2022 Marin Nicasio 2 gravel bike review: Sometimes vanilla is just right
The lone steel bike in our group makes a great case for the material.
The lone steel bike in our group makes a great case for the material.
As bikes have grown increasingly specialized and segmented these days, the Marin Nicasio 2 is a refreshing outlier that stubbornly refuses to be pigeonholed. Is it an all-road bike? A gravel machine? A light-duty adventuring rig? A casual cruiser? Even Marin doesn’t seem to know what to call it, simultaneously describing it on its web site as something for “adventure road and off-road riding”, “long distance commuting”, and “endurance and all-weather pavement”.
However you want to think of it, the Nicasio 2 was the only steel bike in this year’s Field Test grouping, and it represents the category well, with a comfy-yet-responsive ride, agreeable handling, a do-it-all personality, classic aesthetics, and a mostly well-sorted build kit that’ll happily serve multiple duties. The price is reasonable, too.
It’s not perfect, but the missteps are pretty minor and relatively easy to remedy. And perhaps most importantly, it was one bike that all of us enjoyed riding.
“It’s fair to say that we do things a bit differently at times,” said Marin brand director Chris Holmes. “For instance, we have a lot more chromoly bikes in our lineup than other brands our size. It’s part of our heritage and we like the ride quality and value. We are certainly aware of overall market trends, but we do our part to put our own spin on things.”
Marin follows a proven, no-frills playbook for the Nicasio 2. It’s built with the company’s mid-range Series 2 chromoly, which features butted main tubes, nominally round profiles throughout, and minimal shaping. The chainstays sport a uniformly medium height from end to end, the seatstays are relatively slender, and they meet at tidy-looking forged dropouts with integrated rack and fender mounts, plus a stout aluminum replaceable derailleur hanger.
Up front is a tapered head tube with drop-in headset bearings, there’s a normal-as-can-be English threaded bottom bracket down below, and up top is a similarly standard 27.2 mm-diameter round seatpost secured with an external aluminum clamp.
Routing is fully external, with lines running along the underside of the down tube. Ports are pre-drilled into the frame for an internally routed dropper seatpost should you wish to add one.
All of this is TIG-welded into a classic silhouette with a moderately sloping top tube and just a hint of drop to the seatstays (presumably to boost rear-end compliance).
That frame is matched to an all-carbon fork with a tapered steerer, an integrated crown race, and burly looking, large-diameter legs. Each of those legs sports three-pack mounts for additional carrying capacity, plus proper mounting points for a front fender.
Speaking of mounts, there’s a surprising dearth of places to carry water considering all the other attachments. There are the usual two spots inside the main triangle, and… that’s it. Marin doesn’t even bother to include a third one on the underside of the down tube, nor are there fittings on the top tube for a feed bag.
Marin doesn’t take any chances with the Nicasio 2’s frame geometry, either, which is clearly designed for comfortable cruising. The 71° head tube angle and 50 mm fork offset on our 54 cm test sample yields a semi-mellow trail dimension of around 68 mm, the chainstays are a middle-of-the-road 420 mm in length, and there’s 72 mm of bottom bracket drop for a nice, stable feel. Each frame size has a surprisingly generous reach dimension so you can get nice and stretched out should you wish to do so, but the stack figures are definitely quite tall; Marin really wants you to relax and take it easy here.
Marin outfits the Nicasio 2 with a solid-if-unremarkable build kit. The transmission consists of a Shimano Tiagra 2×10 drivetrain and an FSA Omega compact crankset. Stopping duties are handled by Shimano, too, with matching Tiagra hydraulic disc brakes front and rear. The wheels feature generic tubeless-compatible 19 mm-wide aluminum wheels with house-brand cartridge bearing hubs and round stainless steel spokes, all wrapped with 37 mm-wide WTB Riddler Comp tires (official maximum tire size is 700×40 mm). The aluminum finishing kit is a mix of no-name and house-brand stuff.
Claimed weight for a painted 54 cm frame is 2,310 g (without axle), and actual weight for our 54 cm test bike is 11.02 kg / 24.29 lb without pedals or accessories.
Retail price is US$1,780 / AU$2,200 / £1,500 / €1,800.
Proponents of steel bikes often tout the material’s supposedly magical ride, which is somehow incredibly efficient, lively and springy, and uncannily comfortable all at the same time. But does the Nicasio 2 hold true to that story? Sort of.
True to Marin’s stated mission for the Nicasio 2, we tested it on a wide range of surfaces, including smooth tarmac, buffed-out dirt, and some semi-rowdy singletrack littered with rocks and roots. Generally speaking, everyone who tested it (our guest pro-racer-on-sabbatical Ellen Noble sat this one out since it was a bit too big for her) remarked on the bike’s impressively smooth and muted ride quality. Even on broken pavement and corrugated dirt, the Nicasio 2 glides across the ground in a way that almost makes you wonder if the tires are low.
Also befitting that steel mystique, the Nicasio 2 feels pretty efficient under power, with a solid backbone that’s reassuringly firm, and just a hint of springiness to give the bike some character.
The stout front triangle makes for precise handling, too, particularly when matched with that burly tapered carbon fork. There’s a sense of indestructibility with the Nicasio 2 when charging through the rough, reinforced — literally and figuratively — by that meaty gusset on the down tube. The Nicasio 2 isn’t actually indestructible, of course, but if what you’re after in a steel bike is vault-like solidity, look no further.
That all said, that mythical steel storyline still falls a little short here. It’s important to note that while steel bikes can be all those things I mentioned earlier, those traits usually only come with very high-end steel bikes built with paper-thin tubes and ultra-premium alloys.
In contrast, Marin’s Series 2 tubing is more pedestrian and thicker, and while it sings on modestly bumpy terrain, it’s punishing on nastier stuff, almost as if it runs out of travel and hits a hard stop. While the Nicasio 2 is a joy to ride in most situations, underbiking is most definitely not this bike’s forte.
“The bike feels pretty smooth on finer to medium terrain, but the rigidity shines through on rocky or rooty ground,” said CyclingTips senior tech editor Dave Rome. “Or put another way, the bike hums along and mutes out smaller vibrations really well, but it almost feels like someone banging a gong when you hit something of noticeable size or with a square edge to it.”
There’s also no getting around the fact that steel is a denser (i.e. heavier) material than aluminum, carbon fiber, or other common frame options. The Nicasio 2 was the heaviest bike at this year’s Field Test (but by the slimmest of margins), though Marin admittedly does a good job of distributing the mass so the bike doesn’t necessarily feel all that heavy. That said, it’s still occasionally burdensome when heading uphill, especially on steeper pitches or when you need to pull off a technical move. The Marin is more than happy to maintain speed, but it’s not as eager to make quick accelerations.
“It may be the heaviest on test but it hides its weight rather well on rolling terrain, especially while at speed,” Dave said. “It’s only in slow and tight trails where that weight becomes an issue.”
Although the handling was precise, not everyone loved it.
Marin toned things down for the Nicasio 2, giving it a calm demeanor and a subdued reflexes so as to deliver a confidence-inspiring mellowness. The trail dimension isn’t terribly long at 68 mm, nor are the chainstays at 420 mm. In general cruising, that do-no-wrong stability felt just right, as if you could use pedal mindlessly and casually take in the surroundings until the sun sets. But when you pair those figures with the overall weight, it makes for a lot of bike that isn’t always eager to change direction or attitude — as Dave unfortunately discovered on a rooty uphill pitch when the front end just didn’t want to pop when he needed it to.
Nevertheless, no bike can be everything to everybody, and when viewed through a more laid-back lens, the Nicasio 2 is exactly what it’s billed to be.
“This bike would have been perfect for me 15 years ago,” said Velonews senior editor Betsy Welch. “It’s totally capable on the road and gravel, but it’s a bit too rigid and heavy to be a total ‘shred sled’ for all kinds of off-road adventures. It’s got some mounts for racks and bags for touring, and would be a solid companion for something like that.”
Marin is a brand that frequently impresses me with its attention to detail, and the Nicasio 2’s spec is a good example of that. It’s not flashy in any way whatsoever, but there’s money spent where it counts, and money saved where it doesn’t.
The Shimano Tiagra transmission was universally lauded by the Field Test crew, citing smooth and reliable rear shifts, outstanding lever ergonomics with that trademark “Light Action” feel, and excellent hydraulic disc brakes with plenty of power and precise control. Although the cassette was two sprockets shy of Shimano’s latest-and-greatest, no one commented that the gaps were too big for the type of riding we were doing. And major kudos to Marin’s product manager(s) for using genuine Shimano SP41 derailleur housing, which offers consistently better performance (especially long-term) than the generic stuff more typically found at this price point.
Shifting up front was also very good with the FSA Omega crank — and that’s with a KMC chain instead of a Shimano one, too. However, the 50/34T chainrings were just too big for the 11-34T cassette when considering the bigger rollout of the large-diameter tires. FSA also offers that crank with 48/32T and 46/30T chainrings, and either combo would have been a better choice here.
On paper, those no-name wheels certainly won’t get anyone’s heart racing. But those rims and the WTB tires are easily converted to tubeless (though you need to supply tubeless tape, sealant, and valve stems), and the 14-gauge straight stainless steel spokes with brass nipples should hold up well over the long haul. Build quality seemed good, and although rear freehub engagement was on the slow side, that shouldn’t be an issue unless you plan on hitting a lot of technical off-road terrain (which seems unlikely).
Likewise, the finishing kit is generic but agreeable. The bar bend is pleasantly neutral with an appropriately short reach and just enough flare, and the stem holds tight and is nicely finished.
Even the bar tape was well padded and reassuringly grippy. Out back, the saddle is nothing special but perfectly inoffensive, and the two-bolt head on the no-name aluminum seatpost is easy to adjust with readily accessible hardware.
Overall, everything on the Nicasio 2 gets the job done with minimal fuss, it’s all easy to repair and maintain with commonly available tools, and the wholly standard parts should be relatively easy to obtain years down the road.
These days, it’s hard to ask for more.
What the Marin Nicasio 2 may lack in flash, it certainly makes up in substance.
Admittedly, it doesn’t make the strongest case on paper. It’s heavy. It’s perhaps a bit dull in some ways. One could even describe it as “old school”. However, the fact that we all genuinely enjoyed riding it in most situations says a lot about how effective “old school” was and can still be when done properly.
It’s hard to stand out in today’s incredibly crowded bicycle market, and just about every company out there is trying desperately to draw attention to its latest-and-greatest, shiny new thing. But not Marin.
With the Nicasio 2, what you get is a refreshingly solid package that (mostly) nails the fundamentals and doesn’t even really try to do much more, all at a reasonable price. It’s function over form in all the good ways, and ultimately, it’s hard to find a whole lot of fault with that.
More information can be found at www.marinbikes.com.