The top model of Saracen’s three-bike range of long-fork hardtails, the Zen 3 is a sorted trail roughneck with thoughtful spec.
Saracen was probably the first UK company to work out what was needed from longer-forked cross-country hardtails – reasonable weight for climbs, nimbleness for singletrack and enough shock absorption for bumpy high speed terrain.
It’s not easy to achieve all this on a rig that lets you stay with your mates on their race bred cross-country bikes, so it’s great that as Saracen’s ‘Extreme cross-country’ bikes have evolved, the Zens are still totally dialled.
This is the best of the three aluminium-framed Zens but there’s a Reynolds 631 steel one now too, for £1,250.
Ride & handling: lively but not nervous
The most contentious issue on long-forked hardtails is frame geometry. Ideal geometry depends on the riding you favour and whether you opt for an adjustable-travel fork.
You may not want to stop and adjust fork travel at every climb or descent and some riders find a fixed-travel fork with a lockout a better option. Saracen obviously does.
When a manufacturer gets frame geometry right on a long-forked hardtail, lack of fork travel adjustment is hardly an issue.
A 69 degree static head angle on the Zen is relaxed enough for great stability when the fork is hitting stuff hard and fast, without being too relaxed. A 72 degree seat with loads of fore/aft rail adjustability via the SDG beam system lets you set up the back end to suit your ride posture.
Fork sag results in a singletrack working head angle of 70-71 degrees, ideal for lively steering without things becoming nervous on descents.
The Zen’s surprisingly fast tyres and reasonable (12.8kg/28.3lb) overall weight mean climbing is a breeze, although the long fork results in a high front end that some riders find inefficient on sit down climbs. This is where a lockdown or adjustable fork is better than one that locks out extended like the Fox 32 Vanilla RL. But that’s our only small gripe – the fork’s suspension performance is superb.
The Zen 3 is a great hard riding trail bike that can cope with pretty much anything you point it at, and we love the thoughtful componentry spec.
Chassis: bang up to date & effective
This is a quality frame that’s bang up-to-date in terms of design and tube forming technology. The big hydroformed top tube flares radically into the seat tube, giving generous standover clearance and beefing up the seat tube and top tube join.
The head tube is ring reinforced top and bottom, and the biaxially ovalised down tube is nicely gusseted into the bottom of the head tube. Curvy seat and chainstays add foot clearance and help spread trail shock away from the saddle. The low, compact frame and long seatpost helps too.
The extended seat tube has a forward facing quick-release clamp and there are bosses for two bottle cages, a rack and a Crud Catcher. There’s lots of mud room around the big tyres too.
Frame geometry is spot on for the 140mm (5.5in) travel Fox 32 Vanilla RL fork – R is for rebound damping, L is for lockout, and both offer simple, effective adjustment via dials on top of the right-hand leg.
The preload dial on the left hand leg is not so effective but that’s hardly an issue because this is possibly the lightest, best controlled coil sprung fork on the market.
Equipment: tasty, thoughtful spec
On a practical level, the Truvativ Blaze crankset, Deore XT shifters and rear mech don’t offer any real advantage over some cheaper parts. But we love the look and shift feel of the new XT, and that Shadow inboard rear mech is less likely to catch the undergrowth.
The XT brakes have a softer lever feel than others but their modulation and their ultimate stopping power is excellent.
The Zen’s wheels are nicely built, with Sun’s strong, wide but not too weighty eyeleted SOS rims laced to Deore hubs and shod with 2.35in Maxxis High Roller treads – tready enough for great cornering traction while rolling without too much drag.
The SDG Bel Air rail system saddle and seatpost adds extra comfort, and the bars, stem and grips are simple but effective choices.