Marin Attack Trail 8
My entry back into the mountain bike world is a 2017 Marin Attack Trail 8. With 150mm of travel and Shimano SLX components this has been a solid beginner bike to help me get started in the sport of mountain biking.
Overall I’m fairly happy with the bike but I have made three changes to make the bike better suited to my riding style.
1. Upgraded to a Shimano XT 11-46t Cassette
Swapping out my old drivetrain to a new Shimano XT 11 speed 11-46 cassette has been THE BEST upgrade I’ve done to my bike since I bought it. This has made such a huge difference in my ability to climb that I wish I had done it right away.
My previous set up was a 32 tooth chainring in the front matched to a Sunrace 11-42 cassette in the rear. Needless to say that my old legs really struggled on the climbs and many times I had to get off and walk. I never felt like I was able to “spin” up the climbs like I saw other riders do.
At first I chalked it up to old age and a lack of cardio but then I test rode a friends bike who had a smaller 30 chainring and I couldn’t believe what a difference it made compared to my bike. Two fewer teeth don’t sound like much but it’s all about gear ratios and I was really surprised at how much easier it was to spin up the climbs on his bike compared to mine.
As soon as our ride was over I went down to my local bike shop and bought a new 30 tooth chainring and a new 11-46 rear cassette and as you can see in the video below it has made a huge difference in my ability to climb. Having that large 46 tooth ring in the back matched to the smaller 30 tooth chainring has allowed me to climb trails that I was previously getting off the bike to walk up.
I’m still working on improving my cardio and I still feel like my lungs are about to explode when I climb but now with the new set up at least I can make it to the top!
2. Wide Bars to Short Bars to Wide Bars
When I originally got into mountain biking back in the early 90’s the trend in mountain biking was to have really narrow bars. The desire for narrow bars came from the tight, heavily wooded single track trails that are common in BC. I remember that there was even a trail at Whistler called ‘Cut Yer Bars’.
Riding styles and bike technology has changed a lot in the last 25 years and now you’ll find that most mountain bikes are running between 740mm to 800mm wide bars.
My Marin originally came with 780mm wide bars and I found the wide bars to feel incredibly strange. Riding the local trails I was paranoid that I was going to catch the ends of the bars on a tree and launch off the bike!
So I did what any old school mountain biker would do and I cut my bars down to 740mm and while it felt more familiar it actually made my riding worse! The front end felt more twitchy and overall I didn’t feel like I had full control over the bike. This became more noticeable as my riding skills improved and I started to learn how to ride these modern mountain bikes.
Now I’m back to running a 780mm handlebar and I’ve fully embraced the wide bar trend. If you’re a beginner mountain biker and find the wide bars strange, I encourage you to stick with it because as your skills get better you will appreciate the more control you have.
One suggestion I have when buying new handle bars for your mountain bike is to test as many different ones as you can. There’s more to consider than just the width, such as rise, backsweep angle and upsweep angle.
By adjusting your bars towards you or away you can really change the characteristics of how they feel on your bike. This was a big surprise to me the first time I adjusted my handlebars to a more forward position and how much more control I felt that I had over the bike.
Experiment with width and angles to find the right fit for you!
Shimano PD-M530 Clipless Pedals
When I started mountain biking the best pedal technology we had at the time were called toe clips. They worked by jamming the front of your foot under the clip and synching down the strap. This actually worked fairly well and gave a feeling similar to the clipless pedals of today but were hard to get out of as the only way to get out was to pull your foot back.
The one thing that I hated about toe clips was that if your foot was on the flat pedal side the clips were on the bottom of the pedal and thus were prone to catching on anything that was sticking up from the trail. That and the fact that you had to do this weird flipping motion with your foot to try and bring the clip to the top.
There really wasn’t a better solution until Shimano released the first SPD pedals, the PD-M737 along with the M100 shoes. I remember buying them and being amazed at how connected to the bike I felt and also how easy and natural it felt to click out of them.
I’ve read a lot of the discussion about clips vs flats for mountain biking and I see the merits of both. I did try a pair of flats when I bought my bike but riding over bumpy terrain and not being clipped into the bike freaked me out. One thing I like about clipless pedals is that once clipped in my foot is always in the right spot on the pedals. When I rode flats I was shocked to look down at one point to see that almost half my foot wasn’t even on the pedal!
I’m so used to clips that clipping in and out is second nature to me and losing that feeling was strange. I do agree though that flats are better for beginners and I’d still like to give flats another try to see if I can adapt to that riding style. In the meantime I’ve very happy with my Shimano PD-M530 clipless pedals and plan to stick with them for a while.