A couple of decades back, Saracen had a formidable reputation for quality, durability and value, but they lost it by dabbling with lower price points and volume sales. However, the brand was relaunched under new ownership a couple of years back and the Zen long-travel hardtail range – which has a completely new look for 2011 – looks like it could go some way to re-establishing their trail credentials.
Ride & handling: Surprisingly light, surprisingly capable and surprisingly versatile
A stubby stem with an extremely wide bar makes for a compact ride position in spite of a long top tube. There’s no problem with that but it sends a strong hint that the Zen 3 is more about high speed rock-dodging than slow subtlety. Piloting the Saracen up slow, steep and technical climbs simply reinforces this impression.
The stiff, compact rear triangle transfers all your efforts to the rear wheel efficiently but fidgets and skips over trail obstacles in spite of the extra cushioning offered by the big tyres. The head tube’s relaxed head angle makes for a wander-prone front wheel that needs constant attention and a deft touch to keep things in line.
So you need to be an alert rider to earn gravity credits on the Saracen then. Luckily, cashing them in is a lot more fun. The rigid frame structure, confidence-inspiring bar width and easily placeable front wheel with super-accurate steering deliver a point-and-squirt downhill experience that’ll have most riders smiling from ear to ear at the bottom of the hill.
The relaxed geometry that makes things a tad awkward on the way up comes into its own as you head back down. If you’re a fan of fast and hard descents then you’ll absolutely love the precise steering fork, wide bar and easily unweightable front wheel.
Despite its grin potential, the Zen 3 never quite lives up to the promise of its all-up weight, even with a big helping hand on the comfort front from the plush fork and forgiving tyres. That makes it more of an out-and-out play bike than an all-day companion. But if you live for descents it should find a place on your shortlist.
Frame & equipment: Distinctive looks, relaxed angles and reliable finishing kit
Saracen were among the first mainstream manufacturers to properly get to grips with the concept of pairing a long-travel fork with a frame that would work for general trail riding. Previous incarnations have used a simple formula – take a cross-country hardtail frame, beef up the tube profiles and tweak the geometry to cope with a long fork. And it’s worked well.
This year the approach is different, with a new frame shape that sets the Zen range apart from the crowd. Overtly beefy tube profiles are a thing of the past and in their place sits subtly curved and profiled pipework with – to judge by our test sample’s modest all-up weight – some mass-shavingly slender wall thicknesses.
A tapered head tube provides a seriously solid and torsionally stiff anchor for the top and down tubes to plug into, while the top tube’s radical slope gives the Zen some extra standover room. It also means the long seat tube needs an additional open-bottomed brace to join it to the top tube, lending the Saracen a distinctive silhouette that really stands out.
At the rear, curvy stays snake between the dropouts and the seat tube in heel- and ankle-clearing fashion. Saracen’s designers haven’t forgotten the brand’s UK trail roots, making sure there’s enough room – just – for the chunky stock 2.25in tyres to roll in even gloopy mud. Oh, and there’s a set of Crud Catcher mudguard bosses under the down tube too.
Holding up the front of the Zen 3 is RockShox’s Sektor R fork in tapered head tube and 15mm Maxle form – that’s a great compromise between steering precision, big-hit ability and reasonable weight. The bike boasts a full 10-speed Shimano transmission, complete with an XT rear mech and the 36-tooth rear sprocket that provides the best blend of close ratios and hill-climbing ability.
Shimano hydraulic discs haul the Zen to a halt reliably, chunky Schwalbe treads dish out grip and cushioning in roughly equal quantities and FSA and Fi’zi:k provide rider contact points. It’s all top notch stuff, though the white saddle doesn’t stay clean for long out in the real world.