Saracen's Ariel bikes are bred in the UK for exactly the sort of big day riding most of our readers love. The result is a well balanced and characterful bike that grew on us more each time we rode it.
Saracen has been running the Ariel platform for a couple of years and it's largely unchanged for 07. Ring reinforced head tube gets further backing from a long throat gusset under the heavily ovalised down tube. It also blends into a downward bulge on the hydroformed top tube for a long, deep and strong head section. A saddle gusset reinforces the junction between the top tube and the distinctive curved seat tube. There's another long, neatly finished weld seam where the seat tube curls back into the top of the flattened down tube (just ahead of the bottom bracket) with a short stub carrying the front mech below acres of free wheel and mud space.
The shock sits relatively high in the frame, with two simple but stout ovoid linkage plates giving either 6 or 5in rear travel settings via a removable bolt.
Tapered tubular chainstays carry the lower pivot of this true 4 bar setup, while kinked square section upper stays complete the connection to the linkages via a forged bridge piece - the dropouts are tidy CNC pieces, too. The Ariel even gets a conventionally placed bottle cage mount as well as bolts for a crud catcher sprayguard under the down tube. Top tube/seatstay cable routing is neat too, although a bolted collar makes raising and lowering the saddle a faff.
The ride character is as distinctive as the bike's looks. This is mainly due to the Manitou suspension, with a firmly sprung coil fork at the front end and an air shock with a lot of 'SPV' compression damping at the rear. While most five inch bikes sag noticeably when you jump on, and a bit more squelch in general is to be expected, the Ariel is totally rock solid. It's a shock at first - not least to your nether regions - but it does mean the bike storms up climbs and spools along the road very smoothly. In fact, it manages its overall weight very well in situations we expected it to struggle in. There's good frame stiffness, despite the big void between back wheel and seat tube, and it puts down power very firmly with no hint of bob.
It leads to a schizophrenic feel off-road, though. Over small stuff, only the fat tyres suck up shock, leaving it feeling harsh in some situations, but usefully crisp in others. Once you start hitting stuff harder though, both fork and rear shock suddenly come alive. Cycling through to full travel, it swallows serious rock sections, big awkwardly spaced step downs and large drops without trace. Soon we were charging into descents way too hard and getting to the bottom wired - and wearing a dirty great grin became the default setting. Just keep a check on the pivot bolts though, as we rattled a couple loose when we got really daft on it.
The handling balance is perfect for exploiting this, too. Enough natural stability to let rip, but with the steering agility to really stir the tyres about and grab the last bit of traction. A short back end also boosts agility in tight singletrack. The heavily laidback seat tube means that raising the saddle adds effective top tube reach, while dropping it tucks it forwards out of the way. Not a new idea but a neat trick all the same.
Aside from the shock setup, which you'll either really like or really won't, Saracen's kit choice is excellent for aggressive trail riding.
The broad SOS rims add even more surefooted confidence to the fat and famously grippy High Roller tyres. They're proper Maxpro compound not just cheap plastic versions either, so you really can push the bike to the ragged edge whatever the weather.
Avid Juicy 3 brakes give masses of almost power-assisted brake feel, too. This leaves you confident enough that you'll get it back to really let the bike go, even when you're on the steep stuff.
While they look a bit odd, we're big fans of the SDG I Beam seat post and saddle combo. It's simple, sturdy and very light, which really helps bring the overall weight of the bike down further than expected once you factor in chunky wheels and tyres. The FSA stem and stiff oversize bars with securely locked grips are really useful additions to feedback clarity, too.
Finally, the Truvativ crank is an average piece for the price, but LX/ Deore gears work well, as long as you pad the top knuckle of the rear mech to stop it banging against the frame. Overall, we're glad they've spent the money where they have. There are certainly no obvious weak links in the package, even after an extended mid-winter test period.
We had some great rides on the Saracen, and if you give yourself time to adjust to the distinctive ride, it delivers both sharp response and impressive DH performance and technical confidence. Spec details and overall value are also excellent, too.