While most bike manufacturers are only just coming to terms with 650b wheels, Saracen is celebrating the Zen’s second birthday. To mark the occasion, it has pumped up the fork travel by 10mm to 140mm and slimmed down the chainstays to offer a more comfortable ride. With a low-slung top tube, the latest incarnation of the Zen isn’t short of standover clearance, but the ultra-compact frame design means that there’s only room for one water bottle mount.
In a nod to typical UK riding conditions, the Zen frame gets Crud Catcher mounts on the underside of the down tube so there’s no need to mess around with rubber bands or zip-ties. In the same vein, the cable routing is all tucked under the top tube to keep it as far away from dirt as possible. We’d like to see Saracen bring the front-most guides farther forward, though, to help lift the cables up a little higher and stop them rubbing on the fork crown.
Another neat detail is having Saracen embossed into the tapered head tube, rather than using a traditional head badge. Everyone agreed that it was a nice touch, but the overall frame finish and graphics divided the test crew; some thought it looked cheap, while others loved it.
At 140mm, the RockShox Sektor fork allows Saracen to boast the most suspension travel out of the Whyte 905, Orange Clockwork Pro and Trek Stache 8 on test. The fork is reasonably plush and stiff, but you really notice it using its travel even when it doesn’t need to, as the whole bike pivots around the rear axle. The solution is better damping to offer more stability, but for that you need a higher-spec fork like the Revelation on the Whyte 905. Given the option, we’d happily forgo the dropper post to get it.
That said, it’s great having a dropper post so you can get the saddle down quickly for a surprise descent. But it was actually on the climbs that the KS dropper saved the most time, instantly giving us the perfect saddle height for seated pedalling. Not that you’d want to spend too much time sitting on the Kore saddle, as it’s more of an XC racer’s perch than a comfy place to rest your weary bones.
All of the other contact points on the Zen are well considered — the 60mm stem is nice and stubby, and the Kore Durox 740mm riser bar has a good profile and plenty of width. Saracen’s dual-density lock-on grips also felt great.
Pulling the Zen out of the van for the first time, it was hard to ignore its weight. Even discounting the extra half-kilo or so for the dropper seatpost, it is still the heaviest bike on test by quite some way. A lot of that is tied up in the rear wheel, and you can actually feel the imbalance front to back when bunny-hopping the bike over rocks or cresting a blind rise and getting airborne.
Pointed downhill, the extra weight is less of an issue, but then you have the harshest ride in test to take your mind off it. Much to our surprise, the Zen was the only bike here to give a proper white-knuckle ride and, at the bottom of one of our particularly long test tracks, we literally had to peel our finger off the grips.
Seeing as the Sektor fork shares essentially the same damping as the Recon fitted to the Orange Clockwork Pro, which felt OK, we can only assume that either the bomber-solid wheels or the aluminium frame are the source of the discomfort.
The solid build certainly makes the Zen a good companion for mucking around down at your local jump spot, but it wouldn’t be our first choice if we were heading off to the wilds to find our inner selves. The short-and-high riding position doesn’t help the Zen. It’s a case of close, but no cigar.
At first glance, the latest 650b Saracen Zen looks pretty sorted, and in many ways it is. The attitude and spec are on the money, and the angles lean in the right direction for a bike geared toward shredding every descent. Sling a leg over it, however, and the riding position feels a little short and high. The bike is also heavy, so getting it uphill is a bit of a grind, and you are rewarded for your efforts on the return leg with the harshest ride in test.