Saracen Zen 4 review£1,549.99

Technical trail blaster

BikeRadar score4.5/5

Saracen’s Zen bikes have always led the charge in terms of cost-effective, hardcore hardtails and this new top-of-the-range bike is no exception. A stiff, chuckable frame with spot-on serious singletrack geometry and very well thought out component selection means only the lack of chainguide tabs might disappoint.

The Zen was a blast on seriously technical trails even when they were coated in snow and ice. The sharp feeling, aggressively balanced frame is a traction-chasing, limit-pusher, and the fork, cockpit, wheels and tyres all add serious singletrack ability. Smart stop/go kit selection means no cost related compromise there either.

Ride & handling: Superb ready-to-rip singletracker that's a blast on technical trails

Saracen have lengthened and slackened the Zen handling template for 2011, so while the front end still feels light and slightly precarious at first it keys into corners really well, letting us rely on it through loose gravel, mud or deep snow alike. The high stack of spacers below the stem makes it easy to lift the front too, although our more belligerent testers swapped out the tall stack and dropped the front end for a more aggressive attitude on the trail.

The tapered head tube and screw-through fork axle give impressive accuracy and sharpness in control terms, letting you push the Zen inside its natural turning circle and tackle rocks head on. Despite its low weight the 140mm- rather than 150mm-travel Fox 32 fork only starts to twist under heavy braking and turning on steep, steppy descents.

Full seat drop means there’s nothing in the way when you’re throwing your weight around, and the compact frame dimensions let you leap all over the bike to chase control. Its natural nose-high attitude and fat-tyre landing gear mean we had no qualms about launching off long drops. Frozen and rocky trails make the stiffness of the frame clear, so expect some kickback. But, big tyres take a lot of the sting out of the ride.

The stiffness pays dividends when you press the pedals or wrench the bars round, with a clarity and urgency that matches the best hardcore hardtails at any price. Considering its price and tough character, the Zen is relatively light, picking up speed easily when blasting between technical sections or keeping the flow going on the trail.

Saracen zen 4: saracen zen 4
Saracen zen 4: saracen zen 4

Frame: Strong, stiff, accurate and relatively light, with great geometry

There’s no messing from Saracen on the mainframe, with the big tapered head tube – worth having in terms of future proofing – backed by an oversize box section top and down tube. Both tubes share a long weld seam, creating a stiff front-end construction. The down tube curves down to the bottom bracket, while the top tube slopes and tapers steeply to a flared seat tube junction.

A separate saddle gusset reinforces the extended seat tube, which gets a forward facing seat tube slot to keep spray out. Mudcatcher mounts under the down tube mean you won’t get spray in your face. There’s also lots of wet weather practicality built into the vast tyre clearance of the kinked and dented A-frame rear stays.

There’s a single bottle cage mount on the down tube, while the seat tube is left plain so the seat post can slide all the way down. There’s no ISCG mount on the bottom bracket though, and fixed dropouts mean less transmission versatility. However, that also means less weight and cost if you prefer keeping things conventional. The seat clamp is on the cheap looking side.

Equipment: Well kitted out for the price; the open bath Fox 32 fork is a highlight

The Fox 32 Float RL fork that fronts up the Zen is a definite highlight. The tapered steerer and 15QR screw-through axle keep it on course and the open bath damper is smoothly active over all impact sizes. The big volume, tubeless-ready 2.4in Schwalbe Nobby Nic tyres mean you don’t have to back off for fear of popping them on rocks and the generous air space adds comfortable float to the stiff frame.

Mavic’s classic trail-light EX321 rims are as tough as you can get without a huge weight penalty. The Shimano Deore brakes are excellent in control terms, even if power is simply adequate. On top of the steerer is a wide bar, short stem FSA Gravity cockpit to complete a naturally combative front end, and the Fizik Gobi is a great saddle.

 the saracen not has only a tapered head tube but also big, square section main tubes that share a long weld seam to create a strong headbox:  the saracen not has only a tapered head tube but also big, square section main tubes that share a long weld seam to create a strong headbox
the saracen not has only a tapered head tube but also big, square section main tubes that share a long weld seam to create a strong headbox: the saracen not has only a tapered head tube but also big, square section main tubes that share a long weld seam to create a strong headbox

Guy Kesteven

Freelance Writer, UK
Guy started filling his brain with cycle stats and steaming up bike shop windows back in 1980. He worked the other side of those windows from '89 while getting a degree in “describing broken things covered in mud" (archaeology). Dug historical holes in the ground through the early '90s, then became a pro bike tester in '97. Guy has ridden thousands of bikes and even more components the world over since then and can remember them all in vivid, haunting detail. Can't remember where the car keys are, though.
  • Age: 45
  • Height: 180cm / 5' 11"
  • Weight: 68kg / 150lb
  • Waist: 76cm / 30in
  • Chest: 91cm / 36in
  • Discipline: Strict sadomasochist
  • Preferred Terrain: Technical off-piste singletrack and twisted back roads. Up, down, along — so long as it's faster than the last time he did it he's happy.
  • Current Bikes: An ever changing herd of test machines from Tri bikes to fat bikes and everything in between.
  • Dream Bike: His Nicolai Helius AM custom tandem
  • Beer of Choice: Theakston's Old Peculier (not Peculiar)
  • Location: Yorkshire, UK

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