We've seen three significant updates to three significant Santa Cruz bikes in the past year. The new Blur is a strong entry into the aggressive XC category, the Hightower LT is a near-enduro-ready 29er and the new Nomad is, well, it's a new Nomad!
The brand's engineering department should probably give its marketing department a year off, but nope. Santa Cruz is kicking off product-release season with two facelifts: One a little outpatient nip/tuck, and the other a total reconstruction.
The last 5010 and Bronson updates were back in 2015. Three years ago. "That's an eternity in the bike industry," says the bike industry. Truth is, that really depends on which technology and which three years we're talking about. The past three years feel like an eternity partly because of the evolution in frame geometry. Each bike’s geometry has appropriately evolved, but plenty more has evolved with it.
Before we talk about what did change, let's talk about what didn't. The 5010 did not go to the lower-link-mounted rear shock. That configuration offers a type of progressivity that would be difficult to notice in as little travel as the 5010 offers. Its designers found just the performance they wanted without the slight extra weight and significant extra manufacturing and design hurdles involved with the lower shock mount.
The new 5010 leaves room for 2.8-inch tires. It’s part of a recent shift away from adapting plus-bikes down from 29-inch rather than up from 27.5. Most 27.5-inch forks actually went this route a year or more ago, which might have helped with 2.6-inch tires’ widespread acceptance as of late. You'll see 2.6 spec'd on a few 5010 builds, along with Santa Cruz's new 37-millimeter-wide rims. And for the first time, the 5010 offers geometry flip chips. Use them either to accommodate for the bigger tires or to dial in your preferred angles. Or both.
The front triangle added some reinforcement around the main pivot, and the rear triangle added a drive-side upright support between the chain and seat stays. The then-unorthodox single-upright on the original Blur accommodated multiple front chainrings and narrow-dropout spacing, neither of which creates issues anymore. Beyond the obvious stiffness advantage, the dual uprights mean more direct translation from wheel impacts to shock response.
The 5010 is still available with either C or CC carbon construction, as well as in an aluminum option. All but the basic, R-level builds on the alloy and C frames arrive with Fox DPX2 shocks. A few build kits are available in each frame material, and higher-end configurations offer a Reserve wheel upgrade in either 27- or 37-millimeter internal widths. For the first time since Santa Cruz introduced its in-house carbon hoops, the upgrade is also available to the more-affordable C frame. The same is true for the new Bronson also launching today. That might be the most welcome change in these bikes' build kits. No other C-material Santa Cruz was available with the Reserve upgrade, and we hope this starts to change that. Most brands admit, even boast, that their lower-priced carbon offers the same ride quality as their lighter-weight top-shelf material. But often, the most desirable builds are reserved (no pun intended) for the more-expensive frames. Hats off to Santa Cruz for putting its wheels on an easier-to-reach shelf.
My first ride on the 5010 was on my home trails in the dry, rocky San Gabriel Mountains. I rode with the CC frame, X01 build and 27-millimeter Reserve Carbon wheels. I also rode with my preconceived notions about what bikes like the 5010 ought to be and how they ought to ride. Since I rode my first 5010 in 2013, I've ridden the Evil Calling, the Diamondback Reserve, the Yeti SB5 and a few other small-wheeled, short-travel flyweight brawlers. Each has more front travel than rear, and I had assumed that was the best way to do this category. And for some riders and on some terrains, it is. But it's not the only way. I had a ripping good time on the 5010, and in plenty of scenarios, that time was ripping-er and good-er than on mismatched-travel bikes.
Of course, its geometry is mostly to thank. The new 5010 grew 15 millimeters longer and became 0.5 degrees slacker. Zero-point-eight degrees slacker in its ‘low’ position, which is where I rode it. The ‘high’ position and its 66.5-degree head angle and 334-millimeter-bottom-bracket height suit the 5010 well in flatter lands or for riders used to more conservative bikes, but I assumed I'd be putting the bike in over its head.
But the only times it was over its head was when I was in over my head. Taking the wrong line at the wrong speed is where those longer-front travel bikes shine. The 5010 is aimed at more-refined riders. It's a bike of precision, and it rewards you for being precise. When the trail demanded a quick drift to get in the right position, the 5010 obliged without vagueness or delay. The Reserve wheels helped a bit, and the remarkably stout-for-its-travel frame helped a bit more. But the balanced travel made it feel especially poised. ‘Poised,’ meaning ready. It's not awaiting what the trail is going to do to it, it's awaiting what you’re going to do with it.
This was most true when it came to popping it into the air, whether for function or frivolity. The 5010's moderate front travel made one of my favorite party tricks especially easy. Whenever I want to jump over a section, I look for something natural in the trail to help start the process. Usually a root or a rock, and usually not a big one. It's actually more of a bump than a jump, and the 5010 does a really great bump. It's got an appropriately progressive feel to its rear travel, so the process is just as nice once the back wheel hits. Just like how it slides, it's direct and predictable. And it took less input and energy to pull off. I found myself doing it more often than I normally would, and I already do it kinda often. It's one reason I look forward to going for a rip on an XC bike, but XC bikes are never this confident. The 5010 offers a pretty neat mix of aggression and accuracy, with a slight bias towards the latter.
Of course, bikes like the 5010 have the potential to climb better than longer-travel or even mismatched aggressive trail bikes. During calm, seated climbs, it's unremarkable in a good way. There may be riders who can identify an occasional VPP harshness, in the rear suspension, but it's been a generation since I've been one of them. The low position's 75-degree (74.9, but c'mon) seat angle suits the moderate travel well. No need to get crazy steep on bikes like this. Out of the saddle sprints were a little more remarkable. The balanced bike and supportive feel really made you want to get up and go. Riders with undulating trails will appreciate it, as will riders with flatter trails that demand some pedal-punching to grab speed.
The 5010 is a bike that might easily have changed into something else this generation, but it didn't. It knows its audience. It plays the hits, and it plays and hits.
This part will be quick. Just look at it. It's a mini-Nomad ... but is it?
Well, yeah, I guess it mostly is, but let's talk for a minute about what that means. The fourth generation Nomad underwent the drastic change of mounting its shock to its lower link instead of the upper, mimicking the configuration used on the V10 downhill bike. The main reason was to offer a progressive leverage curve that is really not that curved at all. The straight line means there's no hammock in the middle of the travel and no sudden ramp-up at the end. Just sensitive small-bump performance, supportive mid-stroke, and a bottomless feel. Basically, they looked for all the buzzwords that bike-reviewers like to use when describing rear suspension and designed a linkage around them.
And at a glance, the Bronson looks like a cut-and-paste job of the Nomad design, but there's a bit more to it than that. Most prominently, it added a drive-side upright support between the chain and seat stays. With less travel, there was room to work it around the pass-through shock design. Also, the 150-millimeter travel Bronson allowed for slightly deeper seatpost insertion than the Nomad, but it still leaves room for a coil shock, though no builds are spec'd with one. And there are a few things Santa Cruz learned in development of the Nomad that were applied to the Bronson, mostly subtle design elements. The upper link sits cleanly parallel to the seat tube now, and it's attached closer to the seat-tube/top-tube junction where the frame is more robust. And the internal cable routing is a bit cleaner, ditching the rubber grommets of the Nomad and other models.
Like the 5010, the Bronson now has clearance for up to 2.8-inch tires. And its geometry updates are nearly in lock-step with the 5010. Its reach stretches by 13 millimeters and its flip-chips put its angles between either 0.6- or 0.9-degrees slacker than its predecessor. It's still got room for a water bottle cage inside the front triangle, and it still features that nifty replaceable shuttle pad on the downtube first seen on the Nomad.
Like the 5010, the Bronson frame will be available in alloy, C, and CC carbon materials. Unlike the 5010, the new Bronson went to a mismatched travel design for 2019, bumping it up to 160 millimeters of front travel and leaving it at 150 millimeters out back. Those 160 millimeters up front will come in the form of some level of Fox 36, except for on the entry-level R build on the aluminum frame, which gets a RockShox Yari. Those 150 millimeters out back will come in the form of a RockShox Super Deluxe R on the alloy and C builds, and RCT on the CC builds. And again, the new Bronson will offer a Reserve wheel upgrade on and above the S-level build on the C frame for an extra $1,200 with an option to go for the wider, 37-millimeter rim and a matching pair of 2.6-inch Maxxis tires.
When the Nomad 4 was released a year ago, it was such an apt climber that my knee-jerk reaction to my first ride on it was, "With bikes like this out there, who on Earth would want a Bronson?" The Nomad's suspension was more supportive than it'd ever been and its seat angle was steeper than it'd ever been. It had relatively few compromises on the climbs and nearly no compromises on the descents.
But that depends on how you look at it. As bikes like the 5010 teach us, having the right amount of travel can be better than having more travel than you need. At the risk of telling you something you already know, the Bronson is for someone whose trails and riding style are more rowdy than the 5010 is made for, but not as rowdy as the Nomad is made for. Duh.
And about the Nomad's supportive suspension and steep seat angle: the Bronson's suspension is more supportive and the seat angle is more steep. Long climbs that I found grueling during my time on the Nomad came more naturally on the Bronson. But more importantly, sudden and short climbs were more quick and less painful. I didn't need to push through an extra 20 millimeters of travel or push down the rear shock's climb switch. And though the Nomad's 74.5-degree seat angle was a step forward, it already feels outdated for a bike of its size. The Bronson offers a more up-to-date 75.3 or 75.0 degrees, depending on your geo setting. And paired with the predictably progressive leverage curve, I only found myself reaching down for my pedal mode on long fire roads. That alone is enough to justify the Bronson existing in a world where the Nomad got here first. It's simply a more normal-feeling bike. Nomads are perfect for Nomad die-hards. Nomad skeptics will be happy with the Bronson's climbing ability, and they'll probably be fine with how it descends.
The leverage curve introduced by Santa Cruz's lower-shock mount allows long-travel bikes to float when they otherwise might sink. For a bike like the Nomad, it's a remedy. A fix to keep it from feeling vague under load. But on a bike like the Bronson, it's something else. For most of my time pumping around on the Bronson, it might as well have been a 140- or even 130-millimeter bike. The platform is where you'd expect it to be on a more moderate-travel bike, but a big hit will take up the remaining travel without an unexpected or unpredictable ramp-up. In a word, it felt normal. On sections of trail that didn't quite demand a 150/160 bike, I didn't feel lost. I didn't feel like I was at a party like I did on the 5010, but I wasn't out of place. What sets the Bronson apart is its versatility. Just like those moderate sections felt natural, the especially rowdy sections were manageable. The extra 10 millimeters of front travel and relatively long wheelbase make it feel ready for out-of-control moments. It's not built for them, but it's ready for them.
So, a year after a year of thinking the Bronson was either obsolete or redundant, the new Bronson came along to prove me wrong. Granted, the space it occupies between the Nomad and the 5010 is narrow, but it's well-defined. Each can be at home on the same trail. The Nomad is for those focused on hitting the nasty bits at the highest speed, the 5010 is for those focused on hitting the creative lines with the most style. The Bronson is for those who don't make that decision once at the top of a ride, but hundreds of time throughout it.