Reinvigorated UK brand Saracen has been going from strength to strength recently. It was a pretty early 650b wheel adopter, and the Mantra hardtail range got mid-sized hoops for 2014.
The Mantra Trail we’re looking at here is a 2015 model and sits second from top in the four-bike line-up.
Frame and equipment: Long and slack at the front, short and steep at the back
The Mantra’s compact, low-slung aluminium frame pretty much yells: “I’m a hoot to ride!” It’s stout where it counts (head tube, down tube, front part of the top tube) and a little more restrained elsewhere.
Saracen has equipped the Mantra with an X44 head tube, rendering it usefully future proof. As supplied, it’s equipped with a semi-integrated headset and a straight-steerer fork, but if you wanted to upgrade the fork in future you could fit a conventional external lower bearing and a tapered steerer. It’s a clever set-up.
The geometry is relaxed at the front and steep at the rear
At the back, both pairs of stays have S-bends for maximum clearance. The chainstays are particularly swoopy as they navigate to the points of most space between the bottom bracket, rear tyre, chainrings, the end of the crank arms and your feet before eventually heading outboard to meet the distinctively angular forged dropouts. There are some fairly standard UK inspired design touches too, like the forward-facing seat clamp slot to keep rear wheel spray out and Crud Catcher mounts under the down tube, along with rack/guard mounts.
Though the transmission parts are from the relatively lowly Shimano Deore group, there are a couple of things worth bearing in mind. First, Deore is actually extremely capable kit. And second, Saracen have included a Shadow Plus rear mech with a clutch mechanism that does a great job of keeping the chain under control – something that’s particularly important given the amount of chain that’s needed to work with the Mantra’s triple crankset.
Don't be put off by Deore - it'll do the job perfectly well here
It would be easy to criticise the Mantra for not having a more contemporary double set-up, but at this price range even overtly trail-friendly bikes like this might get pressed into commuting or utility duty. As soon as you want to get road miles in, then the bigger ratios afforded by an outer chainring start to become rather useful.
The 650b wheels are shod with Maxxis tyres – a chunky, rounded 2.25in Ardent up front and a svelter, faster-rolling 2.1in CrossMark at the back, presumably with a view to livening things up a bit.
Based on this selection of bikes, Suntour have the budget end of the fork market sewn up. The Mantra’s Raidon is a worthwhile step up from the XCRs found elsewhere at this price range – it feels a little stouter, the action is smoother and the damping more composed. A through-axle would have been an obvious choice on a bike of this demeanour, but the parts budget had to stop somewhere.
The Deore spec sounds a bit underwhelming but Saracen’s decision to put money into the fork is a perfectly valid one – the running gear works perfectly well, and even more expensive kit will wear and need replacing sooner or later. The overall weight is good too, at a hair under 13kg for a pretty robustly-built bike.
Ride and handling: balanced, grippy and fun to ride
The UK has always had a slightly different take on hardtails to the rest of the world. In most territories, hardtails (even inexpensive ones) are essentially cross-country race bikes, even if only in spirit. The Mantra isn’t. It’s designed, essentially, to be fun.
The Saracen’s geometry is relaxed at the front and steep at the rear, with a short back end and fairly long front centre (the distance from the centre of the bottom bracket to the centre of the front wheel axle) putting you nicely between the wheels. The riding position gives the Mantra a balanced, poised ride, making it easy to control grip at each end.
The Mantra trail offers a balanced, fun-focussed ride
The combination of the large, knobbly front tyre and narrower, shallow-treaded rear means that under most circumstances the back’s going to let go before the front, but that’s the way it should be. The Saracen responds well to it – just keep pushing the front and the other end generally sorts itself out. The big, relatively low bar makes it easy to keep the front stuck in – it’s just a question of holding your nerve.
The Mantra doesn’t have the trail-smoothing magic of a 29er, but for a sturdy aluminium frame it doesn’t present any comfort issues. There’s room for a bigger tyre in the back too if you feel the need for a bit more cushioning.