Some people will tell you that riding a hardtail can teach you things about mountain biking that you simply can't learn otherwise. The consequences of flippant line choices and poor speed control cannot be overstated. Ask me how I know. Make a bike long enough and slack enough, and it still won't have rear suspension to make up for your carelessness when you huck blindly (or even with extensive prior knowledge) into roots and rocks. The Marin San Quentin is an exercise in determining the logical limits of how rowdy a trail you can design a modern hardtail for, and I applaud the brand's willingness to take a real risk on bringing a product like this to market.
The San Quentin wasn't the first one to push the boat out on hardcore hardtails, but to bring such a radical bike to Marin's segment of the market deserves mentioning. Until now, you’d have to look to boutique brands like Chromag or Canfield for a bike like this, and they won’t be anywhere near its impressive sub-$2,000 price tag. However, like Ian Malcolm said in “Jurassic Park,” “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.” In creating the San Quentin, did Marin make a velociraptor or a brontosaurus? A monster truck or simply a monster? Let's dive in and find out. Hold on to your butts.
The San Quentin has been reborn for 2019 with a suite of new geometry: a 65-degree headtube angle, a super-low 310-millimeter bottom bracket and a long-but-not-boundary-pushing reach. These figures, paired with short 425-millimeter chainstays and a 45-millimeter stem make the bike's intentions pretty clear. It is interested only in the part of the ride when you're not pedaling. But let's not dance around it. Just because you like smashing descents, it doesn't mean this bike is right for your kind of trails. More on that later.
Let's get this one big glaring bit out of the way. A bike with such an extreme aim for riding down your local steeps should be able to stop better than the San Quentin 3, especially on the the highest-level model available. The claimed type of trails this bike was designed for (downhill, light dirt jump and enduro) were simply more than what the stock stopping setup was down, err, up for. Not to point fingers, but perhaps the Teflon-smooth, resin-pad-only 180-millimeter centerlock rotors were to blame? The accompanying resin pad compound? Must be, because the Shimano BR-MT400 levers are solid, though lacking in comforts like a hinged clamp or tool-free reach or stroke adjustment.
To safely continue the test, I swapped the front rotor for a stainless one, and the performance improved enough to continue the review. But I could never actually get either wheel to lock up regardless of how hard I clawed the lever to the bar. However frustrating this is, upgrading to better and/or bigger rotors is far preferable to swapping suspension, wheels, seatpost or drivetrain. Just be ready for it.
The Magic Mary 2.6-inch tires are the go-to for loose trails, but aside from looking awesome in a photo, these were simply too slow for everyday summer riding. Marin is making a running spec change to the Vee Rubber Snap 2.6, which happen to be rather similar to the Magic Mary. Initially, I'd like to have seen something like a High Roller on the back but, as the seasons shifted and trails started to saturate, I was happy to have the extra grip. The Magic Mary is a seriously grippy tire, and for those rake-and-ride loam farms tucked into the hidden places of the world, the extra grab on the loose stuff was appreciated. I rode like it was dry out, and it wasn't. If you, dear reader, have never made the investment in a proper set of winter tires, but if you live somewhere that actually still has winter, stop reading this review and handle that immediately.
Now that you've got winter tires (you're welcome), the X-Fusion Manic 150-millimeter dropper post worked like a $200 dropper should. It went up and down with little lag or other troubles, and it did so consistently over the course of the test. Not the fanciest thing out there, but with so many affordable droppers on the market now, the standard is getting higher. This one ticked the boxes without fault for the duration of the test. So, why mention it? Because an inexpensive part spec doesn't necessarily mean the product isn't good, and the Manic was a perfect case in point.
The 130-millimeter RockShox Revelation RC was a great match for this bike at its price point. Some might say, "It should have a Lyrik!" and I get it: You can't make budget bikes without some budget parts, but the Revelation, like the Manic, worked a charm and never left me feeling like I was going to smash it apart, try as I may.
I discovered this bike's true intentions on my first ride. Despite suffering none of the efficiency loss that's often unavoidable with rear suspension, the San Quentin felt outstandingly slow on hard-packed trails. Twin 2.6-inch Magic Marys mated to a slack frame make you work hard for every descent at any tire pressure. This bike was for going down hills with an I'll get there when I get there, thank you very much attitude. When I did get it up to speed, the stiffness of the aluminum frame and handlebars was immediately noticeable. That's when those voluminous 2.6-inch tires became an asset, as long as I took the time to find my proper pressure.
I've always believed that if ‘mid-fat’ bikes had a place in our world, it'd be on hardtails. I dropped my rear pressure toward 21 psi and away I went. But there is the rub; the softer tire setup meant harder rim strikes when your line choices go awry without a rear shock as a measure of protection. Running a CushCore might bring out the best features of the wider tire, and guard against the dumb situations I found myself getting into on the trail. But I eventually adjusted to the San Quentin on hard-packed singletrack and eked out more and more speed from it over time. I learned to choose my lines more carefully, and to loosen my grip when there was no careful choice. When things got really steep, rough or wet (or all three), the San Quentin came alive.
It follows to question the rationale behind mimicking bikes that are designed around mowing down rock gardens–brain off, brakes off. For some tracks, you're simply never going to be quite as fast or efficient moving through terrain on a bike without rear suspension. Until I found the bike's happy place, the 65-degree headtube angle seemed wasted on a hardtail. Steep as trails come, knee-deep in loam, after 2 inches of rain is where this bike is home. The San Quentin was tailor-made for your own private 50to01 cover band woods-jib and loam-farming parties. Ride it hard, wreck a lot, get muddy and have fun. Despite having 130 millimeters of travel, the front end was plenty high and the head angle plenty slack, so I never lost control hitting something deep in the stroke while the head angle was at its steepest. You're always poised in any terrain. Think of it like a pumptrack bike for downhill trails. You can really feeeel the trail, man. For your everyday blue-trail network, this might not be the best bike option, as the angles don't encourage you to put the hammer down on climbs or … anywhere really. But if you have a secret loam farm that you're harvesting on all winter, please do two things: Consider the San Quentin as the right plow for the job and email us and tell us where it is. We won't blow up your spot. Promise.
The San Quentin is a refreshing bike to see coming from Marin. More brands should be taking chances on radical products, and the more I rode it, the more I found its groove. This bike is a signal rising above the noise. But a hardtail isn't a Swiss Army knife. It isn't the all-singing, all-dancing do-it-all fun machine. It needs to be in its spiritual home to come alive. It is a kitchen knife. And while you can bone a chicken with a kitchen knife, there are better tools for the job. The San Quentin is a great kitchen knife, just one that's meant to smash through bones. I mean loam.
To learn more about the San Quentin, head to your local Marin dealer, or check it out on the web here.