Marin’s TARA adjustable-travel bikes have been around for quite a while now and have proved a popular choice for those looking for a “safe pair of hands” in the long-travel XC arena. The 2006 models have had a geometry makeover to liven things up a bit – we’re looking at the Rock Springs, the second-cheapest in the range.
Similar to the ’05 bike at a glance, but actually very different
Main triangle is hollowed and bulged to add stiffness
Fox Vanilla fork does the job up front
Not the tidiest gusset we’ve ever seen
New QR lever makes travel adjustment more user-friendly
At first glance the 2006 TARA frame looks just like the 2005 one. But there’s a host of significant changes. We’ll start with the things that are the same, which aren’t actually all that many in number. The TARA Quad-Link adjustable-travel suspension is the same, and the swingarm is mostly the same. The front end, though, is different in all sorts of ways.
It’s still a semi-moncocque aluminium construction, with the frame “tubes” formed in two halves and welded together along their length. But the front end has gained some added texture, with similar pressed-in (or out) panels to those that appeared on the swingarm last year. The idea here is to increase stiffness, in the same way that a sheet of paper stood on end just flops over but one folded in half and stood on end can have things stood on top of it quite happily. The panels near the BB bulge out rather than in (Marin call them Power Bulges).
The other obvious change is the presence of a new gusset at the top tube/seat tube junction. That’s there because the top tube has been dropped for more standover height, but the seat clamp is at the same height so has been given a bit of extra support. There are still top and down tube gussets at the front end, although the down tube one has been extended. It’s not actually all that pretty, even as gussets go. We’re sure it’s not an afterthought but it does manage to look a bit like one.
None of this is the really important stuff, though. The real changes aren’t immediately obvious to the eye – the geometry of the TARA bikes has been completely reworked. The distinguishing features of the old ones were a relaxed head angle, a long top tube and a tall bottom bracket. This made them great for pedalling through almost anything and staying stable at speed, but they could be a handful on twistier, slower trails, with a tendency to topple a bit in corners if you weren’t paying attention. For the new bikes, designer Jon Whyte has steepened the head angle by a whole degree and effectively moved the whole seat tube forwards and down – the BB is lower and further forwards, the seat tube is a whisker more relaxed, the top tube somewhat shorter and the chainstays somewhat longer. The idea is to put the rider more “in” the bike – more on that later.
Marin has put its money where it counts on the Rock Springs. You get Fox boingy bits at both ends, with a Float R shock at the back and a 130mm Vanilla R fork at the front. Hayes HFX-9 brakes are a cut above the Sole items often found at this price, too, and the WTB Motoraptor 2.24in tyres are a sound option. Everything else falls into the mundane-but-serviceable camp – WTB headset and saddle, FSA stem, Marin’s own bar and seatpost, Shimano M475 hubs and Mavic 117 rims, Deore shifters and derailleurs, Truvativ Blaze Power-Spline cranks.
It’s all perfectly competent gear, but a quick catalogue scan shows that better-rounded specs can be had elsewhere. Often you’ll just find that you’re trading better transmission parts (SRAM X-7, X-9 or Shimano LX) and cranks (Truvativ Stylo GXPs, for example) for inferior forks and brakes – Hayes Sole brakes are commonplace and you’ll find entry-level RockShox forks on bikes nearly as expensive as the Rock Springs. It’s tough to beat bikes like Mongoose’s Teocali Elite on pure spec terms, though – RockShox Revelation fork, Firex GXP cranks and a full Shimano LX groupset for fifty quid less than the Marin. We’re not going to object too much to Marin compromising on the bits that, after all, will wear out anyway though. And it’s the ride that counts…
The fluid performance of the Quad-Link design is well documented, so we don’t feel the need to go into a great deal of length here. Suffice it to say that the Rock Springs has almost magical bump-eating properties. It’s ultra-supple on the little stuff and remains composed all the way through to the big stuff. The TARA travel-adjust system works fine (helped by a new, smoother and easier-to-use QR lever) although as ever we found ourselves mostly leaving it in the 6in travel position – it feels a bit tauter in the shorter-travel options, but it’s not as if it’s wallowy with all the travel on tap and it’s nice not to run out.
The geometry changes have made a dramatic difference, though. We’ve always got on with TARA bikes on their own terms – they’ve never been particularly playful or exciting, and while they had their idiosyncracies on the tight stuff we were generally happy to ride around those. But the new version is a very different animal. It’s more agile, more planted in corners and responds better to weight shifts. In theory the steeper head angle should make it more of a handful at high speeds, but the lower BB adds a feeling of stability and the shorter cockpit lets you place your weight more appropriately. The back end is long on paper, but given that the limiting factor on climbs is often the front end lifting rather than the back end spinning, it works fine. Especially since the Quad-Link rear end will sniff out every last morsel of traction available. It’d be even more effective up hills with a slightly less risey bar, but that’s mostly personal preference.
Whether the new Rock Springs is actually a more effective tool with which to cover the ground is debatable, but it’s certainly a far more involving one. And since generally people buy bikes like this to have fun on, that’s a success in our book.