-125-millimeter rear travel, 130 front
-Forgiving but familiar geometry
-Oddly shaped brake levers
-Shimano chain and crank would have been nice
Short-travel 29ers have seen a bit of a renaissance lately. Or maybe it’s more of a schism. One between bikes built around unforgiving, race-focused geometry and ones built around fun. What a concept. The Marin Rift Zone 2 is in the latter category..
A category that happens to be the option for any person getting their first high-end full-suspension mountain bike. Or, at least, any normal person. Kids who are out to crush laps in the bike park and huck to flat in their town’s local open space may need something more substantial. But if you want to go into the hills and carve trail, a modern 125-millimeter rear-travel, 130 front 29-inch bike is probably the most versatile machine you can choose (though Marin also happens to this same bike with 27.5-inch wheels).
The Marin Rift Zone has a comfortably long cockpit. The reach is 480mm on a size large. That’s 20 or 30 millimeters longer than you might expect on a bike like this, putting you safely behind the front wheel on steep descents. It also pairs well with the modern 76-degree seat tube angle, putting you in a more powerful, comfortable position over the pedals. The moderately slack 65.5-degree head tube angle keeps the steering calm while the remarkably short 425 millimeters between pedals and rear wheel make it easy to learn to kick the rear end around turns or pop the front wheel off the ground.
None of these numbers are unheard of. Many top-end bikes have even more progressive stats. But it usually takes years for them to the lower price points, if they do at all. For many brands, it’s just not worth it to redesign their entry-level bikes every three years, so they often languish in obsolescence.
Not this bike. What you get on the Marin Rift Zone for $2,050 is hard to believe. On top of that modern geometry, there is a very smartly chosen spec. I’ll just start with my favorite, which is the new Shimano Deore 12-speed. The cassette is a true, 10-tooth thru 51-tooth “Hyperglide Plus” configuration, while many bikes at this price point would have gone for a still-not-bad 11-51 cassette. The derailleur and shifter are also Shimano Deore, but Marin did opt for an FSA crank and KMC chain. That means that, though you get the gear range, you’re missing out on some of the crispness of an all-Shimano drivetrain. First upgrade when you wear out the chain would be to swap to a $24 Deore chain and $95 Deore crank.
The brakes are also Shimano, which, especially in the entry level, we’ve found offer more bang for the buck than SRAM. My only complaint is that, at this price point, the brake levers are three-finger, not two-finger. And truly, you want to just use one finger. Luckly, you can get creative and slide the levers in and you’ll barely know the difference.
The TransX dropper seatpost may be considered a “no-name” post, but plenty of high-end posts use the same guts as Trans-X. It’s smooth, quick and is specced at an impressively long 175 millimeters on the size XL I tested.
The suspension is really where a lot of bikes at this price point normally fall apart, especially because they’re the most expensive to upgrade. The Marin Rift Zone 2 at least opts for brand-name boingers, in a RockShox Recon Silver SL. Its guts are not complex, but there were no deal breakers in its performance. It’s not as overbuilt and shred-ready as the forks you’ll see on higher-end aggressive short-travel bikes. When I was putting the bike in far over its head, I did find myself wanting a more robust front end. Still, the modern, Boost-spacing 15mm thru axle puts this fork’s stiffness worlds ahead of forks you’d see at this pricepoint just a few years ago. By the way, there’s also a real 12mm thru axle in the rear, a feature other bikes at this price point may have skipped. Speaking of the rear, the RockShox Deluxe Select R rear shock uses the same chassis as the brand’s flagship short-travel shocks. That means it’s subject to the same quality control standards, uses the same replacement parts, and can also accept volume spacers if you opt for more support at bottom-out. The main thing it lacks is a lockout lever, but on a bike with just 125mm of travel, you won’t miss it. I never did.
The rear end on the Rift Zone has what you’d call a progressive feel. It’s supportive through its travel instead of wallowing in it. That’s what you want on a bike that doesn’t have gobs of travel to spare. It encouraged me to mash the pedals on the climbs. That’s what makes these bikes so much fun. You once had to choose a long-travel bike if you wanted something this long and slack. That support did come at a cost to its performance over steep, rocky climbs where bikes with more sophisticated suspension linkages tend to float better through the chunk.
That progressive feel also made long, boring seated climbs manageable. It sits high in its travel, allowing the suspension to just maintain at a low hum,
The shifting performance is beyond what you’d expect at this price point. It’s responsive and consistent, but I missed the smoothness and quiet that 12-speed Shimano drivetrains have achieved with how their chain, chainring and cassette work together. There is one often overlooked component where Marin opted for the real deal, though. The shift-cable housing is genuine Shimano, and there’s a difference. Thank you, Marin.
The brakes took some getting used to, as the ergonomics are a little off with those long levers, but the power was there. And that’s impressive, because the rotor and pads are made from a little less grabby materials. The fact that Marin used large-ish 180mm rotors front and rear was a good choice, but I did opt for a larger, 203mm front rotor. Because I pushed this bike pretty hard.
“Pushing” is what you do with this new breed of short-travel 29ers. They give you just enough confidence to get you up to speed, but it takes some effort to keep them there. This is where the technology in higher-end bikes can come in handy. The damper in the fork isn’t especially supportive, and when I had my proper sag, it sank a bit on the steeps and in hard braking, and more than one click in the three-position compression adjustment would make it too harsh. I added an air volume spacer to the fork to keep it from diving, and everything balanced out.
Really, the Marin Rift Zone 2 has it where it counts. It behaves like I want a bike like this to behave. In pretty much every metric, it fixes what was wrong with short-travel bikes of old. The suspension is supportive enough to ride where I would normally want longer travel. The frame is stiff enough that I could boss it around without feeling like I was going to break it. And the geometry was forgiving enough that it could keep up with someone who’s been riding for almost 28 years. But that’s not the point. When building this bike, Marin prioritized the things that are the most likely to get a new rider hooked. It may be the best gateway drug on the market. First trip is just $2,050, kid.
Believe it or not, there is a pricepoint below the Marin Rift Zone 2. It’s the Rift Zone 1 for $1,680. It’s actually not bad, but you lose the brand-name RockShox rear shock and its Deore drivetrain no longer has the true, 510-percent range 10-51 cassette, instead opting for an old-school traditional hub body and an 11-51 range. It also uses a mostly traditional rear quick release axle, and although a lot of riders won’t miss the stiffness that a 12mm thru axle offers, the extra durability and longevity in a thru-axle will eventually benefit anyone. Most importantly, the entry-level Rift Zone 1 does not come with a dropper post, and the Rift Zone 2 actually comes with a decent one. If you can afford the Rift Zone 1, you’re close enough to wait and buy the Rift Zone 2.
Find it at marinbikes.com/rift-zone-2
Photos: Satchel Cronk