Saracen Tufftrax review$420.37

Long-standing entry-level favourite

BikeRadar score4/5

(Updated Oct 2015): The Tufftrax name has been around for many years – plenty of British riders got into mountain biking thanks to the powder-blue early 90s incarnation.

Since then Saracen had their ups and downs, but under new ownership the Tufftrax reappeared in 2011. The 2012 bike is exactly the same, just with a Selle Royal Mach saddle.

Related: Beginner's guide to mountain biking

'Proper' bike feel encourages harder riding

The most impressive thing about the Tufftrax is that, despite its weight and the inevitably compromised SR Suntour fork, a lot of the time we completely forgot that it costs only £259. Even by entry-level standards, this is a cheap bike.

Related: Best mountain bikes under £500

Yes, the pounds make themselves felt under acceleration and up climbs, and start battering roots and rocks at speed and the fork quickly starts waving the white flag. But stick to smoother trails and, once you’ve got the Saracen rolling, it’s a whole lot of fun.

Compared with some other budget bikes, the Tufftrax feels most like a ‘proper’ mountain bike, with a decent cockpit length (our medium test bike was as long as some of the rival larges) and sorted handling. It’s not at all shy of corners, helped by the surprisingly capable tyres, but that agility doesn’t come with a side-order of nervousness.

The Saracen manages the tricky balancing act of being stable enough to reassure a newcomer but flighty enough to offer some reward when the same novice starts to get the hang of things. When you mix that with the bargain price, you’ve got a clear winner.

Well thought-out, detail-packed frame

While Saracen’s graphics are on the lairy side, the frame underneath is quite understated. But look more closely and you’ll find a host of neat details that show Saracen have put plenty of thought into the Tufftrax.

The front end is all straight tubes, but they’re not plain round ones – the down tube is flared vertically at the head tube and horizontally at the bottom bracket, while the top tube has an inverted triangular cross-section. A tidy open-ended gusset under the down tube reinforces the joint with the head tube, which takes a conventional headset.

Out back, snaked seatstay and chainstays deliver a good combo of mud room and heel clearance, with very neat cowled dropouts being a cut above the norm on a bike of this price.

All the cables run along the top tube, and you get two bottle mounts. Bikes in this price range are as likely (possibly more likely) to end up on the street as the trail, and the Tufftrax obliges with rack and mudguard mounts.

Off-road credentials are boosted by the Crud Catcher bosses under the down tube – which we think are unique on a sub-£300 bike – a mud-friendly, forward-facing seat clamp slot and a disc-ready back end. The economics of retro-fitting disc brakes to a £269 bike aren’t all that compelling (especially since there are no mounts on the fork), and they’re mainly there because Saracen also offer a disc-equipped Tufftrax and use the same frame for both. But the mounts are there if you need them.

The updated 2012 saracen tufftrax frame design comes disc-ready:
The updated 2012 saracen tufftrax frame design comes disc-ready:

The usual budget bike spec compromises with a couple of nice touches

Yes, it’s that fork again – the SR Suntour clearly has the budget fork market sewn up. It’s not great, but it’s not completely awful. We’d love to see a manufacturer stick their neck out and use a rigid fork on this kind of bike, knocking 2-3lb off the weight straightaway and freeing up budget to spend elsewhere. But the truth is that suspension forks look good on the shop floor, and while everyone’s speccing them, it’s unlikely that anyone will break rank.

The Tufftrax comes equipped with an SR Suntour chainset, and Saracen have opted for a 14-28 freewheel at the rear rather than the MegaRange 14-34 units often used on budget bikes. That means you lose a super-low gear, but you also shed the massive jump between the bottom two sprockets. It’s swings and roundabouts, but for our money the closer-ratio spread is more useful most of the time. There’s no shame in pushing up very steep hills.

Saracen have gone to the trouble of having their own tyres made for the Tufftrax. They’re clearly a homage to Kenda’s hardpack favourite, the Small Block 8, but with little Saracen ‘S’s on the blocks. It’s a sensible approach for a bike like this – the closely-spaced, shallow blocks grip well on dry trails but roll reasonably easily on Tarmac too.

Off-road you’ll benefit from the tyres’ substantial volume – they’re listed as 2.1in but they’re tall and rounded, delivering a comfy ride and predictable characteristics. They’re pretty heavy, but that’s true of all budget tyres.

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