Saracen have been designing great low budget jump bikes for years now, and are responsible for starting many an airborne addiction. The Xess 1 is their mid-range dirt bike, sitting midway through the sixbike £225 to £750 Xray/Xess/Xtort family. As usual for Saracen, you certainly get a lot for your cash.
The frame is shared with the £325 Xray 3 but its an all-new construction, using a big, ovalised down tube that almost entirely swallows the sloping top tube at the head end. Little reinforcing rings help stop nose-end landings from damaging the head tube, and there are small gussets under the throat of the down tube and at the belly where it overlaps the smaller diameter bottom bracket shell. The chain and seatstays are tapered and kinked for heel and tyre clearance, and the seatstays overshoot the seat tube to give a stronger, longer weld on the top tube.
Neat 'curved A' dropouts use vertical slots, so it's not easily converted to single speed without a chain tensioner. The disc-specific cable routing also uses bolted clips, which are great for fitting hydraulic systems without having to undo the hose and rebleed them. We wouldn't want to catch ourselves on one of the bulky bolts in a crash though, and their positioning on the top side of the top tube makes that fairly likely.
While we're on the subject of brakes, the Tektro cable discs are incredibly wooden and uncommunicative, so stopping control is a matter of guesswork most of the time. The lack of a cam on the actuator arm also makes regular adjustment essential as the pads wear. They do still stop better than Vs in the wet though, which helps the bike's downhill performance. The use of a 130mm version of Suntour's Duro fork also boosts its ability to suck up drops and debris as you're heading down. The wobble from the extra leg length leaves it slightly vague and flexy on the BMX track, and excessive rebound damping means it can only cope with one serious hit at a time; it sticks down badly over multiple bumps.
Basic handling is good, however, with huge over-sized bars giving easy power-assisted steering. Weight balance was good on the ground or in the air. Old faithful Tioga DH tyres give added stability and dirty weather grip, although the hard compound tends to slide on wet rocks and roots. Overall wheel strength from the big-lipped rims isn't a worry either.
QR levers front and rear are less secure than bolted hubs, but do make puncture repair and whipping in and out of a car easier. The Truvativ crankset uses a splined bottom bracket for a bit more stiffness than a basic square taper. It's not as solid as the three-piece or outboard bearing axle set-ups of the other bikes here, which affects value slightly. The up-and-under Rapidfire Shimano shifters feel flimsy, while the long cage mech rattles and bounces in the rough, causing occasional mis-shifts. Seat, stem and other gear are all sturdy.
Saracen have a whole load of experience in building dirt bikes so it's no surprise that the ride position felt sorted as soon as we got aboard. This means weighting of either wheel is balanced whether you're airborne or grounded, and it slides, drops, corners, sprints and whips naturally, whatever your level of riding. Wide span oversized bars add more control (although they may not fi t through tight singletrack) and the short stem keeps responses and feedback immediate and informed most of the time.
The long Suntour fork does wobble and swerve a bit when you're ripping round or out of berms compared to the other short forks on test, but it does suck up single drops pretty well, with no top or bottom-out thump. As mentioned, the super-slow rebound means it doesn't cope with washboard well. Our example might just have been a sticky one, as the damping on the shorter Suntour forks on the GT and Mongoose was fine.
Grippy tyres and tough wheels also help when you're hurling it down a hill, although the numb brakes mean braking feel is distant and inconsistent, which is far from good in really technical terrain. The skippy gearing meant a few missed gears at awkward moments too, plus the crank didn't feel all that secure on big landings. The double and bash chainring gives good trials, street and climb versatility though, and the rest of the own-brand kit gave us no complaints.
The Saracen rides well in nearly all situations and feels immediately capable and confident. Spec value is good and the longer fork trades better hucking against lost jump track agility, which might be what a lot of riders want. We're not completely convinced of the advantages of fitting cheap cable disc brakes, especially when they mean a downgrade in key hardcore components such as the chainset. Also, while the frame is fine, it doesn't have the same upgrade appeal as either the GT or the Mongoose.