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As mentioned in my “On Review” article, I’ve always been a big fan of hardtails. I think everyone should have one in their quiver. Riding a hardtail will keep your skills sharp, particularly when it comes to line choice, and from a practical standpoint, they’re easy to maintain.

Oh, hello there. My first encounter with the Zen at NAHBS in Louisville.

The modern geometry (long, low, and slack) and clean lines of the Zen TRAIL caught my eye at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show last winter, and it was pretty much love at first sight.

I built the bike up from just the frame and throughout the test, I’ve been swapping out components. Because of this, I’m going to focus mainly on the frame itself. Depending on what components I had on the frame, the complete bike weighed between 26 and 28 pounds. That’s including two water bottle cages, heavy Shimano SLX trail pedals, and burly tires built to withstand abuse. With some fancier carbon bits and lighter tires, you could easily get this bike in the 23-25lb range. The TRAIL frame itself weighs 2330g / 5.14lbs.

The initial build on the Zen TRAIL. Cranks and bars have been changed since then.

Handling

It’s designed around a 120mm travel fork, but I wanted to put a 140mm on it because, who doesn’t want more travel, right? Well, I talked to David from Zen, and he strongly encouraged me to stick with 120mm. I thought it would be too XC for my liking, but I was wrong. The head tube angle is right around 68 degrees, which is fairly slack for a hardtail, and the bike handles great.

With a wide bar and short stem, the bike whips around switchbacks–up and down–with ease. A lot of that maneuverability also comes from the ultra short chainstays, just 430mm / 16.9in. The Zen is extraordinarily nimble; pulling a wheelie is easier than any other 29er I’ve ridden. It loves hopping around the trail, finding the sniper lines and trail gaps.

The Zen TRAIL is happy to hop

The Zen TRAIL is happy to hop

Like any hardtail, the TRAIL has no problem scooting up the climbs. After riding lots of squishy bikes, it’s refreshing to have that immediate power transfer. However, on technical climbs, it does take more planning and body english to hump up and over obstacles than it would on a full suspension trail bike. Big wheels with meaty tires at the right pressure do go a long way towards helping in this regard, though. And remember, momentum is your friend.

A burly fork will make the most of limited travel

Even though the bike is nimble and easy to throw around, it feels planted on descents. Undoubtedly, that’s a result of the lengthy top tube and slack-ish front end. For a 120mm hardtail, the Zen TRAIL is way more capable than you’d expect. Having a beefy fork like the SR Suntour Aion helps to up the confidence factor as well.

If you want to stay low to the ground and squeeze all the speed you can out of the downhill, the TRAIL will oblige. Want to boost every little rise in sight? It’s just as happy doing that. I don’t think the Zen favors one riding style over another.

Just because it's a hard tail doesn't mean it can't handle the rough stuff

Just because it’s a hardtail doesn’t mean it can’t handle the rough stuff

On a recent ride down the Bear Creek trail in Ellijay, GA, my buddy commented that he was having a hard time hanging with me on the descent… and he was on a 160mm travel full suspension with a dropper post. Part of that is because that descent is one of my favorites and I know it like the back of my hand, but it’s also due to the balanced nature of the Zen. Maybe that’s how the brand got its name?

Ride Quality

You’ve likely heard the “Steel is Real!” mantra chanted by hardtail lovers, but what does that mean? Sure, carbon fiber is just glorified plastic, but I can really ride a carbon fiber bike. It’s not theoretical. I’ve also ridden some great aluminum and titanium bikes, too.

There is, however, a certain ride quality unique to a well-made steel frame. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the Zen TRAIL has the best ride feel of any hardtail I’ve ever ridden. For real. No bullshit. Zen doesn’t even use some fancy-named tubeset from Reynolds or Columbus, either. It’s just good old chromoly steel. Steel, in this case, is real.

DSC_8637

That’s a sharp looking hardtail

My most recent hardtail before the Zen was a Niner SIR 9, which uses a Reynolds 853 DZB (Double Zone Butting) tube set. That bike rode great, but the Zen is even better. It feels lively, springy, and takes the edge off all the little bumps out on the trail. Relatively speaking, the Niner had a firmer ride compared to the Zen.

The tubes on the TRAIL are thin–at least that’s what my finger-flicking test concluded–but the bike feels stout. I’m a big guy at 6′ and 205lbs, and ride a large frame. Even with those lengthy tubes, the frame felt plenty stiff sprinting or stuffing it into corners. I’ve given this bike as much punishment as I can dole out, and it’s shrugged it off. If the first several hundred miles are any indication, this bike is in it for the long haul.

Conclusions

Maybe it sounds like I’m gushing. Well, I am. The Zen TRAIL is flat out my favorite hardtail. Ever. And I’ve owned probably 10 hardtails of various materials and wheel sizes over the years. It’s also up there with my overall favorite bikes, full suspensions included.

Is the Zen TRAIL perfect? No, not quite. I’d say it’s about 90% of the way there. There are a couple small things that need to be tweaked. For instance, one of the hose guides for the rear brake is in a spot that makes it useless. I ended up just zip-tying the brake line to the chain stay instead.

The last guide for the rear brake hose is too close to the caliper and too far outboard to be useful. It needs to be rotated inwards, towards the wheel and moved closer to the bottom bracket.

The last guide for the rear brake hose is too close to the caliper and too far outboard to be useful. It needs to be rotated inwards, towards the wheel, and moved closer to the bottom bracket.

Also, the finish could use more attention. What I thought were painted accents on the seat tube turned out to be decals. They got chewed up when I put the bike in the stand, so I peeled them off. I actually think the bike looks better without them. The dark green paint and portions of raw steel look utilitarian, like a tank. There is also a small spot of rust underneath part of the clear coat, but I don’t think it’s anything to worry about long term.

A spot of rust under the clear coat

A spot of rust under the clear coat

However, the single biggest change I would make to the Zen would be to add singlespeed compatibility. That could be done via a simple change of the dropouts during production. It’s such a versatile bike already, and singlespeeds are awesome, especially in winter, so why not? Do that, and the Zen is about as perfect as you can get. The fact that it’s made in America and rings in at a reasonable $1,399 for the frame doesn’t hurt, either.

Speaking of versatility, a set of Bike Bag Dude frame bags custom made for the Zen just arrived. With perfect fall camping weather just around the corner, we’ll see how the TRAIL fairs as a bikepacking rig. Stay tuned!

The Zen TRAIL is ready for some backwoods, overnight adventures thanks to the Bike Bag Dude.

The Zen TRAIL is ready for some backwoods, overnight adventures thanks to the Bike Bag Dude.

Thanks to Zen for providing the TRAIL frame for review!

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# Comments

  • cavermatthew

    In the future if that rust gets worse you could just slap some rust converter on it, which chemically turns it into something that won’t weaken your frame.

  • fatlip11

    Looks like a SWEET ride! Wondering if you’ve ever thrown a leg over a 44 bikes? Any comparisons to be had? Good review!
    Thanks

    • Aaron Chamberlain

      Hey fatlip11, I have not had the chance to ride one of their bikes. I’ve seen them in person and they are beautiful. Little bit of a different market though since 44 is a full-custom operation. Their frames start at $1850 and go up from there depending on what options you want to add.

  • danellerkamp

    Great review. How is the handling? I have also owned a Niner SIR 9 in the past, and currently ride an AIR 9. I ride mostly in fast, flowy singletrack in the midwest so I wouldn’t want to give up the quick handling capabilities and overall quickness of my current bike, but the Zen TRAIL looks like a more capable descender and super fun bike overall. Would appreciate your input, thanks!

    • Aaron Chamberlain

      Hi Danellerkamp – honestly the only thing I miss about the SIR 9 bike is its ability to run SS. The Zen beats it everywhere else: handling, ride quality, more options for a dropper post. The head tube angle isn’t crazy slack and the rear end is extremely short, so it’s no problem weaving through tight singletrack. It feels planted at speed, but can be popped around the trail too.

      During the test, I ran a couple different stems and bars. I finally settled on a 50mm stem with a 780mm flat bar as my preferred setup. I could probably go a bit narrower on the bars just for clearance between the trees, but I’ve got long arms so they’re comfortable as is.

      Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.

  • Adodero

    How does this bike compare to some of the more expensive, high end steel frames, like Chromag and reeb? It looks like their frames are in the $600 range, which is significantly less expensive, but my understanding is that some of the more inexpensive steel frames (e.g. TransAM) lack the plushness and feel of the frames that use higher quality materials. Any thoughts on that?

    • Aaron Chamberlain

      Hey Adodero – the Zen frame is actually on sale on their website now. I would HIGHLY recommend picking one up at that price.

      I’ve ridden all kinds of steel frames from “fancy” 853 Reynolds tubing to plain old 4130. I also had a Chromag Stylus for a while. Granted, the Stylus was designed to take endless abuse, but the ride quality of that frame is nowhere near the Zen. I’ve actually been getting back out on the Zen recently after testing a bunch of different carbon bikes this year, and I’m still impressed. I stand by everything I wrote in this review almost a year ago.

      The ride quality is excellent and the geometry is pretty much perfect.

      However, just because a steel frame is inexpensive doesn’t necessarily mean it will ride like shit. My first 29er was an old Zion frame that I got for next to nothing. The geometry on that bike was wack but the ride quality was very good. It used 4130 tubing, but it was very thin which made it comfortable.

      In summary, if you want a comfortable frame, find one with thin-walled tubing. If you want a frame that can take a massive beating, look for something thicker.

    • Adodero

      Thanks for the response on a year old article, I appreciate it.

      Unfortunately, their 142x12s are not discounted, which pushes the price closer to the Chromag and Reeb frames. The wheelset I have here uses a 142×12 rear, so that makes the decision a little more complicated. Although, at almost $700 off the list price, I can probably justify just getting a new wheelset. I’m definitely looking for ride quality over durability, though.

      Thanks again!

  • Aaron Chamberlain

    No problem!

    Bummer about the rear axle, I didn’t notice that. Any chance your rear wheel is convertible back to QR? Worst case, you would just need to buy a new rear wheel and not a set.

    Another bike you might want to check out is the Canfield Nimble 9. I have not ridden it personally, but I have friends that love it. They just launched a new version but it has Boost rear spacing, so that may complicate things for you as well!

    • Adodero

      I might can sort it out, at that price I could probably just replace the rear wheel like you said.

      Is yours a QR or 142? Do you notice any significant flex in the rear end?

    • Aaron Chamberlain

      I got the 142 rear, but in all honesty a thru axle isn’t necessary on a hard tail. If you’re at all concerned about rear end flex, you can get 135mm hubs that have bolt on axles as well instead of the puny QR lever. I think you’d want a 135×10 bolt on hub. Hope makes them and they aren’t too expensive. It also looks like there are a few other companies still offering them as well.

      That may be the way to go. You get a screaming deal on the frame, but also a bump up in rigidity over a QR.

      Lemme know what you end up doing!

    • Adodero

      Will do. I reached out to them with a few questions, I’ll see if they get back to me.

      I’m not overly concerned with going to 142 in the back. I was looking at the photos and it almost appears as though the dropouts can be swapped over, their website seems to indicate that’s a possibility too, does yours appears to have replaceable dropouts?

    • Adodero

      I put an order in yesterday.

      It does turn out that the dropouts can be swapped between 135 and 142. He had a set of 142s left, so I purchased those. I also got a 120mm 51mm-offset Pike for a fork, I have a set of Guide RSCs, 50mm RF stem, and Santa Cruz carbon bars for the cockpit. I’ll probably ditch the dropper and use a Thompson, like you did, and a Chromag Trailmaster LTD saddle because leather. I have a set of old m985 cranks laying around and I’ll do the rest of the drivetrain in M8000, BB & HS are Chris King. I haven’t decided on tires yet, I normally run HR II & DHR 3Cs on my main bike, but I may run 2.4 Ardents on this.

      The only thing I haven’t decided on were the wheels. I almost bought into the Wide Lightnings, until I read about the engagement. I normally run I-9 or Chris King hubs and I think the slower engagement would drive me nuts. I have a set of CK 142×12 hubs, so I just need to decide what to lace them to.

      I’ll post pictures once it’s all together. I’ll probably end up riding the same trails, since I am in north GA and ride up at Dupont a lot (I think some of your photos were at Cedar Rock, no?)

    • Aaron Chamberlain

      Congrats! Sounds like a great build too. Since this article I did add a dropper to the bike, which of course, made it even radder.

      The lower engagement hasn’t been an issue on the Wide Lightnings. I’m still running those wheels on the Zen. The rims have seen better days at this point, but I’ve also ridden this bike hard and everywhere. The hubs are still rolling smooth though. If I were running a SS, I would want higher engagement, but with gears the AmClassics have been fine.

      The photos in this were actually taken at the Horse Park in Conyers, GA. Our office is in Decatur, so it’s one of the closer places to ride.

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