Saracen has ticked most of the must-have hardtail boxes, but it's missed a major one…
With progressive geometry and MX wheels, the latest Saracen Mantra Trail LSL takes us one step closer to the perfect hardtail mountain bike. But has Saracen gone far enough? In short, not quite. I’ve outlined my blueprint for the modern trail hardtail several times now. In summary, I believe that MX wheels are the future of the modern trail hardtail, but Saracen has missed one key ingredient – bigger volume tyres. It’s got almost everything else right though, so it’s still a great option for anyone looking for a capable bike that won’t break the bank.
Saracen Mantra Trail LSL Need to know
- Entry-level model of a three strong range
- 6061 alloy frame with LSL, long, slack, low geometry
- Geometry designed around a 140mm travel fork
- Four frame sizes, with generous 490mm reach on the size L
- MX wheels, so 29in up front, 27.5in out back
- Maxxis 2.3in tyres front and rear
- Shimano Deore/SLX 12 speed drivetrain
- 150mm KS Rage post
- Double tool mounts on frame
Frame and geometry
Saracen has expanded upon its LSL (long, slack and low) geometry concept for the latest Manta Trail hardtail. And it’s not just marketing BS either. The size L Mantra Trail boasts a whopping 490mm reach and I measured it at 485mm to the headset bearing cover, which is as low as the stem could feasibly go. If you are still using the top top measurement as a yardstick for sizing, the Saracen has a seriously stretched 660mm horizontal top tube, in part due to the relatively slack 73.5º seat tube angle. So whichever way you slice it, the Mantra Trail LSL is seriously long for a hardtail, and you’ll probably want to consider downsizing, even if it puts you outside of Saracen’s sizing recommendations.
But is it slack? Yes, the head angle measured 64.5º, which is only 0.5º steeper than the claimed. So that just leaves low. With a BB height of 306mm, it’s not as low as the 298mm BB height on the Whyte 909 X that I tested last year, so Saracen could easily go a hair lower, as I never clipped a pedal once.
All four frame sizes sport 440mm chainstays, and while this works to help keep the front tyre loaded on the larger frame sizes, I’d like to see Saracen make full use of the smaller 27.5in rear wheel to offer shorter stays on the size small. Or size specific rear ends across the entire range.
Cable routing is internal, and while none of the cables are securely clamped in the frame, and all of the cables could easily have 30mm chopped off them to tidy them up, remarkably they did not rattle. That’s not to say this bike was quiet though, as the chain slapped the chainstay to beat of every bump. So much so, that the paint on the chainstay was peppered after just a couple of rides.
Saracen had the entry-level Manta Trail listed as having a coil-sprung 140mm travel RockShox 35 Silver fork. But the bike I tested had an air-sprung version of the same fork. I questioned this with Saracen, and it was simply a typo on the website, which has since been corrected. Which is a good thing, because if Canyon can get an air-sprung fork on the £899 Stoic 2 that I reviewed in August last year, then Saracen should have no problem doing the same at £1.5k
The upper tubes of the RockShox 35 fork are masked by what looks like a back anodised coating, but the legs are steel, not alloy, and contribute to the 14.46kg weight of the bike. It’s not a deal breaker though as the fork has a buttery smooth action. Also the 35mm chassis, with the 15mm bolt-thru lowers to secure the 29in front wheel, mean that the 140mm fork keeps the bike tracking true, even when you’re fighting with the steering.
I ran the air-pressure in the fork a little firmer than recommended, just to help stabilise the dynamic geometry of the bike and prevent the length of the frame from pulling me too far forward on steep descents. But like I said before, it’s a long bike.
Given the frame length and small degree of steering flop that you can feel when climbing, Saracen could easily have fitted a shorter stem, as it would have matched the frame proportions much better. That said, if I was testing a size M, instead of an L, the 50mm Race Face stem may have felt spot on. The profile of the 780mm wide Race Face Chester handlebar felt good and even Saracen’s saddle helped add some much needed comfort on longer rides.
Now if you’re in doubt about which size bike to ride I think the seat tube measurements on the Saracen are a good indication, because going from the size L to the size M, the seat tube length drops from 460mm to 410mm. Not only will this increase the frame standover, it will give you more scope to fit a post with more drop than the 150mm KS Rage fitted to all four frame sizes. I mention this because when I was dropping in on more rowdy trails, I always felt like the saddle was a touch too tall, even when using the full 150mm drop.
With a mix of 12-speed Shimano Deore and SLX, the Saracen clearly has the ratios to tackle all types of terrain and gradients. Unfortunately, the KMC chain isn’t our favourite, as it seems to exacerbate the chain rumble you get when Shimano’s 12 speed drivetrains get gritty and wet. So my first upgrade would be to fit a genuine Shimano chain.
I’d also recommend upgrading both tyres. The tread pattern of the 2.3in Maxxis Minion DHR II combo is excellent, but the harder dual compounds and thin EXO casings are a serious mismatch for a bike with such progressive geometry. At the very least I’d like to see an EXO+ casing on the rear for increased puncture resistance, and a softer 3C Maxx Terra compound up front to boost traction and confidence in wet conditions. In an ideal world, I’d have a 2.5in tyre up front and a 2.6in or even a 2.8in on the rear. Sadly, the frame does not have the adequate clearance for a 2.8in rear tyre and even the 2.6in that I tried for size, had less than 10mm of clearance between the chainstays and the tyre. Which means it’s likely to rub on the frame when the rear wheel flexes under load.
And the reason I’d like to see bigger tyres on the Saracen, especially on the rear, should be obvious. With no rear suspension in the frame, the rear tyre has to work overtime. Bigger volume tyres provide more grip, more comfort and ultimately more control. The Calibre Line T3-27 that won our Hardtail of the Year test, proved this point nicely.
Run your eye down the Saracen’s geometry chart and the 73.5º seat tube angle stands out as an anomaly. On a full suspension bike it would be an instant red flag for climbing performance. On trail hardtail like the Saracen however, it’s okay, possibly even an advantage, as the seat tube steepens up as the suspension fork compresses. Also the slightly slacker seat tube affords a little extra flex, which makes the bike that bit more forgiving on the climbs, and puts the saddle in a better position for rolling terrain.
Also you can’t look at the seat angle in isolation. With the longer 440mm chainstays and a seriously stretched reach, the Saracen never felt like it was close to looping out, even on the steepest ascents.
Point the Saracen downhill and the stretched geometry and slack head angle really give you the confidence to get off the brakes and let gravity work its magic. Given the bike’s length there were times when it felt like the tail was wagging the dog, and after a couple of rapid front wheel washouts, I’d reach the limits of the stock tyres, before reaching those of the bike. I also notice the Shimano rear brake changing its bite point with alarming frequency, which is weird, because this trait is usually reserved for the higher end, 4-piston Shimano brakes, not the 2-piston Deore units.
The Saracen Mantra Trail LSL is so close, but yet it’s still so far away from being the ultimate trail hardtail. It’s got generous sizing, dialled geometry and good handling. It’s even got MX wheels, which are our preferred configuration for hardcore trail hardtails. The problem? Saracen has seriously handicapped this bike by fitting hard compound, thin casing, 2.3in tyres front and rear. No performance trail bike is currently running anything narrower than 2.4in tyres, and on an MX hardtail we want to see 2.6in or even 2.8in rear tyres, as the tyre is the only rear suspension you’ve got. Factor in the variable bit point of the Shimano rear brake, and the rumble of the KMC chain and Saracen is going to need to up its game if it’s going to deliver a ride quality to match its excellent frame quality.