Premium road brands have traditionally kept within their lane when it comes to bike design. But Cervelo steps out of the comfort zone with its new XC hardtail, and succeeds along the way.

Product Overview

Cervelo ZHT-5 Race hardtail


  • Superlight yet practical, lifetime warrantied frame. Impressive fatigue smoothing flow from the frame. Excellent grip and power delivery. Not as sketchy on descents as the geometry suggests


  • Top tier premium prices for both models. No Team Issue version for Jumbo groupies. No frame only option. Relatively retro geometry


Cervelo ZHT-5 Race first ride review


Price as reviewed:


While mountain bike brands are jumping shark to launch new gravel models and tap into a new market for dirt bikes, renowned road bike marque, Cervelo, is swimming against the tide with its first mountain bike. The key question being, is it any good compared to the best XC race mountain bikes?

Need to know

  • First MTB from the premium road/triathlon brand
  • Super light weight but lifetime tough 29er race hardtail
  • Punchy under power, but not a punishing ride
  • Steep angles and prices, but it is a premium brand

“We’ve ridden ‘roadie mountain bikes’ and we wanted to make very sure this wasn’t just one of those.” It’s a promising opening line from Cervelo Marketing Head, Brian Bernard. The last time Brian talked to me about an XC race hardtail was at the launch of the latest Santa Cruz Highball. A bike Brian had a big part in developing before he moved across to Pon family sibling Cervelo. So that was another promising aspect.

But how different can a race hardtail really be? And does Cervelo’s ZHT-5 feel like it’s genuinely got dirt in its DNA, or is it just a cosplay dirty weekend bike for posh roadies to keep at their second home in the country?

Cervelo ZHT-5

Sadly the yellow frame is team only at present

Most XC race hardtails aren’t as slack as the latest XC full suspension bikes and the ZHT-5 reflects that in its 68.5º head angle. The 74º seat angle hasn’t been nudged forward for steep climb poise either. The reach on the large test bike was generous at 470mm though, and the bottom bracket swings low between the wheel axles.

While it’s not the lightest production hardtail option (Specialized and Unno are fighting over that title) the 810g, 840g, 870g, 895g frame weight spread from S-XL certainly isn’t heavy. Those impressive frame weights are achieved with tube profiles and lay up lessons from Cervelo’s lightweight R5 road race bike. While the stiff, sturdy bottom bracket area owes a lot to the Aspero gravel race frame. Thankfully, it uses a threaded bottom bracket, not a press fit time bomb, and it’s still 310g lighter than the aero profiled Aspero.

Cervelo ZHT-5

Cervelo hasn’t done anything radical with the ZHT-5’s profile, and it’s all the better for it.

Despite the low weight you still get a lifetime warranty with no maximum rider weight limit either. Two bottle cage mounts make it marathon friendly, the rear axle comes with a detachable tool handle. There’s plenty of room between the stays for 2.4in tyres. Yes, the headset top cap cable/hose internal routing makes later maintenance awkward, but it does keep the lines super clean. It also removes the need for weight adding, reinforced entry points on the frame tubes.

Cervelo ZHT-5

With a RockShox Sid up front, class-leading grip and comfort is at hand

The seat stays blend into the sloped top tube via a subtle shelf around the seat tube. That’s the obvious difference compared to the otherwise very similar, but dropped-stay Santa Cruz Highball. The Cervelo seat post is also a larger diameter than the Highball, 30.6mm vs 27.2mm, dramatically opening up the choice of compatible dropper posts.

One really cool feature is that the rear brake is mounted on the axle, rather than seatstay, to allow symmetrical flex in the stays, and it’s post mount, not flat mount, for maximum compatibility.

Cervelo ZHT-5

If you’re used to a fixed seatpost and XC geometry, you”ll be able to descend confidently on the Cervelo ZHT-5

How it rides

Bigger diameter tubes with straighter connections and Cervelo’s stated priority to create a stiff, power harnessing pure XC race bike meant I was expecting a battering from the ZHT-5. Decades of dialling in the nuanced feel their road bikes are known for hasn’t gone to waste though. The connection from pedal to the trail is definitely direct, with no obvious flex even when you’re straining a big gear against the flat bar.

However, even under maximum power there’s remarkably little chatter, slap and back snapping coming up through the frame. Some of that is certainly thanks to the Reserve 28XC carbon rims, which I know from experience have a noticeably damped and forgiving feel. But those slim, brake-isolated stays, and Cervelo’s own carbon seat post, clearly do some serious trauma Tai Chi to swerve impacts and isolate vibration.

Cervelo ZHT-5

Remarkably smooth and comfortable; the ZHT-5 lets you ride further and faster

And it’s a compounding advantage the further you ride. And after several hours charging round the baked and dusty hills above Florence, I still felt remarkably fresh and up for extra laps. Then again, that could just be the espresso. In fact, the ZHT-5 probably deals with micro bumps and buzz better than a lot of XC race full suspension bikes, where you’re slapping about on top of an aggressive low-speed shock tune and high anti-squat numbers.

This inherent compliance makes a big difference to the traction and confidence levels too. The 68.5º head angle is definitely in its element, hooking uphill turns and keeping the 60mm stem and 740mm bar cockpit alive.  And it didn’t feel remotely as sketchy as I was expecting on the bermless, off camber singletrack in the local Tuscan bike park. And that’s with essentially treadless Maxxis Aspen (production bikes get Rekon Race) tyres, and the fixed seat post sticking the saddle right up my arse on the techy descents.

Cervelo ZHT-5

It’s a surprisingly playful machine, relatively speaking

The wheels, frame and skinny 32mm chassis RockShox SID fork all sync together really well too. Add the decent reach measurement, and once I lowered the seat post in the frame, I was surprised how comfortable I was sending and scything the ZHT-5 down the one jump and berm line I found. Given that there’s nothing (apart from the extra grams) to stop you adding a dropper post it would make a big difference to this bike.

That’s where I’d draw the line at ‘radifying’ though, because this is definitely still a Lycra wearer’s bike and a bigger fork, burlier tyres, riser bar etc. are just going to warp the balance and miss the point.

Cervelo ZHT-5

Lower-priced model still gets GX AXS drivetrain

On that note there are two build levels to choose from. The black, £8,500 SRAM XX1 AXS bike that I rode is fully loaded with carbon including rims, crank, bars and derailleur cage. Then there’s the moss coloured SRAM GX AXS bike that’s mostly aluminium apart from frame and seat post and costs £5,000.

And yes, that is a lot of money for both bikes, but not excessive for a premium race bike. Especially considering Cervelo is only releasing 300 units globally, in the first batch and it’ll be a while before the next one arrives. Lotto Jumbo groupies are going to be disappointed though, as the bright yellow team bike with Shimano XTR and Fox fork isn’t a publicly available option. Which is a real shame, as I think it looks amazing.



Taken together, there are probably more lightweight race hardtail options available than any other kind of MTB. And with no rear suspension to worry about, there’s very little difference between most of them in terms of performance too.  Cervelo hasn’t used any bold geometry or innovative features to make their entry into MTB stand out either. Instead, it’s the way that the ZHT-5 combines explosive climbing speed and shocking acceleration with significantly boosted grip and nuanced, fatigue soothing flow, that makes it one of the finest premium speed/distance hardtails available right now. 


Frame:Cervelo ZHT carbon fibre
Fork:RockShox SID SL Ultimate 100mm travel, 44mm offset
Wheels:i9 1/1 hubs, Reserve 28XC Carbon rims, Maxxis Aspen 3C EXO 29 x 2.4in tyres
Drivetrain:SRAM XX1 Eagle 32T chainset, XX1 AXS Eagle derailleur and shifter, SRAM XG-1299 Eagle 10-52T cassette
Brakes:SRAM Level Ultimate, CLX Centerlock 160mm rotors
Components:Race Face Next 35 740mm flat bar, Race Face Aeffect 35 60mm stem, Cervelo SP29 Carbon 30.9mm post, Prologo Dimension NDR Nack saddle
Sizes:S, M, L, XL
Weight:8.8kg (19.6lb)
Size ridden:L
Rider height:180cm
Head angle:68.5º
Seat angle:74º
Effective seat angle:74º
BB drop:62mm
Front centre:722mm
Seat tube:485mm
Top Tube:635mm