UK brand Saracen were among the first to develop a mainstream range of long forked cross-country hardtails. The company have changed ownership since then but the five-bike Mantra range, from £450 to £1,100, has seen an evolution of the original idea to the point where the geometry and consequent handling of the Mantras effectively sets the industry standard for this type of bike.
It’s not hard to see why the Mantras are best-sellers for Saracen. It’s also not hard to find lighter and better equipped bikes at this price, but the Expert is a blast on the trail.
Ride & handling: Ride feel outstrips quality of components
Despite some component compromises compared to similarly priced bikes (see below), the Saracen is a favourite of ours in the £700-£900 hardtail market because it rides so well.
Handling is confident, stable and involving to the point where you’ll often find yourself riding terrain that usually challenges bikes with this level of kit. To put it simply, there’s a feeling of being able to throw caution to the wind when hammering through rough singletrack or dealing with a challenging descent.
There are times when the Recon fork shows its limitations on a series of hard-edged hits if you’re comparing it to the Reba, but you won’t find many sub-£900 bikes with the latter fitted.
The light wheels on the Mantra even make climbing relatively easy, especially with the fork lockout engaged to muffle the coil spring, which was soft enough to be a real bonus elsewhere. Check to see how soft your fork spring is when you buy a bike – some brands have softer springs on the smaller sizes.
The only time a parts compromise made itself known was with front gear shifts – Acera front mechs are more clunky and less solid and precise than Deore.
Frame & equipment: There are better specs out there but this one works
The custom butted hydroformed tubes result in a relatively light but very stiff structure, perfectly suited to a 120mm (4.7in) travel fork for hard-hitting terrain but with a long enough top tube reach to create a ride posture that a cross-country racer would be happy with.
That’s always been the beauty of the Mantras. They aim for, and generally achieve, the best of both worlds. The flared ends on the slightly squared top and down tubes make for big weld contact points where strength matters, the head tube is reinforced and the top tube has masses of standover clearance.
Utilitarian usage is catered for with well-positioned, bolted luggage rack eyelets at the top and bottom of the seatstays. There are two sets of water bottle bosses and under-the-down tube eyelets for a direct fit mudguard. The quick-release seat clamp faces forward, out of the wheel spray, and the curvy rear stays give plenty of heel clearance.
The RockShox Recon Silver TK fork is a coil-sprung offering with 120mm of plush travel, an effective pre-load dial on top of the left-hand leg, lockout lever on the right and rebound damping adjustment knob at the base. Inevitably, a coil-sprung Recon is heavier than the air-sprung Recon Gold, but there are still plenty of riders who prefer the ‘just ride, don’t fiddle’ approach of coil forks.
The Saracen’s 3×9 drivetrain is slightly down-specced compared to a lot of other bikes we’ve seen at this price – 10 sprockets out back is common. It’s a full Shimano mix though, with an SLX rear mech, Acera shifters and front mech and basic no-group Octalink crankset. Brake duties are well taken care of by Shimano too, with a 180mm rotor up front to keep slam-dunkers happy.
The Shimano Centrelock hubbed, Sun Ringlé rimmed wheels are well built and fairly light without strength compromises. Schwalbe’s 2.25in Rocket Ron treads are fast but grippy all-rounders with a big profile that gives comfort a boost on rough terrain.
The same goes for the skinny seatpost, WTB Rocket V saddle and soft compound bolted grips. The long top tube allows for a shortish stem and the 27in low-rise bar is ideal for this style of bike. There’s over an inch of spacer washer adjustment to play with under or over the stem.
Saracen mantra expert: saracen mantra expert Steve Behr