By Vernon Felton
A few weeks back, I rolled out a preview of Marin's 2014 Attack Trail Quad Carbon XT8. If you missed it, check the story out here. I've been riding the bike ever since. Here's how it's gone.
It may seem odd to begin a review on an all-mountain bike with a tale of how it climbs. All-mountain bikes have a tradition of being acceptable climbers. Emphasis on acceptable. Trail bikes, cross country bikes--those are the bikes that scale mountains in a single bound (or at least don't require that you give up a year of your life getting to the top of the mountain). All-mountain bikes have lower expectations--you should reach the top of the mountain without dying and then rip the hell out of the descent on the way down. All-mountain bikes, traditionally, had a gravity bias. That's been changing in recent years.
A crop of bikes, such as the Yeti SB66c, Ibis Mojo HD and Specialized Enduros (particularly the 2013 and 2014 models) have proven in recent years that all-mountain bikes can, with the right mix of frame materials, geometry and components, rip up climbs alongside the best trail bikes. Enduro racing, in particular, has helped raise the bar here as well. Racers need one bike they can climb on all day and yet descend on like mini-DH bike.
In short, the bar has been raised; we expect more from our all-mountain bikes now. They better not dog the climbs.
The latest Attack Trail XT8 gets up climbs with a minimum of fuss, but doesn't possess the same snap and acceleration of some of the better all-mountain models. Sure, you can lock out the RockShox Monarch RL rear shock, but rear traction suffers massively with the extra compression damping. I found myself leaving the shock open on most climbs, because I needed the traction on the rock and root covered climbs here in western Washington. In that setting, the bike experiences a moderate amount of squat, but also provides a good bit of traction during technical climbs.
Despite its relatively slack geometry (66.5-degree headtube/73.5-degree seattube), I never felt the need to reduce the Pike's travel. True, doing so would steepen things up by more than a degree, but the Marin already rides high in its rear travel, which prevents it from feeling lazy and aimless on the climbs.
If I had to rate the Attack Trail's climbing ability on a scale of 1 to 10 (with "1" equaling a horribly bobbing pile of crap and "10" being that perfect balance of efficiency and traction), I'd give the Attack Trail a solid "7": better than average, but not leader-of-the-pack material.
I don't usually talk about a bike's performance on rolling terrain--dirt rollercoasters that rise and fall every few feet. While that kind of trail is fun as hell to ride on a cross-country or trail bike, the constant up and down can also cause bigger six-inch travel bikes to wallow in their travel and bog down in a way that is fatiguing and, frankly, annoying as hell.
The Attack Trail handles itself pretty damn well on the rolling stuff. True, it doesn't feel as agile as a trail bike with steeper geometry (no big surprise) but it rides fairly high in its travel and feels surprisingly peppy. It's versatile that way.
Here is where the Attack Trail should show its mettle. That's the whole point of having six inches of travel and burly kit on your bike. It took me a few rides to suss the Marin out. I initially ran the Attack Trail's rear suspenson at the prescribed 25 to 30 percent sag, but the bike never felt acceptably smooth on smaller trail chatter, which is odd for a bike with bigger wheels and this much travel. Small roots and rocks should really disappear beneath a bike like this.
I wound up running between 30 and 35 percent sag (depending on the ride and the size of the hits I'd encounter that day). The bike felt much, much better with a bit more sag, though, admittedly, I now run the risk of blowing through the travel on really big hits (it hasn't been a problem so far, but running 35 percent sag can land you in that kind of situation).
In truth, I've experienced the same kind of issues (poor small bump compliance) before with the RockShox Monarch rear shock. The Monarch Plus is a different story--that iteration is stellar on bumps of all sizes and I wish it came spec'd on the XT8. There are two more Attack Trail models in the 2014 line and both feature Fox rear suspension, which might prove more supple than the Monarch RL in question. That's certainly been my experience in the past.
The Attack Trail is acceptably stiff--Marin nailed that trait with their solid rear triangle, short suspension links, front and rear through axles and that burly RockShox Pike fork. Nicely done on that score.
The bike's geometry is spot on for aggressive riding--confident and just relaxed enough. What surprised me, however, was how well the bike handled tight and twisty downhill trails. I routinely whipped through switchbacks on this bike that normally stymie me on other bikes. That happened time and time again. I eventually got out the tape measure and, yep, this thing rocks a nice, short rear center. The chainstays are just a hair more than 17 inches. Nice.
So where do things sit at the end of the day? The Attack Trail would be a strong bike for someone who rides technical and tight terrain. It's not as efficient and speedy a pedaler as some of the best all-mountain bikes, but it holds its own on climbs and makes for a competent all rounder.
If "competent all rounder" doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, bear in mind that I am comparing the Marin to the best all-mountain bikes on the market. A year ago, Marin simply didn't stack up against the better bikes. For 2014, the brand is in the hunt. That's a huge leap forward.