The steel Zen TRAIL frame, made in the US

The steel Zen TRAIL frame, made in the US

I first saw the Zen TRAIL frame on display at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. Already a fan of hard tails–I own three–the long, low, and slack steel bike caught my eye. Portland-based Zen has been making bikes for years–just for other brands. This year Zen has launched their own line consisting of five models covering road, cross, gravel, adventure, and trails.


Made in Portland, OR

Made in Portland, OR

The TRAIL frame features all the touches you would expect of a modern bike. The 44mm head tube allows you to use straight or tapered steerer forks. The rear dropouts can be run either as 135 quick release or 142×12 thru axle. A hole in the seat tube allows routing for a stealth dropper post. Very short chainstays (430mm/16.9in) and ample tire clearance means there’s only room for a single chainring up front, though.

A very short rear end leaves room for beefy tires, but only one chainring

A very short rear end leaves room for beefy tires, but only one chainring

If you do choose to go with the 142×12 rear, you will need to purchase a DT Swiss rear axle separately. RockShox’s Maxle uses a different thread pitch and will NOT work with the Zen frame. Something to keep in mind to keep your build going smoothly.

Raw steel for the Zen logos

Raw steel for the Zen logos

At first, the frame appears to be painted black, but in bright light it looks like a very dark green. There are a couple accents on the seat tube–one yellow section and one clear coated section of raw steel–that keep the bike from looking too utilitarian. The Zen logos on the downtube are raw steel as well and look great. A reflective decal is applied around the “Z” on the head tube.

Reflective decal on the head tube

Reflective decal on the head tube

Here’s the geometry chart from Zen’s website (I’m on a size 19):


Build Kit

Zen is currently selling the TRAIL as a frame only, meaning it’s up to you to select the build kit. This is typically how I build most of my personal bikes–not because I’m particularly picky about parts, I just enjoy the process of seeing it all come together. The TRAIL frame will be available from Zen this July for $1,299.

American Classic's Wide Lightning wheels are light, wide, and stiff

American Classic’s Wide Lightning wheels are light, wide, and stiff

I already had a set of American Classic’s Wide Lightning wheels and an Aion fork from SR Suntour ready to go for this particular build. Full reviews of those components will come later, but initial impressions for both are very favorable. The wheels are light–crazy light when you consider that they’re nearly 30mm wide internally. The Aion fork is Suntour’s mid range offering, and it felt stout and smooth.

SR Suntour's Aion fork

SR Suntour’s Aion fork

There will be other components swapped out, but I wanted to get the bike together for our #BrutalLoop ride, so the remaining parts were either lying around my shop or stolen off my other bikes.

Current specs:

  • Frame – Zen TRAIL
  • Size – 19″ (2330g / 5.14lbs actual weight, with seat post collar)
  • Fork – SR Suntour Aion 125mm
  • Wheels – American Classic Wide Lightning 29 (setup tubeless)
  • Tires – Maxxis High Roller II front / Minion DHR II rear
  • Cranks – Shimano SLX
  • Chainring – Race Face N/W 30T
  • Shifter – Shimano Zee
  • Rear Derailleur – Shimano SLX
  • Cassette – Shimano XT 10 speed (11-36)
  • Brakes – Avid XO 160mm rotors
  • Bar – Race Face Atlas 740mm
  • Stem – Thomson 50mm
  • Post – Thomson 30.9x367mm
  • Saddle – WTB Volt
  • Pedals – Shimano SLX Trail

Weight as currently built (with cages, pedals, sealant in the tires, etc.) is a respectable 27.2lbs / 12.3kg. Just switching to some lighter-duty tires would drop a pound or more off the bike.

First ride on the Zen TRAIL

First ride on the Zen TRAIL

Initial Testing

So far I’ve gotten two rides in on the bike. One was a quick 10-mile shakedown ride, just to make sure everything was put together correctly. I was impressed enough with the ride of the bike that I decided to use it the following day for our #BrutalLoop. Taking a hardtail on a 40-mile ride with 7,000 feet of climbing may not sound like the best idea, but I don’t regret it at all. The bike has the smooth feel you’d expect from a steel frame, but it also felt plenty burly in the chunky stuff. The only thing I was missing was a dropper post.

I’ll be riding this bike extensively through the summer, so be on the lookout for the final review!

# Comments

  • Greg Heil

    This looks like such a playful hardtail… I bet you’re having a blast testing it!

  • Rob Davis 3

    Can’t wait to hear more about this bike. Just finished building a Salsa El Mariachi and am loving it. No more FS bikes in my quiver.

    • Aaron Chamberlain

      Nice! My girlfriend and I are putting together an El Mariachi for her this weekend. Just picked up the frame a couple days ago; it’s gonna be a fun bike for her.

    • Rob Davis 3

      She is going to love it! It is an awesome climber, handles great and can be built relatively light. Without going too crazy, mine sits at 25.75lbs. with a medium frame, 1×10 and a Stans Crest wheelset. Total build cost me about $2100. https://goo.gl/photos/cQA2qr4BweTKwfAUA

  • JChurch

    Hey Aaron, looks like you’re riding my size. Care to reply with your height & inseam? Also, does it fit you optimally or is there any geometry change you would make if going custom?

    • Aaron Chamberlain

      Hey JChurch, I’m 6′ tall with a 32″ inseam. The bike fits me great. I’ve swapped the bars and stem around. Right now I have a 70mm stem with a 720mm bar. I would like a little wider bar, around 740mm, but it’s pretty dialed as is.

      I wouldn’t change anything about the geometry. I initially thought about putting a 140mm fork on it, but David from Zen talked me out of it. The frame was designed around a 120mm fork and it rocks as it is.

  • Entrenador

    Just found this. Are you still riding this bike? How are you liking it? Any issues with tire rub on the stays?

    • Aaron Chamberlain

      I’m loving it! It has been my main ride this spring/summer. No issues at all with tire rub, even using big knobbies. Occasionally, a rock will get caught in the center tread and then hit the seat tube a couple times before it gets kicked free. You can see how tight the clearance is there in the top photo.

      Long-term review coming soon!

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