Saracen has been doing its Zen 'Extreme Series' XC bikes for a few years now and they've evolved very nicely. This one is the entry level model and it's definitely a top value, hard hitting trail bike.
The Saracen brand has almost been in existence since the beginnings of MTB history in the UK. It's been through various phases and rebirths in that time, but the core values have remained constant: no nonsense UK-designed bikes with an strong emphasis on good value for money.
Saracen's Zens were probably the first mainstream range to reach a decent understanding of long forked, hard-hitting XC geometry without the weight penalty of jump bikes. There are loads of niche brands doing a similar thing, but Saracen can produce bikes for not much more than others are charging for a frame alone. The Zen range has been subtly tweaked over the years, and the new three bike range is the best yet - and the Zen 1 is the cheapest of the three. Other brands are playing catch-up but Saracen's still ahead of most of the opposition in terms of value for money and XC handling.
The Zen's gloss black 7005 aluminium frame is very nicely finished and exhibits the sort of tube profiling that you'll usually only find on much more costly frames. There's lots of crotch clearance over the low slung hydroformed top tube, the head tube is ring reinforced and the biaxially ovalised down tube is nicely bridge-gusseted across to the base of the head tube for extra frontal impact resistance. The Allen key seat clamp - we're surprised a bike like this doesn't have a quick release clamp, but that's easily solved - faces forward away from rear wheel spray and the seat and chain stays curve in and out for heel and tyre clearance.
The Zen's utilitarian adaptability is emphasised by eyelets for a rack, two bottles and a crudcatcher. The geometry is not as steep as on previous Zen incarnations, which is a good thing as we remember beginners finding the steering a little too lively on last year's bikes.
We like the Manitou Slate fork. It offers 130mm of travel that's 'controlled to the point of constipated' (to quote one rider), but that's no bad thing on a bike at this price. Its only external adjustment is the small amount of compression preload via a dial on top of the left leg.
The Zen 1 is a superb ride for the money. Its 31.2lb all-in weight is a bit of a load up the climbs but it flies through technical singletrack and deals superbly with rough technical trails and fast bumpy downhill. The one slightly negative experience we had was with the low 12in bottom bracket. The tendency on long-forked hardtails is to sit well forward in order to really work the fork. This gives you the confidence to keep the power on through the twists and turns. This doesn't work well with low bottom brackets, as we were occasionally clouting the pedals on rocks as we entered corners.
Obviously you adapt quickly to such limitations and ease back on the pedalling as you enter rocky and/or rooty bends, and the plus side of a low bottom bracket is that it boosts stability. Like many handling traits, it's a swings and roundabouts thing. The more upmarket Zens 2 & 3 have longer forks and slightly higher bottom brackets, but there's not much in it.
The WTB Dual Duty rimmed wheels can take a lot of hard knocks, and the Maxxis High Roller 2.35in treads are superbly grippy in most conditions but draggy on hard surfaces. The gears are Shimano Deore throughout, a very basic Truvativ crankset drives things along and shifts efficiently and the Hayes Sole hydraulic discs are powerfully effective stoppers, if a tad wooden in lever feel. The anonymous stem, 25in riser bar and long seat post do the job, and the WTB Pure V saddle is a comfy perch. We thought that the bolt-on grips are a nice finishing touch.
The lively handling and reasonable hard-hitting ability of the Zen makes for a very confident ride that appeals to both beginners and experienced trail tamers alike. Even the somewhat constipated suspension performance of the Manitou fork has advantages - it helps to keep the front end stable on the climbs, where a plusher long travel fork often feels more in need of a lockout. Saracen have not taken many componentry shortcuts to reach the remarkably reasonable £650 price tag on the Zen 1, and the frame is excellent. If you don't mind hauling those few extra pounds of weight up long climbs - inevitable on a bike that's been built to handle aggressive singletrack antics - then you'll be well rewarded elsewhere.
The Zen 1 is most fun to ride wherever gravity helps, and it's not far behind lighter bikes elsewhere. Take a look at the Zens 2 and 3 if your bike-buying budget can stretch a bit further.
The long and the short of it
Fork travel can be a bit confusing, as on medium priced hardtails you're likely to find forks ranging from 80mm to 130mm of travel.
Go for a shorter option if you're a cross country pootler, but if you don't want to slow down for anything, think longer. Either way - particularly on the longer travel options - consider looking for a fork with a lockout option. If there isn't one, at least look for good compression and rebound damping. This will make the bike feel more stable on climbs or sprints.
Most lockout options come in the form of a lever or dial on the top of the right-hand leg. Whack it open as you're about to enter any technical sections or you're sizing up a descent, then let the longer travel suspension soak up the shocks and rocks, leaving you to enjoy the freedom and speed.
Trek 6700 £800
Trek 01908 282626 www.trekbike.co.uk
The £800 Trek 6700 is a light, lively ride that can take a little more punishment than the average XC rig.