First Impression: Van Nicholas Zion 29er

By John Herron

I’ve ridden my share of custom hardtail wünderbikes over the last 20 years. Not being familiar with Van Nicholas bikes, I was skeptical when I heard their bikes were sold online. The words “custom” and “online” are nearly as oxymoronic as “budget titanium”. Can one reach perfectly fit, snappy, light Ti Nirvana from a dropdown menu? Spoiler alert, yes, it seems like you can get pretty damn close.

Out of the box, there was no denying the Zion’s sexy naked brushed Ti patina. It certainly looks like a high-end Ti frame, with its clean welds, subtle tube bending and ovalization, and all within a reported weight of 3.25 lbs. Van Nicholas is a Dutch company, but like most high-volume bike makers, its frames come out of China. Quality control is my main concern for vendor produced frames, but I see no obvious faults with the Zion. The proof of course, is in the pudding (riding).

I’ve had a good part of the summer to cut up East Coast singletrack on the Zion. While 29ers have well documented frame design hurdles, the Zion tackles them straightforwardly. The 18.5-inch medium frame tested has 72-degree head angle, 43.3-inch wheelbase with 17.5-inch chainstays. With a near 13-inch bottom bracket height, and wide bars, it’s a comfortable ride position with no clearance or pedal strike issues. Overall it’s a very light and responsive 29er, with snappy handling. With only three size offerings, my lanky-legged 5’11” height put me in the upper reaches of the seatpost limit, which likely added to the small-bike feel of the Zion.

For cross-country riding, this is an efficient and fun machine, with obvious 29er hardtail pros and cons. Aggressive trail riding — with jumps, drop-offs, or high-speed long descents, — is not on the menu. And for where I ride most, this is just fine. A 29er is perfect for rolling over the low-speed moraines (rock farms), cutting through the tight and twisties, and climbing the short ups with traction to spare. My only nitpick so far is the limited tire clearance in the back, and the stock small-knobbed 2.3 tires. Without rear suspension, when the ground was slick, the back end was tough to keep underneath me. I’m on the lookout for a toothier 2.3 tire, but otherwise fine for dry cross country riding.

From the Van Nicholas website, the Zion can be “customized” with all sorts of build options, including an intriguing carbon fork (more on this in full review). A nice web interface allows you to pick parts and watch the weight and price change on the fly. The XT build test bike clocks in at € 3345 and 24.5 lbs. That’s $4,200 American. Not exactly a budget hardtail, but far less than a truly custom American-made status symbol. If you lean toward off-the-rack bike sizes (16.5”, 18.5”, or 21”), then Ti Nirvana could be a few simple clicks away.

Read the full review

Watch for our long-term review of the Van Nicholas Zion in an upcoming issue of Dirt Rag. Surbscribe today and have it delivered straight to your door.