Saracen were one of the first mainstream bike companies to get to grips with designing crosscountry hardtails with longer travel forks, and the resulting Zen range has gone from strength to strength. While the niche companies might get more kudos, Saracen designer Justin Stevenson is one of the best in the industry at combining good frame design with the sort of parts packages that impress without stressing the wallet. While the Zen range starts closer to the cheapest bike in this test, we thought we'd take a look at what the best one has to offer.
The Zen frame uses 7005 heat-treated T6 custom alu tubes and boasts a bunch of thoroughly practical features that bring attention to its UK breeding. There are Crud Catcher mudguard bosses under the down tube, there's lots of mud room around the 2.35in tyres, the seat clamp faces forward (out of the spray) and there are rack bosses on the seatstays in case you want to use it for luggage duties.
The 'extreme XC' tag that Saracen choose to give their longforked hardtails is reflected in the Zen's beefy tube profiles. A fat down tube, gusseted behind the head tube, is bi-axially ovalised for maximum weld contact areas to boost strength at the head tube and bottom bracket. A sloping hydroformed top tube flares fairly radically, again to achieve a big weld contact area, into the extended seat tube, while hourglass stays curve in and out for heel and mud room. Triple cable and hose guides are on top of the top tube and there are also two sets of water bottle bosses.
The geometry is designed to take a 140mm (5.5in) fork, and Fox's Vanilla RL is one of the very best out there. It's worth bearing in mind that, at retail value, almost half this bike's price is in the fork, and it's easy to see why when you're on the trail. The Vanilla is a sturdy, plush and really well controlled coil-sprung fork, with superb damping adjustments and a leg-top lockout lever that's easy to use on the fly.
It's good to see Deore XT shifters as well as the usual rear mech on the Zen. We really like the new thumb or forefinger shifts on new XTs. With Truvativ's Blaze external bearing crankset and the Deore mech up front, the drivetrain remained slick and accurate throughout the test. A set of Shimano Deore hydraulics performed superb braking duties.
Saracen have opted for a middleweight wheelset, Deore hubs and Sun SOS rims shod with grippy but fast rolling Maxxis High Roller 2.35in treads. The big profile and air chambers are a comfort boost, as well as helping with traction. The SDG Bel Air I-Beam saddle and post offer yet more comfort points, while a 25in riser bar, double clamp stem and bolt-on file tread grips are fairly anonymous but nonetheless adequate offerings.
The Zen 3 is no lightweight, but it's not meant to be. Having said that, the hard work of a climb (where you'll probably welcome the fork lockout) is immediately rewarded elsewhere by confident and surprisingly nimble handling and the sort of big-hitting abilities that instantly emphasise how important the fork is on a bike such as this. With the fork set to compress into nearly a third of its travel as soon as you set off, the frame geometry appears to sit you dead centre on the bike. That means that you're just far enough forward on the saddle to get the best out of the fork, but with a light enough bar touch to let the fork track through dips and tame bumps in a way that really boosts confidence on rocky, rooty terrain.
The Zen excels on fast and furious singletrack and relishes rocky descents. It really is a thoroughbred point-and-pedal bike, which rewards you on rough terrain in a way that very few £1,000 hardtails can. Sure, there are livelier machines with shorter travel forks and lighter parts around at this price, and they're much easier uphill than the Zen, but very few of them could stay with this bike when the going gets really rough.
If you can't stretch to £1,000, take a look at the Zen 1 and 2, but bear in mind that it's unusual to see bikes with a fork as good as a Fox Vanilla until you nudge over the £1,000 mark.