The sole survivor of a four-bike range last year, Saracen’s Zen X distills all their long hardcore hardtail experience into a single killer value punch.

Ride handling: Keeps up with more expensive bikes on technical trails

With a slightly slacker head angle, wider bar and lower ride height due to smaller tyres, the already excellent-handling Zen is even more of a blast this year. It feels right straight away too, with a really pugnacious, weight-forward, come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-you’re-hard-enough attitude obvious as soon as you settle into the comfortably curved WTB saddle.

Weight distribution is pushed firmly forward, with the short stem and steep seat angle naturally putting you right over the fork. It’s a bit cramped for extended climbing, but it means maximum traction for cornering uphill and down. With weight forward there’s more chance that the unsuspended rear will skip through too. 

Full seat drop makes it easy to get right back on steeps or pop the front up, drop off or pump bigger trail features too and overall agility is infectiously cheeky. Don’t be thinking this is a cheap and cheerful toy bike though – this is the real deal, however far you want to take your riding. The 68-degree steering angle isn’t radical but added to the bar leverage it gives bravery boosting, mistake-masking stability in random rock fields or when ripping round trail centre switchback walls.

Despite our best attempts to expose its shortcomings, the RockShox Sektor fork took everything we threw at it in a remarkably composed and controlled way. Even on the most extreme trails its rebound damping only got erratic occasionally. While it’s not quite as plush as a premium fork, the Saracen is more rough diamond than polished pearl and by the time the fork is getting out of its depth the back end is probably threatening to overtake or wrap itself round your ears anyway.

In calmer moments the compact frame can feel slightly restrictive, but it’s keen to turn any wattage you can deliver into short sharp charges or cleaned crux moves as efficiently as possible. It’s not so harsh you can’t hunt for fun all day long either and there’s space to fit bigger tyres if you want a bit more air cushioning. All in all, it’s an absolute bargain.

Frame: Agile, accurate and tough

The Zen frame is almost unchanged from last year save for half a degree off the head angle and a smaller, lighter set of dropouts at the far end. The CNC machined head tube was already compatible with tapered forks, and the square ended, shared seam tapered main tubes have proved tough without piling on the weight. 

The steep top tube slope for standover clearance is compensated for with an open backed brace piece and ‘armpit’ gusset onto the seat tube. There are no bottle bosses to get in the way of full seat drop when you release the red anodised seat collar quick-release lever either. 

Tapered stays at the rear give ample room for 2.4in tyres if you want extra bounce and there’s a Crud Catcher mudguard mount under the down tube. Open cabling from the head downwards often proves more weatherproof and smoother running in the long term than fully sealed systems too.

Equipment: Fork is accurate and well controlled; pitch perfect wide bar and short stem

Where Saracen have done a really great job, though, is kit. The Sektor fork shares the same tapered top, screw-axle tip structure as RockShox’s pricier Revelation, which means steering precision and strength are equally impressive. While there’s only rebound adjustment you’d be hard pressed to notice any difference between the Sektor R and Rev RL in damping and suspension performance 90 percent of the time too – especially on a hardtail.

The 60mm stem and 720mm low-rise bar clamped on top are perfect for maximising control without compromising clearance too much. The lock-on grip collars are even colour matched with the seat quick-release. Shimano’s basic M505 brakes are actually very controlled and plenty powerful, and the Deore/SLX shifting mix still felt good after several winter rides. The crankset gets external bearings for stiffness and Shimano rear hubs are super-reliable.

While the Schwalbe Nobby Nic tyres are down a size to 2.25in from last year’s 2.4s, the wide Sun Ringlé rims mean they blow up usefully stout for surefooted control and rock protection. They’re slippery when wet though, like most tyres on £1,000 bikes and below. If you’ve got the cash, we’d recommend upgrading to softer or triple-compound rubber.

article was originally published in Mountain
Biking UK
magazine, available on Apple
and Zinio.