First Rides: Santa Cruz Nomad and Juliana Strega

The mini-downhill bike gets a modern look, and a version for the ladies

Anka Martin, the longtime Santa Cruz and Juliana rider, was sitting in a bar in the tiny Italian village of Molini di Triora when the name for Juliana Bicycles’ new long-travel trail weapon hit her: Strega.

The word, which means ‘witch’ in Italian, made sense given that Triora was the site of the last witch trials in Italy, held during the Renaissance, and thus regularly attracts folklore- and witchcraft-themed festivals. And it helps that a plethora of steep, fast, rocky trails that are seemingly tailor-made for the 170-millimeter-travel, 27.5-inch-wheeled bike spill out from foothills of the Maritime Alps separating France and Italy directly into the village.

Photo: Sven Martin

 
The Strega is the longest-travel women’s bike on the market. It takes design cues from the Santa Cruz V10 downhill bike and shares a frame with the new Nomad, which also debuts today. Investing in the development of a niche bike for a niche market may have caused some raised eyebrows among the brand’s bean counters, but it’s a project that the whole team was committed to pushing.

“It’s not just about making money,” says Will Ockelton, marketing director for Santa Cruz and Juliana. “We are about trying to do things differently even if it doesn’t always make financial sense.”

Juliana flew journalists to the Alps in two separate waves to ride the Strega and the Nomad, both of which become available today. The top design priority of the frame was to improve suspension performance and feel, says Josh Kissner, Santa Cruz’s product manager, so designers moved the shock to the lower link, like the V10, instead of the usual upper-link placement on Santa Cruz trail bikes.

 
“What that gets us is a leverage curve that’s very similar to the V10, so it’s basically a straight line and quite progressive. The goal being basically high leverage at the beginning, so it really swallows small bumps, and supportive in the middle, which is really important on a long-travel bike especially because if you have a curve shape that’s not supportive and also a lot of travel it kind of doubles down to make something that wallows around. It doesn’t feel sporty,” Kissner says.

From a design standpoint, it took some work to fit the shock into the small space, especially because Kissner was adamant that the frame accept any shock on the market. The Nomad is available with either a coil or an air shock, while the Strega comes just with an air shock.

The frame features a flip chip, which adjusts the headtube angle from 65 degrees in ‘High’ to a bike park-appropriate 64.7 degrees in ‘Low,’ while the bottom-bracket height shifts from a low 344 millimeters to a potentially pedal-smashing 339 millimeters. The frame geometry got a modern makeover from its 2014 iteration, with longer reach, slightly shorter chainstays and a much steeper seat tube angle, a characteristic that was instantly noticeable on the few climbs of our three-day test period.

Photo: Sven Martin

Other updates include metric shock sizing, post-mount brakes, a rear-shock fender to shield the shaft and bearings from mud and a shuttle guard and bolted on downtube guard. The Nomad comes in 12 carbon builds ranging in price from $4,500 to $9,400, with an aluminum-frame option to come later this year. The Strega is available in seven carbon builds from $4,500 to $9,400. Importantly, Santa Cruz is making the Strega in a size XS, has given the Strega a lighter shock tune and is providing a 150-millimeter dropper post on size mediums.

Santa Cruz stuck with 27.5-inch wheels on the Nomad, despite the V10’s switch to 29-inch wheels and the growing prevalence of long-travel trail 29ers. But, Kissner says, making the Nomad/Strega with wagon wheels was never a consideration. “We would like to make a longer-travel 29er, I don’t think we want to do something quite this big, not a 170. I think we feel this is sufficiently stable with good traction, and we’re still into it,” he says.

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I rode the Strega for three days in the Alps on a series of trails in France and Italy that served up a smorgasbord of terrain. One day it was centuries-old trekking trails, some of which have appeared in the Trans-Provence race, with switchbacks so steep and tight that most mortals had to do the switchback walk of shame to get around the corners. The next day it was sweeping berms, technical descents with small drop-offs and rock rollers and flat-out fast, narrow stretches of forested singletrack.

What we didn’t experience was much climbing—we hardly pedaled at all during the three days, during which time we descended nearly 30,000 feet in elevation. This was fine with me, and with the Strega, which rapidly showed it could be far more dangerous than its freshly post-injury driver could push it. Speed is its closest ally and the faster you let her go, the more capable she grows. And with the Strega’s ample suspension, stable slack-and-low geometry and Boosted 27.5 wheels, it is nearly dummy-proof, correcting its pilot’s poor line choices like a self-driving car might keep its swerving driver on the road.

I rode the XX1 model, outfitted with the new RockShox Lyric fork and Super Deluxe RCT shock, with the new low-speed compression dial, and spent the first two rides fiddling with both to get the pressure, rebound and compression just right. I settled at roughly 30 percent sag in the shock, and still didn’t use all the travel, even on the roughest sections of trail, but I know I haven’t yet pushed the Strega near its rowdiness capacity. The 2.5-inch Maxxis DHF tires with DoubleDown casings caused the limited climbing we did face to feel somewhat laborious, but you’re probably not going to want to spend much time going uphill on this thing. It wants to be—and deserves to be—pointed downhill.

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Travis Engel, Bike’s gear editor, had this to say about his first ride on the Nomad:
My introduction to the new Nomad was a descent down Noble Canyon, an 8-mile conveniently shuttleable loop not far from the Bike mag offices. But it’s the kind of shuttle you have to warn first-timers about. There are plenty of climbs, and they tend to get longer and more punchy the closer you are to the car. And at about the same rate, the descents get steeper and more technical. Noble is the kind of mixed bag of flow and no-flow, slaying and suffering that most bikes will be ideal for, at best, only half of.

The first couple miles are naturally bermed chutes of dry decomposed granite dusted with marble-sized rocks. I expected those miles to feel sluggish or boring on the Nomad. While they’re far beneath its potential, the new Nomad’s updated leverage curve makes it more responsive than its recent ancestors as well as most of its current classmates. I wasn’t subjected to the pre-ride Power-Point Nicole was, so I went into my first ride not knowing (and intentionally not asking for) certain specifics like frame geometry or even suspension travel. The Nomad’s extra playfulness had me guessing its travel had somehow dropped to 160 millimeters, not bumped to 170.

Santa Cruz Nomad and Juliana Strega Geometry

Note: The Strega is only available in extra small, small and medium.

I felt much the same way after the far rowdier sections lower on the trail. The cockpit and wheelbase kept me safe and centered, and the travel never truly got overpowered. But it didn’t have that gushiness I remember from earlier Nomads or from similar bikes like the Pivot Firebird. To my surprise, I’m on the fence as to whether or not I consider that to be good or bad. It took the edge off big hits like a 170-millimeter bike should, but when I needed more than just the edge taken off, the progressive rear end would only give so much.

Luckily, I took the bike home after our ride. I reckon that, with time, the bike that I want is in there somewhere. I will be playing with shock settings, volume spacers and flip chips until I find it. And I also have the RockShox Super Deluxe coil-over shock, which will be an option on some high-end Nomad builds. Stay tuned for a long-term in-depth review coming soon.

Pricing for the Nomad and Strega starts at $4,500 and ranges up to $9,400.

More at santacruzbicycles.com.

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