For the second year running, gravel riding is the current king of road bike trends. However, as with all trends, we tend to focus on the premium end of the market and its innovations, such as suspension systems (Specialized and Cannondale), ultra-light builds (3T and Open), electronic drivetrains (SRAM and Shimano have both gone gravel) and even competition victories for gravel events.
Gravel, however, is the one road-based genre where pro-grade equipment has little affect on the fun of riding. Gravel is more about the enjoyment of the ride; conquering the terrain, surface and topography are far more import than power output, aerodynamics or Strava kudos.
So, forget about lightweight carbon wheels, Di2 and AXS for a while and revel in the Marin Nicasio +, which is quite possibly the bike that has offered the most bang for buck and the biggest smiles per miles of any bike that we’ve tested in recent times.
On paper the Nicasio + doesn’t shine; many will look at the modest, butted-chromoly steel frame and fork, the weight, own-brand wheels, cable disc brakes and Microshift drivetrain and dismiss the bike out of hand. That, however, would be a big mistake.
You see, the Nicasio + has everything you’d want in a gravel bike: the ride is cushion comfortable, the handling is stable over rocky terrain yet nimble through tight turns, the ride position is ideally set between sporty and relaxed so when you want to hustle along at pace it’s with you every step of the way, yet when you just want to sit up and smell the flowers it’s as docile as an old Labrador laid out by a warm fire.
The drivetrain will be a mystery to most because not many of us realise that there is a world beyond the ubiquitous Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo, but for many years Microshift has been toiling away at the budget-end of the market making some usable alternatives to the big three.
Here it’s the brand’s Advent system; a 1x group that combines simple drop-bar levers with right-hand only shifting where the brake lever shifts up and a secondary trigger that sits behind (but proud) of the lever actuates down shifts. Not having either the simplicity of SRAM nor the slickness of Shimano feels a little odd at first, but with over 200 miles of gravel-ride testing under my belt on the Marin, the Microshift system has never put a foot wrong.
Down shifts are as crisp as Shimano with the rapidity of SRAM. While upshifts require a bit of teasing – by slowing your hand movement to feel the chain engage when up in the bleachers of the 46-tooth cassette – it’s accurate and surprisingly noise-free.
The FSA Tempo chainset is equipped with a 1x specific chainring that holds the chain tenaciously and the Advent rear mech is similar to SRAM with a clutch that stops the chain from bouncing and dropping by staying under tension.
It’s a similar situation with the brakes, the Tektro Mira cable disc units that are paired with the Advent levers do a decent job. They have a lot of feel at the lever, but they lack the absolute power of a good hydraulic unit. It just means you have to think about braking more, and you’ll spend a lot of time in the drops on descents to get the best from them.
Long term, I’d probably look to upgrade to Tektro’s hybrid cable/hydraulic HY/RDs, but adjustment and regular maintenance on the Miras will mean they offer ample performance, particularly at this price.
The basic alloy wheels (branded Marin) are solid items, they’ve proved rock solid on some hairy terrain and have stood up and stayed true throughout testing. They have a thoroughly modern, gravel 25mm inner dimension and although they aren’t tubeless-ready there are lots of great clincher gravel tyre options around.
They’re shod with WTB’s brilliant Horizon tyres, huge 47c volume slicks that handle dry-condition gravel superbly and yet roll fast on tarmac so the Nicasio + would make a superb commuter, particularly if you want to mix up tarmac, towpath and trail.
Marin has also got the contact points right: the alloy gravel bar with its flared drops is well shaped and the 12-degree flare isn’t so wide as to feel ungainly, while the ovalised profile of the tops sits well in your grip.
The ‘beyond road’ saddle has the dimensions and feel of an old-school WTB mountain bike saddle. It’s a great shape that allows for plenty of weight shifts up on the nose for climbs and at the back for descents, and it’s never less than absolutely comfortable.
Marin’s geometry is where the modest, but great-performing components and keen price come together to become one of the most impressive new bikes for 2020.
My 58cm test bike comes with a 609.72mm stack and 398.59mm reach, which puts it firmly at the sporty end of endurance with numbers not dissimilar to Cannondale’s Synapse or our Gravel Bike of the Year, the GT Grade. The 72.5-degree head angle and 45mm fork offset gives the front end plenty of high-speed stability for road descents yet low-speed accuracy for when you’re riding proper woodland singletrack trails.
The 1,029mm wheelbase is not so long as to make the bike feel laborious and if you wanted to make the + a little more road-focused, it’s compatible with 700c wheels too (with up to 35mm tyres).
Marin Nicasio + geometry
|Seat angle (degrees)||74.5||74||73.5||73.5||73||73||72.5|
|Head angle (degrees)||70||70.5||70.5||72||72.5||72.5||72.5|
|Seat tube (cm)||44||47||49||51||53||55||57|
|Top tube (cm)||49.8||51.5||52.5||54.5||56.5||58.5||60|
|Head tube (cm)||12.5||13||14.5||15.5||17||19||20|
|Fork offset (cm)||5.7||5.7||5.7||4.5||4.5||4.5||4.5|
|Bottom bracket drop (cm)||7.2||7.2||7.2||7.2||7.2||7.2||7.2|
|Bottom bracket height (cm)||26.9||26.9||26.9||26.9||26.9||26.9||26.9|
The frame is relatively simple in its construction and made from skinny, double-butted steel tubes, but it comes with myriad fixtures and fittings – external welded cable guides for both drivetrain and brakes, triple ‘Anything’ mounts on the steel forks, mudguard eyes front and rear, and rack mounts.
The Nicasio + frameset also looks far more than its modest price – the proper metal fixtures and fittings, very tidy welds throughout, ring reinforced head tube and skinny dropped stays look smart – and that’s before you add in the stylish, desert-sand matt paint finish that gives the bike a military/utility cool edge to its appearance.
If I were being hyper-critical, I could bang on about the middling brakes and weight, and the unfamiliar drivetrain. That, however, would be missing the point. This bike is only £845 / €899 / $899 / AU$1,499 and it’s been designed by a legendary mountain bike brand in Marin, so although built to meet a low price, it hasn’t lost the essential element in any bike built by this company, which is that the Nicasio + is awesome to ride.
It’s so much fun, it handles serious off-road terrain with aplomb and positively encourages bad behaviour. The weight may make long steep climbs that bit harder, and the middling brakes may make descending a test of nerve, skill and concentration, but when you beast that big ride or big event and you realise that you’ve spent less on your whole bike than your fellow riders have spent on wheels then that’s where you’ll fully appreciate the Nicasio’s infinite charms.
|Price||AUD $1499.00EUR €899.00GBP £845.00USD $899.00|
|Available sizes||47, 50, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60cm|
|Brakes||Tektro Mira cable disc|
|Cranks||FSA Tempo 1x|
|Frame||Series 1 double-butted chromoly steel|
|Handlebar||Marin alloy 12-degree flare bar|
|Rear derailleur||Microshift Advent 1x9|
|Saddle||Marin Beyond Road saddle|
|Shifter||Microshift Advent 1x9|
|Stem||Marin 3D forged alloy|
|Tyres||WTB Horizon 47c 650b|
|Wheels||Marin Aluminium double-wall 650b with on alloy disc hubs|