The Saracen Ariel 3 is designed for riders who tolerate the climbs so that they can enjoy hammering the descents. So is it a viable all-day companion?
Saracen's designers have solved a lot of long travel-related hassles - from tweaking the rear axle path to keeping the rear wheel and linkages clear of the seat tube under full compression - by shifting the entire seat tube assembly forwards and mounting the front mech on a separate post behind it. The hefty cross-ovalised down tube features a strengthening gusset up front and a handy Crud Catcher mount underneath, but all the shock-related gubbins mean there's only space for one bottle mount.
There's plenty of room for mud though - curly, deep-section chainstays and a neatly forged seatstay yoke see to that and provide welcome hints of the bike's roots in UK riding. The neatly designed Horst Link pivots just ahead of the rear axle on the chainstays are more evidence of this bike's UK spec - the Horst Link design is patented by Specialized in the US, but not over here. Cartridge bearings on all the main pivots should mean smooth, trouble-free running, although the fit on our pre-production sample was a little loose. Saracen assure us it'll be fixed by the time the bike is in the shops. Two positions on the rocker arm give a choice between 100 and 140mm (4/5.5in) of rear wheel travel, courtesy of a RockShox Pearl 3.3 shock.
Holding up the front and keeping everything pointed in the right direction is a Fox 32 Float R fork with 140mm (5.5in) of travel. It's a great match for this bike's boulder-swallowing rear end and it provides all the smooth, predictable, get-out-of-jail-free bump munching that most riders will ever need - but there's no lockout function.
Any bike with a steeply sloping seat tube needs a saddle with plenty of fore and aft adjustment, so SDG's I-Beam set-up is a great choice, although a quick-release seat clamp would be handy. Other neat touches include Lock-On style grips and chunky Maxxis 2.35in High Roller tyres - not the lightest choice, but good all-rounders that provide grip when other tyres have given up.
The SRAM-based transmission gave us no cause for complaint other than a tendency for the chain to occasionally come off the big ring, and Avid's superb Juicy Seven hydraulic disc brakes serve up huge gobs of stopping power and have super handy pad adjustment dials on the levers.
Compared with some long travel cross-country machines, the Ariel 3 is a tad short in the top tube department. Even with the generously long rails of the I-Beam saddle set way back, the bike's compact feel, high-ish front end and relatively high weight don't make it a natural granny gear grunter on short, sharp uphill sections. A forward shuffle on the saddle and a determined effort will get it up all but the most severe technical climbs, but this isn't a bike that'll win friends on long haul skyward trails.
On the other hand, all that suspension travel definitely has its advantages - everything from square-edged rock ledges to rooty labyrinths are handled with ease by both the fork and shock. With its straightforward Horst Link / rocker-activated shock design, the Ariel 3 is heavily reliant on shock technology to get the balance between bump and rider input right. The Pearl shock features an adjustable gate, with separate lockout, to tweak the rear end's sensitivity. With the gate wide open it's sensitive to the tiniest undulation at the expense of a fair amount of pedal-induced wallow.
With the gate wound all the way in, even pedal mashers can climb without feeling they're on a fairground ride, albeit without the same ability to smooth the trail's roughest edges. Halfway between seems about right, although it's hard to achieve the subtle blend of controlled plush that the best long travel XC bikes manage.
However, it's on the descents where the Saracen really comes alive. The compact ride position, grippy tyres, seemingly endless suspension travel and powerful brakes encourage an aggressive riding style that's sure to put a grin on your face. If cashing in gravity credits is your idea of fun, this bike is definitely worth a look. There are better climbers out there, but few cross-country bikes can match the Ariel 3 for sheer laughs on the way back down.