That's all I had in mind when I chose Juliana's burliest bike yet as my Dream Build. A single rock drop that makes up the most consequential move on one very short, fall-line descent. The trail is less than a half-mile long, but it cascades 425 feet from the ridgeline in one continuous rock garden with varying levels of commitment and speed required to emerge unscathed. It's one of my favorite trails in the local network, and a cheater line that skirts the drop had allowed me to keep my lines clean, but conservative in recent years. I wanted to be faithful to the steep, speed-required section, but each time I crested the point of commitment, fear revealed my weakness and I chose the less-consequential option. That weakness being drops requiring a mandatory front wheel lift. Mind you, this is not huge air—we're probably talking equivalent to what a 10-year-old in Whistler would huck—but the mental jump it requires of me rivals that of the drop itself.
After spending a few days on the 170-mil-travel Strega on a press trip to France and Italy in late May, I returned to California wondering if going back to 27.5-inch wheels was my ticket to flight. While I've been happily rolling on a 130-mil-travel 29er for the past year, I occasionally miss the playfulness of the smaller wheels, and the Strega, with its 65-degree head angle, low bottom bracket and whippy chainstays, had been a wicked weapon for the ancient European goat trails.
Three days and some 30,000 feet of descending later in the Maritime Alps, it became clear that this women's version of the Santa Cruz Nomad 4 tackles descents like a linebacker mowing down an unprotected quarterback. But the Strega is a big girl and I wondered if I truly needed that much bike. Plus, we had hardly gained any elevation while testing in Europe and steep climbs are inescapable where I normally ride. Still, it was so adept at descending that the confidence it instilled made me want to test my comfort zone, and I knew it was the right tool to tackle the dreaded rock drop.
Although the Strega CC1 frame I started with comes built to the hilt, I strayed slightly from the standard spec, starting with the drivetrain. Sticking with SRAM Eagle was no question—with so much travel, I wasn't going to sacrifice anything that could make climbing easier and Eagle is the widest one-by drivetrain on the market. I took it one step further, swapping the 32-tooth front chainring for a 30-tooth. This setup may not be ideal on flatter, faster trail networks, but it's perfect for the grueling ups in Laguna Beach—I've been relieved far more often than frustrated while climbing—spinning, but not spinning wildly in place while riding in the opposite direction. In fact, climbing has been surprisingly pleasant on the Strega, which I assumed would feel heavy and dogged in any position except down. The revamped VPP suspension platform and movement of the shock placement to the lower link á la the Santa Cruz V10 no doubt plays a role in that, as does the shock itself: the new Fox Float DPX2 shock, which offers traction and efficiency in trail mode without sacrificing support when it's fully open.
When I chose the shock and the complementary Fox 36 fork—updated this year with the EVOL air spring for improved small-bump sensitivity—the idea was to match them to the Fox Transfer 150 dropper post, which has quickly become a favorite for its quick actuation and smooth engagement. What I didn't think about, though, was the seat tube of my size medium frame being compatible with the length of the dropper, which it was not. Instead of downgrading to a 125, I swapped in a 150 KS Lev Integra, which fit perfectly, and topped it with WTB's new Koda saddle.
For rolling duties, I took the upgrade that Juliana offers on every Strega, swapping the stock e.thirteen TRS 30-millimeter rims for Santa Cruz's new Reserve carbon rims, at the same width, which are laced to quickly engaging Industry Nine Torch hubs. Santa Cruz developed the rims to be less harsh than the ultra-stiff Enve rims Santa Cruz previously offered as an upgrade, and in my first few rides, it seems they succeeded. I wrapped the wheels in Onza's Ibex 2.4 tires despite the Maxxis Minion DHF/DHR rubber that come on the Strega being perfectly suited to the loose, steep, rocky terrain inherent to Southern California trails. Going with Onza saved some weight and if I'm being honest, I thought the sidewalls would look really sweet next to the Strega's striking green frame. Stopping is handled by SRAM's powerful Code brakes paired with 180-millimeter rotors.
So, back to the rock. Like many relationships, ours is complicated. The drop is much more significant than I remember—this is either due to erosion after an unusually wet winter last year or my imagination—and I've determined that it's not so much the drop that has my palms sweating, but the landing. After carrying the speed required to clear the drop, you're delivered squarely into a sequence of large rocks covered in a fine layer of dust, and absolute control is paramount to staying upright through the steep, slick rollout. This is the part that makes me nervous.
Ultimately, I did make it to the end of the pucker party, though it wasn't pretty and I didn't take the down-the-middle, full-commitment line.
But now that I've got that rock's number, it's only a matter of time.