Available only from mail order giants chainreactioncycles.com, the Vitus Zircon 29 takes the successful formula of the 26in wheeled Zircon hardtail – low price, decent spec – and throws 29er hoops into the mix.
Vitus suggest the wallet-friendly price is a good deal for riders curious about big wheels but reluctant to take the plunge. Can the Zircon 29 really deliver big wheel performance at a shade over £500?
Ride and handling: sadly uninspiring
The same frame is available with a higher spec as the £899 Zircon 29VR, which MBUK's testersrode in issue 291, and loved. The plain Zircon 29 takes a big hit on components though, and that has an impact on its weight and ride quality.
Weighing in comfortably over the psychological 30lb (13.6kg) barrier without pedals, it's hardly svelte. We weren't initially too concerned, because wheel weight is normally a better indicator of how a bike will ride out on the trail, but the Zircon never managed to shrug off a sluggish feel.
There are various factors that contribute to this, but the worst offender is the eight-speed transmission. Fewer sprockets at the rear inevitably mean a reduced gear range. With a big sprocket of 32 teeth, the Vitus is higher geared than it should be – and that's particularly noticeable on any 29er. Worse than the high gearing though, are the big jumps between the largest three sprockets. Gear changes go from spinning to grunting in a single shift. We found ourselves constantly juggling small and middle chainrings and the top three sprockets in an effort to find the right gear.
Throw in the high overall weight and the Zircon 29 is a frustrating bike to ride uphill. Sometimes it's worth putting up with a sluggish climber if it turns out to be a hoot coming back down – sadly that's not the case here. The brakes' lacklustre performance is a big limiting factor. You need to brake sooner – and harder – than on a bike equipped with better hydraulic stoppers.
The compromised spec is more likely to put a new rider off 29ers than win them over. There are better bikes out there for a similar price. To improve the Zircon's performance to more closely match the Rose Count Solo Entry, for example, you'd need to spend a lot more than the £80 that currently separates their total cost by upgrading the transmission and brakes.
Frame and equipment: some spec compromises
The Zircon 29 has been built to take some punishment. Large, square-section stays at the rear hint at the kind of rear triangle over-building we'd have associated with a 26in wheeled long-travel hardtail just a few years ago. The good news is that, combined with the slab-sided, variable cross-section main tubes up front, even heavy pedal mashers aren't going to feel like they're losing ground to unwanted frame twist.
There are some nice details. The head tube is tapered, for example, although the coil-sprung RockShox XC30 fork plugged into it doesn't have a tapered steerer to match. At this price that's no surprise, although it's the first of several pointers that the Zircon 29's spec is compromised by the need to build to a price.
Gear cables route tidily inside the length of the down tube, while the brake cable mount nearest the calliper is correctly angled to prevent a kink in the cable. There's even a mount for a chainguide, should you decide to swap to a single chainring up front.
It's not easy to get a bike into the shops at around £500 these days. The Zircon 29's kit looks fine on paper, but when you scratch the surface you can see the differences that just £100 or so in price make.
The most obvious compromise is the eight-speed transmission. Losing a sprocket or two at the rear may not seem like a big deal, but there's a knock-on effect in terms of ridability. SRAM's X4 mechs shift cleanly, but the front mech's crude construction, combined with the Zircon's short rear end, leaves almost no clearance between the mech and tyre – less than 5mm. Mud pluggers beware.
Avid's BB5 cable disc brakes set the benchmark for cable disc stoppers when they were first launched many years ago, but they're no match for even budget hydraulics. We'll take them over rim brakes, but initial set-up can be fiddly and they're lacking in overall power and control.
In fairness, we could probably live with the weight and the brakes, but the eight-speed transmission is a frustration too far.