I rode and raced dual suspension bikes for 14 years straight. Downhill, to cross country, to enduro. Multiple bikes, across several major generations of bike design, from the dusty pea-gravel strewn hills of Perth, to the south island of New Zealand and down the brain-bending slopes of the French Alps. My point being, I’ve ridden lots of bikes, on lots of terrain, and have a pretty good idea of what a capable bike is. For lots of reasons, I eventually fell out of love with racing, and then eventually even lost interest in just…..riding. I got burnt out on bikes in a big way. I loved working on them, but stopped enjoying ‘the MTB life’ I guess.
I swapped Saturday and Sunday morning drives out to the trails for coastal rolls with my kids once they were all old enough to do some legitimate bike rides (all on Meridas too!) – while still riding a 29″ Scott Genius enduro bike. WAY too much bike for a roll down to the beach cafe and playground, but hey, it did the job.
Eventually, the Genius was sold (sellers market, pointlessly overgunned, etc) – but I was desperate to keep riding with my kids. I’d been keeping half an eye on the ‘aggressive hardtail’ segment of the market for a few years by this point, and had already seen this ridiculously cool purple version of Meridas Big Trail 400. It was only one model up from the poverty-pack version, with an RRP of $1699. A buddy of mine who owns the local BikeForce let me know that he had a large model inbound, and I committed to it instantly. For reference, the $400 cheaper Big Trail 200 misses out on a dropper post and gets a bottom-of-the-barrel fork. Oh, and it’s yellow. Spend the extra $400. Please.
On paper, the spec of the Big Trail 400 went against everything my years of bike-snobbery had burned into my brain, but the desire to ride something cool with my kids, that also happened to be dirt cheap (compared to say, a Norco Torrent) was all it took to overcome the spec sheet concerns.
Out of the box, the Big Trail 400 comes shod with:
- 1 x 10 Deore drivetrain
- Merida-branded wheels, 150mm dropper and cockpit
- Suntour air sprung fork with 140mm of travel
- Kenda tyres 29″ x 2.4″- no tubeless ready setup here
- Tektro hydraulic brakes
By bolting these parts to a super modern hardtail frame with real off-road geometry, the Big Trail becomes SO MUCH MORE than the sum of its parts. The frame has:
- Short chainstays
- Long front triangle
- Slack head angle
- Low bottom bracket height
- Low standover height
What’s Been Changed?
The day I got it, I taped up the rims with tubeless tape, mounted the stock Kenda 29×2.4’s and let rip with the compressor. The tyres were SO FAR from even attempting to seat themselves with a blast of air that I just threw them aside, and put new Maxxis rubber on. 29×2.6″ front and rear – A Dissector on the front and a Rekon on the back. The wider profile still has good rock clearance, but the rear is clearly as big as it can go.
- Deity pedals. Obviously. Plastic pedals don’t belong on real bikes
- Deity grips. Stock Merida grips made me sad
- TRP rotors, 180-160mm front to rear. Stock discs were fine…..I just love the way these 2 piece versions look
- FUNN Equalizer stem, 35mm length. Stock stem was too long (60mm) and skinny
- FUNN Zippa BB mounted chainguide. Too cheap and too useful NOT to have one.
- Selle Italia superflow boost saddle. The stock Merida saddle is the devils own creation
…and of course the biggest, most ridiculous, most awesome upgrade……the DVO Diamond fork set at 150mm of travel. More on this later.
I haven’t upgraded the wheels yet…….but it’s only a matter of time and vanity before new hoops are in the workshop.
The dropper is….adequate. For now. At the first sign of weakness, I’ll swap it out for a 170mm KS Lev.
Ok, let me start with this: If you think you’re burnt out on bikes in any way, or perhaps similar to my situation outlined above – stop reading, go buy a sweet hardtail, ride the wheels off it, then come back to this blog and see how many of the following points you absolutely agree with!
After a decade and a half of riding bikes with rear suspension…..the hardtail is a revelation. It’s playful. It’s fast. It’s responsive. It’s……bumpy? Well, duh! Anyone who has had a drivers licence for more than 10 years should remember the first time they ever drove something “sporty”. The instant realisation that the vehicle was really stiffly sprung compared to everything else they’d been in…..and yet…..was still comfortable enough, and only got better as speeds crept higher. THAT is the hardtail revelation, folks. It rolls along with the kids with almost no effort, and then, when opportunities to jump, wheelie, slide and jib present themselves, it shows up 1000% ready to party.
Let’s focus on the off-road traits of the Big Trail, it’s a mountain bike after all. Everything it can do on pavement is just a bonus. The short rear end contributes to effortless wheelies and loads of traction under power. On any halfway reasonable trail surface, you can put power down through the corner (assuming it’s not too sharp to pedal, obviously) and as it loads up the rear tyre it just grips harder.
The long front triangle makes climbing a breeze – the length of the top tube naturally puts you in an aggressive, stem-chewing position, the front wheel stays planted and the rear end just delivers all the power you put into it. Dual suspension frames will handle bumpy, techy climbs with less fuss and more traction, but that’s not the point. I am so, so happy to be aboard something that requires a bit of finesse here and there.
Here’s the really good bit…..corners. Once you get used to cornering and weighting the bike through the pedals rather than the bars, a whole new universe of stability and two-wheeled drifting opens up to you. The low bottom bracket height and short rear triangle mean that when you lean the bike into a corner and make a deliberate, well timed effort to really load the tyres up through the pedals, it will start to slide and rotate through the corner. The long wheel base and slack head angle provide heaps of stability, and make sure nothing unexpected happens too quickly. Once your feet and legs naturally start to unload from the compression, the bike simply straightens out and carries on wherever the front wheel is pointed.
Speaking of the front wheel…..and the DVO fork it is now bolted too……wow. Just wow. The standard air sprung Suntour was fine for the bikes price point. I never expected much from it, and after a quick lower leg service it became a lot more supple and sensitive relative to how it was out of the box. Without deviating too far off the main focus of the review, I’ve wanted DVO suspension on my bikes for so long, I’d actually forgotten about it! The opportunity to buy a 29″ Diamond in Candy Apple green fell out of the sky, at a price I couldn’t refuse. I specced it with 10mm more travel than the Suntour (150 vs 140) but because the Suntour actually had about 15mm of ‘wasted’ travel in the stanchions, the axle to crown measurement between old and new fork is almost identical! The front of the bike is planted, supple, supportive and…….green fork on a purple frame means the mighty Merida is now nicknamed The Hulk. I’ll review the Diamond separately at a later date.
In my line of work….11 speed is the norm for road bikes, and the vast majority of mountain bikes are 12 speed. At a glance, the 10 speed wide range Deore setup seems dated – but one ride and you remember why there have been so many articles and arguments in bike-media comment sections over the years about why “bikes have too many gears”. 42-11 range on the rear, paired with a 32T narrow wide chainring up front, delivers massive range, crisp shifting, and so far, flawless reliability. I’ve owned 12 speed MTB setups that required adjusting every ride. Doubly so if the derailleur copped even a slight knock at any point.
- Yes, the steps between gears are noticeably bigger than 11/12 speed setups
- Yes, it spins out easily down any hill
- No, neither of those things bother me or detract from the fun
If you’re a Big Ring Hero, put a 38T on it and go commuting. I’ll stick to the stock ratios.
Wheels and Brakes
I commuted on a basic, $900 hardtail for a number of years in a past life. By the time I was done with that job and that commute, the bike was a decade old. It had a set of Tektro Auriga hydraulic brakes, basic levers, 2-piston calipers and 160mm rotors front and rear that performed FLAWLESSLY for 10 years with ZERO maintenance. Original fluid. Original pads. That bike, now closer to 15 years old, resides in my dads garage, and I am confident they are still fine.
The Big Trail comes fitted with Tektro brakes, just the current version of the old ones described in the previous paragraph. Lever has a nice solid feel with reach adjust, calipers house two pistons each, and I’ve upgraded the rotors to two-piece TRP models at 180/160mm front and rear. It has huge stopping power for 90% of riding conditions. Pull the lever harder, stop harder – up to the point where the rear locks up and the front wrinkles and deforms at the contact patch.
I could find fault with the big ugly lever and master cylinder design but that would miss the point of my review here. This is awesome equipment, that will handle the VAST majority of conditions that a VAST majority of riders will encounter……and they cost well under $100 per brake. That is an outrageous performance to dollar ratio.
The wheels are Merida Comp TR rims with 29mm of internal width, on basic Shimano hubs with a regular HG type splined freehub. Solid. Can be setup tubeless, and are just wide enough to support the larger 2.6″ wide rubber I’ve fitted. I am not a fan of shimano hubs or any other cup and cone style bearing setup, but they offer a similar level of performance to dollars that the rest of the bike does. If looked after, they’ll last a few days short of forever.
Out of pure vanity, not necessity, I will end up replacing them when I eventually dent one or they start to run rough, but they’ve held up to about 9 months of shenanigans so far, and I’ve not even shown them a spoke wrench.
Fun….Versatile…. Rock Solid…..and dare I say it…….damn near dirt cheap (before upgrades!)
The Big Trail has reignited my love for hooning around on two wheels. I even had a 900cc Yamaha naked sports bike parked next to it in the garage for about 6 months, and I promise you, the Merida is more fun, more of time, for about one fifth of the money.
It has made me reconsider what I want out of a bike, how much money it costs to have fun, and sparked my interest in revisiting local trails (within riding distance of my house) that are made too boring by ultra capable, super plush dual suspension bikes.
The geometry and inherent 29er rollover/stability give the Big Trail a depth of capability that takes time to uncover. I get that not everyone buys a bike to ‘uncover it’s abilities’ but in this particular category (aggressive 29er hardtail) it’s a safe bet that the rider is keen to push it as far as they can. That’s what I do every time I get out on it, and you should too.