Morewood Zula - First ride £1495

South African marathon machine

BikeRadar score 4.5/5

Born, bred and built in South Africa, Morewood Bikes have grown from a small garage concern into an internationally recognised force in mountain biking. Their frames are famous for their combination of a dialled ride, strength and pin-sharp handling.

Until now, the most cross-country-orientated frame Morewood made was the 5in-travel Shova ST – a great trail bike, but not a racer. That's all changed with the introduction of their new marathon machine, the Zula, which has a simple purpose: to climb and descend mountains at a fair lick without any hysterics.

Lycra up and race it; add baggies and a GPS and ride off-piste; or even run it in a four-cross race – the Zula will have a go at any of these, ticking so many boxes that our biro has run dry. We’re looking forward to racing it this year at the What Mountain Bike Dirt Crit Champs at BikeRadar Live.

Ride & handling: Great marathon race rig that also knows how to rumble

On one hand, the Zula’s stiff chassis makes it a natural born mile eater. It does everything it can out on the trail to only give you the pedalling to think about; perfect if you’ve got 24 hours of riding in front of you. On the other hand, Morewood were keen for the bike to retain something of the brand’s bad boy gravity bike feel, so they didn’t make the frame as long as many pure cross-country bikes.

If you want to manual every dip in the trail, boost the bumps for air time or rail the turns four-cross style, the Zula has retained enough DNA from its gravity siblings to know how to have fun. We ran our Zula fairly soft, because the 165mm rear shock stays supple in the mid-stroke, gobbling up bumps big and small without wanting to pack down and bog at the three-quarter travel mark. It’s a common trait that can cause bikes to feel responsive early in the initial hit but dead on successive ones.

Not so the Zula; the slight falling rate of the design also keeps the shock moving freely deep in the travel. The travel indicator O-ring was always off the end of the shaft, but we rarely felt it bottom out. Plus, if we felt like we wanted it firmer, we only had to reach down and flick the blue lever on the shock. All bumps were dealt with absolute efficiency, so much so that we got to wonder why, when a single pivot can feel this good, we bother with linkages at all.

We built the Zula up with SRAM X.0 transmission, Avid Elixir CR Mag brakes and a FSA 386 K-Force carbon 2x9 (42x29) ring crankset, then paired it with a 2010 110mm Cannondale Lefty DLR fork using the new ‘Lefty for All’ fitting kit – we figured the frame could cope with 10mm more travel up front, and we were right. The slightly higher than normal bar position that the twin-crown Lefty fork provided aided the Zula’s long-distance ride abilities, since you don’t want to be too stretched out with your nose on the front tyre all day.

It also makes it better for fun time, because the front end is easy to pop or pump even with a flat bar fitted. The Lefty can be locked out with the ProPedal platform damping switch, and you’re suddenly on a firmly sprung bike that can burn up smooth trail or road sections – just the job for marathon racers and long ride adventurer/explorer types.

So does ‘Made in Africa’ translate into a bike that’s good for wetter weather? Mud room is massive – 2.3in tyres fitting in with plenty of space for gloop. We’ve got a local 10-mile loop of technical trail that takes in ‘a bit of everything’, and the Zula just wanted to ride lap after lap of it. The more we rode it, the more we learned about what it seems to do well: a list that’s only getting longer.

Frame: Why bother with complex linkages when a single pivot can be this good?

Morewood could have bought and branded an off-the-peg carbon frame as many brands do, but they didn’t. They're also big believers in aluminium – their entire range is made from the stuff and while many riders are clamouring for more and more carbon, Morewood have stuck to their guns and 6069 T6 alloy. The weight of a medium semi-integrated head tube frame is 2,450g (including shock) – neither heavy nor especially light, although we think the built bike rides lighter than the weight suggests.

Traditionally, Morewood have used lots of square-section tubes, giving the longer travel and gravity-orientated bikes a distinctive and attractive look. However, Morewood invested heavily in a new purpose-made tubeset for the Zula; tubes with the kind of swoops, swells and delicate curves that give their new cross-country offerings sex appeal and set cycling forums alight when they were first shown at last year’s trade shows. The verdict is unanimous: the Zula looks the business from every angle.

The single-pivot layout places the sealed Enduro Max pivot pretty much bang on the middle chainring position (if you’re using a standard triple-ring crankset; it sits somewhere between the big and inner ring on a compact double). This gives the bike a fairly neutral pedalling style with a slight tendency for the rear wheel to ‘dig’ in on steep pitches – no bad thing if you’re scrabbling for traction.

The frame comes fitted with a new 2010 spec Fox RP23 Boost Valve rear shock, a ‘platform’ (the tuning setting available on RP23s that reduces pedal-induced suspension actuation) unit with a great reputation for consistent quality, but also for its ability to polish the rough edges out of suspension systems. Thankfully, the Morewood Zula doesn’t need much platform. The net result is a ride that feels deeper, plusher, more controlled and more active than any other single-pivot bike we’ve tested.

The closest comparison would be a Cannondale Rush, but the Zula’s action feels more slick, more like a linkage bike. This is down to the designer, Patrick Morewood, who spent time prior to the Zula’s birth studying the benefits of other linkage systems, and came to the conclusion that he could achieve his performance goals with the traditional Morewood single-pivot design.

Designer says

We spoke to Patrick Morewood about the Zula...

BikeRadar: Morewood are traditionally more closely associated with the gravity side of the sport. What was the reason for taking a crack at the cross-country scene? 

PM: We were receiving a huge number of requests locally for a cross-country range, as well as some interest abroad for more than just gravity bikes. So about two years ago, I began designing a full-suspension 100mm-travel cross-country/marathon frame.

The Zula has a much smoother aesthetic than any other Morewood. Why is this?

With the new swingarm design being more organic, we were forced to move in that direction with the rest of the tubing. This has opened new doors for us to explore the style on future models. I found that by using the organic shape of a bone, which is an inherently strong structure, along with the rest of the swingarm’s construction, I was able to exceed my expectations! We needed to get the tube weight down, but remain strong, so the only way was to go butted and change to 6069 aluminium.

The Zula has stuck with the single-pivot layout; did you consider moving away from it when you were dreaming up the initial concept?

Yes I did, but I felt that if any bike could remain ‘pure’ single pivot, it would be the Zula, since it is made for long stage races such as the Cape Epic and Sani2c, which always end up muddy. One of the criteria was to have as much mud clearance as possible as well as minimal maintenance.

Tester says

Justin Loretz: "We saw the Morewood Zula at a bike show last autumn and had an instant feeling that this bike could be a 'new' classic – the reality of the ride has only served to confirm our suspicions. The Zula is a real find. Why do we say that? Well, not many bikes make us get up before dawn just so we can nail a few extra miles – and that's become something of a habit since we've got the Zula."

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