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Tested: Marin Rift Zone Carbon - Fencing Foil Meets Sledgehammer

Mike Ferrentino of Bike Mag shares his experience after riding the Marin Rift Zone Carbon 2 for a month.

I am wrapping up a month aboard Marin’s Rift Zone Carbon 2 ... At 125 millimeters, the rear travel is an inch shy of last year’s Alpine Trail 8, and there’s a Fox 34 up front with 130 millimeters travel, instead of the burly 160 millimeters travel Fox 36 on the bigger bike. But the Rift Zone, which sits definitively in the short travel end of the trail bike market, bike, is every bit as slack as the unapologetically enduro-aspirational Alpine Trail, AND it has longer reach and a longer wheelbase.

Getting straight to the point, I had a whole lot more fun on this bike than I expected. It outperformed all of my preconceptions when it came to suspension performance, handling, and spec for the price point. The “most of the time” adage that I used for the Alpine Trail 8 was modified for the Rift Zone into “almost all the time.” But I am still a little confused by it.

That seems to be part and parcel of the 115-125-millimeter travel landscape these days. On one hand, there are bikes like the Trek Top Fuel; straight up XC racers with a little more travel but with everything from spec to geometry tailored for getting up and over as fast as possible. On the other hand, there is a rapidly growing segment of bikes that could best be described as short travel party barges. Transition and Banshee could be pointed out as originators of this trend about five or six years ago, and the Transition Smuggler is a stellar example of the continued refining and defining of this category; long, low, slack and designed to catch air, rip berms and get rowdy on the downs. From the chunky-as-all-getout Maxxis Minion DHF/DHR tires to the 65.5-degree head angle and 35mm Deity stem, Marin’s Rift Zone clearly signals allegiance to this latter camp.

So, what does that mean? Well, in the case of the Rift Zone, it manifests as a bike that is superbly stable and composed when throwing it down a chunky line or squashing it into a turn, with manners that befit much-longer travel machinery. There is a calmness and an unflappable capability in rough terrain that can, and will, induce riders to push into situations well beyond what the suspension is capable of absorbing. This is not a bad thing, but bears noting. We’ll get into that in a bit. But for now, suffice to say that the Rift Zone is up for whatever kind of gravity party you want to throw.

What the Rift Zone has zero pretensions toward, however, is any aspiration of being a long-travel XC bike. Just nip that thought in the bud right now, and if that’s what you’re shopping for, go look somewhere else. Sure, it’s got a contemporary 76-degree seat angle and a nice long reach, and there’s a lever on the Fox DPX2 shock that firms up the compression so it can climb without bobbing, but that is not where this bike excels. It has a carbon fiber front triangle and aluminum rear end that does an amazing job of resisting flex and torsion, and some meaty, sticky tires that work really well but probably weigh about twice what similar volume XC rubber does. Those tires are mounted on hefty aluminum rims that are laced to Shimano Deore hubs. This all telegraphs bags of traction and composure and durability, but is not the stuff of Strava KOM fever dreams. It gets uphill just fine, and part of the allure of these new-school short travel sleds is that they are less of a chore to drag up long climbs in the backcountry than bikes with a bunch more travel. The Rift Zone climbs with composure and competence, but it still weighs 32.25 pounds (without pedals, for our size L test bike), and you will feel that at the end of a long day.

Pointing it downhill is a whole different kettle of fish. Ridiculously stable, beautifully composed, planted, predictable and balanced, the Rift Zone delivers a ride that belies the reality of its limited travel. It is a very easy bike to get along with, and offers up a level of confidence that will make most riders comfortable with pushing beyond the aforementioned limits of the suspension sooner or later. This unflappable demeanor comes at the expense of some playfulness, probably mostly due to the length of the wheelbase and the stoutness of the wheels, but that is one of those trade-offs I am more than happy to make. I suck at jibbing anyway.

For the most part, the suspension does a good job. But, there is only 125 millimeters of the stuff out back, and 130 up front, and the rear suspension is a very simple single pivot design. And at the risk of becoming repetitive, everything else about this bike would be right at home on a rig with at least an inch more travel, maybe two, at either end, and something like a 36 up front. So, sooner or later, you’ll run out of suspension. There’s some decent progressivity to the rear end, and it is a shining example of how careful pivot placement in the single chainring era can get around many of the old stumbling blocks, but when you start hitting things hard and fast both ends can get overwhelmed. Adding a volume spacer in the rear will be necessary for bigger and more aggressive riders, and will help band-aid the bottom-out, but the reality is that this is a short travel bike that’s capable of going really fast in sketchy terrain. It is a testament to the chassis and geometry that the Rift Zone remains as composed as it does when the suspension gets overridden. Nevertheless, compared to the multi-link sophistication of bikes like the Santa Cruz Tallboy or the Norco Optic, both of which could be considered direct competition in terms of intent and geometry, the Rift Zone feels like it runs out of legs sooner.

That said, this was still one of the more surprising and enjoyable bikes I’ve thrown a leg over in a long time. Riders looking to get rowdy but who don’t want to lug around the extra travel of a bigger bike ­– or riders who predominantly ride in smoother terrain but who still want a bike that is rock stable at high speed – won’t be disappointed by what the Rift Zone brings to the party.

For those who prefer to party without the platinum card, at $4400, the Rift Zone offers a surprising bang for the buck. Really nice touches like Deity bars and stem, Minion DHF/DHR tires, a velvety smooth PNW Loam Lever dropper post actuator, XT rear derailleur, and SLX 4-piston brakes with a 203-millimeter front rotor all serve to enhance function and add a touch of class to the ride.

So, is this a worthy niche competitor, or a confused also-ran? At the end of the day, the confusion I am grappling with rests squarely within me. I am torn between wanting a bike with this amount of travel to weigh about four pounds less, and realizing that a bike with this amount of travel is really what I should be riding almost all the time. And at the same time wanting a bike with more travel, because, well, moar is always betterer, right? The terrain that is my daily coastal Mid-California riding diet isn’t burly enough to really justify a bigger bike than this, and I could probably ride around the suspension just fine up in the rocky mess of the Lakes Basin above Downieville. So, this is my midlife crisis to figure out. Meanwhile, the Marin Rift Zone 2 isn’t confused at all. It came to party.

Read the full review here.

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