Our Santa Cruz Story
Part 1: Bronson v1.0
Let me start off by saying a few things. I am NOT a pro rider, for starters. I’m a weekend warrior with a full-time job, grad school commitments, a small family, and a lot on my plate. I ride to release, to renew, to refresh. Also, I ride to push myself. I like to go fast. When I have the time to pedal, I want my kit (from top to bottom) to function 100% perfectly every time, so that I can think ONLY about my ride. I’m a bit picky, some may say. I was entering into my 3rd year of riding mountain bikes when I moved to Santa Cruz Bikes and each season prior I spent on the saddle of an Enduro, albeit different model years. Some were carbon, some aluminum. All were rippers, in their own special ways. So, when I swapped my Specialized Enduro for a Santa Cruz Bronson three years ago, I had high expectations.
The first Bronson and I had many adventures, including a little race called the Santa Cruz Super Enduro. That bike was really, really FAST compared to my Enduro, at least in terms of the pedal platform and efficiency. We traveled to lots of places together & after a full two years on the bike I had the following critique: The front-aft balance on the first Bronson was not right for me. The rear was too long, and the front too short. It resulted in a very “balanced” feel to the bike, which worked against my “heels down, ass out, off the back on the steeps” way of riding. Still, it was a fun bike. I even placed 6th in the Enduro in Santa Cruz on that thing (cat 1) and tied a guy from the EWS to the .001 second for 6th place. Really! I added a longer shaft to the Pike, which slacked the bike out a little more & provided more travel up front. That helped a lot!
I walked away from the Bronson with a few thoughts.
- Santa Cruz and their VPP is definitely the direction for my future rides
- ENVE wheels are absolutely worth the upgrade
- 1x SRAM drivetrains are a requirement from now on
- I gotta ride in Santa Cruz more
Part 2: NOMAD
After many miles on the Bronson, I decided I wanted to go back to a more aggressive ride. I did want to keep the pedaling efficiency of my VPP, but I wanted that short-tail, long front feel of my old Enduros. So, after some PinkBike action, I managed to swap my kit onto a Nomad frame and give that baby a whirl.
The Nomad is a big boy bike for sure! It boasts the short rear, long front, slack head tube “full on” feel I was missing. It has these characteristics while still pedaling amazingly well for such a big bike! Okay, did you catch that? It pedals amazingly well! FOR A BIG BIKE. So there’s the catch. If you ride this thing daily, ups before downs, earn-your-turns, etc. it may not be the perfect bike for you. I really enjoyed descending on this thing. I also enjoyed the ease with which I could scamper up a hill. The big bike only felt big in the way that the front wheel needed to be constantly monitored on steep climbs, as it would wander around a bit. I had to force my body weight on the front end more than on the Bronson, due to the fore-aft balance. It is still an amazing bike, but I live in Durango, CO where every ride starts with a climb, has a climb in the middle, and sometimes ends with one. Sure, we bomb equal amounts of elevation back down, but we earn our turns. So, in the end, the beautiful Miami Vice Nomad and I parted ways. I decided that, since descending technical terrain was actually my strong point, I should seek a bike which excels at the ups & the in-betweens but doesn’t negatively impact my downhills in any significant way. So, I decided roughly 67 degrees up front was my goal. The Nomad’s 65.5 felt a bit excessive to me for the daily rides. 68 feels too steep. 67 is, as the chick in the bear house said, “just right” for me.
I think that the V10 is, by far, better suited for the downhill runs than the Nomad & I think a more moderate (slightly, mind you) trail bike is better for daily trail rides. So, the Nomad was a tweener which felt like I was compromising slightly on both ends. So, in the process of considering my next bike, I rode a 3.0 650B hardtail from Specialized, called the “Fuse”, which was a really fun bike. I said a few times, if only this thing had ONE INCH of travel, it would be the perfect trail bike. It was truly a blast! However, the 3.0 rubber did drag a bit uphill, a lot more on pavement, and ultimately it was still a hardtail. Getting truly rad on this thing resulted in more soreness the next day for sure. Still, it definitely impressed.
Okay! So to the great 2017 decision! I rode the Bronson v2 on a demo, as well as the Hightower. The new Bronson checked off every box on my wish list from the first iteration completely. They adopted the shorter tail, longer front of the Nomad. They adjusted the head tube angle a bit, and they further tuned the suspension platform. That bike was FAST, FUN, and rowdy. It fit like an old shoe. I loved it! That said, I hesitated on a 66 degree HTA, and really wanted to try something different. My experience with the 3.0 rubber definitely changed my perception of “6 fattie" and the recent changes to bike geometry have also piqued my curiosity surrounding this big wagon-wheel 29er movement.
So, along comes the Hightower. My demo bike was the 6fattie configuration. I expected the bike to feel slow, sluggish, dull. I was pleasantly surprised. The bike accelerates quickly, carries speed really well, and just GOES when you stomp on the pedals. It remains extremely well composed on the descents, drops, chunky terrain & is super fast on the ups. I find myself brake-checking into sections now simply because this thing is carrying more speed than previous bikes I’ve owned. So, after a ride on each, I decided to try something different. I ordered my Hightower.
The 150mm dropper post (also on the Nomad) really makes a giant difference for me. I can perfectly position myself for the climbs, and then really drop my weight low for the high-speed descents. It really makes the 125mm droppers seem inferior. The Hightower comes from the factory with the SRAM Eagle 12 speed drivetrain (in the XO1/ CC package) which allows for the simplicity of the 1x setup, but much broader range. Rather than take an easier climbing gear, I upgraded my front ring to a 34T for a higher top speed on the downs. I also added a simple, clean, lightweight, and highly effective MRP top guide to the bike, just for insurance. ZERO DROPPED CHAINS for me! The rest of the kit is perfect. The bars are wide, the SRAM Guide RSC brakes stop when I say stop, and the overall build came in around 27lbs. Light and spry!
I’ve now ridden the Hightower for an XC race, lots of burly trail rides, big ups and big downs, and everything in between. Santa Cruz has truly struck a balance with this bike. It feels like a spry XC machine on the climbs, where I don’t feel an elevated need to push my chest onto my stem to retain traction. I also don’t experience the wandering front wheel, thanks to the reasonable head tube angle up front. After a few rides, I started to find the sweet spot on this bike. I can absolutely descend everything on the Hightower, at super speeds, that I could on my Nomad. Will I run out of travel out back sometimes? Sure. I already have! But, the bottom-outs aren’t harsh and the bike keeps on going. A pal outfitted his Hightower with a small coil, and he uses it daily in Pisgah National Forest with zero complaints. He also owns a Nomad, 5010 and others, for comparison. His other bikes are collecting dust now.
I placed 18th in the “30 Grand” race in Junction last month on this bike, riding the courses blind. It was not as spry on the long grinding climbs as my competitors with their 20lb hardtails and quads from the gods, but I tagged them all on the downhill sections and managed to finish well for an Enduro/DH guy. On every single larger feature, steep drop, rocky chute, I just railed on this bike. I did not hesitate coming into these sections blind and the bike did exactly as told underneath me. For the third day on a new bike, I had an amazing time. Even these big 2.8 tires kept speed on the entire course. In fact, the dusty trails probably gave me preferential treatment with these big ol’ wide tires!
I hear from pals that I’ll never look back, as the 29er wheels just feel like free speed all around. We shall see! It’s nice knowing that my bike now has two personalities for two different types of trail/terrain/moisture levels. It’s two rad machines in one! I would say the Hightower is great for new riders who want some confidence on the downs, but with no compromise on the ups. It’s also great for rippers who aren’t afraid to boost over, hop through, the rockier sections that only big bikes can plow through in straight-line fashion. It’s just a really well designed bike that has the right angles, right BB height, right amount of travel for 95% of trails out there. My rides are getting longer, with more elevation gain, all the time on this thing - and every time you climb 1,000 feet in Durango you’re sitting at the precipice of a wicked fun, full-speed, and technical 1,000 foot descent… The Hightower is definitely up to the task. PR’s abound!