There are four bikes in Marin’s Rift Zone range. They span a wide price range – from a relatively wallet-friendly £1,700/US$1,999.99 to a don’t-tell-the-other-half £3,500/US$5,099.99 – but share a few things in common: 29er wheels and 100mm (3.9in) of travel at each end are the obvious links, but they also boast exactly the same 6061 aluminium chassis.
The XC8 occupies the rung just below the top. With its blend of XT transmission and Fox shocks, is it the right blend of performance and value?
Ride & handling: Puts the fun back into big wheel territory
Despite the fact that it’s all but impossible to walk into a bike shop now without being greeted by rows of big-wheeled bikes, there’s still a fair bit of resistance to the idea from many riders. The good news is that bikes like the Rift Zone prove there’s no need to worry. Once you’re on board and riding you’ll forget the wheels are around 3in bigger in diameter than ‘normal’ ones.
Actually, scratch that. You won’t worry about it, but you’ll certainly notice it. In a good way. Because the Marin takes all the good bits of 29er wheels – smooth rolling, mostly – and leaves the bad bits – sluggardly handling, principally – behind.
Partly this is down to a wheelset that minimises the inherent rotating mass disadvantage that all big wheels have over the 26in alternative. The Rift Zone accelerates and climbs better than its near-13kg (29lb) weight might suggest, though it’s not in the same league as a race bike. But that’s okay, because it’s not trying to be a race bike.
It’s also absolutely sorted in terms of geometry, with a willingly plantable front end that’s as much fun to chuck around as most of the smaller wheeled, longer travel alternatives. It’s hard to overstate just how important an agile front end is to the overall feel of a big-wheeler. By getting this bit right, Marin have given the Rift Zone a big ol’ dose of fun.
The final link in the ‘big wheels good’ chain is Marin’s tweaked Quad Link system, which seems better suited to the 100mm of the Rift Zone than longer travelled bikes elsewhere in the Marin range.
Fox’s CTD does a good job of controlling the setup’s inherent small-bump plush, while the steep rising rate at the upper end of the travel is delivered so progressively it never feels like an issue.
Perhaps the biggest compliment we can give is that it helped us clear a rock-filled gulley that’s defeated us for years. Racers might want something lighter, but for us it’s a reminder that big wheels can do trail fun too.
Frame & equipment: On the heavy side but solid spec
Although Marin’s long-running, compact Quad Link suspension design has its fans, it took up an awful lot of space inside the bike’s main triangle – leaving nowhere to put a water bottle. More seriously for Marin’s designers, it didn’t work too well with bigger wheels.
So the new, reworked Quad Link puts everything in a, well, more ‘normal’ position. It all works in pretty much the same way as before, with a rear axle path that maximises small bump responsiveness, and a rising rate that ramps up sharply near the limit of the shock’s travel (although a bit less sharply than before). It just doesn’t look different from all the other full sussers out there any more. Depending on your perspective, that might be a good thing… Or not.
New for 2013, Marin’s adoption of a 142x12mm rear end adds a claimed 15 percent stiffness to the swingarm and, in the process, cures one of our niggles with the new design (that it was a tad flexy in the rough). Tucking the rear brake calliper away inside the stays is a neat touch, there’s space to run the cable for a remote dropper post under the top tube and Marin’s lifetime bearing warranty still holds.
Swallowing rocks whole and spitting them out in bite-size chunks is handled by a pair of Fox’s CTD shocks – a Float at the rear and a 32 in 29er trim up front. No complaints there, though we find that unless there’s a bar-mounted remote we tend to leave CTD shocks on ‘trail’ setting by default.
A 3x10 transmission might be old hat now, but we’ll take Shimano XT’s solid reliability and unerring smooth shifts over just about anything else on the market. Without spending silly money you simply can’t buy better.
Formula discs make a refreshing change from the Avid norm, while light Easton wheels shod with fast-rolling Continental rubber work well in all but very wet conditions. It’s all good stuff.