A few months ago, I was thinking about my bikes and my riding, and I thought to myself: I don’t even use my road bike that much, or competitively… I’ll let it go and put the money into a better polo bike, which I’ll use 6+ hours per week, and compete at tournaments on.
So I started looking at my options. There’s the Fleet Velo Joust, Shop 14, Triton, local builder Lee Cooper.., but these would all cost more than I thought justifiable. And the switch to 26″ wheels was going to cause knock-on costs in the form of wheels, tyres and drivetrain.
I started reading about the Peruvian brand Marino on forums. The promise of a full-custom frame for less than £250 sounded too good to be true, but more and more players were taking the offer and seemed to be pretty happy with the results. I ummed and aaaahed for a while, and then started the process of sorting the geometry with BikeCad, a free online bike-design software.
I took a bit of inspiration from here and there, and used my own experiences to put together the geometry. My main aim was to shorten up the wheelbase and raise the bottom bracket enough to run 1.25″ tyres. It was amazingly easy to use the software, but I kept having doubts and second thoughts and going back to tinker with one thing or another.
My biggest fear was messing up the handling at the front end. I’d grown used to the very solid feel of my Pompino/Tuff Guy/Big Apple 26″ set up and its attendant 74mm trail. My design changed that to 58mm trail, and took about 60mm off the wheelbase. Having never ridden anything even remotely similar, it was a bit of a risk, but it didn’t seem too dissimilar to what other people were doing.
Another tough decision was headtube length. I’m a trained bike fitter, and one of my biggest bugbears (albeit on road bikes) is too-short headtubes on larger frames. My Pompino was around 165mm on an X-Large frame, which leaves 185cm me with a pro-level seat-to-bar drop. I ran riser bars to get around it, but they limit the minimum width you can take your bars and still have an effective brake… Marino had just started doing forks, so it wouldn’t have cost much more to have some of those at the same time, allowing me to put the headtube up to somewhere around 200mm. I ummed and aaaahed some more.
No matter how much I tinkered with top tube angle and seat tube extension, I just couldn’t make it look proportionally acceptable to me on BikeCad, so I decided to stick with what I knew and go with the shorter headtube and design the geometry around my existing fork, whose geometry I was totally happy with. Tightness had a part to play there too, I’ll admit.
So after a few emails with Mr Marino, I transferred the deposit and started daydreaming of my new bike. I hate waiting for bikes at the best of times, but the frequent photos sent from Peru of the frame as it had more and more tubes welded on helped alleviate any worries I had.
Around this time I thought I’d take a closer look at my trusty Pompino and give it a bit of a clean so I could enjoy the last few weeks of my ownership. It was then that I noticed the crack in the seatstay. This is no rare occurence in polo, with many people experiencing the same thing. It tends to be bigger boys who do them in, but I thought my natural lightness and grace on the bike had stood me well. Obviously not. It extended through about 30% of the tube but I kept riding for probably 15-25 more hours of polo on it (by the end it was about 75% through and every push of the pedals made me nervous).
I was concerned that this shouldn’t happen to my new frame, so asked Marino to weld on some gussets to the affected area around the chainstay/bottom bracket area. He said it often wasn’t necessary, but if that’s what I wanted, fine. I thought that was pretty good of him.
The weeks passed, and of course I started to love my Pompino more and more now that it was dying and I was about to discard it. I reckon if you’re lightish, that the Pompino is by far the best non-polo off the peg frame for polo. I had one for commuting and loved that too. Say what you will about On-One as a business and as an independent bike shop worker, I’m not a natural fan, but the Pompino deserves its reputation.
In the weeks before the frame arrived, more and more people were writing online about their Marino experiences. A chap in Edinburgh who seems to know a lot about geometry and welding had some criticism of the accuracy of the geometry and quality of welding and frame bending (but importantly said that you get what you pay for, and that it’s good value for money). An American blogger’s photos looked less than flattering… I started to worry a bit.
The frame arrived and I hurriedly built it up. I’d bought a few new components which were necessary for the conversion – Token freewheel, D521 rim which I built up with a Surly hub, 1.25″ RiBmo and 1.35″ Kojak tyres, 2nd hand MTB chainring, boggo seatpost and clamp. My preference with all my bikes is to put the money where I would notice it most, so no bling, but decent quality freewheel, wheels and brakes were high priorities. I thought about getting a Hollowtech crank, but my cheap-ass wouldn’t stretch to it. I also picked up an XTR V-Brake and lever off eBay and with the help of my colleague Jon, converted the lever to dual-pull. Oh, and nice compressionless cables and flexible noodles to finish those off.
The internal finish on my frame was pretty good. All I had to do was chase the bottom bracket threads as the seat tube and headtube had been filed smooth(ish). I’d expect better from a custom builder with a strong reputation as a craftsman, but I’d also expect to pay at least twice as much as I did. The headset was a bit tighter than usual to press in, but everything else worked as it should.
It came together pretty nicely, although as I mentioned my focus was on keeping it affordable and re-using a lot of my old parts so it’s not exactly harmonious (I don’t like colour-mismatched stems/bars/seatposts/cranks, but it seemed silly to change them for aesthetic reasons). At 25lbs 11oz, it weighed in at exactly a pound lighter than my Pompino, which means the frame must be a similar weight, as the tyre change saved me that amount. I could shave a bit of weight here or there, but I value reliability and I think straight wheels and the resulting strong brakes are more important than weight saving in polo. And my bike is less than 12.5% of my weight…
Right now, I’d definitely recommend Marino for polo bikes. The value is incredible, and there isn’t anything else available for that price. You can design your own or go through a few different middle men who have sorted their own frames for re-sale. If I wanted a custom road or mountain bike, I’d stay local and have that eye-to-eye experience with the builder, but I couldn’t drop £500+ on a polo frame, with my abilities.
I’ll write another post with my riding experiences once I’ve got used to it. It’s unfair to judge it from the initial rides, while I’m experimenting with ride position. I’d say it’s pretty much entirely what I expected though, so I’ll add myself to the growing list of ‘bike designers’ who take 0.5 degrees off a head angle one year, then put it back on the next, as it seems like a pretty easy job.