We are living in the salad days of mountain biking's evolution. Nowhere is this more evident than in the $3,000-$4,000 retail market for bikes aimed at owning burly terrain. This is analogous to the ½ ton full-size truck market here in the U.S., where the market has become so hotly contested that full-size trucks can generally be found for less money, offering more options, delivering more power, and getting better gas mileage than their ‘compact’ brethren. So it is with the long-travel trail bike market. There are some insanely capable, well-designed, carefully spec-ed trail bombers on the market at prices that (in the relative context of overall bike prices in the current market – comparing $3,000 bikes today to $3,000 bikes from 1992 is pointless anyway. Time marches on, so do economies) would make even Ebenezer Scrooge weep with joy. There are some great bikes out there, at killer prices. It's a very competitive market.
Into this fray drops Marin's Alpine Trail 8—an aluminum-framed, 150-millimeter rear- / 160-millimeter front-travel, 29-inch-wheeled behemoth shod with ultra-chunky 2.6-inch tires. It sports suitably modern geometry numbers, with our size-large test bike running a 65-degree head angle and a 75.68-degree (or ’75 and change’ for those who balk at such exactitude) seat angle separated by a rangy but not freakish 465 millimeters of reach. A couple years ago, this would have been a head-scratcher of a bike—all that travel with such big wheels and such a loooong wheelbase. Now, it is pretty much in the middle of the ballpark; another prime example of where the contemporary long-travel trail market is. Aggressive geometry, favoring high-speed stability, mated with bags of travel and huge wheels, but with a steep enough seat angle that it can be pedaled uphill for long stretches.
While we are talking about numbers, let's also throw down this very important sequence of digits: 3,699.99. That's how many dollars you'll be paying for this bike. Looking at that price tag, a glass-half-empty kind of person would point out the aluminum frame and the SRAM NX drivetrain, eyeball the TRP Slate brakes with suspicion, and argue that you could weasel your way into a carbon frame for not much more than that. The optimists in the room would counter that you'd be hard-pressed to find Deity bars and stem or a Fox DPX2 rear shock or a Fox 36 of any level fork on anything at that price. And because optimists tend to be do-gooders, they’d probably add that, in buying a Marin instead of a YT, Canyon, Commencal or the like, you’ll be supporting your local brick and mortar bike shop and getting supported in return. We decided to just ride the damn bike already and not think about all these numbers for a while.
Marin opted to utilize a tried-and-true walking beam link suspension for the Alpine Trail 8, as opposed to the more complex, and potentially more controversial, Naild R3ACT 2PLAY suspension employed on the substantially more expensive, carbon fiber, Wolf Ridge. Same size wheels, same amount of travel, close to $2,000 more expensive for close-enough-for-comparison spec, the Wolf Ridge embodies an entirely different ‘jack of all trades’ ethos. The Alpine Trail, conversely, is an uncomplicated, surprisingly effective, blue-collar bike that is unapologetically gravity-fed in its intent. And, in this instance, given the intent of the bike, the relative simplicity of the suspension is just fine. Paired with a trunnion-mount Fox DPX2 shock, it is surprisingly good at swallowing up everything from high-frequency, low-impact trail garbage to the high-G whumps of bigger hits. The 36 Performance fork matches the rear very well, and once sag and rebound speeds are set to the rider's preference, the suspension commendably holds its own in most downhill situations. Given how we (that's the magazine editor/tester ‘we’ I am referring to here) are solidly pampered throughout our careers with a diet of Kashima and Factory/X2 level adjustability, along with the most sophisticated multi-link suspensions at whatever the leading edge of the day is, I was quietly blown away by just how well the suspension on the Alpine Trail 8 worked, and how well it handled, most of the time.
This is a bike that is really comfortable straight-lining ledgy descents, plowing rock gardens and sucking up fast hits. The Alpine Trail 8 also displays admirable corner manners at speed, offering lots of easily readable feedback from the front tire and translating shifts in body weight accordingly. There isn't much in the way of chassis wiggle, and in soft ground the tires will bite until you drag bars or chicken out, whichever comes first. It's a very stable bike. Is it playful? Hmmm…
So, here's where we get into the "most of the time" line from the paragraph before last, and the inevitable trade-offs associated with big bikes built budget. If there's an elephant in the room, and there is, it's a plump one. This cute little teal bulldozer, this stable-as-an-anvil- being-dropped-from-an-airplane descender, this bike, it ain't light. With a set of XT pedals, it weighs 34.25 pounds. Trimming a couple pounds would be easy—maybe some more upmarket wheels, some slightly less boat-anchor tires—but would cost money. Therefore, let's look at the plus/minus of weight and any potential sophistication from that budget-oriented state of relativity.
"Most of the time,” this bike will flat haul the mail downhill and be an absolute blast while doing so. It's heavy and long, so it's more comfortable going fast, but nobody rides tight switchbacks anymore anyway. And it isn't super playful, but then again, riders with the muscle to throw it around are probably not concerned.
Yeah, the brakes are a little bit less bite-y than more expensive options, but they remained consistent and didn't make a peep during our test rides. Yeah, the 29×2.6 Vee Flow Snap tires weigh a ton, but on soft or loose ground, good lord they hook up well. They get kinda squirmy on hard surfaces, but look at how tall those super squishy knobs are. Yeah, the suspension could maybe use a little more ramp for super-aggressive, big-hit riders, but then they could always just change the air volume spacer. Seriously, most of the time, this bike is a hoot to ride downhill.
And "most of the time,” the Alpine Trail 8 made its way to the top of the climbs just fine. And by just fine, we mean, just fine for a 34-pound bike with ginormous spiky tires made from slow-rolling gummy bears. Flip the rear shock's compression lever, start pedaling. You'll get there. Rolling mid-grade ascents was comfortable, and it grunted up sharp, punchy steeps way better than anticipated. In between those realms though, where it is steeper than old-school middle-ring climbing, but not as steep as those savage up-lunges, in that realm where you find yourself suddenly thankful for 50-tooth rear cogs, there will be times when it feels like you are dragging cinder blocks. But most of the time? Most of the time, it's actually a good-natured Great Dane. Easy to get along with, climbs just fine. Admit it, if you wanted to scorch KOMs (of the uphill variety), you wouldn't be looking at this bike in the first place. And, given the price and the intent of the bike, it would be near impossible not to level similar criticisms at the competition.To my thinking, most of the time, if we are talking about bikes for ripping-long, rough descents, I would much rather have a couple extra thousand dollars in my pocket instead of fretting about calories expended on climbs. Most of the time, I would prefer a bike that is stable and confident in its handling over something esoteric that fits weird. Most of the time, I would rather have tires that grip than tires that don't. Most of the time, I would prefer that spec money gets spent on comfortable contact points like saddles and bars and stems, than on cranks. For all of these "most of the time" scenarios, the Marin Alpine Trail 8 scores big in my book.