direct comparison with a full suss bike is unwise.
It's fast, really fast; every part of this bike is geared towards pushing forwards and upwards at speed. The riding position is comfortable, and the front end is high enough not to feel like you're riding a road bike. The general feel is one of urgency, and you are encouraged to push hard and fast.
As you would expect climbing is a straightforward affair, the bike knows what to do, and smooth climbs can be punched out easily. Locking the fork out is an option, and very easily done with the handlebar remote, but I found I used it little, happy to let the 100mm of travel do its thing.
Steeper and more technical climbing was best approached with attack and momentum, as a sit and winch tactic is less comfortable on a stiff carbon hardtail. A few powerful strokes and the Big Nine happily carries its speed up and over obstacles. The tyres have a pretty rounded profile and little in the way of knobs for steep ground, so keeping speed and pushing a big gear pays dividends.
I had expected the more classic geometry to prove helpful on uphill switchbacks, but I found it harder than on my trail bike. I may have just got used to 40mm stems and slack angles, but the long stem kept the front down, but not always where I wanted it.
Pedal power single track, as opposed to gravity fed trails, was where the bike really shined. I found myself coming into flat or uphill corners faster than I ever had previously, catching me by surprise and adding a new dimension to trails I knew very well. The long and low front feels committing through the corners but keeps all the weight on the front tyre, and despite the lack of knobbly tyres, it hooked up pretty well with plenty of grip.
Pushing on downhill there are certain limits, and I take my hat off to those racers who can eek out so much speed on gnarly trails on these types of bikes. Again the front-focused approach kept the Big Nine tracking through the turns, but jumps and drops were sketchier due to the seat staying firmly in its place. I quick rethink of riding styles and digging some muscle memory from the 90s, and I was hanging off the back in no time!
With so many niches of bikes to choose from, it's easy to overlook the humble XC hardtail. For many riders whose trails are pedal powered and smooth, this is an ideal machine. With so many riders stroking their beards and considering gravel bikes and the like, I feel that the Big Nine does an awful lot of what those riders are looking for, but without the need for drop bars or excessive facial hair. It's a fun bike; it's a fast bike but can easily put some serious miles in regardless of the trail surface.
I question the need for the front mech and granny ring, but I'm firmly in the '1 by' camp, and happy enough if people still want all the gears. The tweaks I would do sound like a broken record, but a wider bar and a shorter stem would improve things for me without slowing down this whippet of a bike.
It's fast, very fast, but not at the expense of a fun packed ride. Sure it's not going to get you to Rampage, but it will make a lot of day-to-day riding faster and more efficient. This is the sort of bike that you could race on; hit trail centres on, or even smash out marathon distances. It's a Merida classic and deserves a look, as I'm sure many folks have a space in their garage for a bike such as this.
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This review was in Issue 49 of IMB.For more information visit Merida Bikes
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