Billed as a top-flight XC bike the Ninety-Six delivers a ride quality that shouldn't let you down come race day.
Merida’s position as one of the world’s largest bike manufacturers allows it to produce a wide range of full suspension platforms. All of which are named based on the amount of travel each produces at the rear wheel. As it’s name implies, the Merida Ninety-Six 9.XT produces a whopping 96mm of suspension movement, putting it firmly in the short travel race/trail category. Given it has become the weapon of choice of Merida’s XC race team, it has inevitably been shaped around geometry and kit specifications aimed more at the racer than the average trail rider.
At the heart of the Ninety-Six is a carbon main/aluminium rear frame. Merida use a modified single-pivot suspension system utilising a super light carbon linkage to drive the shock. Rather than go for the (lighter) flex stay option like a lot of the Ninety-Six’s rivals, the rear end feature pivots at the chainstay/seatstay junctions. Our XL test model features an extended seat tube and additional gusset to keep the standover as low as possible. One other detail worthy of note is the incredibly clean internal cable routing, even with four cables running through the frame.
The Ninety-Six relies on Fox for both front and rear shocks. Like all of the models in the range, Merida opt for shocks that can be controlled by a handlebar remote. For the 9.XT that 96mm of travel is controlled by a Float DPS Performance Elite shock. Rebound is controlled on the shock, the remote lever utilises a CTD style three position to adjust damping from open to locked. Complementing the performance of the rear shock is a Fox 32 Performance Step Cast fork. As with the shock, the internals are a little more basic than the full Factory versions but the Grip 2 damper still has great small bump sensitivity. Like the Orbea Oiz reviewed recently, the Ninety-Six’s suspension is designed to work with minimal sag.
Continuing with the simple naming theme, the Ninety-Six 9.XT is specced with a complete Shimano XT M8000 drivetrain and brakeset. Merida has plumped for a double chainset for the 9.XT, for most riders in the UK a single ring setup might be preferred. But there’s no faulting the wider gear range it offers, perfect for longer ‘marathon’ style endurance races.
Compared to the rest of the componentry the wheelset is a little bit of a let down. Whilst there is no doubting the reliability of the Shimano Deore hubs and Merida badged Jalco rims; they are relatively heavy and lack the ability to convert to tubeless easily. Merida provide the remaining finishing kit, barring the properly comfortable Prologo saddle. Most of this own-brand kit is decent quality except the foam grips. These you would want to replace as soon as possible, being both uncomfortable and lacking grip.
Swing a leg over the Ninety-Six and you are immediately aware that this is a bike designed for racing. The long and low position of the front end stretches you into a position ready to take on your local race series. But rather than being a fully uncompromising ride, it fortunately has a touch of subtlety. This prevents it from being too harsh for the average rider wanting to dabble in the mysterious world of XC racing. Key to this subtlety is the three position shock and fork settings.
Riding with everything wide open and the Ninety-Six’s Fox suspension has a remarkably active small bump sensitivity. Setting the bike up with 25% sag (as recommended) allows it to run less into the mid-stroke, giving it the ability to cope with larger hits without feeling like you’ve smashed through the bike’s limits. In this position it also benefits from the additional traction that the suspension design brings. You can really feel this when riding loose and steep climbs.
It’s when you slam the remote lever in to the middle setting that its XC credentials really come into play. Like twisting a rubber band, everything tightens up and it really feels like more of your energy is being converted into speed. It’s this setting that I tended to spend most of my time, on the short, sharp climbs and flat singletrack power sections it felt most at home and the least compromised of the three positions.
Skilled riders wanted
The 9.XT version suffers from a few limiting factors, namely its wheels and cockpit. Talking wheels first, this is a bike that clearly deserves a lighter and stiffer wheelset. Clearly the specced Deore/Merida offerings are robust and reliable, but the sluggish acceleration, high overall weight and flexible nature spoil the overall package.
Merida has also specced a stem length that pushes your body weight way too far forward. Descending steep chutes or over drops causes it to get very nose heavy, dropping the front wheel and forcing your weight too far back (losing steering ability). This longer stem also creates less responsive handling, compromising speed through really tight, technical singletrack. Similar to many bikes in this class, the Ninety-Six in its standard spec suits a reasonably skilled rider as there are times when it needs to be shown a firm hand and a subtle touch to get the most out of its potential
Less significant, but still worthy of mention is the Fox remote lockout lever. This can be difficult to use, especially in race conditions. It might sound weird but the ergonomics and stiffness of the action, combined with thumb fatigue during a race cause you to use it less and less.
Also, when releasing the lever from the lockout mode it returns directly to the fully open setting. So requires you to engage the ‘trail’ mode every time. Unfortunately unless you opt to run the 9.XT with a 1x drivetrain I cannot see another way of improving this issue.
Merida's short-travel XC platform is a bike that needs a firm hand to get the most out of it. Experienced XC racers will appreciate the efficiency of the suspension when set up correctly. However the performance of the wheels and the way too long stem compromise the appeal of the overall package.