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The Merida Ride Lite 88 is a surprisingly agile starter bike for riders who like a tall front end, but it's let down slightly by limited toe clearance at the front wheel.
Tipping the scales at a modest 21.7lb (without pedals) the Ride Lite 88 is the cheapest model in Merida's tall head tubed Road Ride range. But considering it has a carbon fork, 18 gears, decent wheels, tough Maxxis tyres and no component downgrades that unduly affect the performance, the £500 price tag looks to be pretty good value.
Three weeks of regular rides failed to uncover any major downsides in either handling or components, but the short front centre (distance from the bottom bracket to the front hub) means there's a possibility of your toes touching the front wheel.
This isn't a notable problem during normal riding, and the tall head tube, 73 degree head angle and short fork rake actually makes for a very stable ride, but you'll need to be careful not to catch a toe on the tyre if making sharp slow speed turns in traffic.
Also, this isn't a great scenario if you want to fit mudguards, as they will overlap your toes even more. That's a pity as there's loads of room in the frame and fork for 'guards, and suitable eyelets are built in.
Visually, the tall head tubes on Merida Road Ride bikes are a love/hate thing, but it's not only beginners who are are attracted by a possibility of being able to set the top of the handlebar roughly level with the top of the saddle; Merida takes this frame styling up to a £2000 carbon framed model. With the stem flipped and the washer stack on top there's a 50mm drop between the highest and lowest handlebar positions.
Regardless of whether you like or dislike the aesthetics of tall head tubes, it's often a good approach for riders who like to ride frequently on the drops but find a more conventional race bred bike too low to do so comfortably.
There are nine bikes in the Road Ride group, including two women's and two full carbon models. Our test bike is a Large (58cm). This emphasises the tall front end, but Merida's sizing is a little confusing in that the seat tube length is still only 56cm and the horizontal top tube reach 56.5cm. If you don't like the look or feel of bikes with long head tubes you'd be better off redirecting your attention to Merida's Road Race range. For the sake of comparison, the head tube length on the 58cm Road Race model, the £599.99 Race Lite, is 35mm shorter than on the Ride Lite.
The frame construction of the Ride Lite 88 offers no particular frills. It's listed simply as 'Shotgun 6061 butted aluminium', and the welds are sound but not very pretty.
The long, bulbous head tube has an integrated headset and the carbon-legged fork has a curvy triangulated teardrop shape that would be at home on a far more costly bike. As you'd expect for the price, it has an aluminium steerer.
An oversized, biaxially ovalised and slightly triangulated down tube, shapely chainstays and integral full outer cable routing to the rear brake are talking point features too, and there are two sets of bottle bosses but no rack eyelets.
There's loads of room under the brakes and behind the bottom bracket for fatter tyres but we'd imagine the dubiously-named 25mm Maxxis Detonator tyres fitted will be fine for most riders. They provide good traction and their high profile offers reasonable comfort, taking the harsher edges off an undoubtedly very stiff frame structure.
Out on the road, we were constantly impressed by the easy, accurate shifting of the Sun Race gears and shift levers: you use a single finger for both up and down shift levers and the lever hood shape is very comfortable.
The Sun Race crankset has 50/34 chainrings, generally a favourite mix on this sort of bike. Eight-speed 12-25 sprockets out back are fine for most terrain but there'll be a few beginners out there who'd welcome a bigger sprocket for the steepest climbs: the rear mech can certainly accommodate a 28 sprocket.
Braking duties are performed well enough by anonymous dual pivot brakes with combined pads and shoes, and all the finishing parts are decent Merida brand bits.
The saddle is firm but comfy on long rides; the seat post has twin clamp bolts for easy fine adjustment of the saddle angle; and the handlebar is a compact drop model of the sort that's popular with both beginners and experts.
The wheels stood up to a battering on our local potholed roads. They're tightly laced, three cross with 32 spokes, and the Alex R450 rims have a decent reputation. The anonymous hubs are an unknown quantity but they were fine throughout the test period.
This is a relatively comfortable bike for all sorts of riding. The ride position is fairly compact compared to more racy 58cm frames, and as a result we found ourselves climbing almost constantly on the lever hoods rather than holding the flat centre of the bars.
On the positive side, we ended up using the drops more than on many other bikes, even with the stem slammed right down. The comfort and stability on fast twisting descents is excellent and the 25mm tyres add cornering confidence compared to the 23mm rubber fitted to a lot of other bikes like this.
For £500 we can't fault it. The front wheel toe overlap is rarely an issue, unless you want to fit mudguards. It's simply the down-side of the short front centre, which is what helps to keep the handling so nimble.
Looking at other bikes in the range, we'd say the £600 Race Lite is the one that's worthy of attention if you're not sure about the tall head tube of the 88. It has a Shimano drivetrain compared to Sun Race on the 88.
There are lots of other brands offering this sort of bike around the £500 mark, and notably a few with Shimano Sora based drivetrains for just a little bit more.
It's worth bearing in mind though that Merida's massive far eastern factories also build frames for a lot of other big brands, so they often tend to be slightly ahead of the curve when it comes to getting leading edge value for money, simply due to their manufacturing expertise and bulk buying power.
A surprisingly agile starter bike for riders who like a tall front end, but it's let down slightly by limited toe clearance at the front wheel.
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Make and model: Merida Ride Lite 88
Size tested: 56cm
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
It's a reasonably fast road bike aimed at relative beginners who like a fairly high handlebar position
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Decent aluminium frame and a carbon fork. Mudguard room but some toe overlap could be a problem with a mudguard at the front
Excellent frame and fork for a £500 bike
It's a surprisingly fast ride for a bike at this price, but the high front end will put off as many riders as it will attract
No issues with wheels or drivetrain during the test. We really liked the Sun Race shifters
About average for the price
Reasonably comfy. A bit chattery with the tyres pumped hard but 25mm tyres can be run a little softer than 23s
Worth looking at the £600 Shimano drivetrain'd Race Lite if you can stretch to it
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Excellent. There's enough handlebar height adjustment to find a ride position that suits more experienced riders looking for a flatter back position
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
A few riders really disliked the aesthetics of the tall head tube, but some warmed to it when riding
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? No
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes, to someone with a £500 ceiling
Age: 58 Height: 181 Weight: 78kg
I usually ride: Merlin Ti My best bike is: Ibis Silk SL
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: cyclo cross, commuting, touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding, fixed/singlespeed, mtb,