You may have read a test ride review that I penned about the latest rendition of the Santa Cruz Bronson after a demo ride experience at Outerbike in Moab. If you read that review, you know that I wasn’t a fan of how the Bronson rode. As a result, the good folks at Santa Cruz got in touch with me in an attempt to clear up what they viewed as a misunderstanding. They thought that I hadn’t had enough time to properly set up and tune the bike so that it would ride well for me. I’m always willing to entertain new information and to change my opinion and my point of view, so I hopped on a plane and headed out to Santa Cruz, California to spend a couple of days riding the Bronson and touring Santa Cruz HQ.
Dialing in the Setup
I began my second test of the Bronson by swapping out the stock saddle with my favorite, fitted seat, to start eliminating as many variables as possible. We also spent a while fiddling with the shock and fork pressures, in an attempt to dial it in as much as possible. Then I hopped on the Bronson for a quick evening spin with Don Palermini, North American Marketing Manager for Santa Cruz.
While our first lap was relatively smooth, even on some of the descents, corners, and climbs, I was still feeling the same handling effects that I felt in Moab. Specifically, the front end felt like it was wandering on the climbs, and I didn’t feel like the suspension was working properly through the chunk.
After some reflection, we delved deeper into bike setup the next day. We checked and re-checked the shock and fork pressures, and it actually took us several attempts to get the shock pressure to an ideal spot. The model of Fox Evol that’s spec’ed on the bike generally requires that you start at body weight plus 50 PSI as a starting point, which is a very high air pressure. From there, we had to bump it up even a little bit more to get sag to about 30-33%. After about our third attempt on the beginning of the second day of riding, we finally got it there.
As we were touring the Santa Cruz facility and talking about the differences between the latest Bronson and the previous version, I thought hard about my ride the previous evening, and what could possibly have led to adverse handling. As I pondered the situation, I realized that as I cornered, I felt like I had to suck my hands in, and that the bars were sticking out way farther than I needed. I asked Scott Turner, Public Relations Manager for Santa Cruz, what the stock bar width was on the Bronson, and at first he wasn’t sure—but after we double checked, it turned out that the bar is 800mm in all of the higher-cost build kits, on all bike sizes.
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.
I once ran an 800-mil bar on a trail bike for about a year, but this was about 5 years ago now. Since that time, cockpits have gotten longer and front ends have gotten slacker, as I talked about in extensive detail in my previous article. So, while I did get away with using an 800mm bar at one time, it was on a bike with a much shorter top tube than the Bronson currently sports. In recent years, I’ve found 760-780 to be the sweet spot for my shoulder width and arm length, and generally 760mm is the better of the two. So, I asked Santa Cruz to swap the bar for a 760, to see if that would make a difference in handling.
Out on the Trail
With my own saddle, a narrower bar, and dialed-in suspension pressures, we were ready to really lay down a hard day of riding. And shred we did: almost 25 miles, and 3,300+ feet of climbing and descending. Over the course of our test ride, we climbed and climbed, we railed smooth, fast descents, and pinned it through gnarly root gardens, rocks, down stupid-steep trails that are in no way sustainable, and off of ledge drops, kickers, hips, and all manner of air-seeking nonsense.
In short, we rode almost everything imaginable in a 25-mile ride loop… at least, that you can find in Santa Cruz. It is interesting to note that Santa Cruz’s terrain is radically different from the terrain in Moab that I’d tested the Bronson on previously. Moab is home to an endless variety of chunky, technical rocks, and while Santa Cruz has a couple here and there… they just don’t have many rocks. They do, however, have plenty of roots.
You may remember that even in my 2014 review of the previous Bronson, I noted the high number of pedal strikes that I encountered on this bike. That didn’t change between 2014 and 2015. But in Santa Cruz itself, I experienced maybe two pedal strikes max over the course of my entire two days of riding. That’s because Santa Cruz just doesn’t have those chunky obstacles next to your pedal to hit them on… in general.
Instead, most of the obstacles are roots that run all the way across the trail, or ledges, jumps, or berms. If you’re riding properly, all of these obstacles won’t normally cause a pedal strike. Rather, strikes happen most often in rock gardens where a rock is located next to the middle of the bike, but the rider isn’t actually riding over that rock—they’re negotiating a different obstacle a bit before or a bit behind the pedal strike rock. It seems to me that perhaps one reason the Bronson is prone to pedal strikes is that Santa Cruz’s hometown terrain doesn’t offer the type of obstacles in which pedal strikes are common, meaning that they don’t feel the need to build a bike to avoid such strikes. The difference in terrain is interesting, to say the least.
But what about my other complaints from my previous review?
In short, many of my complaints about suspension issues dissolved over the course of my latest test ride. I ran through all of my suspension a few times, meaning that the Bronson definitely didn’t feel as bottomless as some bikes, but one instance in particular was a classic issue of airing off of a substantial drop blind, on a trail I’d never ridden, and then casing the landing in a root garden. I smacked the snot out of that bike on a poorly-executed landing (my fault), and while it bucked pretty hard, I rode it out and survived the experience. A lesser mountain bike would have sent me flying off the front, down the slope, and into a tree–so thanks for saving my skin, Bronson!
While I still don’t think the Bronson climbed as well as the comparable Intense Tracer 275c that I also rode in Moab, I had better luck climbing this time around. Thanks to really dialing in the shock pressure, and having my weight better distributed with a narrower bar, I powered up short, steep climbs and long grinders alike. I made sure to spend some time climbing in the full-open shock setting to see what that felt like, but if you’re really grinding it out, making use of the lockout on both the shock and the fork is a good idea. While the Bronson climbed decently well in full-open, in out-of-the-saddle efforts there was some serious bob. Thankfully, the lockouts function as true lockouts, turning the bike fully rigid.
In my previous Bronson review, I mentioned that few trails are as steep as Killer Bee, where I found the Bronson to excel. That may be true in a general sense, but Santa Cruz actually has a high percentage of stupid-steep, fall line singletrack, that at first when I looked at them, I thought, “holy crap, we’re going to ride that?” But when I dropped in on the Bronson, the steeps felt like cake! This bike truly slays steep trails.
The place I had the most fun during my time in Santa Cruz was railing flowy, bermed-out descents with jumps and rollers. At speed—which I wasn’t able to achieve in the tight, twisty terrain that I rode in Moab—the Bronson seems to stabilize and really come into its own. While the low bottom bracket leads to the pedal strike issues mentioned above, it also provides frigging awesome cornering! Add in the wide Enve wheels, the Maxxis Minion DHR tires, the well-crafted berms, and the hero dirt conditions thanks to black dirt and rain the two previous days, and I don’t think I’ve ever cornered a mountain bike this hard, this fast, and this confidently! Seriously, I felt like I was on rails, and like I could do no wrong in the corners! Jumping was also predictable, and the short rear end made me want to manual and wheelie, although my skills in that department are admittedly limited.
“So,” you may be thinking, “it sounds like you had a good time on the Bronson this time around. What was the issue the first time?” Aside from the fact that perhaps the suspension wasn’t totally dialed in, I honestly think the bar width threw everything off the first time around.
Why a wide bar could negatively impact handling for shorter riders.
Wide bars are in vogue right now, but as the Santa Cruz guys and I discussed, it seems like some of these trends tip over the edge and go too far, and then reign back in to a more moderate place. I think this is the case with wide bars–and especially for shorter riders.
Generally speaking, wide bars provide serious handling advantages. In general, they allow the rider to drive the front wheel more aggressively and more confidently, and they effectively slow down the steering, to allow more precise handling. The longer bar also damps front end feedback, providing a smoother ride. However, at some point a handlebar can become too wide for the rider’s specific anatomy.
If you’re a taller person with wide shoulders, you can likely get away with running a really wide bar–maybe even wider than 800mm! But if you’re shorter and have narrower shoulders, bars can be so wide that you start seeing adverse handling effects. I’m 5’ 7” tall, and have decently wide shoulders for my height, but with a top tube this long, 800mm is just too wide for me.
Here’s what I think is happening: having a longer cockpit forces the rider to stretch out a bit more to reach the bars. Shortening the stem generally compensates for longer top tube length, and running a shorter stem provides more crisp, controlled handling. So this is an overall benefit. However, with as long of a cockpit as the Bronson now sports, a 5’ 7”-tall rider with normal-length arms is getting pretty stretched out. But now, let’s add in a handlebar that’s super wide—much wider than the rider’s shoulders. Instead of the arms extending a natural line to the bars (when bent for an aggressive riding stance), an extra wide bar forces the rider to push his hands further out to reach the ends of the bar. If the bar is much wider than his normal stance, this means that the rider’s reach is shortened by pushing the arms out further. To reach the ends of the bars, the rider must lean forward even more, consequently putting his weight too far forward, bringing his center of gravity incorrectly ahead of the bottom bracket.
Having one’s weight too far forward could lead to poor suspension performance, and bottoming out the fork on moderate obstacles—as I noted in my previous review. Having a bar that’s too wide could make the front end difficult to control while climbing—which I noted in Moab, and on ride number one in Santa Cruz.
In short, shortening my bar eliminated the uphill wandering front end that I was experiencing, and the negative downhill handling characteristics as well. Problem solved!
Well, maybe not totally. There are still a couple of issues that remain.
Issue #1: The 800mm bar is spec’ed on all high-end build kits—regardless of frame size.
Of course, you can always cut down your handlebar, but if I had these kinds of issues from running an 800-mil bar on a size-medium frame, I can’t imagine what a rider who’s even shorter than I am—say, 5’ 4” or even shorter—would feel like trying to ride a size-small frame with an 800mm-wide bar. I think it makes way more sense for bar width to correlate to frame size than to the price of the component build, as this is an issue that should be dictated by the anatomy of the rider.
I’m sure that some riders will come back and say that they’re super short and are running an 800mm bar, and my response would be, “perhaps you could have even better handling if you shortened your bar up a couple of inches.” Bike fitting and contact points should be dependent on the anatomy of the rider, and the handlebar is easily the most critical point of bike contact and control. I’d recommend that Santa Cruz change the stock bars in future build kits.
Issue #2: Differentiating the Bronson from the Nomad.
I was still confused about what exactly differentiates the Bronson from the Nomad. Would the Nomad get longer and slacker to separate it more from the Bronson? Would it get even more travel? If I’m a consumer, what would lead me to buy the Bronson over the Nomad? We sat down over dinner, and I let Santa Cruz say their piece.
Will Ockelton, Global Marketing Director for Santa Cruz, was the first to chime in and answer my question:
“If you’re not quite sure what you want, then the Bronson is the go-to bike. You can do so much on that bike. But I think the people who go for Nomads know that they want to go that little bit further, and they know that they want something a little bit slacker. It’s the same for a 5010. If you know that your type of riding style requires something a little bit shorter travel, that you’re not going to compromise the way that you’re doing stuff, then the 5010 is the same thing. The Bronson is now like the center of the model line, and everything else radiates off from that. You can’t go wrong with the Bronson. People have ridden them here as cross country bikes, people have ridden them here as enduro race bikes–that’s the crux of it, really.”
The marketing guys did admit that very minute differences separate many of the models in their line. Also, they informed me that one additional difference between the Nomad and the Bronson is that the Nomad is single chainring-specific, meaning you can’t run a front derailleur, whereas you have that option on the Bronson.
But when speaking about the minute differences between some bikes, Ockleton said,
“We don’t make it easy for the unfamiliar consumer, for sure. We’re also catering to a very experienced audience. There are people demanding those subtle differences between models, and that’s why we do it. It would be too simplistic if we tried to put too much separation between them, you know?”
Scott Turner, Public Relations Manager for Santa Cruz, chimed in about the intended purpose of the Nomad:
“The Nomad was a no compromises [bike]–we know we’re going to do a single chainring, we’re going to make the chainstays as short as we can, we’re going to make it pretty slack. 165mm of travel—obviously we can make that bike longer travel if we want to, but we’ve gone in that direction, and edged ourselves back. We don’t like bikes that are over that amount, as an all-around, all-mountain enduro. You have to do weird things to get all the suspension tucked in there.”
So can a bike ever get too long and too slack? Santa Cruz seems to think so:
“We’ve actually been quite restrained in the geometry that we’ve brought out. We haven’t rushed into longer, slacker, lower kind of stuff, it’s been. . .pretty incremental for us. I think the Nomad is—well, we might eat our words—but I think the Nomad is about as far as you want to go for a rideable bike, that’s not purely park-specific.” -Ockelton
It was great to get a feel for of the intended purposes for the Nomad and the Bronson, but to me, having Santa Cruz essentially say, “If you’re not sure what you want, then get a Bronson,” felt like a cop-out. It seems to me that if you’re going to spend up to $8,699 on a mountain bike, you had better damn well know that where you’re spending your money is worth it to you! Thankfully, Brian Bernard, Digital Marketing Manager for Santa Cruz, elaborated a bit more, from his perspective:
“I just moved here from Utah about a year ago. And for me, the Bronson is probably the best bike for living in Salt Lake City, because you ride cross country trails, but you also go to Moab. Then you go over to Fruita. And it’s all buffed out and smooth, but there’s some kinda gnarly stuff you can get into. So that bike can do all of that, and not really be at a disadvantage. Whereas the Nomad, if you try to pedal that in some of those places, it’s not going to be as quick as some of the others. . . .If you ride in one place all the time, you know what that place requires, you know what bike you want to ride there. But if you ride a lot of different terrain in the surrounding area, I think the Bronson does a really good job with that.”
Despite these assertions, I’d personally have a hard time saying that eliminating one degree of HT angle off the front and bumping up the travel 10mm front and 15mm rear, and adding a front derailleur mount, is going to destroy how the Nomad would pedal VS the Bronson. But that could just be my perspective. As Don Palermini, North American Marketing Manager for Santa Cruz said, “it kinda comes down to rider preference.”
“. . .It’s really just what you’re into. That’s why it’s so hard for us, because we have to write descriptions for each of these bikes. We’ve gotta try to help the customer to pigeon hole them. We do our best to try NOT to, you know, we try to just go, ‘the best way [to figure out which bike is best for you] is to go and demo one.'”
Turner added, “personal preference has so much to do with it. We can’t tell people what’s going to be the best bike. We can make a lot of different bikes, and one of them will appeal to pretty much every rider.”
“That’s why we put so much effort into the demo program,” said Ockleton in closing.
Over the course of my 35 miles of test riding in Santa Cruz, I was able to get a much better feel for the Bronson and able to dial the bike in so that it fit me better. I have to retract some of what I wrote previously and admit that yes, this bike can and does rail, and rides pretty dang well!
However, a few issues still remain. If it really is up to rider preference as Santa Cruz says, then I personally still wouldn’t buy the Bronson. If I was to go that long of travel, I’d just jump all the way to the Nomad. If I was concerned about the negative effects of running Nomad-length travel, then I’d go with the 5010–you can do a lot on a 130mm bike if you know how to ride well.
Finally, if it does come down to test riding the bikes yourself, as Ockleton asserts, I think many shorter riders are going to come away with the same taste in their mouths that I did, thanks to the 800mm-wide stock bars. While Aaron Chamberlain, our head of Business Development at Singletracks commented, “you can always cut the bar down,” that’s true–if you own the bike. If you’re demoing the bike, you can’t just go in and start lopping off the ends of carbon bars to suit your fancy.
Going forward, I’d highly recommend to Santa Cruz that they consider spec’ing shorter bars on their small and medium-sized frames.
To a potential consumer, if you’re not going to be riding a size-large frame and you’re serious about possibly buying a Bronson, I’d go so far as to recommend that you should bring your own handlebar and your own saddle, and that you log one or more long rides on the Bronson, the Nomad, and the 5010, before you decide where to spend your cash. After all, at the end of the day it’s your money and you get to choose where to spend it. When you reach the $6,000-$9,000 pricepoint, there are a ton of fantastic mountain bikes on the market that ride astonishingly well–both from Santa Cruz, and from other brands.
Whatever bike you buy, make sure that you’re stoked with it before you hand over the credit card, and hopefully you’ll enjoy many years of mountain biking bliss aboard your new-found wunderbike!