You could be excused for thinking Saracen has revived John Tomac’s near 30-year old drop bar mountain bike setup with the Levarg OR. Observant readers will have noticed a fully fledged suspension fork, and that the name Levarg is gravel backwards.
There are those who say that gravel bikes are just cyclocross bikes, and others who think they’re merely drop bar mountain bikes, so the Levarg OR will definitely help clear up that argument.
- The Saracen Levarg OR is one of our Bike of the Year bikes for 2019. To read reviews of the other contenders and the categories tested across road, mountain and women’s bikes, visit our Bike of the Year hub page.
What we have here is a butted, hydroformed aluminium frame, designed around 650b wheels with 47mm maximum tyres, which is also good for 700x40mm rubber as well.
It has three bottle cage mounts, rear rack and mudguard mounts, but the suspension fork prevents fitting a front mudguard, unlike its two cheaper, rigid Levarg siblings.
- The Saracen Levarg is “gravel” backwards and we are triggered by this
- This gravel bike has a dropper post and suspension fork
The frame tubes are slimmer at the rear, particularly the stays, which have almost old school dimensions, but hydroforming flares the top tube and oversized down tube to create generous head tube junctions.
Cables are routed through the down tube, but the unused ports aren’t sealed against the weather, and if you find the idea of a suspension fork a little surprising, there’s a dropper seatpost too.
Anyone familiar with modern mountain biking will recognise the lever beneath the saddle nose, which manually allows the post to rapidly telescope downwards up to 125mm, for massively increased clearance when descending steep stuff. Another tug on the lever, and the saddle will pop back up to your preferred position again. Is it necessary though, and have we been missing out?
The drivetrain is SRAM Apex 1, with a non-series S350 chainset turning a single 38-tooth ring, while at the rear is a wide 11-42 cassette, for properly low off-road gearing.
Although there’s room for 47mm tyres, Saracen equips the OR with 42mm WTB Resolutes, which on these WTB rims measure 45mm, and is a lesson in not taking tyre widths at face value.
My medium frame size gave me a long and fairly tall position, thanks to a lengthy 585mm top tube and the Fox fork’s axle-to-crown height of 427mm, when most gravel bikes are nearer 400mm. That’s tempered by a 70mm stem and very slack 69.5-degree head angle, which equips the Saracen with unwavering stability when on the hoods or drops, and slightly quicker steering from the flat tops.
The OR will come with a Saracen-branded alloy bar with 15-degree flare, but my example was built before that was available, with a Profile Design carbon gravel bar that has a similar flare. It reduces weight a little and adds some ride comfort, but front-end comfort is still dictated by the fork.
With a claimed weight of 1.36kg, the AX fork is around 800g heavier than a rigid carbon fork, and obviously adds expense too. It has a 15mm thru-axle, anodised black 32mm stanchions and top-spec FIT 4 air sprung damper, with three-position adjuster for Open, Medium and Lockout with blow off, plus micro adjust when in Open mode, and separate rebound adjustment.
The crown’s shape demands more down tube clearance for rotation than conventional road forks, hence the Levarg’s styling, and is only recommended for frames with head angles of 69 degrees or steeper, which the OR has.
Saracen Levarg OR ride impressions
As the most significant feature of the bike, it’s hard not to focus on the fork’s performance, and after some familiarisation with the small damping adjuster on the right side of the fork crown, I set about exploring.
The first thing to become obvious was the need to remember which direction to turn the knob for each setting, something that takes a little time. Lockout mode feels virtually rigid, with a tiny amount of movement when out of the saddle, although not enough to affect your ride. On tarmac it rolls pretty well, although at 35psi, the off-road-focussed Resolute tyres aren’t really in their happy place.
I took the Levarg OR much further from the beaten path than any gravel bike yet, simply because I could. Once things get uneven, the fork’s Medium position provides a decent balance between bump absorption and control, maximising grip and improving hand and wrist comfort.
It’s stiff enough for out of the saddle riding without bouncing unduly, and makes line choice on potholed trails easier. Fast, rough descents are safer in the Open position where the fork is at its softest and most active, and as I found, it allows you to really let rip, and thankfully, can gather up a potential disaster with less drama than on a rigid bike.
The lowest gearing I’ve found yet suits more adventurous routes, but can still cover tarmac quickly. The 38×11 high gear will top 30mph if you spin, and if you need to call on the 38×42 bottom end, you’ll probably want much lower tyre pressures to increase traction.
In wet, muddy woodland, grassland and over rooty, rocky terrain, the Levarg OR feels very capable, with predictable handling and no nasty surprises, even when sliding around. It really can be pointed at almost anything, and coped with all I tried, with grip being more of an issue in wintry conditions than a lack of ability. It’s not especially quick though and suits more exploratory, adventurous riding than gravel racing.
Saracen Levarg OR overall
It’s possibly the gravel bike with the most specific operational window that I’ve found so far, because it’s no commuter and prefers life away from tarmac.
I’m undecided about the merits of the dropper post, as it’s hard to reach the lever when descending something steep and gnarly enough to want to drop the saddle. Then if you do, you’re removing the thing that’s stabilising the bike between your legs while descending one-handed.
With the saddle dropped, controlling the bike on the steepest descents is easier, the question is how often that’ll be relevant to your rides. But, one thing’s for sure, the Levarg OR offers route options that little else this side of mountain bikes can, and it is a lot of fun to ride, so long as you’re realistic about your speed expectations.
Saracen Levarg OR specifications
- Sizes (*tested): S, M*, L, XL
- Weight: 10.96kg
- Frame: Series 2 Custom Butted, Hydroformed 6061 alloy
- Fork: Fox 32 Step Cast AX, FIT4 3-position damper
- Chainset: SRAM S350, 38t X-Sync chain ring
- Bottom bracket: SRAM GXP
- Cassette: SRAM NX 11-42
- Chain: KMC X11EL
- Derailleurs: SRAM Apex 1
- Shifters: SRAM Apex 1
- Wheels: Formula hubs, WTB STP Light i23 TCS 2.0 650b
- Tyres: WTB Resolute 42mm, 650b
- Stem: Saracen 6061 3D forged alloy
- Bar: Profile Design G1 Twenty carbon bar
- Headset: FSA No.42/ACB
- Saddle: Saracen Custom Road
- Seatpost: ExaForm SpeedUp dropper post
- Brakes: SRAM Apex hydraulic disc, 160mm rotors
Saracen Levarg OR geometry
- Seat angle: 73 degrees
- Head angle: 69.5 degrees
- Chainstay: 42.5cm
- Seat tube: 52cm
- Top tube: 58.5cm
- Head tube: 15.5cm
- Bottom bracket drop: 6cm
- Wheelbase: 1,071mm
- Stack: 59cm
- Reach: 40.4cm
- Price: £2,300