Spoke Magazines intrepid reporter Rod Bardsley gets a coveted invite to fly to Europe and take on the Maritime Alps astride the all new Santa Cruz Nomad.
Yes, it’s that time again. Santa Cruz Bikes release a new bike and yours truly gets to live the dream in an exotic location for a few days of bikes beer and bread. This time in France and Italy where the Romans marched forth and conquered great swathes of Europe leaving behind a network of roughly hewn trails in the steep mountainsides of the southernmost reaches of the Maritime Alps. The perfect place to put a bike and its adornments through a rugged regime of high speed assaults into jagged rock beds, 2000 year old stone step edges and knife edge shale screes broken away from the surrounding cliffs over the last millennia.
It was hard to keep my mind on the task at hand at times. Coming from little old New Zealand where the oldest man made artefact is probably no more than 600 years old to a continent where dinosaurs and sabre toothed tigers roamed and wizened little Europeans carved homes out of the mountainsides thousands of years ago and then had their lives ransacked by hordes of metal armour wearing gladiators doing their best to take over the world.
Am I boring you yet? You want to know about the bike right? Me too, that’s my field of expertise, not ancient Roman history. Let’s get into it.
If you have been waiting with baited breath to see what Santa Cruz could be releasing, and had taken heed of the rumours you would have been pretty convinced that it was a new Nomad that was getting a revamp. Especially when a spy photo appeared on Pinkbike of a strange looking white bike upside down in the desert with its rear wheel missing, yet I was convinced that this was an orchestrated campaign from the Santa Cruz team designed to throw us off the scent by offering up an old prototype to get the bike trolls in a tiz.
But it wasn’t to be. The mis-direction that is. It was indeed the new Nomad out with the Fox Racing test crew getting the shock tune dialled and they got a puncture as some lucky punter rode past with his phone ready for action. Weird as the bike is spec’d with Rockshox front and rear…..but stranger things have happened.
Anyway, you have to forget about the Nomad for now. This is all about the Juliana Strega. What the…? Yes it’s a completely new long travel trail bike from the ground up specifically produced for women. Sorry, I know I’ve just made you splutter your coffee all over your freshly buttered toast but you just have to be patient. Strega? It’s Italian for “witch”. And before you moan about what marketing genius came up with that name, be aware that while the team were testing the at-the- time unnamed bike in the Italian Alps, our very own Anka Martin came up with the idea seeing as they were riding in Triora, an area where the last known witch trials were held and then some were quite possibly burned at the stake... So take it up with her.
Unlike most other bike companies that are trying to put girls off mountainbiking by offering them lower spec’d, pink accented, steeper head angled bikes, Santa Cruz believe that women aren’t that much different from the boys. They do seem to have smaller hands, lighter bodies and prefer a different colour palette, but why would they want a bike that is cheap? Or harder to ride downhill?
So yes, a new bike for the ladies and while they were at it…why not offer it to the boys, but with a manly colour, a stronger shock tune, bigger grips and a narrower saddle. Yes boys…the Nomad is back. Bigger, better, brawnier and completely different in every way. Let’s just call it the Bike from here on in because apart from the aforementioned, the frame is identical. I’m going to use the word “astounding” more than once as this is a brave move from Santa Cruz. Making a completely new bike from scratch when the last Nomad was a damn good long travel enduro bike that no one had any real complaints about.
Let’s have a look. There is only one thing that transfers over from the old Nomad. A head angle of 65 degrees but now has a geometry chip in the lower rocker to drop the bottom bracket 5mm and offer a slacker 64.6 degree head angle.Oh yeah, and 27.5 wheels. It has a completely new suspension platform stolen from its DH brother the V10. The shock is now driven from the lower link and pierces the seat tube to the mounting point mid down tube. The top swing link is still there but just to hold the bike together and it takes a while to get used to the empty space in the front triangle ( you can run a huge bottle in there now if you wish). Reach has gone ballistic with another 22mm over the old bike. My large was a roomy 460/455mm ( high/low settings) which makes this the longest bike in the Santa Cruz range. The Hightower currently runs at 450mm, and the Bronson and 5010 at 445mm.
The seat angle has been modernised to 74.5 degrees and the seat tube chopped a tad to accommodate shorter riders or a longer dropper like the 170mm Reverb that is spec’d on the L and XL. Talking about sizing, there is an XS size too. This is some accomplishment fitting all this travel in a frame of this size with such short chain stays. Yes the chain stays are a tad shorter even, and travel has been bumped up to 170mm front and rear, offered up by a metric 230mm Rockshox Super Deluxe RCT Air shock with a 60mm stroke in the rear and the new version 170mm Rockshox Lyrik up front
. Unfortunately Sram couldn’t get the new Lyrik onto our test bikes for the press camp, but by now all the new bikes that have been shipped to your local distributor should be good to go with the new Lyrik fork. Groupsets are mainly Sram and with the new model Code brakes but the lower spec models have a bit of Shimano thrown in to keep it even. wheels are a mix of hubs from Novatech 32H to DT 350 and Industry 9 Torch in 28 Hole with E13 TRS+ 30mm alloy rims across the range.
Another huge feature that is taking its time for bike manufacturers to adopt is not just a cartridge bearing at the rocker end of the shock but a pair of side by side bearings. Unheard of I know. This will pretty much remove any stiction that the current bushing system gives the industry at the moment. Interestingly, the lower link has dumped the angular contact bearings for a regular cartridge bearing set-up with a floating axle sleeve, just as you would find in most front wheel hubs.
While Santa Cruz still believe the angular contact system is a great performer, they were having a few gripes from those less maintenance inclined about pivot axles creaking and loosening if they weren’t maintained properly due to the fact that the torque on that type of bearing was a low 30-40 in/lbs and relied on the collet head to hold it in place. Now the pivot axle bolts can be cranked up tight and the collet head is still there to add security and lock the axle head in place. This means no more grease gun maintenance but will possibly mean a more often bearing change schedule than before.
Axle spacing is the Industry standard 148 and 15mm Boost and thankfully it’s still a threaded bottom bracket . There’s a funky bolt on shock guard, down tube guard and even an upper downtube guard to protect the frame from pickup truck tailgates (that’s a ute in Kiwi talk) and bike racks. Also an alloy drive side pivot cover to prevent chain strike. There is still the CC and C frame options with the C getting the lower spec’d Yari fork and “R” shock instead of the RCT. Also the rear brake mount is now a 180mm post mount.
But wait…there’s more. There is also the new Rockshox super Deluxe RCT Coil shock as an option for even better rock mowing down that rugged trail you so want to tame. I had the XX1 bike with an airshock for the duration of the press camp and it descended through the alpine rock fields like a DH bike so wasn’t fussed that I wasn’t on a coil shock. But for half of the last day, I got to throw the coil unit in and immediately noticed a vast improvement in the bikes ability to smooth out the terrain. As I was the fattest rider on the camp, the 500lb coil was a little under strength and I was getting full travel consistently, but what was impressive was that there was no bottom out thunk. The rising rate at the end of the stroke has been designed perfectly for a hard hitting bike that is going to be hucked off some very big drops.
So…the million dollar question. How does it ride? Yeah, pretty good I reckon.
The Strega comes in this matte green and the Nomad in Tan (matte sand) and Ink (dark metallic Teal) and …. Hey, I’m just messing with you. The ride is ASTOUNDING! Yeah yeah…. Same old dribble from therodfather…gets an all-expenses paid trip to the Alps to drink beer and ride bikes, what else is he gonna say? And fair enough…I wouldn’t dare bag this bike or any Santa Cruz bike. Or would I? Seriously, I’m a bit over sucking up to the bike industry but NZ is a pretty small place and I need to watch my back or I’ll have to give back those free kneepads that I complained about the stitching coming undone.
But really… I’m sure I’m never going to be able to insult a Santa Cruz bike. Not because of the free trips and beer that flows like honey (to be honest the jetlag, the lost wages and the hangovers really tell the true story that my Instagram account doesn’t) but because I know the team pretty well by now and they aren’t just some big corporate out to make money (well isn’t everybody) but I’ve seen first-hand how passionate they are about making the best bikes they possibly can and that’s in their job description and we all have to agree they have done a pretty good job to date.
Sorry, the ride. Yes, astounding. Why? It must be that V10 rocker action. I haven’t ridden a V10 but now I know why they are so highly rated. They pedal so well. This new bike sits calmly in to its sag point and no matter how hard you mash the pedals, the shock hardly moves at all. The firm compression switch is a waste of time and after I tried it a couple of times I left it open. I know you hear this from a lot of bike reviews but I am a stair climber, not a spinner, and get teased about my climbing technique as much as I do about my bum bags (talking about bum bags, I thought they would be awash in the alps but alas I was the only trend setter there too ). Every bike I have tested has needed the climbing switch activated to stop me bouncing off the trail. My bike type of preference is a mid-travel trail bike because I love the crispness and pop that they offer. I wouldn’t say this bike is in that territory but for a 170mm travel bike and even with the coil option, I was on fire on the climbs and short flat sections that littered the Trans-Provence/EWS trails we rode.
Honestly, I would have to ride it back on my home trails to get a true feeling for the trail prowess it may offer (hint) but if you like a long travel bike that can still trail ride with its shorter brothers then you are going to be pretty excited when you get to throw a leg over this beast. Long, low, slack, stiff. In fact so stiff that they have removed the drive side rear triangle brace with no compromise over the frames handling. And with all that hardware mounted so low in the frame, it’s no wonder that it corners like the Eurorail running late for Trumps flight back to the States.
What else can I say. Apparently all bikes ride pretty good now. It’s been proven that slack bikes can climb well and descend even better. It’s just that high speed pedally flattish single track where a lesser travelled steeper bike excels. To have one bike that does it all is now possible but will never truly shine in one department. It seems to me that most riders are prepared to sacrifice either descending, or snappy manners. I’m in the first camp and that’s why I chose the Santa Cruz Hightower as my one bike. But every time I hit a fast rough section I’m always held back slightly and the domination that the Nomad gave me over trails that made Wairoa Gorge look like a child’s playground was very, very addictive so I’m seriously considering moving over to this bike as it did indeed ride exceptionally well in all trail types. (For sale: one slightly abused Hightower, only one geriatric owner )
The super low stand over and short seat tube once again make this bike a great choice for those looking to ride a bigger longer bike . I always ride a large frame, but often wish my legs were longer for an XL with a 150mm dropper. Now you can choose the length of bike you want, not the one determined by a bike manufacturer.
Where we riding on the sort of terrain that suited this bike? You bet ya. Our first day was a mix of ancient walk tracks littered with shale to steep embedded rock with hucks to flat and not so flat. Our guide for the first two days was Ash Smith, the man who brings us the Trans Provence enduro/rally style race. We rode old race tracks and virgin yet to be stages including massive 1000 metre descents which we hit at speed with only minimal rests. What should have beaten me up and reduced my hands, forearms and thighs to jelly, actually left me feeling always ready for more.
The mighty Lyrik fork which has received rave reviews was feeling pretty out gunned by the bikes rear suspension so thankfully the new 2018 Lyrik is I know a vast improvement and hopefully will be able to match the Nomads rear end. Day three was a different beast where Molini resident mountainbiking holiday gurus Ady Nash and his partner Jo Denman from Riviera Bike raced us down their purpose built high speed flow trails littered with stegosaurus plate rocks and natural kickers that could launch a confident rider like Cedric to the moon, and like a trooper old CG gave it his best. This guy is a menace on a bike and if something is going to break then he’s the perfect guy to break it.
All of this descending nirvana was linked together by pedalling trails with steep loose pinch climbs and sprints as we jockeyed for position in a pecking order that brought high fives and fist bumps galore interspersed with adrenaline fuelled yabbering as tales of dodgy landings and cliff drop avoidance bombarded every rest stop. Yes the trails were a perfect match for this bike, typical Euro enduro racing trails and never once did the bike feel under or over whelmed.
Santa Cruz Carbon Reserve Wheelset
But wait, there’s more. Purchase a carbon Strega or Nomad and they’ll throw in a Reserve carbon wheelset at a price yet to be determined but about $1000 USD less than the ENVE upgrade. Yes, now you don’t have to settle for an expensive, super stiff, hidden nipple wheelsetupgrade with your new Santa Cruz bike.
With the market abound with expensive and not so expensive carbon rims that are breaking more and more frequently, Santa Cruz reckoned they could do a better job than most and searched the dark web for a carbon guru to join the team and they found one. Nic McCrae jumped on board and used his aerospace composites expertise to design a completely new rim that has me convinced is at the high end of the carbon rim spectrum. Not from anything that he told me, except that he tested so many other rims to failure and then made his stronger, and kept the weight reasonable as well. Around 470 grams for the 30mm internal, 275 model.
The reason I rate them is I (and the others, and I’m talking that bike hucker from hell Cedric Gracia) rode so hard on the sharpest biggest rocks the Romans ever stumbled over and between 30 of us, not even one flat tyre. Astounding. Even when Nic joined us on the press camp and saw the thousands of sharp embedded rocks littering the trails and knew his rims where going to get the hiding of their lives, he didn’t bat an eyelid (I was watching him carefully). When I joked about the warranty getting used up immediately he said “go for it, I’ve tested them on much worse” he got my immediate respect. These wheels have been thoroughly tested by the Santa Cruz pro enduro team, the 50:01 bike gang and Danny MacAskill used a set when filming his edit “Wee Day Out”. Have a look at the spec’ sheet to get an idea how they’re made, compared and tested.
Nic has put the carbon where it’s needed. Thick 3.5mm rim beads which are not only stronger but less likely to pinch your tyre (most other companies are around 2.5mm) and hookless of course. Raised external carbon nipple beds which leaves the internal surface smooth therefore stronger (it’s about the way the carbon fibres don’t move in the mold) and asymmetric spoke drilling to give a uniform tension in the spokes. Good old 28 x 3 cross J-bend spokes with external alloy nipples for reliability and ease of repair and the holy grail… A lifetime warranty for the original owner. Yes, break them and they fix it for free.
How will they do that? The Santa Cruz distributor in New Zealand, Hyperformance Hardware will have a stock of wheels and rims on the shelf ready to swap over if things go rubber up. There are 5 rims. 275 gets 27 and 30mm internal widths and 29 gets the same but also a 25mm purely for XC. Hubs are Industry 9 Torch or DT Swiss 350 laced with DT Competition Race spokes and Sapim secure lock alloy nipples.
Incidentally Nic heads the team that runs the R and D in the Santa Cruz laboratory and makes sure the stiffness, tuning and lay-up of the carbon in the bikes also gets the best possible treatment. You don't see many broken Santa Cruz frames these days do you?
The wheelsets are available only on a new Santa Cruz bike for now, but as winter disappears and bike buying time arrives, you will be able to buy a rim or wheelset of your choice from your local bike shop I’m sure.
So there you have it. A 170mm travel trail bike that is the best pedalling bike in the range. Will it take on the mighty Hightower as the best “one bike in the quiver”? Probably not as it is still at the far end of the spectrum but I think it depends where you ride. I know If I lived in the Alps or Whistler or even our big mountain areas like Queenstown and Nelson, I wouldn’t hesitate to make this Nomad the “One”.
It never once felt to me like a big lazy bike. It’s going to be an interesting time as the long travel market surely must gain an edge with bikes like this on offer. It may mean the demise of the downhill bike unless you actually race DH. But in saying that, I bet this Nomad will give most DH bikes a run for its money on the reasonably tame courses in our neck of the woods. Whatever happens, watch your back when the Nomad arrives in your town. It is fast. Real fast.
The Good:: Low standover, short seat tube, a decent but not excessive reach, tidy cable routing, cartridge bearing shock eyelet, geometry chip, coil shock option, can take a huge drink bottle or frame bag, rides like a trail bike- descends like a DH bike, not too lazy to suck on flat trails, no bob suspension platform, seamless ramp up with no bottom-out.(Is that enough?) Oh, and you can buy one in two weeks time.
The Bad: Still no Kiwi/Aussie/British brakes around-the-correct-way frame cable tabs
The Ugly: I don't have one in my shed (yet). But seriously, the team didn't have any hangovers when this weapon was on the drawing board and it shows. Outstanding performance and detail across the board.