Saracen Zen £1599.99

Aggro hardtail upgrades to 650b (27.5in) wheels

BikeRadar score 3.5/5

According to ‘The Industry’, the plug has been well and truly pulled on 26in wheels and we should be running towards 650b (27.5in) options like Titanic passengers towards a lifeboat. The new mid-wheeled Saracen Zen is a definite grower that for tougher technical trail use.

Ride & handling: Confident handling that helps sustain speed

Like most riders who jump onto 650b bikes, we were looking for an obvious difference to a 26er straight away. We grabbed the under-saddle lever, slammed the seatpost and charged into the first steppy, rocky descent expecting something significantly smoother and more controlled. 

What we actually got were two immediate pinch flats, and the same thing happened on our second test run. Given that the plasticky-compound tyres were sliding around in the wet anyway, we chucked the Schwalbe Performance rubber in favour of Maxxis Ardents – things instantly got better.

Jumping from 26ers to the 650b Zen, rollover smoothness was noticeably improved, even over big, slow-speed rock heaps. Chatter was significantly reduced, as though we were running several psi less in the tyres. The 650b wheels tipped into turns much more like a 26er than a 29er, but traction was noticeably better than with the smaller wheels.

Combined with the big bar, short stem, relaxed angles and dropped saddle, drifting loamy natural descents or railing trail centre berms was an absolute blast. While overall weight – and even wheel weight – is very similar that of a typical 29er, it was noticeably easier to line up, slide out or generally readjust lines on chop-and-change or jump and hip infested trails.

Overall weight was obvious on softer, natural XC trails, where slogging climbs and hard-earned acceleration became a chore after a couple of hours. Despite the wheel size, the back end is very firm, too, which can take its toll on inner tubes, rider comfort and sustained speed on steppy, rocky trails. This means getting a chainguide onto the provided mounts should be a priority after upgrading new tyres. 

If you’re after a smoother riding, better gripping, more secure handling tough trail hardtail that still hops, pops and flicks around easily to get the maximum grin from gravity assisted trails, the Zen is a real – if heavy and pricy – contender.

Video: Blake Samson tries to turbo backflip a Saracen Zen

Frame & equipment: Bigger wheels and futureproof chassis

The Saracen Zen family has been running for years, and it’s always been one of the strongest lines the brand have had in terms of test results. Sales flagged in 2011, though, and the range was consolidated down to a single ‘Zen X’ bike last year. For 2013, Saracen jumped on the ‘slightly bigger wheel’ bandwagon.

With the new wheels comes a totally fresh frame in 6066 alloy, which is harder and stronger than 6061. The tapered inset logo head tube and ISCG-equipped bottom bracket shell are CNC machined, with the down tube and sloping top tube triple-butted for high strength and low weight.

The seatpost is a 30.9mm dropper compatible with an exit port for Stealth routing. CNC machined yokes are used on the rectangular chainstays (borrowed from the Ariel full-suspension bike), and the seatstay walls are thinned down. The shelved dropouts are still IS brake and QR axle style, rather than post-mount brake and bolt-thru axle. Bolted cable clamps mean a potential knee-knocking loop of cable but you won’t be left with empty guides if you go 1x10.

Saracen have worked hard to keep chainstay length as close as possible to that on the 26in-wheeled bike, which inevitably squeezes mud clearance slightly, but the bottom bracket has been lowered and the fork angle slackened for super-stable steering. It will even take a 150mm travel fork if you want.

The most obvious change to this year’s Zen are the 27.5in (650b), rather than 26in, wheels, but the spec stays the same, with upsized versions of the sturdy Sun Inferno rims and less sturdy Schwalbe Nobby Nic and Racing Ralph rubber double act. Shimano SLX gears are slightly compromised by the Alivio shifters, but the Deore brakes are excellent and Saracen’s wide-span bar and stumpy stem are similarly spot on.

The 130mm travel X-Fusion Velvet fork is a new addition, and X-Fusion also supply the manual release HiLo dropper seatpost. You also get an FSA Comet crank, rather than Shimano Deore, but you need to appreciate the frame quality and futureproof upgrade potential to reconcile the price increase over the 2012 Zen X.

 An abridged version of this article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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