The World Cup level pros ride some pretty great equipment; their bikes usually represent the pinnacle of the sport and are nothing but drool worthy. Few brands actually sell the bike that their sponsored pros ride, mostly due to prohibitive costs. However, the Merida Ninety Nine Carbon Team-D isn’t like most bikes and it arrived to us awaiting the top step of the podium. [private]
If you’re a fiend for the composite materials, you’d be dehydrating from salivation with so much attention to carbon fibre detail; it was a challenge to find metal! Handlebars, seat post, frame, fork lowers and crown/steerer, rear shock body, frame rocker link, rear derailleur cage, shifter covers, brake levers, seat clamp and on the woven goodness went. We were surprised and slightly disappointed for the money to see the carbon theme stop before the wheels, with Merida using the still very light Alex XCR rims.
The frame is constructed with high modulus carbon fibre that creates a super light yet laterally rock solid structure. We didn’t sense a hint of flex out of the frame’s main triangle that features both tapered head tube and oversized BB30 bottom bracket.
The carbon rear end was equally as solid; much in part due to the large asymmetrical chain stays and thick carbon dropouts. Cable routing was neat, the front derailleur cable internally routed through the top tube while the other cables were sealed in full length housing and guided along the downtube and under the bottom bracket, well away from the rider.
Something we loved and hope to see on more bikes in future was the FSA ‘Head Block’ headset with internal rubber stoppers to stop the bars over rotating in the event of a crash and consequently damaging the delicate top tube with the brake levers. Adding to the bike’s overall team theme was the colour matched SRAM XX, although sadly the shifters and brakes didn’t receive the same treatment as the cranks and rear derailleur.
Our first outing left us unimpressed as we slowly plotted around the trails. Every small bump was felt as the rear shock’s lack of small bump compliance became obvious and substantial suspension movement under pedalling was witnessed. This wallowing, yet harsh, suspension had us quickly questioning this bike….until we turned up the speed.
It’s at speed that this bike was meant to be, the previously harsh small bump compliance becomes a less an issue and the suspension soaks up the larger fatiguing hits well, allowing the rider to stamp on the pedals. A tubeless tyre setup would help with the poor small bump compliance and it’s the first change we’d recommend making to the otherwise top level spec.
The market for 26″ wheeled XC race bikes is certainly dwindling, but as the Ninety Nine proved, it’s impossible to beat the sheer acceleration and flick-ability of a super light smaller wheeled dually. At just over 9.3kg, getting this bike up to speed was effortless, helped along with its incredibly stiff frame construction. With the suspension open it was efficient, however when on-road stints or all out attacks were required, the remote lock-outs transformed the pedalling efficiency and ensured rider output went where it needed to go; forward. The fork features a two stage lock-out, with the first stage closing the rebound circuit and the second locking the fork; perfect for getting that front end real low and attacking the smoother climbs.
Our previous experiences with the amazingly light, carbon DT Swiss suspension have left us underwhelmed and sad to say, this story is no different. Just about all our qualms with the bike were suspension related; while a pit crew could solve these issues, the everyday racer doesn’t have such luxuries.
The fork suffered from an unreasonable amount of bushing play straight from the box causing some brake shudder and hampered steering precision when cornering on rough terrain. The rear shock produced an annoying knock as it topped out from minor compressions. With separate remote lockouts for the rear shock and fork, there were many levers and a maze of cables in front of the bars. However, causing much confusion was the fork lockout featuring a different mechanism and form of operation compared to the rear shock, requiring some thought and effort in use.
While we didn’t love the DT Swiss suspension, there is good news for the 2013 model with Merida making the change to Rockshox suspension, which we do love!
While Merida was slow to the 29er world, this past season has seen the majority of team Multivan Merida adopt 29ers on the world stage, including such names as José Hermida, Ralph Näf and Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå. Nevertheless, if 26” remains your thing, the 2013 model is a great option; everything we loved stays, the price is lowered and a change to RockShox suspension will allow the NinetyNine to be the World Cup weapon that it should be. [/private]