Saracen's Zen hardtails have been impressing us for years now, bringing true hardcore hardtail performance to an affordable price point way before anyone else. The Zen 2 is the most evolved trail hooligan yet, but only if you swap the tyres...
The Zen frame has looked similar for a while, but this year's bike gets a new butted tubeset in a rounded rather than square headed style. The main tubes are shaped from end-to-end though, but rely on traditional welded gussets at the throat and ahead of the seat tube though, rather than vogue-ish hydroforming.
The dramatically snaked seat and chainstays have been a Zen feature for a while, combining enough mud clearance for the Tioga balloon tyres with ample ankle clearance through their keyhole profile. The big dropouts are neat forged pieces too, with disc-specific cable routing keeping everything tucked in nicely. For UK practicality and facial freshness you get Crud Catcher bosses under the down tube, as well as two bottle mounts for thirst quenching.
Given that this bike is designed specifically for fast and loose close quarters riding, Saracen run a short top tube and steep seat angle to push weight forward to keep the fork and front tyre connected. The result might feel slightly cramped for long pulls or road sections, but it gives perfect weight placement when you're ripping round switchbacks deep in a Welsh forest.
The frame character is as aggressive as the position, too. They might be curved, but the seatstays do little to soften shocks coming from the ground up. The upside is a very sharp power kick and precision feedback from either end of the bike.
Handling angles have been backed off slightly from last year's homicidally steep settings, but the Zen is still 'think it and you've turned it' fast. You'll certainly need your wits about you on the trail at first, but the more you ride it, the more you'll realise that the crash that seems imminent never actually happens.
Well, that's not entirely true, because our first rides were a series of slides, slips and missed corners. Tioga's Blue Dragons might be fast on dry summer trails, but they're hopeless in any sort of wet mud.
They also leave very little mud clearance under the arch of the RockShox Tora fork. Otherwise it's a great unit, though. Tight at first, but plushing out to become a very controlled and competent impact and rock collector. Steering rigidity is impressive too, even if adjustability is limited to spring pressure and rebound.
The rest of the kit is also quality, with light but broad SOS rims making up an agile but still tough wheel pack. Saracen have also uprated the braking power with 180mm rotors front and rear, but just go gently at first because the Hayes feel isn't exactly subtle and those tyres don't help. Saracen have also dropped the Dual Control shifters in favour of traditional underbar shifters. The splined crank helps stiffen power delivery into the Deore LX transmission, while the selection of oversized FSA cockpit kit and Lock-On grips amplify the accurate feedback and is serious drop tough. Saracen's twin bolt seat post works well, although a QR lever on the seat post collar would be a useful touch.
This is the most impressive Zen yet from Saracen, with upgraded braking power, reduced weight and an aggressive character. It's a bit of a bruiser in terms of trail shocks, but the payback is masses of feedback and uncompromising power delivery for ripping up climbs and out of corners. Kit is all quality too, although a tyre change is essential in all but the driest conditions. New tyre rubber will make this a superb technical singletrack weapon, though.