2021 Marin Headlands 2 gravel bike review: Upright meets fun
Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, is widely considered the birthplace of the modern mountain bike. Here, the likes of Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, Gary Fisher and John Frey rode and raced their clunkers down the rocky forest access roads. They broke them, refined them, and eventually created a market for them.
Based in this birthplace, Marin Bikes has its roots in mountain biking. However, just a few years ago, and as gravel was starting to blossom, the company decided to steer its focus to mountain bikes and do-it-all drop-bar bikes.
New for 2020 and wholly unchanged for 2021, the Headlands is the company’s latest offering in the gravel space and in many ways is a higher-end version of the Marin Gestalt X we had at our recent field test. With a noticeably relaxed fit and a mountain-bike-inspired approach to gravel, the Headlands takes the alloy Gestalt X and turns it into a higher-end carbon fibre machine.
I’ve now spent plenty of time onboard the range-topping Headlands 2. And while it’s an odd duck floating in the shallows where fierce competitors lurk, it’s still managed to put a smile on my face during isolation. ‘Why’, do you ask? Well, let me explain…
The Headlands explained
- What: Marin’s first carbon fibre gravel bike.
- Key features: Carbon fibre frame, mountain-bike-like riding position, loads of luggage mounting points, dropper post.
- Tyre clearance: 700×45, 650×50 mm
- Weight: 9.73kg (21.45lb. 54 cm, without pedals). Frame claimed at 1,150g unpainted.
- Price: US$2,849 / AU$4,899
- Highs: Welcoming fit and feel, multi-purpose design, Shimano GRX components, threaded bottom bracket, colour scheme, fun ride.
- Lows: Polarising fit, toe overlap, 1x-only, rim choice, non-tubeless tyres.
Priced at US$2,849 / AU$4,899 (commonly available for less in Australia), the Headlands 2 is cheaper than you’d expect for a range-topping carbon fibre bike. That’s Marin’s way – the company has traditionally focussed on the more value-oriented end of the market, and in many ways, the Headlands retains that vibe. Want to spend less? The same carbon frame is used on the US$2,400 / AU$3,999 Headlands 1, and then there’s a frameset (US$1,699) option, too.
The Headland’s frame is clearly a unique offering – one with more mounting points than a mule, some clever little details and not a single perfectly round tube to be seen. Those tubes are mostly oval in shape, taking a common approach of widening the tube for lateral stiffness while promoting a little vertical flex. You’ll find that in both the top tube and downtube. The chainstays aren’t dropped like many competing gravel bikes but are rather deep and extremely thin at the pinch point between the chainring and rear tyre.
The distinctive seat tube, much like that on the Gestalt X, is heavily sculpted around the rear wheel, and helps Marin achieve its mix of short 420mm chainstays and generous 700 x 45mm (or 650x50mm) tyre clearance. Higher up, the seat tube becomes round and plays host to a regular 27.2mm seatpost (or a dropper in this case), held by a regular seat clamp, too.
Such short chainstays and relatively wide tyre clearance is even more impressive given the use of a regular English threaded bottom bracket, something that typically limits the available width for engineers to play with.
However, such cleverness has its limitations and the Headlands, borrowing from its mountain bike roots, is a 1x-only frame. There’s no provision for a front derailleur on this bike, and there’s no chainring clearance for a 2x crank, either.
Those pinched chainstays also mean the internal cable routing isn’t entirely internal. The rear derailleur, rear brake and dropper post lines all enter on the sides of the downtube, but only the dropper remains hidden. However, both the derailleur and rear brake lines are forced to exit before the bottom bracket, and poke back into the chainstays after the pinch point. It’s effective, if not a little unexpected, and it did have me wondering why they didn’t just keep the last segments of the brake and gear hose/housing external. In either case, no rattling was heard – hallelujah.
From commuting to bike-packing with bolt-on frame bags, to carrying water like a camel, the Headlands is ready for it. Now I’m not sure whether Marin found a close-out sale on Rivnuts and black alloy bolts or are simply allergic to Velcro, but this bike has so many mounts. Like, more mounting points than an indoor bouldering wall or a sheet of peg-board. My medium sample has 11 mounting points within the front triangle, then there are mounts for a toptube Bento box, and mounts for an additional bottle underneath the downtube. At risk of sounding like a midnight infomercial for steak knives – but wait, there’s more! There are rack and fender mounts on the carbon fork, while fender mounts at the rear are provided via a removable seatstay bridge. And then there’s the little bulbous growth at the top of the seattube, waiting impatiently for a dedicated pannier rack.
All of those mounts are wonderful if you’ll use them, but do consider the toptube is sloping, so at least for smaller frame sizes, there may not be enough room to put them all to use at the same time.
Fits like a mountain bike
At the Gravel Bike Field Test, Caley loved his time on the Gestalt X alloy gravel bike. He nicknamed it the Wheelie Machine and labelled it the perfect mountain biker’s gravel bike. And despite the brakes sucking more than a cordless Dyson, he chose it as his pick simply because of the fun he had (and partly because this choice annoyed the heck out of me). I actually agree with Caley’s findings that Marin makes fun bikes, but I think there’s more to his findings than the short chainstays alone.
In a similar story to the likes of the Evil Chamois Hagar or BMC URS, Marin claims the Headlands takes cues from modern mountain bike design with a longer top tube and shorter stem. And they certainly got the latter part of that right.
The 60mm stem is short, there’s no denying that. But the Headland’s frame reach and angles aren’t actually measurably different to the vast majority of long-stem road-inspired gravel bikes presently on the market. In fact, my medium sample offers a common-enough 377mm reach – not really like the truly mountain bike-inspired 400mm+ figure of the BMC URS.
The combination of the regular reach and short stem means that the Headlands, measured from the saddle to bars, was some 45 mm shorter than my regular gravel fit. That’s not a typo.
While it may seem like a disaster waiting to happen, I actually kind of like it. So many of the gravel bikes on the market today are just re-using fit concepts from the road, and while this works well for performance-seeking cyclists on tame surfaces, that’s far from the whole market. Instead, Marin has clearly considered who its customers are and designed a more upright, casual-fitting bike. The outcome is a bike that when holding onto the hoods fits me more like my cross country hardtail, a feeling that should have mountain bikers right at home.
It’s tall too. The stack figures on this mean you don’t need to run many stem spacers before the bars are level with the saddle. Add up the short effective reach and tall stack and you have a bike that gives you, as the rider, a fairly high centre of gravity. Chuck in those short chainstays and general rearward bias and voilà – the wheelie machine that Caley loved so much in the Gestalt X.
It may fit and wheelie like a mountain bike, but it doesn’t handle like one. Surprisingly the Headlands once again defies its mountain bike-inspired claims with a fairly quick 66mm trail figure from a 71.5-degree head angle and 50mm fork offset (on my 54cm sample). With that short stem, the bike feels even quicker and more reactive. With snappy handling like a cyclocross race bike, but with a more upright riding position, it’s unusual – but my achy lower back wasn’t complaining.
I actually spent a fair bit of time riding and enjoying this bike with the stock stem. Yes, I felt a little cramped, but I also really enjoyed the fit it offered when in the hoods and riding slow semi-technical terrain.
Those wanting to pedal harder and faster will likely be wanting a longer stem, and there’s nothing to stop you from adding that to this bike. A 70 or even 80mm stem still feels perfectly right for this bike, but if you need longer to achieve your desired riding position, then I’d probably point you to the 90% of gravel bikes filling the market that are already better suited to that.
Riding the Headlands often had me adopting mountain bike-like riding positions and plenty of body english in order to get what I wanted from it. 20% gradient climbs saw me scooch to the very tip of the saddle, elbows bent and weight low, or right over the front of the bike in order to keep the front wheel on and the ground and tracking where I wanted (although I couldn’t get too far over without risk of hitting my knees on bars).
Loose and fast corners had me trying to drop my weight and lean a little more forward than usual to get the front wheel to dig. And it was a similar story when descending, where this bike begs you to spread out and get lower to overcome the high centre of gravity, which in turn, means riding somewhat behind the saddle. Here, and perhaps for the first time, I actually found myself understanding and enjoying having a dropper post on a dropbar bike, and I often used it wherever things got rocky and steep as the bike just felt more controlled the lower I got.
Marin were actually one of the first brands I saw to equip a dropper post as stock on a gravel bike, and in this case, the integration of the dropper with the left GRX remote/brake lever is slick. The ability to control the 105mm of saddle drop from either the hoods or drops meant I used it way more than a dropper with a more traditional separate remote.
Do be aware that 105 mm of drop is quite a bit and has a noticeable impact on minimum saddle height. For example, I run a rather high 735 mm saddle height given that I’m only 171 cm from floor to scalp, and there was only 30 mm to play with before the post would hit its minimum extension. Those with a short inseam and long torso may need to swap the seatpost for one with reduced travel, but once again, perhaps a bike with a longer reach is the better fit if this applies to you.
That dropper really opens up the bike’s ability to comfortably go where gravel bikes shouldn’t, but in these conditions, I kept coming back to the same complaint – toe overlap. The same issue applies to so many gravel bikes, but then so many gravel bikes don’t feel as capable or fun on tight and technical trails like this one, and feeling my foot hit the wheel really did snatch the grin off my face. It’s here that I was left wishing that Marin went a few pages further into its mountain bike playbook and lengthened the front centre further, perhaps with a slightly slacker head angle and further offset fork. All of that wouldn’t change the reach, but it would change the bike’s ability to be ridden more like a mountain bike.
Finally, as is the case with any rigid bike using a dropper, the uppy-downy post detracts from the ability to add compliance through a flexy carbon seatpost. Combined with the stiff front end, this is one carbon bike that lets you know what your wheels are hitting. It’s certainly not too firm – there is some detectable and intentional give there – but it’s noticeably firmer than my mid-section after a long winter.
A hodgepodge of parts that work
All those mounting points and the use of a dropper post has made for a slightly porky carbon fibre bike – 9.73kg without pedals to be exact. The frame, claimed to weigh 1,150g (unpainted!) in a 54cm, is certainly accountable for some of that mass, but so too are the various sneaky cost-cutting measures Marin has taken in its parts choices. Thankfully the Headlands hides its mass well, and while the parts err on the side of dollars saved, they’re all quite cleverly chosen.
My range-topping sample may feature Shimano GRX 810 shifters, hydraulic brakes and a rear derailleur, but it lacks a full Shimano groupset. The rest of the drivetrain consists of an FSA Gossamer Pro 1x crankset, KMC chain and a SunRace cassette. Arguably they’re selections that save costs compared to going with the equivalent level Shimano options, but you know what? It all works, and admirably well, too.
For example, that Sunrace cassette is a unique beast and is intended as an alternative to fit SRAM’s XD cassette bodies. It offers the same 10-42T ratio as a SRAM cassette, which is slightly wider than Shimano’s recommended 11-42T offering (although a 11-46T does work, too). In Marin’s case, it proved a clever way to expand the gear range without mixing-and-matching SRAM and Shimano.
Single ring gearing has been discussed in detail in past reviews, and it remains a contentious issue with two common sides to the argument. Having such a wide range from 11 gears means there are fairly sizeable jumps between each cog. Many mountain bikers will contend that this is beneficial off-road and you’re able to adjust for rapid changes in elevation and terrain without too many clicks at the shifter. The reverse of that is seen on the road, and especially when riding with others, where large gaps between gears will have you struggling to maintain a consistent cadence. As with any gravel bike, it’s an argument of what type of riding you wish to do most.
Further dollars are trimmed with the use of cheaper resin-pad-only Shimano rotors which are given one less stage of heat treatment compared to more expensive options. Frankly I only ever use resin pads on dropbar bikes, but those wanting ultimate stopping power and durability (at the expense of extra noise) will need to upgrade the rotors. Likewise, the pads supplied lack the IceTech cooling fins, though the calipers can certainly handle them.
Not so much a cost-cutter as just an outright odd choice is the specification of long 175mm long cranks on my 54cm sample. This is a very mountain bikey thing to do, with the theory being that the longer cranks add leverage when conquering steep climbs. The bike offers enough bottom bracket height for this extra length to work, but it certainly doesn’t help with the toe overlap issue.
All of those cost savings are common and don’t really detract from the ride, but the choice in rolling stock is about as current as Pokémon Go. The 20.6mm internal width rims may offer an asymmetric spoke bed, but are generic-looking, lack a pre-installed tubeless tape (Marin has said the latest batch of Headland 2 bikes remedy this) and offer an internal shape that makes tubeless inflation a little tricky (I recommended using two layers of tubeless tape). Additionally, tubeless valves aren’t supplied, and the included Schwalbe tyres are the Performance version, one grade below the German tyre manufacturer’s tubeless-ready offerings. Yes, these tyres can be setup for tubeless, but it’s not recommended by the brand or by someone who’s had non-tubeless tyres stretch and dangerously blow off rims when run sans tubes.
I’m a tubeless snob and won’t ride off-road on anything else. While most bikes of this price won’t come setup tubeless, they do at least come with fully tubeless-ready rims and tyres. To not have that on a bike of this price is a misstep on Marin’s part.
The rest of the pieces lack flash but not function. The handlebars are 42 cm wide at the hoods, and offer a modest flare, bringing the base width to 46cm. It’s quite the difference from the usual extreme flared bars often seen on new gravel bikes, and I like it. The bar top offers an ergo shaping for cruising comfort, and the provided bar tape is grippy and forgiving.
Getting into the real nitty-gritty of it, I had to zip-tie the spread of cables at the front end together, otherwise, I found myself rubbing my knees on them (although they are well-positioned for use with a handlebar bag).
Another small nuisance was the thru-axle nut on the fork was not contained, meaning it’s possible for it to drop off into the dirt if you’re not careful. Marin state this allows easy changing of the nut in case you cross-thread it, but other brands manage similar features while using a retaining screw. Certainly, keep the axle installed if travelling with this one.
A final note on the spec needs to go to the paint. It’s quite edgy, modern and not at all boring. There is an argyle pattern done with decals beneath the paint which creates the fade at the front of the bike. I like it, and so too does everyone else that’s laid eye on this bike over the past few months. Well done Marin.
All told, the Headlands offers a solid and reliable build, but it doesn’t scream the value for money that I’d hoped. There are other similarly priced bikes on the market that offer a noticeable upgrade in rolling stock to what Marin has equipped, though to be fair, the dropper post probably accounts for the difference.
Looking over the Headlands
As we found out in Sedona with the Gestalt X10, Marin has made some clear efforts to make mountain bikers feel at home on their dropbar machines.
Those coming from the roadside of cycling will almost certainly find the Gestalt too relaxed in the fit it offers. As a result, this isn’t the bike I’d pick for racing gravel or to replace your skinny-tyred quiver. Rather it’s a bike I truly enjoyed for exploring and seeing the sights without Strava running in the background.
That riding position is noticeably shorter than what most other brands in the industry offer, but I actually enjoyed how it mimicked the more forward and upright fit of my cross country mountain bike. It’s efficient enough (although a little cramped) on the road, and composed enough off-road to go almost anywhere, and it has the carrying capacity to ensure you don’t need to turn back for home any time soon.
Yes, this bike has more quirks than the Johnny Depp version of the Willy Wonka film, but being different doesn’t mean it’s bad. Newer cyclists or mountain bikers previously stubborn to drop bar-life are likely to find lots to love in this ride – at least once they buy some tubeless tyres.
Side bar: Marin in Australia
In Australia, this bike is sold consumer-direct and shipped to your door by BicyclesOnline. BicyclesOnline don’t just send you the same boxed bike that a bike store in the USA would receive to build, but rather it’s a version that’s been mechanically checked over and re-boxed for easy assembly.
My sample arrived well-packaged with an appreciated lack of single-use plastic. It was well packaged and clearly inspired by Canyon with how all the components were attached with reusable velcro foam blocks where the industry norm are zip-ties and film wrap. Likewise, BicyclesOnline provides a handful of accessories with its bikes, including a small (and very basic) torque wrench.
Assembling the bike was pretty easy, and BicyclesOnline provides extensive guides if you’re unsure of the process. The trickiest part of the process was connecting the dropper post cable, not an overly advanced task.
For the most part the build quality was good. The front brake was adjusted perfectly, and the stem was setup in the middle of the spacer stack, right where I wanted it. My complaints are small, but the rear derailleur cable was left overly long, and the rear brake rotor had a slight wave to it. Neither of which would stop you from riding the thing.
That direct-to-consumer business model results in the bike being available at a comparatively lower price than what it sells for in the US. While the bike retails for AU$4,899, at the time of publishing it’s available for AU$3,699.