I must first admit that my hardtail riding days are very limited of late. Full suspension bikes are the staple of my job as an MTB guide and instructor, but of late I’ve been hankering for an alternative to my Orbea Rallon, which despite being an amazing trail tool is often overkill for beginner’s lessons and some guided rides. So, when I was asked to check out the Saracen Zenith 29er I jumped at the opportunity.
Despite having the stigma of being a sub £1000 bike and all that may entail (crap frame, budget components, unbranded parts), the first thing I noticed was the geometry. A very welcome 68 degree head angle was the first thing I noticed. Coupled with a decent length top tube and short chainstays it shows that there is hope for those of us who’d like a bike that you can potentially ride hard without having to start with bare frame and a custom build budget.
What the geometry of this frame means is that it lies somewhere in-between a bike that you can truly attack the trail with and something that will carry you over a challenging XC ride without the feeling of sluggishness that comes with too much focus on trying to appeal to an aggressive rider. A tapered headset, internal dropper post compatibility, 2 bottle mounts and crud-catcher bolts round off what is a great frame alone, regardless of what is hanging off it componentry wise.
The forks are Suntour Radion XC-LO-R with 100mm of travel which seem to do a good job under some fairly demanding trail conditions. They are air forks too which means you can custom tailor how “stiff” you want them to be. And with an external rebound adjuster, you can also decide the return speed of your fork. Even without 15mm bolt through axle, they have a fairly burly construction they, so felt stiffer than I expected on the trail. They have a lockout feature too which turns the suspension off, should you feel the need?
Some of that front end stiffness comes from the wheelset. It's a fairly chunky DS-700 Araya rim with strengthened spoke eyelets. The rim thickness and eyelets make them a little heavy, but they are quite forgiving and I’d rather have a bit of weight and be able to trust them than have a lightweight option that I have to constantly worry about. It’s also nice to see Shimano centerlock hubs too. Although not having sealed bearings, they are 100% serviceable and very reliable. So you’re unlikely to be caught out by this wheelset. It will likely prove to be very reliable over time.
The Shimano M-396 brakes complement the wheels through the hubs centerlock rotor system. This adds rigidity and a firm feel, that some 6 bolt systems lack. The levers are very hard out of the box and feel a bit harsh, but they do stop the bike very well. I suspect as the bike is ridden more and these will start to soften up. It’s a small niggle, but with brakes that work so well, I’d happily deal with it.
Shimano’s Deore drivetrain is a staple of the sub £1000 hardtail and does not disappoint on an aggregate of strength, weight and performance. It puts in an appearance on the Zenith to great effect with 2x10 shifting. Rock solid buttons with the sound of definite shifting is the defining characteristic of this groupset for me. When you shift gears, that definite click when the chain moves can be very reassuring. I’m a huge fan of the Deore range as it’s compatibility is wide and it’s cost it relatively low, so if you have a problem out of warranty or want to upgrade something, its both easy and cost effective.
Some small things I like on the Zenith 29er: The quick release lever for the seatpin is very welcome. Loads of bike don’t come with them now and the problem is that this bike begs to be challenged. I regularly dropped the post to see it I could get it down some quite challenging trails and the QR lever just made it easier. I like the internal dropper routing too. Mostly as I think every MTB on the planet should have a dropper post. The frame is also presented well with fairly minimal attention to lairy graphics, instead, it’s accented by wheel stickers and saddle colours, keeping it quite classy, but really dynamic.
Out on the trail the bike coped well with red-route riding. With a hardtail like this, you’re gonna have to hold on a little harder for sure and this was no different. But I think this could be improved on the Zenith by a more aggressive tyre choice. The Schwalbe Nobby Nic and Racing Ralphs will be enough for most recreational riders I suspect, but when pushed a little harder they can be a little unpredictable under a very stiff frame with only 100mm travel up front. You’d have to ride really hard to make this an issue though.
The second thing I might change (again, just me as a harder rider) may be the handlebar width and some thicker grips. I like more leverage and a 740mm width just does not do it for me. WIth increased width comes a bit of flex for comfort and a lot more leverage for handling. I think the bike would be transformed for the more adventurous ride with wider bars and more comfortable grips for sure.
These wee hang-ups would never be noticed by the typical buyer for this kind of bike. It’s a very comprehensive package for the first time buyer but at the original RRP (£949) it may just scare off that buyer. The problem is that a little bit over £1000 buys you a “wee bit more” and a lot less than £1000 could be a big saving on your bike? Perhaps you might buy a bike that has less of a specification, but as a beginner you’d never know the difference, having never tried anything better.
But at the sale price of £599.99 I challenge you to find a bike with this specification and capability. Bars and grips aside, this is a great bike and for a first time buyer or even a recreation rider’s upgrade it’s fantastic. It also uses the same frameset as the £1399, Saracen Mantra Trail, so should you wish to upgrade almost infinitely, you know you have a solid platform from which to launch! If you want to try the Saracen Zenith 29er, drop into our Kilmarnock store and you’re welcome to actually ride one of these bikes instead of taking our word for it.
Click HERE to get almost 40% off the Saracen Zenith 29er hardtail mountain bike. Just £599!