When Orange set out to build a hardtail capable of taking abuse in its stride, they didn't cut any corners. The Sub Zero S packs a bombproof frame, 150mm (6in) travel fork and hard-riding components into a package that's well priced, even with the optional Hope upgrades on our test machine. But just how versatile is it?
If the Whyte 19 Trail represents one end of the hardcore hardtail spectrum, the Orange definitely represents the other. A cursory glance reveals big-section tubes, chunky welds and more gussetry than the underwear section of a department store.
It's not pretty, but then it's not supposed to be. It's designed to be strong in the face of repeated hard hits and, although we haven't tested the bike to destruction, we assume that the Sub Zero S is likely to stand up to hard riding.
The starting point for all this deliberate over-engineering is a huge monocoque down tube, similar to the ones that you'll find on Orange's home-grown full sus models. Featuring surprisingly thin walls and a complex cross-section, this is the backbone connecting head tube to bottom bracket - literally. The comparatively narrow top tube and seat tube are reinforced with an enormous gusset, and a second box-section gusset further strengthens the head tube area.
At the rear, lanky, square-section chainstays curve just enough to give 2.3in tyres enough gloop clearance. Round-section chainstays are claimed by Orange to give 'a degree more comfort', although we can't say we noticed. Plain, thick plate dropouts provide a secure parking spot for the rear wheel, and neat cable guides route the rear brake hose down to a beefy disc mount. It all screams function over appearance, and there's nowt wrong with that.
All that heavy metal rigidity screams out for a fork with big-hit plush, so it's good to see 150mm of smooth, stiff and progressive travel up front, courtesy of a Marzocchi Z1 Sport RV. This fork is bigger and heavier than some, but the payback is massive big-hit potential, millimetre-perfect steering and a feeling of near-invulnerability.
One of the things we like about the Sub Zero is its keen pricing
in base S form. We plumped for optional Hope brake and hub upgrades, and the price still came in under £1,500. For that you get beefy WTB tyres and rims, an abuse-ready RaceFace Evolve DH crankset and bottom bracket with bashguard, burly Truvativ finishing kit and a basic-but-functional SRAM transmission. There's nothing here that we'd want to change immediately, and only the rear mech is likely to warrant an eventual upgrade.
This isn't a bike to pootle around on - you'll need to show it just who's boss. The weighty wheelset, rigid frame and overall heft make for a set-up that simply doesn't have the get-up-and-go of the other bikes on test. A rangy top tube and deep tyre knobs give the Sub Zero a surprisingly tenacious character on the climbs, but you won't be reeling in those gravity credits particularly quickly. This is to be expected, of course, and Orange deserve credit for building a hard-hitting bike that doesn't have to be pushed up every climb. But if you're looking for an all-day trail machine, it's a potential limitation.
hard-hitting bike that doesn't have to be pushed up every climb
Put the boot in and coax the Sub Zero up to speed, and things begin to make a lot more sense. The rigid rear end transmits every single nuance of the trail straight through the cranks to the rider's legs, making the big chambers of the WTB tyres earn their keep in damage limitation. This unforgiving harshness forces a natural weight-forward ride position as the speed increases, which brings the superbly plush and accurate fork into play.
Hunker down over the bar, make the fork work hard while you keep the pedal to the metal, and it's suddenly clear where Orange is coming from. This is a hammerhead machine, pure and simple. The fork enables daft line choices and grin-inducing moments of sheer stupidity, steering the bike on the front wheel and letting the rear find its own way through. More of a purist's freeride machine than an all-round trail blaster, the Sub Zero deserves consideration if your aspirations are broadly in a downward, airborne and/or sideways direction.