Merida Ninety-Six XC full-suspension range gets a fresh look and a down-country makeover. Available in two versions: 100mm RC and a 120mm down-country bike.
The Merida Ninety-Six has been a stalwart of the XC and marathon race scene for many years now. It was the whip of choice for XC legends Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå and José Hermida on the gnarlier tracks of the World Cup circuit, as well as hugely popular among privateer racers in countries like Hermida’s native Spain. For 2020 it’s had a timely revamp, as the old model was getting long in the tooth and hamstrung by outdated geometry, a clumsy remote lockout and an antique front derailleur mount (remember them).
Merida Ninety-Six need to know
- Merida’s XC/Marathon bike gets a ground-up redesign
- TwistLoc remote lets you firm up the fork and shock for efficient climbing and sprinting
- Flex-stay swingarm does without a seat or chainstay pivot
- Range starts at £4,000 for the Ninety-Six RC 5000
For the new model, Merida has modernised the geometry, refined the remote, binned the front mech, deleted the old seatstay pivot and streamlined the whole frame. What’s emerged from the wash is a clean-looking XC bike with a crouching, poised-to-pounce profile that screams head-down speed. Or pain…
More excitingly, if you love hammering around your favourite trails on a mere slip of a bike that enjoys having fun as much as it craves raw speed, Merida has also introduced a ‘down-country’ version. It’s called the 8000 and it gets a longer-travel SID fork (120mm instead of 100mm), proper trail tyres (2.4in Maxxis Minion DHR II) and a four-piston front brake. The bad news is that this is the only one down-country option in the range, and it’s over £6k; we’d love to see the concept trickle down to a lower-price point.
As the same frame design is used throughout the range, all models benefit from the massive, sturdy head tube area, internal cable routing, twin bottle cage bosses and under-top tube gear strap mount. What does change is the specification of the carbon; the top RC 9000 model gets a CF5 lay-up saving 150g, while the other three models get the slightly heavier CF4. Not that we’re complaining though – our large Ninety-Six 8000 still weighed a paltry 11.46kg, even with inner tubes fitted.
If you’re familiar with Merida’s naming process, Ninety-Six refers to the rear wheel travel. Or at least it used to, back in the day, on one of the model’s earlier iterations. Now it gives an indication of intended use, while the claimed travel has grown slightly to 100mm, even if we measured it just shy of that mark at 95mm. And this is delivered via a swing-link beneath the down tube driving a RockShox SIDLuxe shock. Like most short travel carbon bikes, the swingarm is a one-piece affair designed to deflect as the suspension compresses. The minimal design saves weight and costs less to produce, and – while on some bikes the extra spring of the carbon stays can overcome the damping in the shock and negatively impact on the suspension consistency – the Ninety-Six felt lively and active on small bumps but never bucked on bigger hits. It’s a really progressive design too, so you don’t need to choose the chicken lines around jumps and drops and you can load up the bike in turns and get fired down the next straight without having to waste valuable energy pedalling.
When you do need to get on the gas, there’s a remote compression adjust that uses a TwistLoc rotating grip to firm up the front and rear suspension. Twist the grip to activate and push the button to release. For the most part, it’s a great design that’s less intrusive than Scott’s TwinLoc – meaning you can still run a dropper post lever in its prime location under the bars. However, the grub screw that holds it firm on the bars has a very shallow hex head that rounded off when we tried to tighten it. We’d also question the need for the added complexity on a bike that pedals as efficiently as the Merida does with the suspension fully open. Racers will probably love it, but if you’re never going to hear a starter’s pistol, we’d consider taking it off.
Up front there’s RockShox’s latest SID Ultimate fork. We’ve had quite a few bikes with these fitted now, and it’s fast becoming our favourite short travel fork. Not only is it really light on the scales, the action is beautifully fluid, with loads of grip and yet enough support to ensure that it keeps most of its meagre travel in reserve for big hits. It feels like a really good trail fork put on a transformative diet, and it works in perfect harmony with the SIDLuxe shock. On some bikes fitted with the SID, we’ve criticised a lack of precision at the front end, but the Merida tracked precisely. We can’t be certain, but we have a hunch the narrow 740mm handlebar helps here, as it offers less leverage when cornering.
Considering this bike is £6k, speccing it with a SRAM GX rear mech and shifter seems tight at first. But look closely and Merida has actually upgraded the chain and cassette to XX1. As the cassette is one of the most expensive parts of the drivetrain, with the biggest weight saving, it’s a smart move. So actually you get a lighter cassette that should last longer and the copper finish looks fantastic. For such a light bike, the Shimano XT brakes deliver ample stopping power, and the road bike-style flat mount on the chainstay for the rear caliper looks clean, even if it’s not that common.
Bringing further class to the specification are the Reynolds TR 309 carbon wheels. Barely noticeable with their black-on-black decals, they’re a nice touch even if, at around 1,750g they don’t bring a huge weight advantage.
How it rides
It’s been a long time since I got backache mountain biking, but the day after my first 30km ride on the Merida Ninety-Six I could barely move. That head down, arse-in-the-air riding position – that looks so fast on a lithe, twenty-something stick insect – completely crippled my washed-up, forty-something carcass. And that was after I’d flipped the negative rise stem upside down to raise the bars up as high as possible. Production bikes will come with a longer steerer tube and some headset spacers to allow you to play with the cockpit height, but I had no such luxury on this demo bike. Even so, the scalped head tube and ostrich neck stem seem overly tortuous for a down-country bike.
Not only that, in a crash the bars can swing round and smash the shifter into the top tube and even with the stem flipped and some spacers installed, I don’t think there will be enough clearance to avoid an expensive interaction.
For all the talk of ‘modern geometry’ the Merida Ninety-Six is hardly bleeding edge. The 460mm reach is average at best, the 335mm BB height is about 10mm higher than it needs to be and the 475mm seat tube meant I couldn’t run the 175mm dropper at full extension.
However, it still manages to be a fun bike to ride, largely thanks to that supple, progressive suspension, capable SID fork, and aggressive Maxxis tyres. It can be pumped and jumped without getting bucked out of shape, it can hustle corners with poise and control (in the dry – it starts to feel nervous and inconsistent in the wet owing to the short wheelbase and high BB) and it carries pace and creates speed with minimal effort from the rider. Those narrow bars let you snake through tight gaps that force mates on enduro bikes and trail bikes to breathe in and reach for the brakes. Most importantly, you never feel like you have to treat it with kid gloves.
The Merida Ninety-Six manages to be a rapid, engaging bike on flat, relatively smooth trails, even if it still feels like it’s clinging on to its XC roots on more demanding terrain. This is where the limitations of the short wheelbase, high BB and low front end start to hinder its potential, and where a bike like the Transition Spur would leave it for dead.