Saracen Zen X £1099.99

Hardcore hardtail at a bargain price

BikeRadar score4.5/5

Saracen’s Zen range has shrunk dramatically for 2012 – from four bikes to just one. But it’s good news – the Zen X is a distillation of all the best and most belligerent bits, bundled into a no-nonsense and very cost-effective way of having an absolute blast. All that meant the bike won the What Mountain Bike British Bulldog award for 2012.

Here’s what the judges had to say…

"The aluminium frame is half a degree slacker in the head tube and gets smaller, lighter dropouts at the far end, but otherwise it’s the same straight-to-the-point, square-headed machine we’ve loved for several years.

Crud Catcher mounts under the down tube back up its UK heritage and there’s ample clearance even with 2.4in tyres. No seat tube bottle mounts mean the saddle can be fully slammed to make the most of its compact maneuverability.

Saracen have done a great job with the rest of the kit too. RockShox’ Sektor is one of our favourite forks, sharing the super-stiff chassis of the more pricey Revelation and the totally reliable Motion Control damping inside.

The 60mm stem and 720mm low-rise bar are spot-on for making the most of both the fork and responsive frame, while superbly consistent Shimano Deore brakes are another cost-effective champion; a Deore/SLX shifting mix (with open cable runs) is unsexy but excellent, outlasting top-level SRAM gear easily through winter or, as we now call summer, ‘winter lite’.

The result is a properly balls-out trail attack bike that likes nothing better than charging through tough singletrack with shoulders wide, fork working hard and back end bouncing through behind. 

Because there are no pivots or shocks to worry about it’s ready to ride with minimum TLC every time you get a chance. In other words, while 26in-wheeled hardcore hardtails might be a rarer breed than they were, bikes like this Zen X prove there’s still plenty of life in the lairier end of the unsuspended spectrum.

The sole survivor of a four-bike range last year, Saracen’s Zen X distills all their long hardcore hardtail experience into a single killer value punch."

 

Read on for our full review of the Saracen Zen X:

Ride & handling: Keeps up with more expensive bikes on technical trails

With a slightly slacker head angle, wider bar and lower ride height due to smaller tyres, the already excellent-handling Zen is even more of a blast this year. It feels right straight away too, with a really pugnacious, weight-forward, come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-you’re-hard-enough attitude obvious as soon as you settle into the comfortably curved WTB saddle.

Weight distribution is pushed firmly forward, with the short stem and steep seat angle naturally putting you right over the fork. It’s a bit cramped for extended climbing, but it means maximum traction for cornering uphill and down. With weight forward there’s more chance that the unsuspended rear will skip through too. 

Full seat drop makes it easy to get right back on steeps or pop the front up, drop off or pump bigger trail features too and overall agility is infectiously cheeky. Don’t be thinking this is a cheap and cheerful toy bike though – this is the real deal, however far you want to take your riding. The 68-degree steering angle isn’t radical but added to the bar leverage it gives bravery boosting, mistake-masking stability in random rock fields or when ripping round trail centre switchback walls.

Despite our best attempts to expose its shortcomings, the RockShox Sektor fork took everything we threw at it in a remarkably composed and controlled way. Even on the most extreme trails its rebound damping only got erratic occasionally. While it’s not quite as plush as a premium fork, the Saracen is more rough diamond than polished pearl and by the time the fork is getting out of its depth the back end is probably threatening to overtake or wrap itself round your ears anyway.

In calmer moments the compact frame can feel slightly restrictive, but it’s keen to turn any wattage you can deliver into short sharp charges or cleaned crux moves as efficiently as possible. It’s not so harsh you can’t hunt for fun all day long either and there’s space to fit bigger tyres if you want a bit more air cushioning. All in all, it's an absolute bargain.

Frame & equipment: Agile, accurate and tough

The Zen frame is almost unchanged from last year save for half a degree off the head angle and a smaller, lighter set of dropouts at the far end. The CNC machined head tube was already compatible with tapered forks, and the square ended, shared seam tapered main tubes have proved tough without piling on the weight. 

The steep top tube slope for standover clearance is compensated for with an open backed brace piece and ‘armpit’ gusset onto the seat tube. There are no bottle bosses to get in the way of full seat drop when you release the red anodised seat collar quick-release lever either. 

Tapered stays at the rear give ample room for 2.4in tyres if you want extra bounce and there’s a Crud Catcher mudguard mount under the down tube. Open cabling from the head downwards often proves more weatherproof and smoother running in the long term than fully sealed systems too.

Where Saracen have done a really great job, though, is kit. The Sektor fork shares the same tapered top, screw-axle tip structure as RockShox's pricier Revelation, which means steering precision and strength are equally impressive. While there’s only rebound adjustment you’d be hard pressed to notice any difference between the Sektor R and Rev RL in damping and suspension performance 90 percent of the time too – especially on a hardtail.

The 60mm stem and 720mm low-rise bar clamped on top are perfect for maximising control without compromising clearance too much. The lock-on grip collars are even colour matched with the seat quick-release. Shimano’s basic M505 brakes are actually very controlled and plenty powerful, and the Deore/SLX shifting mix still felt good after several winter rides. The crankset gets external bearings for stiffness and Shimano rear hubs are super-reliable.

While the Schwalbe Nobby Nic tyres are down a size to 2.25in from last year’s 2.4s, the wide Sun Ringlé rims mean they blow up usefully stout for surefooted control and rock protection. They're slippery when wet though, like most tyres on £1,000 bikes and below. If you've got the cash, we'd recommend upgrading to softer or triple-compound rubber.

The lack of seat tube bottle mounts leaves potential for slamming it down

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

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