Cervélo ZHT-5 XX1 AXS first ride review – the road royalty brand's dirt debut

Premium road and triathlon brand Cervélo are getting into MTB the only way they know how. Right at the front of the race pack. But does the new ZHT-5 hardtail deliver on the dirt?

Jered Gruber
(Image: © Jered Gruber)

BikePerfect Verdict

Cervélo’s brand new hardtail mixes blistering lightweight race speed with outstanding grip and fatigue soothing forgiveness to make an awesome race-day or all-day distance and summit shrinker for those with deep pockets or cost no object podium priorities.

Pros

  • +

    Outstanding grip and fatigue smoothing

  • +

    Fiesty kick and precise targeting

  • +

    Race light but lifetime guaranteed frameset

  • +

    XC agile and responsive

  • +

    Full race ready spec

Cons

  • -

    No Jumbo Visma team version

  • -

    No frame only option for self builds

  • -

    Headset control routing

Why you can trust BikePerfect Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing products and services so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about how we test.

Cervélo are the long term bike partner of top professional road team Jumbo Visma. So when they signed up ace Dutch MTB racer Milan Vader, Cervélo had to make him something to ride. They’ve used their own mountain bike experience, plus the composite construction lessons learned on their latest competition road and gravel bikes to create a distinctive and devastatingly fast race bike that’s also surprisingly fun and forgiving for any other flat out, far out XC/epic missions. Available in two versions, the ZHT-5 XX1 AXS and a GX AXS model, can this premium machine cut it with the best XC bikes around?

The Cervelo ZHT-5

The XX1 AXS equipped here is the fanciest of two ZHT models (Image credit: Cervelo)

Design and geometry 

Cervélo have stuck with a relatively conventional double diamond frame layout. There’s no dropped rear seat stays or adjustable geometry inserts here. The seat tube is 30.9mm rather skinny 27.2mm so you get a full option of seatpost options. The post is clamped with a reliable, efficient metal collar rather than some sort of ‘too clever for its own good’ internal wedge system. There are two bottle mount positions as well.

As you’d expect from a company that’s always been ultra innovative since they shocked their way onto the triathlon scene with their freakish Baracchi aero bike there’s some very clever stuff going on in the composite lay up. That includes squared maintubes derived from the ultralight, but legendarily sweet handling R5 climbing/descending road bike that Jonas Vingegaard won two stages of the 2022 Tour De France on as he took the yellow jersey overall win. Control lines are internal with insertion through the headset top cap. Not great for later servicing/brake switching but ideal for clean lines and removing the need for reinforced insert points on the frame.

The super neat rear dropouts included the post style brake mount which keeps the super slim, top tube blended seat stays free to flex symmetrically. Cervélo have avoided the roadie style ‘flat mount’ brakes to keep compatibility with all potential brakes and make mid-race adjustment easier too. The deep, seriously stiff and tough bottom bracket area is based on the Aspero gravel race bike but with a conventional threaded BB, not their usual proprietary BBright press fit bottom bracket system. Weight is also 310g lighter than the Aspero frame at 810g, 840g, 870g, 895g across the S-XL range. That’s certainly competitive with most current and imminent race opponents as it includes rear axle with pull out ‘essentials’ tool handle and rear gear hanger etc. but it’s not quite as light as the 790g Specialized Epic or Unno Aora. The ZHT-5 has a no questions asked lifetime warranty and no maximum rider weight restriction though which is only matched in this category by the Highball frame from sister brand Santa Cruz.

Cervélo describe the geometry as ‘rationally progressive’ and it reflects the fact hardtails are normally used on simpler, less technical courses. That means a 68.5-degree head angle and 74-degree seat angle with a 430mm chain stay length across all sizes. Reach is long for XC though with a 470mm stretch on our large sample which allows for a mid-length stem.

Components and build 

Cervélo will only be making 300 complete bikes for the first production run, split between the black framed $9,999 / £8500 SRAM XX1 AXS bike SRAM GX AXS bike here and a moss colored SRAM GX AXS bike for £5000. It’s a proper racers spec too with RockShox’s lightest in category 32mm leg SID SL Ultimate fork, flat Race Face Next 35 carbon bars and a fixed length, molded head carbon seat post of Cervélo’s own design. The wheels are Reserve XC28s with 385g carbon rims but with the same no quibble lifetime warranty as the frame. Production bikes will get Maxxis Rekon Race tires rather than the Aspen tires of my pre-production test bike. The 8.8kg overall I clocked my large bike at was slightly higher than I expected given the claimed frame weight and spec though. Jumbo Visma fans will be disappointed that the gorgeous bright yellow, Shimano XTR and Fox shock team bikes won’t be available as an option either 

Guy Kesteven riding the Cervelo ZHT-5

Guy testing the ZHT-5 in some slippery conditions (Image credit: Jered Gruber)

 Ride, handling and performance

I only had one day to ride the ZHT-5 on a mix of trails and a rustic ‘bike gym’ park near Florence, but the Cervélo made a big impression. Given the weight I wasn’t surprised how effortless it felt on the winding singletrack climbs or short rocky, rooty max power ramps that were a regular feature of the day. While the seat angle is relatively conventional, the zero offset post shifts the saddle forward in the extended reach so climbing poise and position are naturally powerful too. The head angle is keen to take the tightest, fastest inside lines too. All ideal for XC racing but not exactly unique in a category where there are probably more similar options from premium to discount decade old but nothing has really changed to straight off far eastern website prices than any other MTB genre.

So what makes the Cervélo stand out, besides the big ‘cat nip for roadies’ logo that will cover the downtube on production bikes? The answer is grip and compliance and the two are totally complementary. While some XC race bikes – often influenced by the infamous stiffness tests of some German magazines – are relentlessly, painfully rigid, the ZHT-5 is noticeably more nuanced, There’s no sense of softness or loss of wattage even when you’re strangling the grips and trying to snap the bars off muscling a monster gear over a crux move. It launches with siege engine ferocity out of every corner or at every slight rise too, with even just a couple of pedal strokes providing a serious pace injection. What’s remarkable is that Cervélo seem to have woven some kind of sentient traction control into the composite lay up. Wherever your weight is on the bike or however you deliver what watts you’ve got the rear wheel stays glued down and gripping. Jagged dry rocks, loose sand, stutter roots radiating out from apex trees. The Aspen rubber – which is essentially a decorated inner tube – stayed hooked up and driving forwards.

It’s the same on descents too. The high seatpost and steep head angle took some adjusting to, but there was always more turn in or lean in grip than I expected. And as long as I looked up rather than thinking about angles, fork leg diameters and bald tires, the ZHT-5 would track the targeting laser up the trail like a Top Gun hero moment. That lithe but somehow still locked feel runs seamlessly right through the bike too. The Reserve rims are more compliant than most race wheels and the SID SL forks just felt like an extension of self and bike, not a weak link being bullied by the trail or other components.

Guy Kesteven riding the Cervelo ZHT-5

In every riding condition, the ZHT-5 seems to deliver as much traction as you need (Image credit: Cervelo)

The forgiving handling and flow of the bike pays increasing dividends the further you ride too. More grip means less stress, less nervous energy wasted and less micro vibration means less of the bone numbing, draining fatigue through carbon soles, arms and lower back that I presumed was just an inescapable downside of corner and climb detonating drive. As a result while other soon to be launched XC race bikes I’ve ridden since with insanely stiff wheels and savage frames have had me wishing I’d agreed a safe word after less than an hour I couldn’t get enough of the Cervélo. When everyone else let a typically long Italian lunch slide into a lazy afternoon/evening the ZHT-5 and I sneaked off again to go play at the local park. And with the seatpost dropped in the frame and angles now feeling more familiar it showed it could scything round berms and send tabletops way more confidently and enjoyably than expected.

While Cervélo are pushing the ZHT-5 as a pure race bike, all these attributes make it a great option for any long distance riding where supple ground isolation (it’s better than a lot of short travel full-suspension bikes I’ve ridden in that respect) and super low weight without worrying about weight limit or potential warranty claims are a bonus. Considering what a limited release it is, and how many avid fans Cervélo have the price is a lot more reasonable than what they could probably get away with.

The Cervelo ZHT-5

The Cervélo ZHT-5 is available now in a limited initial run of 300 bikes (Image credit: Cervelo)

Verdict

One of the first things Brian Bernard (head of marketing at Cervélo) and Scott Roy (lead designer) said to me about this bike was, “we’ve ridden roadie MTBs and the last thing we wanted to do was make one of those”. And while the logo on the down tube is undoubtedly going to get those without helmet peaks or leg hair much more excited than hairy, baggy short wearing folks there’s definitely real dirt in the ZHT-5s DNA. While angles are relatively conventional and the appearance is a beautifully realized delivery of a tried and tested template the way this bike grips and flows is truly outstanding.

It’s a great lesson in the truth that brutal masochistic stiffness is rarely the fastest answer for racing proper MTB terrain but also shows that MTBs are probably more suitable than actual gravel bikes for what a lot of us are using them for. And if you’re wondering where the full-suspension half to the Jumbo Visma race quiver is, then if I told you that the HT in ZHT stood for HardTail then you might be able to deduce what bike I may have ridden the next day in Florence. You’ll have to be a little more patient for that one though. 

Tech specs: Cervélo ZHT-5 XX1 AXS 

  • Discipline: XC Race 
  • Price: $9,999 / £8500
  • Available: Now in a limited first run of 300 bikes
  • Head angle: 68.5 degrees
  • Frame material: Cervélo ZHT carbon fiber 
  • Fork: RockShox SID SL Ultimate 100mm travel 
  • Sizes: S, M, L (tested), XL 
  • Weight: 8.8kg (19.6lb) 
  • Wheel size: 29-inch
  • Drivetrain: SRAM XX1 AXS Eagle wireless rear mech, shifter and 32T XX1 carbon chainset with DUB threaded bottom bracket. SRAM XG1299 Eagle 10 - 52T cassette
  • Brakes: SRAM Level Ultimate hydraulic disc brakes with SRAM CLX Centerlock 160mm rotors
  • Wheelset: Reserve XC28 carbon 29-inch
  • Tires: Maxxis Aspen Exo 29 x 2.4in
  • Bar and stem: Race Face Next 35 740mm flat bar and Aeffect 35 60mm stem
  • Seatpost: Cervelo SP29 Carbon 30.9mm
  • Saddle: Prologo Dimension NDR Nack

Guy Kesteven is Bike Perfect and Cyclingnews’ contributing tech editor. Hatched in Yorkshire he's been hardened by riding round it in all weathers since he was a kid. He spent a few years working in bike shops and warehouses before starting writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.


Rides: Pace RC295, Cotic FlareMax, Specialized Chisel, Vielo V+1 gravel bike, Nicolai FS Enduro, Landescape custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg