Saracen was one of the first companies to produce a proper hardcore hardtail, and it has combined its experience with some enlightened kit choices in the entry-model Zen. It’s not quite nirvana, but you won’t get this much karma with this much change left from anyone else…
Ride & handling: stable but cockpit could be tweaked
You’ll soon realise that this is a bike designed to tackle the most technical challenges. The previously steep angles have been slackened off slightly to stop it getting nervous when you’re braking hard on steep slopes. In fact, the whole bike has been designed around running a fair amount of fork sag – directly in line with the sort of dynamic, weight-forward riding position that hardcore hardtails thrive on.
The steering angle is just steady enough not to stumble and tuck under when your back wheel is barely on the ground or you’ve bunged the front end into a corner too hard or too slow. It’s still wick enough to whip you on to a new line or snatch disaster back from the edge of singletrack without any hesitation whatsoever.
The relatively steep seat angle means that you’ve always got plenty of weight on the bars to guarantee front-end grip and authority. A compact top tube ensures you won’t have any trouble shifting your weight back over the seat when you need to, though. The relatively low bottom bracket height and overall ride height help calm nerves when you’re on the brink of something really bad happening, although our toes and crank ends knew about it when we tried pedalling through bouldery or rutted sections.
The only other glitch in the otherwise excellent character of the Zen is the cockpit setup. Saracens are usually totally sorted in this area, so it’s a surprise to find relatively narrow bars and a mid-length stem here. It certainly cramps the Zen’s technical capability when compared with bigger and fast-responding spans such as the Whyte 905 or Orange P7 Pro. Swapping to a basic 70mm stem and 27in riser bars will still leave you change from £700, though, so it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
On the plus side, the Zen’s weight-forward position keeps you clear of any kick from the back end, although the tubing changes mean the new Zen feels a lot less violently stiff than the old ones could do.
It’s still a decisive deliverer of control commands and whatever leg wattage you’ve got, though. Considering it weights more than 30lb, it spits out of corners and scrambles up steep technical sections very keenly.
Response times are only going to get better the more money you can spend on upgrading it too, and according to Steve Worland’s review of the £1000 XT-equipped Zen 3, it’s a real fight-or-flight firebrand.
Frame: beefy and well proven
The Zen frames have been evolving for years, and so are seriously well proven structures. The Zen 1 gets the same frame as the £1000 Zen 3, too, so you’re definitely getting a chassis worth upgrading.
A big rounded and ovalised down tube replaces the old square-headed tubesets, while the top tube gets a hydroformed bulge ahead of the seat tube junction for extra strength and centre section stiffness. The head tube is ring reinforced and buttressed by a big throat gusset to handle the leverage of longer forks.
Ovalised stays are ‘S’ bent for plenty of tyre clearance, and the far end is secured by big CNC-machined dropout sections. The A-frame struts are far enough away to ensure ample mud room, and the seat tube slot faces forward to keep spray out.
We’re not sure why it has rack mounts on the upper seat stays though, as there are no lower ones to match. A quick-release seat clamp would also be useful to enable you to drop the seat and drop into the descent point.
Components: good for the money
There’s nothing but good news in kit terms. The Tora fork is as good as you’ll get for the money, with a reasonably controlled and utterly reliable feel which only really gets out of its depth when you’re into multi-hit mayhem situations.
There’s bags of grip from the big High Roller tyres to really exploit the natural handling, and it’s great to see proper rubber, even at a price point where every penny counts. The chunky Sun rims might add to response times and overall weight, but they underline the whole ride with a surefooted stability, as well as fattening out the tyres further.
The Hayes Stroker Ryde brakes aren’t as touchy-feely as the more expensive Stroker Trails we’ve tried, but there’s no shortage of power when you pull them. Bolt-on grips won’t come off in your hand at a crucial moment, either.
On the trail you simply wouldn’t know this was a ‘bargain’ bike. Sure, the lower cost means a higher weight, but the huge amount of cross-country-freeride fun this bike delivers certainly isn’t finance-dependent. Sort out the cockpit and you’ve got a superb ready-to-rip package for an unbelievably good price.