Van Nicholas Zion 29er – review

The Zion has been a name in the Van Nicholas range for a long time, and has been available as a 29er for a couple of years. For 2012 they have updated the frame, the changes including a shorter head tube to get the bars lower and a new curved seat tube.

Titanium frame

People speak highly of titanium. Even during the rise of carbon and aluminium and the demise of steel as a material of choice for mountain bike frames, titanium has always been held in high regard. It’s always demanded high prices too, but Van Nicholas manage to keep the price down with a direct-to-consumer business model, passing the savings on to you. That means more people can enjoy the beautiful ride that the previously exotic material offers without having to remortgage the house.

Van Nicholas use custom drawn 3AL/2.5V titanium tubes to build the Zion. The downtube is hydroformed with a curve just past the head tube to give plenty of front wheel clearance. They’ve also ovalised the downtube where it meets the head tube to increase the lateral stiffness. Curved too is the seat tube, as is becoming a standard design feature of current 29ers, allowing the rear wheel to be brought closer to the bottom bracket, keeping the chainstays and wheelbase short for decent handling.

The skinny seat stays curve around the rear wheel for clearance of 2.35in tyres. CNC machining is used to cut the intricate logo stamped dropouts out of 7mm thick titanium, and the 69mm bottom bracket is also CNC machined. A final flourish is the lovely engraved head tube logo and brushed finish, which is done by hand.

A nice touch is the use of thicker wall tubes on the larger size frame.

Specification

Our Zion was sent with the company’s brand new carbon fibre rigid fork, a new option on the Zion 29er model webpage. It’s the company’s own design and weighs just 645g. A RockShox SID is available if you don’t value the unique ride experience of a fully rigid mountain bike.

Mix-and-match specifications are increasingly common these days, so it’s nice to see a complete Shimano XT groupset bolted onto the Zion. That includes the excellent brakes, crisp shifting cassette, shifters and triple chainset combination that all worked without fault during the test period.

The Stans NoTubes Crest wheels were a highlight of the bike. Crest 32-hole rims laced to matching 3.30 hubs provided a light wheelset (1575g) that set the bike apart from other corner cutting build kits. Not only are they light but they’re tubeless-ready and offer a delightfully springy ride feel.

Our Zion was finished with a pair of Schwalbe Racing Ralph tyres and the company’s own brand bars, stem and titanium seat post. No complaints caused anywhere, even the handlebar was a nice sweep and width for the bikes intended riding.

The beauty of buying a bike from Van Nicholas is that you can tailor a Zion 29er to your own specification, from a wide list of available options through a simple drop down menu selector on its website. Choose a different groupset, wheels, bars, fork, tyres and so on to suit your budget or riding requirements.

As pictured, the Zion costs £2,765. The frame can be bought on its own for £1,174 and the carbon fork is an £250 option.

Numbers game

We tested the medium, with a small and large size also available. The important numbers are a 72° head angle, 73° seat tube, 22.8in actual top tube, 4.9in head tube, 43.3in wheelbase and 17.5in chainstays.

Frame weight is 1550g, the fork is 45g and the complete bike as pictured weighed 21b on our scales. Impressive by any measure and it’s a figure that could easily be lower with a switch to tubeless and a few other choice changes.

Performance

With its slim titanium tubes, cross-country rubber and carbon fork, it’s clearly a bike built for speed. And speed is something that it delivers on tap, any time you want it. Racers and speed merchants will adore its outright pace and quick turn of acceleration, while trail riders will revel in the purity of a rigid bike that has been reborn with 29er geometry and the latest design features.

People talk of the flex that a titanium hardtail frame offers, and this much was true of the Zion. We hate to use works like ‘springy’ and ‘compliant’ and so we won’t. Instead the frame is best described as direct, there’s a very real connection to the trail, but it doesn’t batter you senseless, with just enough give in the frame to soften the harder knocks.

Despite its low weight and skinny tubed construction, it’s a tough bike. It likes to be pushed hard. The carbon fork dampens a surprising amount of the vibrations that ripple up through the front end, allowing an aggressive riding style into horrible looking corners.

Much has been said of the advantages and disadvantages of 29in wheels, but in the Zion it’s only the advantages that shine through. Their greater diameter helps to smooth the ride through a root infested corners or through down rough rock garden, and great speed and momentum can be carried through flatter trails.

Through twisty tree-lined singletrack the Zion reacts with quick and precise reactions, unlike any bike we’ve ridden before, regardless of wheelsize. Steering is direct, turn-in sharp with little understeer even when pushing the pace when trying to keep up with the pack. We pushed the Zion really hard to uncover any faults but every ride just resulted in us arriving but at the car with a huge smile plastered over our mud splattered face.

As a main bike the RockShox  SID suspension fork option might be a wise upgrade, for a second or third bike the Zion in this build is a great bike for getting back in touch with the simplicity of mountain biking, for winter night riding, epic long distance challenges or anything else your imagination can conjure up.

I haven’t ridden a rigid mountain bike for ages, but I was shocked at how good the ride of the Zion 29er was. Granted at times it got a little rough, leaving my hands and arms jangling from the lack of suspension. A few hours into my second ride and I was right at home, relearning how to harness my limbs as shock absorbers and pick smoother lines.

It reminded me how much fun a mountain bike in its simplest form can be.

Verdict

It’s not easy to pigeonhole the Zion 29er, and to try and do so would be unfair. So we’re just going to say that anyone wanting a fast and responsive bike for trail riding and wanting to experience the thrill of a rigid mountain bike, should consider the Zion.

Build your own at vannicholas.com

Review on Mpora Gear.

Let us know what you think of this review

Discuss in the comments box below or in the forum here.

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  1. Nigel

    I bought a new Zion Rohloff frame last autumn from Fatbirds, UK. Having equiped it with a new Reba Ti fork and a used Rohloff wheelset from ebay (!) I have the most fantastic bike ever. I am 58 and riden for many years. If only this setup had been around many years ago! I cannot praise the quality of the frame highly enough.

    1. DAVID LALIK

      HEY HOW IS THE ROHLOFF PEFORMING WAS IT NEW?

  2. Tody

    Please note that the frame is made in China, i bought the 2011 Zion 29er and the down tube weld cracked after 9 months. Please excuse the pun but the Lifetime warranty is not all it’s cracked up to be…

  3. Johnny Alpha

    After my experience with Van Nick service i would not recommend. My first replacement Zion 29er frame looked to be a B grade affair with cracked welds.

  4. Paolo Calligaris

    I ride a tuareg 29 from five years and i’m really very happy with!
    Beautiful and high quality bike!

  5. Mick Wood

    I have a Zion 29er and not over joyed with it. I would go as far as to suggest that any good cyclocross bike would kick it into next Wednesday. The handling is fine for round town or cycle path use. but it is NOT a Mountain Bike…

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