Saracen Zen - first ride £1500

650b hardcore hardtail that's sturdy rather than subtle

BikeRadar score 3.5/5

To its great credit, Saracen was one of the first companies to really give 650b wheels a go, and the extra time this foresight bought means this Zen is a second-generation design, at a time when many manufacturers are still experimenting with their first.

  • HIGHS: Improved design based on user feedback
  • LOWS: Tyres should be the first thing you change
  • BUY IF… You tend to ride smoother, slower, techy trails

As a small manufacturer Saracen hasn't got the budget for massive changes, so it's concentrated on the aspects isolated by feedback from us and others.

The 140mm RockShox Sektor fork (with 15mm axle and tapered top) costs the company more money, but it raises the front end enough to slacken the head angle by half a degree over the old 130mm X-Fusion Velvet fork.

It also puts the Zen into a more obviously hardcore category, something backed up by the inclusion of chainguide tabs on the bottom bracket shell. You still get a KS dropper seatpost (approx RRP £170) as standard equipment too, which is something to remember when doing the component comparison maths, even if it is under-saddle-lever operated.

The big fork and droppable saddle make for an immediately aggressive trail feel, and the big 740mm Kore bars and short stem back that up with plenty of extra steering muscle. The bottom bracket has been pushed slightly high by the longer fork, but on flowing, rolling trail centre or natural trails the Zen is an absolute charger.

The weight is pushed firmly forward over the front on this 19in sample bike, letting you make maximum use of the extra travel while minimising the load on the rigid back end.

On dry trails the chunky Schwalbe front tyre and semi-slick rear back up the bulldog steering personality with a natural 'nose in, tail out' swagger that's fun to get fast and loose on. Again the Sektor fork impresses in 95 percent of trail situations, only finding its choking point on really long step sections or flatter landings, where it can slap pretty hard – stopping part-way through the stroke rather than sucking all the sting out at full compression.

These broad Inferno rims proved sturdy when we ran a set for months last year, surviving with intact and straight-running rims despite a bunch of tyre blowouts and an unforgiving frame.

The use of a clutch-equipped Shadow+ version of Shimano's SLX rear mech keeps the chain quiet and secure, while the Deore double chainset keeps front shifting smooth. Don't worry about the stopping power of the budget Shimano brakes either, as they're more than gutsy enough to heave off as much speed as you want, whenever you want. Just watch pad wear in the wet – they're resin – and consider sintered replacements once you get to the backing plate.

Unless you're buying the Zen purely for your Spanish holiday palace, we wouldn't wait so long to change the tyres. The Performance compound rolls well and lasts forever, but it's nowhere near grippy enough in the wet for such a distinctively UK-style bike; the Zen loves steep, rooty, rocky chutes and all the mulchy, mossy mess of winter that you can throw it at. But these tyres hate it.

Don't just go for a compound upgrade to the same Nobby Nic/Racing Ralph combo either. Their lightweight build makes them vulnerable to repeated impact punctures and rapid carcass damage, so go for something sturdier and more aggressive such as Schwalbe's own Hans Dampf, Maxxis' Minion DHF.

A bigger, more rockproof tyre combo would also make the permanent pressure juggling we had to do with the Zen less of an issue. There will always be an element of balancing big-hit tyre survival against traction and rider comfort, but the super-firm back end of the Zen is even less forgiving on tyres than most.

On the bright side, the new frame is less harsh than last year thanks to thinner seatstays that also save 30g – imagine it! That's a full bag of crisps! We were very glad of the dropper post for keeping the saddle clear of our gentleman's areas whenever it got steppy or rocky.

That thumping back end takes its toll on enthusiasm after an hour or so, but throw in its more pronounced power kick and the Zen is back in the game.  

Saracen's Zen is an aggressively hard-kicking hardtail, both in response to your power and the edges in the trail. It's lots of fun on smoother trails, particularly downward-pointing ones, slower techy ones and short, brain-out ones. If that sounds like your trails, you'll love it.

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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