Van Nicholas is a Dutch company that works exclusively in titanium, and the Zion 29er is available in several guises. We went for the Rohloff-geared, belt-driven, carbon-forked rigid version as the ultimate representation of simple, low-maintenance riding.
Frame and equipment: high-grade setup with disappointing quality control issues
It certainly looks the part. The hand-brushed, aircraft-grade titanium frame is guaranteed for life, and the lack of need for paint – it won’t corrode – is another reason this bike is so light. Even with the heavy, 14-ratio Rohloff Speedhub in the back, it weighs just 11.24kg (24.8lb).
You can spec a suspension fork, but Van Nicholas’ own VNT carbon rigid fork is a good choice. It combines with the natural twang of the front triangle to create a comfy ride that’s impressively damped against small vibrations.
The carbon drive belt, made by Gates, is lighter, stronger and quieter than a chain
Unfortunately, either the steerer on ours was marginally too thick, or the spacers under the stem were a tad too small. They were wedged so tight we couldn’t actually get them off.
We settled for an overly high front end instead of risking damage. Annoyingly there were problems at the other end, too. The seat tube was too large internally, probably by less than 1mm but enough for obvious play.
The beautifully made bolted seat collar (irritatingly fitted with a T25 Torx instead of a more common hex, just to make adjustment still harder) simply couldn’t cope, no matter how scarily tensioned it was. The saddle slowly sank as we rode. There’s also no internal stop to prevent the seatpost pushing into the curved part of the tube and wedging.
Van Nicholas says it would quickly replace anything with similar sizing issues, though there’s no stop by design.
Ride and handling: twitchy handling means more spills than thrills
Under way, the Zion is comfortable. It's not noticeably any more compliant at the rear than, for instance, the Shand Bahookie we tested it alongside though.
There’s a little lateral flex across the front triangle, which adds a slightly wound-up-spring feel to the steep (71-degree) steering that takes some getting used to. The lengthy 100mm stem and narrow 700mm bars don’t help, and on the descents it wasn't exactly confidence inspiring. Happily, SRAM’s Guide RS brakes are fantastic, with great power and truly impressive feel and control.
Our 17.5in was pretty tight at 590mm in the top tube and 1078mm for the wheelbase. Even a 19in only has a shortish 615mm top tube.
Geometry is short 'n' steep and there’s no room for the wide rims and big, 29+ treads that work well on rigid bikes
This and the light front end mean manuals are incredibly easy, but it climbs well with little front lift. The large bulk of weight in the hub does make lifting the rear end over obstacles hard work. Rear wheel slips tend to result in sudden stabbing direction changes too.
Those slips are common thanks to disappointing hard compound Schwalbe Racing Ralph treads. There’s no room in the rear for anything wider than these 2.25in items, either.
The Rohloff twist-shifter takes noticeable effort to move, but shifts are mostly smooth and quick. While the carbon drive belt is an obvious talking point, in use you simply don’t notice it. It needs no oiling or cleaning, and is the perfect accompaniment for the Speedhub gears if you plan to avoid all maintenance. Very simple then, but would you really neglect a bike at this price?
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.