The Zaskar is a legendary bike. With the all-new 2015 model, GT hopes to rekindle the spirit of this pioneering hardtail. But has it succeeded?
The Zaskar hardtail is something of a stalwart in the GT range and to mark its 27th birthday it has been reinvented with 650b wheels. Out goes the old 29er with its ultra-steep head angle and twitchy handling, in comes a slacker, more compact bike that harks back to the glory days of the original do-it-all hardtail. The new frame retains GT’s signature Triple Triangle design, where the seatstays extend forward of the seat tube to generate more flex and provide a more forgiving ride when seated. That’s the theory, at least. In practice, the Zaskar frame is anything but compliant. Stiff, yes, but comfortable isn’t a word that you’d readily use to describe the ride quality here.
When we think of modern XC hardtails we envisage stretched top tubes so pros can mirror the riding positions of their road bikes. The GT couldn’t be more different… it felt tiny. That said, it is available in five frame sizes from XS all the way up to XL, so we’d suggest going up a frame size to get a little extra length up front.
An additional benefit of the bigger frame size is that you’ll also get a slightly better range of saddle-height adjustment. On our size medium Zaskar we couldn’t lower the saddle much more than an inch, even when we chopped the post down. And, to add insult to injury, the frame didn’t come with a quick-release seat collar. We don’t own a cat, but after a coupled of rides, the gloss black seatpost was so badly scored, it looked more like a scratching post. Not a pretty sight.
Normally we’d be complaining about the reduced stiffness, loss of steering precision and inability to hold a line due to the quick release lowers on the RockShox Recon fork, but to be perfectly honest, the lack of tread on the tyres and the diminutive frame sizing were the limiting factors here.
RockShox’s handlebar-mounted fork lockout (the only one in test) functioned perfectly but we’d much prefer a compression adjuster to dial in more support to manage the extra load on the fork when the trail pitches down. As it stands, your only damping options are wide open and wild, or rock-solid.
Fat, hard grips and a flat, narrow saddle may be just the ticket for the seasoned pro, but they are far from ideal for a weekend warrior with a desk job. In fact, too much time on the Tundra saddle could leave you as barren and numb as the Arctic region it’s named after.
Contact with the trail felt equally remote thanks to the Conti Race King tyres. The low-profile tread pattern is certainly fast rolling but it also lacks traction, be it while braking, cornering or grinding up a steep climb. Also, because the side knobs aren’t raised, the tyre has an overly round profile that causes the bike to flop over more when cornering.
“the riding position feels distinctly dated even though it’s a brand new design”
At a svelte 11.86kg (26.14lb) with a dashing paint job and high-spec Shimano drivetrain, including an excellent SLX chainset, the new Zaskar 27.5 Elite was full of promise.
Something about the ride quality, however, simply didn’t add up. Even with the stem at maximum height your ass feels like it’s pointing skyward as you strain your neck muscles to see far enough down the trail. The steering feels floppy too when you get out of the saddle to pedal, and combined with the short wheelbase the riding position feels distinctly dated even though it’s a brand new design. On one particularly techy, choppy, switchback descent that we were struggling to navigate, we felt like we’d been transported back in time to one of the old Grundig World Cup XC races, the 100mm fork struggling to manage the hits while we tried to remember how to ride a bike. Thankfully the brakes work much better these days.
Even with the ground-up redesign around 650b wheels, the GT Zaskar 27.5 Elite is only slightly improved over last year’s 29er version. The frame still feels overly harsh and unforgiving, but it’s the geometry and subsequent handling that are really holding it back. If GT wants to restore the Zaskar to its former glory, it’s going to have to try much harder than this. And no, fitting a wider bar and a shorter stem isn’t the solution.