The 161 is the entry level version of Saracen’s two-bike 160mm Ariel family, and gets a RockShox fork upgrade for smooth straight line confidence. It’s a good shape for tighter technical UK trails, but pricy for the parts you get.
Ride & handling: Smooth feel, plush suspension
Performance isn’t always about pricing, though, and – assuming you ditch the original tyres – the Saracen is a naturally enjoyable and smooth bike. The Lyrik fork might be low on adjustment but the soft coil spring sucks the front of the bike onto the ground and erases lone blocks of geology in a way that an air spring just can’t match.
Start slapping through multiples and the basic Lyrik fork can start to get overwhelmed and choke, but the linear back end means easy front-end lift when needed. Once you adjust to the shorter wheelbase (relative to some other similarly pitched/priced bikes), it pumps and rolls through big boulders well too, and will sustain speed and flow well if you drive it with your Body English.
The shorter front centre makes it easier to nip and tuck through tighter switchbacks or singletrack tree slaloms, while the mid-length back end gives a degree of kite tail-style stability.
The relatively short front end can tuck under or twitch about when you’re pushing hard and fast on loose surfaces, and the soft front fork can sometimes make the Ariel dive excessively if you really anchor on. There’s no shortage of leverage from the well-shaped cockpit to pull it back into line, but really aggressive riders should definitely consider getting a larger frame size than normal and fitting a stiffer fork spring (£36.99) to keep the front end up.
In Descend mode, the shock suffers from a fair amount of wallow, but if you’re cruising instead of charging it means loads of comfortable roll over ignorance on rough, straight-line sections. If you’re trying to carve hard then flicking it into Trail mode gives enough resistance to push against in berms.
Despite the QR-axled rear wheel and the narrow stance linkages, the back end is usefully rigid and accurate, keeping feedback precise and placement accurate even on rooty off-camber sections. It doesn’t baulk at big drops, either, and the shock bottoms out without too much of an obvious wallop if you properly pound the landing. While the seat won’t drop all the way, it goes far enough down not to worry about.
The bike also pedals surprisingly well in Trail, considering how plush it feels in Descend, and flicking to Climb means you can stand up and stomp with very little bounce to distract you. Despite small overall dimensions for a medium, there’s more than enough seatpost height to cope with long climbs.
It looks sparse on spec, but Saracen’s well-shaped, smooth running Ariel is a lot of fun on the trail. A tyre swap is essential, though, and you might want to size up for faster, more aggressive riding.
Saracen Ariel 161
Frame & equipment: Good base geometry and decent stiffness
The low-slung, slack-angled main frame comes equipped with ISCG mounts. It’s shorter than some other similarly pitched frames, though, so sizing up for speed might be smart. The 30mm cartridge bearing main pivots are smooth and the narrow linkage setup didn’t rattle apart on this test like it did last year, which is good news.
The dropper post guides are external, and the Deore rear hub means the replaceable rear dropouts are supplied as open quick-release units too. You can upgrade to 142x12mm dropouts if you get an appropriate wheel to match.
The stiff, 32-spoke, tyre fattening Sun rims and Lyrik coil fork are structurally rock solid. The fork is weighty, though, and there’s no damping adjustment apart from rebound. The large volume Fox shock has a three-position CTD damper with separate Climbing, Trail and Descending settings. The Saracen cockpit is well shaped and you’ll be surprised how positive and powerful the Deore brakes feel.
Even allowing for the amount of setup and servicing help from your local Saracen dealer, the Ariel is expensive for what you get. The FSA crank looks basic and shifts slowly. The shorter 170mm pedal drilling doesn’t actually shorten the crank or increase ground clearance.
The plastic chainguard and roller actually work okay, however noisy it sounds behind you. The 18-speed Acera shifters are poor on a £2,600 bike, though, and the plasticky Performance compound Schwalbe tyres should definitely be swapped for something like Hans Dampfs before you even leave the shop.