Merida are a late entrant into the long travel, all-mountain stakes. The new for 2007 AM800 offers 115-130 mm (4.5-5in) of adjustable rear wheel travel, a build that will take a few knocks and an all-up weight of 14.4kg which shouldn't make the climbs too much of a chore. The question is how does it measure up to the more svelte, shorter-travelled competition on test?
Bike designers faced with a brief to produce an all-mountain ride find themselves sitting on the sharp horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, the whole point about a long travel trail bike is that it should be light enough to pedal to the top of pretty big hills. On the other, all that travel on tap can end up tempting the rider into potentially bike-damaging situations. Build it light, or build it strong?
Merida have solved the problem by steering a course straight down the middle. Chunky, hydroformed main tubes provide a stable, twist-free platform into which to plug all the bouncy components, while slender seatstays and airy dropouts and rocker arms shave grams where they'll be least missed. It's a good solution that'll suit all but the most weight-obsessed of riders. Our only niggle is that we'd like to see a quick release for the seatpost to make on-the-fly saddle lowering a tool-free operation.
Merida's cross-country full sussers use an innovative suspension system but, as latecomers to the long travel game, they've sensibly decided to give the AM800 a tried-and-trusted single pivot set-up, with a rocker-activated RockShox air shock. It's hardly cutting edge - Kona, for example, have been using a similar set-up for years - but it's a simple and reliable solution for a bike that's likely to see hard use.
Boulder-swallowing quantities of rear wheel travel demand a plush, well-controlled fork up front. On paper, the RockShox Tora 302 U-Turn coil fork sounds up to the task, with 85-130mm (3.5-5in) of adjustable travel. In practice though, it's a disappointment, with a surprisingly harsh feel that wasn't helped on our test sample by a broken rebound damping adjuster and an internal clunk that never quite went away.
In contrast to the frame's middle-of- the-road design, Merida's product managers have plumped for a noticeably solid wheelset that offers good cushioning and grip, with unusually wide, deep-section rims designed for 4X racing. It should prove to be a reliable set-up, although the tyre's square profile is a little slow rolling and the extra weight is noticeable on climbs and long drags. Elsewhere, Shimano transmission and brakes work flawlessly, and the own-brand finishing kit looks and works fine.
Long saddle rails, a roomy cockpit and beginner-friendly bar height all go to make the Merida an easy bike to set up for most riders. For those bothered by suspension bob and front end height, the U-Turn adjustability and lockout of the fork are the icing on the cake. The shock's lack of compression damping adjustment isn't ideal, but only the choppiest of pedalling styles is likely to upset the AM800's composure.
For the most part it's a willing - if slow and steady - climber, the suspension pattering happily over trail detritus, roots and rocks without threatening to become wallowy or saggy. There's bags of grip on tap from those wide, square-profiled tyres, which helps counteract the wheelset's slightly sluggish feel on uphill grunts. Winding down the fork travel minimises front-end lift and wag.
So far, so good, but the true test of a long travel machine isn't how it climbs, but how it descends. And it's here that the AM800 comes up short. While the rear end works willingly enough at speed and on big, hard hits, the fork simply can't cope with the same demands. It handles small and medium-sized bumps reasonably well, but as the speed picks up and the trail gets lumpier, keeping the front end planted and tracking straight ahead becomes harder. It's not what we expect from a bike like this, and it's clear that the Tora 302 just isn't up to the standard set by the rest of the bike. This is a shame, because there's a lot to like about the AM800, from the hydroformed chassis to the simple suspension design and high quality components.