We normally prefer to test the same factory-fresh bikes that you'll find at your local bike shop, but we had to make an exception with the Saracen Ariel 1. The pre-production bike we rode varies in several subtle respects from the production version, but the only problem we encountered was a rattly linkage bearing Saracen assure us will be fixed by the time it hits the shops.
Saracen designed the Ariel 1 as a cross-country trail bike. Although it technically shares the basics of its suspension system - a single pivot swing arm with a rocker-activated shock - with the Trek and the Claud Butler, the standout frame design shows how far we've moved from systems designed around a classic hardtail look. The radical rear tyre clearance, compact front triangle and interrupted seat tube are visual cues from the newer breed of longer travel all mountain bikes, which are themselves inspired by trickle-down technology from downhill race and free ride rigs. Love or hate the look, it certainly makes the Ariel 1 stand out from its peers.
Closer inspection reveals some of the thinking behind the look. The cross-ovalised down tube, beefed up by an extra gusset at the head tube joint, makes for a stiff connection between the steering and pedalling bits of the chassis. The more conventional looking top tube features twin reinforcing box gussets where it joins the seat tube, the lower one of which acts as a mount for the shock linkage's main pivot. At the rear, the swing arm pivot sits roughly in line with the small chainring to minimise pedal feedback. The extra pivot just ahead of the rear dropout improves suspension efficiency and subtly alters the rear axle's path as it moves through the full range of travel. The design is owned and heavily patented by Specialized in the United States, but Saracen market only in the UK so it's not an issue. And the heavily sloping seat tube? It's there to provide enough rear tyre clearance for the full 125mm (5in) of travel.
Two shock mounting positions on the linkage allow the travel to be switched between 100 and 125mm (4 and 5in), but the RockShox BAR air shock with adjustable rebound damping worked well enough on our test bike that we left it in the longer travel position most of the time. Like the similar forks on the Claud Butler and Trek, the RockShox J3 is a reasonable performer for the money, although it had a slight tendency to stiffen up in wet and muddy conditions.
With a Shimano Deore-based transmission, Hayes Sole brakes and finishing kit from the likes of Tioga and WTB, there's little to complain about with the Ariel 1's out-of-the-box set-up. Thoughtful touches include proper rubber labyrinth seals on the no-name hubs - better options for long-term durability than the basic metal dust seals fi tted to the Shimano disc hubs often specced at this price - and Lock- On type grips that don't rotate on the bar when they get wet.
Perhaps it's the acres of space between the rear wheel and the seat tube, or the chunkily over-engineered rocker arms, or maybe it's the promise of lots and lots of travel... whatever it is, the Saracen's burly image doesn't hint at outright XC efficiency in quite the same way as, say, the Trek's understated, pared-down looks. But Saracen's designers have obviously done their sums right, because the Ariel 1 isn't nearly as ungainly on the pedally bits as you might expect. As we said, we ran our test bike with the full 125mm of rear wheel travel for most of the test and never felt the need to swap it back to 100mm. The Claud Butler occasionally felt a tiny bit bouncy and wallowy but the Saracen never did. It doesn't have the rootsucking suppleness of the Mongoose or the taut eagerness of the Trek, but it's a competent enough climber to be a reasonable prospect for all-day epics.
Of course, the 125mm of travel doesn't really come into its own until you're heading back down the hill. With geometry that successfully pulls off the delicate balance between stability and chuckability, rapid line switches and the occasional showboating flourish are a piece of cake. It can't match the Mongoose's ultra-fluid rear end and better fork for sheer balls-out speed in the rough, but it's noticeably more confidence-inspiring than the Trek as the speed increases and the hits come harder and faster. It's a bike with two personalities, in a sense, but it manages not to feel schizophrenic. Steering the middle path between cross-country efficiency and freeride-lite invincibility, the Ariel 1 makes a surprisingly convincing case as an all-mountain all-rounder, and rides much better than a full susser at this price has any right to.