The new Northside Trail bike brings Marin's well designed and well received hard-riding hardtails down to a price that will introduce the range to relative beginners.
This is the cheapest rig in their three-bike AXC (Aggressive Cross-Country) range, below the B17 (£695) and the Rocky Ridge at £995. They all carry a bit more damage limitation heft than their more purist cross-country counterparts, but this kind of bike is a great way of bridging the gap between jump bikes and cross-country trail bikes.
A no-nonsense matt black paint job hides all sorts of well thought-out subtleties in the Northside Trail's frame build. Marin don't shy away from the fact that, beyond all the useful geometry tweaks and practical design, it's impact strength, durability and stiffness that are the major requirements of hardnut rigs like this. The reinforced head tube is throat gusseted across to an almost triangulated hydroformed down tube; the coffin-shaped top tube is long, low and clutter free (the gear cables go under the bottom bracket); and the seat clamp faces forward, out of the spray. The Tri-Burner oversized rear stays have forged dropouts, lots of room for big tyres and plenty of heel clearance.
Theoretically, Marzocchi's hefty but robust coil-sprung MZ Comp fork offers 120mm (4.7in) of travel. On a bike costing £500 it's a good option, but don't expect it to be great. The fork is basic in function, it offers little in the way of rebound control and we only got 100mm (4in) of travel from it, even with the leg-top preload dials backed right off.
The Northside Trail's component package is also well thought through. The drivetrain uses Truvativ Blaze cranks with a bashring instead of an outer chainring, plus a 36-tooth middle ring instead of the usual 32 or 34-toother, so you won't miss the big ring, especially considering there's a 12-32-tooth cassette at the back. SRAM's X5 rear mech and trigger shifters also keep gear changes sweet.
Stopping duties are performed by Hayes MX2 cable-pull discs. Big rotors and surprisingly good lever feel mean you forget you haven't got hydraulics, while full outer cables ensure smooth running in poor conditions.
The wheels twin WTB's tough All-Mountain SpeedDisc rims with grippy, big-volume Kenda Kinetics 2.3in tyres and these provide a comfort and confidence boost that makes you forget about the stiff frame. The long seatpost helps here too. Marin's own-brand saddle, shorty stem and 25.5in wide, low-rise bar seem as good as known-brand alternatives and we like the WTB grips.
The Northside Trail is designed to let you have lots of fun tackling fast, technical singletrack, riding it far more aggressively than you would on a normal cross-country bike. And it works - the steep seat angle sits you forward on the bike, but there's loads of saddle rail adjustment if you decide you don't like this. The short stem means you never feel pushed too far forward, but the long top tube stretch and lots of seatpost length mean you're well balanced for tackling pedally trails and climbs. The best news, however, is that you really can attack the trail by working the basic but still very welcome Marzocchi suspension fork.
So is there a downside? Well, yes. The built-for-punishment heft (14.1kg/31.2lb) means climbs and getting up to speed will always be tough. And there are times when the limited performance of the fork is a reminder of the relatively low price. Compression is smooth but rebound damping is almost non-existent. The fork is fine on moderate bumps but a string of hits necessitates loads of body language to keep the front end under control. Lifting the front over obstacles, dips and troughs results in a thunk as the fork extends, although this is not unusual on bikes at this price - remember, decent forks on their own can cost more than this bike.
Considering the Northside's price, Marin have done a great job; it's more fun to ride over rough terrain than most £500 bikes, and the ready-for-action ride posture gives confidence and bags of control through the twists and turns. The low bottom bracket caused a few pedal strikes on bumpy turns, but it adds a little stability too and you'll quickly get used to its limitations. All in all, it's a fun bike that'll withstand a lot of abuse.