Perhaps marijuana had something to do with it. Or maybe it was just really good mountain biking.
For ten years now Marin Bikes has inhabited a former recording studio of the hippie superband The Grateful Dead in Marin County, but the bike brand’s roots in the birthplace of mountain biking go all the way back to its inception in 1986, when Robert Buckley, Joe Murray, Gary Fisher and other Californians were taking bikes off-road, up and down nearby Mt Tamalpais.
“At that time one of our techs, Ron Blinn, was one of the owners of Sunshine Bicycle Center, and there was a local shop grom named Joe Murray,” said Marin’s Mark Vanek. “Joe was part-time with Gary Fisher, who had a shop called Marin Bikes. When Bob wanted to start company, he bought the Marin Bikes name – maybe he traded him some pot for it, I don’t know — and he brought on Joe to help design some of the bikes.”
Marin Bikes’ first mountain bikes were 2×5-speed rigs with friction shifters and fully rigid frames. In the mid-90s Jeff Steber – who went on to found Intense – helped Marin to created full-suspension bikes with monocoque main frames. The Lynskey family – who later founded Litespeed – helped with some early titanium deisgns. And the 1996/97 Ti FRS was a precursor to Marin’s Mount Vision.
In recent years, Marin has carved out a niche with relatively affordable bikes, ranging from the $430/ £350 alloy Sky Trail hardtail up to top-end $5,099/£3,499 top-end Rift Zone 29er XC Pro. In 2003 Marin moved from its original building in Novato to the former Grateful Dead studio, just a block away.
Early last year, Buckley sold the brand to European investment firm Minestone Limited, which has left Marin in Marin County. New Marin CEO Matt VanEnkevort, who joined the company from Full Speed Ahead, said the acquisition has primarily meant more resources for the company. “The nice thing about Minestone as a parent company is that they’re in it for the longhaul, not immediate gains,” VanEnkevort said. “It’s given us the financial stability, the operating capital for investment in the new bikes. For example, it was a huge investment in molds for the new bikes. Marin didn’t have the financial wherewithal to do that.”
At the Sea Otter Classic in April, BikeRadar took a look at a few Marin 2014 prototype bikes, including three 27.5in models with carbon frames — a hardtail, an enduro bike and a trail bike — plus a new carbon cyclocross machine.
“We’re putting the money back into product development and making better bikes,” VanEnkevort said. “That’s what people are going to notice.”
Although it has international distribution, Marin is a relatively small company, with about 20 people working at headquarters. The bikes are made in Asia, but are designed in Novato, where many are warehoused and shipped from, as well.
Marin’s Vanek, VanEnkevort and Jason Faircloth enjoy riding the diverse trails just south of their office that include the famed Mt. Tam.
“We don’t have long alpine descents here, but we have trails and conditions in a small area that match just about everything,” Vanek said. “We have dusty, dry trails with babyheads, then you go just a little west and you have mud and really tight stuff.”
“Seeing brand from the outside as a relative newcomer, I think the brand still has authenticity,” VanEnkevort said. “It started here, it’s still here, and it’s related to the personality of the people, some of whom have been here for more than 20 years. Marin will never leave Marin County. Specialized, okay, it’s in NorCal, but it’s a big global juggernaut. Marin is a small NorCal company that represents this really cool area where we live and ride.”
VanEnkevort said the NorCal image works well for Marin, and the further from California the more powerful. “In Russia, for example, our distributor told us, ‘We have this vision of California, with the sun, the surf and the Golden Gate Bridge.’ It’s a concept we enjoy not having ownership of, but representing.”