I posted my initial impression of my custom frame almost as soon as I received it. By now I’ve played countless games and a couple of tournaments, and feel inclined to comment on how it feels.
I ‘designed’ the geometry myself, and at the time I was a bit worried that I would create some unforseen flaw that would ruin an otherwise good bike. The process and result confirmed my nascent opinion that bike geometry (like wheelbuilding) is totally over-complicated, and actually within the grasp of most cycling enthusiasts, especially if you’re just tweaking a design that you like already. Admittedly, I was only doing the geometry, and trusted tubing choices to Mr Marino (I fail to see the need for a ‘supple’ polo frame anyway). If I was going to get a touring, road or hardtail MTB frame made up, I’d do the geometry myself, and trust the framebuilder to spec the tubing.
But I digress.
First impressions when I jumped on the bike were along the lines of ‘Wow, that front wheel is close’, and ‘Jesus, that b/b is high – it feels like I’m way up on top of the wheels’. At first I set up my saddle and bars like my previous Pompino, but found I was getting a lot of front wheel lift under acceleration. I lowered the bars a bit, slid the saddle forward 1cm on the rails and rotated the typically concave saddle so that the nose was horizontal, rather than the back. This was much better, and I’ve pretty much left it like that ever since.
Initial games were a little underwhelming. I expected an immediate improvement and it didn’t materialise. I think a large part of a rider’s ability and confidence comes with ride-time and experience on your own bike. So changing to a different design and set up, even if it’s actually better will feel the same or worse for a while. I played about the same as on my previous bike. It felt different, and like it had potential, but I couldn’t really push the bike yet.
My first tournament came up after a few weeks. It was indoor, so I put a longer stem and flat bar on to put a bit more weight on the front wheel to stop it slipping out. It worked a treat and I could feel both wheels sliding in unison, allowing me to stay upright rather than foot-down. On dry outdoor courts, I think this is unnecessary as there’s plenty of grip. I corner pretty tight and fast at times, and it’s never slipped out on me. Since then I’ve settled on a 100mm stem, with the bar about 50mm below my saddle.
Going from 75mm to 58mm of trail was a significant change, but it was hard to separate the effect of that from the 500g weight saving I made by changing my front tyre. Basically, the jacking point changed and the steering felt a lot lighter. I’ve come to learn where the jacking point is, and really appreciate not having to yank my bars around at low speeds. As I’ve got more used to it, I’ve noticed I can practically wham the bars at 90 degrees and turn on the spot, by shifting my weight back a bit and kind of looking over my shoulder in the direction of travel. It’s not quite a pivot turn (although I can do little ones of those when necessary) but it’s a massive advantage when some slow-ass techy team is trying to break down your defence. I’ve noticed fewer and fewer people can get past me, although those with similarly tight bikes are tougher to keep out.
The shortness of the front-centre allows me to get over the bars and dribble round the front wheel and on the off-side much more easily than before, although my relatively wide bars and low-ish saddle neutralise the effect a bit. I can’t get on with mega-narrow bars, and I like my saddle a bit lower than my road saddle (which is already reasonably low due to my inflexibility and heels-down pedalling technique). I find if you slam your bars really low, it’s harder to look around your shoulders, which is something I do all the time when tracking back to defence. Think about it; in a racy position, when you turn your head, you’re looking at the sky. In a sit-up-and-beg position, you’re looking to the side and behind you. Different strokes for different folks, I’m sure, and flexibility will have a big part to play. It seems I generally see bigger players use more upright positions and slimmer/smaller players ‘getting aero’…
The final piece to fall into place has been my understanding of just how far I can lean the bike while pedaling. Yeah yeah, everyone goes on about how ‘correct form’ suggests you shouldn’t pedal through tight corners, but frankly, that’s roadie/MTB wisdom, and it doesn’t even work in those arenas all the time. No pedalling means no acceleration, and pedalling comes in really useful when your team has just lost possession and a break is forming. I can roll around, keep my speed up, and start pedalling mid-turn so that I’m on top of my gear, accelerating as I come out of the apex. Front wheel advantage is minutely important, so these things make a difference, all the time. Also, applying power to the pedals can influence the line you take, particularly on indoor courts. At Bristol, I found I could push a bit more power through the cranks and it would ‘correct’ understeer. On dry courts, I can finely balance the trajectory of the ‘exit’ of my turns. People worry about high b/bs on their everyday bikes, and I much prefer the feel of bikes with lower ones, but I think in polo that the ‘stabilising/in-the-bike’ effect of a lower bottom bracket is actually undesirable. Snowboarders and ski-ers talk about ‘edge-to-edge’ speed (or something like that, I haven’t snowboarded in years so maybe I’m talking from my ass) and it feels like the higher b/b makes the bike ‘tippier’ or more inclined to move off the vertical axis. How much of that is the trail, and how much the b/b height is hard to say, but my gut instinct is that trail is more significant at low speeds when you’re turning the bike with the bars, and the b/b height is more influential when you’re riding at speed and carving.
Another benefit from the stoutness of the bike is how stiff it feels when I’m sprinting. I can mash to my quads’ and glutes’ content.
I can’t think of many weaknesses or drawbacks. It’d be nice if it was lighter, but you can say that for pretty much any bike, and my middling specification choices and ridiculous wheelcovers are more to blame for that than the frame itself. Having a smaller 5-hole (I prefer ‘tradesman’s') means that b/b shots/passes and some dribbling moves are a bit harder, but that’s the inevitable price of a short wheelbase, and I’ve pretty much adapted to it.
If you’re considering a polo-specific frame, have a budget somewhere between the converted MTB/Pompino and fully-custom local builder extremes, then get a Marino. I smile every time I ride mine, will keep it for life (probably) and think it’s incredible value for money.