Merida's wallet-friendly line of Matts hardtails has offered riders on a budget 26in-wheeled trail fun for several years now. Last year the company's race team embraced 29ers, but we've had to wait until now for the big-wheelers to filter down to mere mortal level.
Rather than shoehorn the bigger wheels into a tweaked Matts chassis though, Merida's designers started with a blank sheet of paper. The result is the Big.Nine 40.
Frame and equipement: Technoformed, not hydroformed
With its curved, cross-ovalised down tube and teardrop profile top tube, the Big.Nine frame has all the hallmarks of hydroforming – a process that uses high-pressure hydraulic fluid to create complex shapes. It's not hydroformed though – it's Technoformed, Merida's name for their proprietary mechanical tube tweaking process. It's a cheaper, simpler set-up that enables similar results at a lower cost, though Merida admits that tube wall thicknesses – and therefore weights – tend to be larger.
Short chainstays tuck the rear wheel in under the rider, but some nifty crimping keeps mud clearance the right side of sane. There's no tapered head tube – not a surprise at this price – but there is a complete set of rack and mudguard eyelets at the rear. It's a small touch, but one that means the Merida could easily do double duty as a commuter or tourer as well as a weekend trail centre basher.
Pointing it all in the right direction is a Suntour XCM fork with coil sprung internals, 100mm (3.9in) of travel and a lockout switch. There's a preload adjuster, but adjustable rebound damping is conspicuous by its absence. Although the stock damping is okay, we'd happily swap the lockout knob for the ability to tweak rebound. Budget RockShox coil forks offer both. Suntour, are you listening?
We're particularly pleased to see a nine-speed transmission, in place of the cheaper eight-speed alternative that sometimes finds its way on to budget hardtails. Although some riders may sniff at the relatively lowly Shimano Altus rear mech, it shifts just fine. More importantly, the nine-speed cassette gives a decent range with no annoying gaps between gears.
The own-brand finishing kit is all fine and the Promax brakes are reasonable stoppers for the money. Merida's own 29er tyres are fast-rolling and grippy in the dry, which will win them plenty of fair-weather trail centre friends. Show them a trail that's wet, off-camber and greasy though, and they soon lose the plot. If more adventurous riding is on the agenda, they'd be our first candidates for an upgrade.
Ride and handling: slow to accelerate but easy rolling once up to speed
By avoiding the temptation to pander to new riders' expectations, Merida's designers have given the Big.Nine proper, grown-up geometry. Don't expect race bike responses here though – the realities of a budget frame build and components soon make their presence felt.
This is a bike that's at its best on long, sweeping descents. The easy-rolling big wheels and stable geometry don't encourage flamboyant riding – chuck it about and you'll begin to wonder why you bothered. But it's not a problem, because the Big.Nine is just as quick being allowed to roll through, around and over whatever the trail spits in your direction.
The fork manages to take the edge off things without throwing up any nasty surprises, while the big wheel diameter does the rest. It's not such good news on the climbs. Although the Big.Nine 40 only carries a half-pound (0.2kg) weight penalty over an equivalent 26in wheeled bike, that difference lives pretty much entirely in the wheels. Or more precisely, at the outer circumference of the wheels.
Like all budget 29ers, the Big.Nine 40 is a hostage to the laws of physics. With roughly 10 per cent more rim, tyre and inner tube than a 26in bike, the extra mass – which needs to be accelerated both around and along – is enough to make a noticeable difference. Can the average rider feel this difference? Yes, definitely.
The Merida is also noticeably slower to accelerate than a 26in bike. The good news is that, because big wheels roll more easily over obstacles, in practice most of the difference comes out in the wash. The Big.Nine is as fast as a 26in bike up a long, technical climb. It just feels slower. And it's this factor, ultimately, that'll determine whether the Merida is right for you.
As budget 29ers go, it's a good 'un, with no glaringly obvious spec gotchas, decent geometry and a fair price. It's just not as much fun to ride as an equivalently specced bike with smaller wheels. Blame Newton for that…
This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.