The Van Nicholas range represents the rebirth of web company Airborne's radical line of low cost, 'customisable', titanium framed bikes. The new company have a more European focus but have lost little of their enthusiasm for bringing titanium to the masses. The Zion is the workhorse of the range, starting at £1,068.
Titanium is amazing stuff. It doesn't corrode, it's immensely strong and it typically builds into a bike frame that has a uniquely sprightly feel. It's also fiendishly expensive and tricky to work with, and that, plus the fact that it's not as stiff as steel or aluminium, is enough to put many manufacturers off. Titanium has typically been the preserve of high end custom builders, turning out small numbers of beautifully crafted frames with telephone number price tags for the few riders able to appreciate/afford them. But Van Nicholas, like Airborne before them, have found ways to bring the price down.
If there's cost-cutting in the production, it's not immediately obvious.
Constant-diameter top and down tubes look a little ordinary next to some of the fancy profiles of aluminium tubed competitors, but they do the job without fanfare. Running the cables under the top tube keeps them out of the way, but makes shouldering the Zion a pain in the neck - literally. An open-ended gusset at the join with the externally butted head tube adds extra protection against damage from hard frontal impacts, while Crud Catcher mounts are a nice UK-friendly touch that mudplugging riders will appreciate. Curvy stays feature rack mounts and bosses for rim brakes, though we opted for an upgrade to hydraulic discs. Mud clearance is huge up top and on the miserly side - even with the 1.95 inch tyres fitted - down below.
There's a wide choice of forks available, and we went with the basic RockShox Tora Solo with 80mm (3in) of travel. It's not the lightest or most sophisticated fork, but its firm feel and limited travel seemed to suit the sprightly trail manners of our test bike.
Drop down menus on the Van Nicholas website allow every aspect of the bike's spec to be tweaked. We opted for the basic Shimano LX-based spec and substituted a riser bar for the standard flat one. Details like the Mavic Crossride wheelset and gold coloured KMC chain set the Zion apart from much of the price-equivalent competition, while most of the Van Nicholas finishing kit looks good and works well. The one exception was the saddle on our test sample, which was loose on its rails and creaked constantly.
The Zion's pared down lines, skinny tyres and narrow saddle hint at a bike that's built for speed. But any notions of having to tame a nervy thoroughbred are dispelled as soon as you climb aboard. Despite an in-line seatpost and compact frame dimensions, there's enough room for a rider of average proportions to stretch out and get comfy, while the relatively modest fork still manages to patter over all but the hardest, biggest hits willingly enough. Better still, the front end, from bar position to the way the fork responds to weight shifts in the turns, feels spot-on. Neither too twitchy nor too sluggish, the Zion's geometry unflinchingly rides the narrow line between the contradictory demands of slow speed stability and high speed agility. Everything from low speed granny-ring grunts to flat-out singletrack chasing feels reassuringly intuitive. The Zion doesn't need to be persuaded to go out for a ride - it wants to.
One of the biggest reasons for investing in a titanium hardtail, of course, is the mythical vibration absorbing ride quality that's associated with this material. Despite its budget price, the Zion certainly has more than a hint of the forgiving character of the best titanium frames. High frequency trail buzz seems less apparent than with an alu chassis, and there's no trace of unwanted flex under hard pedalling. With narrow tyres and a short travel fork, though, this accommodating character can get the unwary Zion rider into all sorts of trouble. It's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, only to ride full tilt into a section of washed-out rubble and suddenly find the fork at its limit and the tyres bouncing from obstacle to obstacle. Not a bike for the inexperienced or clumsy then, but one that'll shine under a rider who appreciates finesse over brute force.