You may recall that we ran a short little intro article to this bike on its launch date. Head on back and refresh your memory.
I’ve spent most of the past month attempting to figure out a way to explain this bike. Us poor bike reviewers have a tough job these days. Multiple wheel sizes. Bikes to cater to every and any niche. Price points up the yin-yang. Comparisons are becoming far less easy to make and judgments are all relative. There are so many implicit suggestions built in to any label, it seems a bit silly to parse things down too much. I prefer to think of this review as a series of themes rather than Bicycling Moses (tm – all rights reserved) handing down proclamations from a mountaintop. Hopefully it all makes sense by the end.
This review started with an e-mail chain with a Santa Cruz Bicycles employee about wheel size. He responded with (edited because this is a family website):
Who freaking cares? I’d be more into you never mentioning the wheel size. Nobody seems to even care about the quality of the bike, its weight, handling, stiffness or suspension characteristics anymore. It’s only freaking wheel size.
And this makes sense. The bicycle world has become way, way too focused on the wheel size debate and is starting to ignore the overall picture when it comes to bikes. So. I’m not going to mention wheel size beyond this point in this review. And to make that happen, I’m going to steal a page from Kevin Smith. After all, it’s hard not to talk about wheel size, so if it has to happen, we’re going to talk about Gretzky’s.
Walter Gretzky – Older than time itself. Been around forever. Nobody really thinks about Walter because he’s just so dependable and gets the job done. Whether it’s waking up early to get the kids to practice, sitting in the freezing cold stands watching a meaningless game (The St. Louis Blues years), or conducting yet another Hockey Night in Canada interview, Walter is there. Good old boring Walter.
Wayne Gretzky – Burst onto the scene and immediately changed things. Started winning everything and soon was all anybody could talk about. Everybody had to have a piece of Wayne or they were nothing. Soon was everywhere and anywhere. Even if he was really, really bad at certain things (see Saturday Night Live hosting duties).
Paulina Gretzky – Nobody really needed Paulina Gretzky, but in hindsight she seemed inevitable. All of a sudden, she was all people could think about, even though she’d been around for years. People doubt that Paulina Gretzky is really necessary for anything, but some are convinced she’s the best Gretzky of all. It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess.
With that settled, let’s move on to the bike.
If you met me on the trail and asked about this bike, chances are I told you how much it cost. I am blown away by the price of this bike. Not that $3000+ is a small amount of money, but I generally feel like a $3000 bike has a lot of holes in it. But there aren’t really any holes in this bike. I would ride this bike each and every day with two changes… Okay. Four changes.
1) Fork with more adjustment.
2) Lose the front derailleur.
3) Add a dropper post.
4) Add a larger rear disc.
The fourth one isn’t even necessary. And the second one most people will disagree with. And if you’re not great at setting up your own suspension, the first is a mistake. And a dropper post is a luxury, really. So… basically… you could buy this bike, ride it out of the box, and any changes are going to be for personal preference. Everything else…brakes, cockpit, tires, wheels, cranks, derailleurs…all great. Okay. Maybe lock-on grips. Anyhow. There are lots of “cheap” bikes out there. There just aren’t many “cheap” bikes out there that come together like this one. Bike companies, feel free to prove me wrong. I’m available for tests now through the end of September.
I was curious so I decided to pull the main pivot of this bike apart. It took me 10 minutes to pull it apart and put it back together. The expanding collet-style axle is an amazing feat of engineering. With the right tools you could easily swap the bearings in this bike out in under an hour, and the whole thing (tools included) would cost less than a hundred bucks. No exaggeration. This blew me away. I cannot imagine that an easier to service full suspension bike exists. Full stop.
Now, let’s not move along too quickly here. This deserves some pondering. Ever try to re-build the pivots on your fancy suspension bike? Ever been shocked by how difficult it is to find out what parts are necessary? Ever been offended by the insane price you’ve been quoted back? Check this link out. Oh my goodness. Santa Cruz has pretty much every tool and part necessary to re-build any Santa Cruz bike (conceivably still running) on their website for reasonable prices. Want to re-build your VP-Free? Kerpow! Got an original V-10 kicking around that needs some love? Blammo! This is a strategy that requires positive reinforcement. Job well done, Santa Cruz.
Getting back on track, let’s take a bit more of a look at “simplicity”. This suspension that is dead simple to set up. Both the front and rear of this bike have air pressure, rebound, and three clicks of CTD compression/lockout/what-have-you adjustment. Ridiculously simple. Almost to a fault.
Now, personally, I prefer a fork with a bit more adjustment. I struggled somewhat to get the fork to feel the way I wanted it to feel. As the test bike was pre-production, I had a 2013 tune fork and it sounds like the 2014 will address some of my concerns (more progressive air spring). I ended up running a bit more air pressure than I would have planned and I generally left it in the “trail” setting and the fork felt good, but not great. If I was to spend more time on this bike there would be a relatively easy fix to this (add some oil volume to the spring side), which would probably let me run a bit less air pressure. I would imagine that playing with damper oil weight a bit might help as well, but Fox does not seem to encourage this.
But this is me. I am not the market for this fork. I feel like I need to point this out, but I also feel that for 75-80% of the people that will end up buying this bike, this fork is perfect and it’s kind of stupid for me to complain about this. Many riders (most?) really don’t know what all of those knobs do. Many riders make things a whole lot worse when they try to make them better. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense that this is how Fox designs their product for this price range (aka the “Evolution” series). The irony of this situation is that Fox has done such a good job on the chassis of this fork, making it structurally almost indistinguishable from its high dollar brothers, that it artificially raises your expectations of it. A few years ago this price point would have resulted in a wet noodle of shame. It’s amazing that all you really give up now at this price range is some stanchion finish and lower quality internals compared to what comes on the “Performance” and “Factory” series. Other than that, this fork is all there.
I’ve seen so many bikes – under experienced riders even – with wobbly pivots, loose hardware and terrible suspension set-up that I’m constantly wondering why these people spend their money on a bike that will turn into a rolling collection of sadness within a month or two. I’m sure that there are others out there as well, but I finally feel like we’re getting to a place where I could recommend this full suspension bicycle even to a mechanical simpleton and be confident that it is not going to cause them too many problems. You know who you are.
Stopping – Or Not
SRAM, I’ll start by saying that I really love you and that you make some really great bike parts. I’ve used tonnes of RockShox forks. SRAM drivetrains grace many of my bikes. And I’ve used lots and lots of Avid brakes. I even have a couple of sets of Elixirs (CR and 7) that aren’t too bad. That said, the Elixir 5 brakes on this bike are terrible.
I would imagine that deep in the SRAM headquarters, there is some kind of Avid brake magician that can make any brake feel great. I would imagine that he’d spend 10 minutes working on these brakes and I’d hit the trails and wonder where they’d been all my life.
But I can’t make these brakes feel like that. Mine felt like I was squeezing a piece of wood. And your guess is as good as mine as to where the contact point would be. Thankfully, these are not the actual spec for this bike. The Deore brakes that are actually spec’d and that Santa Cruz was nice enough to send along are a revelation. They change the bike. This does not suggest good things of the Elixir 5’s. In fact, I’m thinking that if there is any Product Manager out there that spec’s the Avid over the Shimano, they either:
- Are being paid off by SRAM; or
- Had a loved one cheat on them with a Shimano employee.
[The ubiquitous-in-the-OEM Elixir 5 seems to be a hit or miss brake, in this case a miss. Dave's opinion is just that, and we have had some good Elixirs in the test fleet this year – your mileage may vary. -Ed.]
A lot of money has been spent on designing new and improved bicycle suspension systems. A lot more money has been spent convincing us that we need these new and improved bicycle suspension systems and that our wives and girlfriends will leave us due to the shame of us owning inferior suspension designs. Some of what is said is true. Some bikes perform better than others. There are literally millions of combinations of travel, wheel path, leverage ratio, instant center and who knows what else. This is all true. Numerous engineers and technical writers have written about why none of this matters. Other, more sales oriented engineers and marketing folks have written about why it does.
The truth (for me, anyhow) is that any well designed suspension system can work well for you and the details probably matter a lot less than you’d think. But let’s take a moment to dig in to the Heckler system a tiny bit.
The Heckler is a single pivot full suspension bicycle with the pivot located in front of the bottom bracket, roughly level with the top of the middle chainring. The suspension is relatively low leverage, and gets its (roughly) 150mm of travel out of a 2.5 inch stroke shock (63.5 mm). The bike has a slight falling rate that is compensated for by a relatively low volume air shock (a spacer is added to reduce volume slightly) that ramps up the spring rate near the end of travel. Chain growth is approximately 0.9 inches through full travel, and about 0.2 inches at the sag point. What does that all mean, exactly?
- Low leverage – the theory goes that a shock at low leverage responds to tuning more efficiently than a shock at high leverage, will place less stress on your shock and will require lower air pressures. All great things in theory.
- Chain growth – A high amount of chain growth means that the forces you create while pedalling effectively work to lock out the suspension. A small amount of chain growth can be used to cancel out the compression created while pedalling. That seems to be the case here.
- Low pivot – Closely linked to chain growth is the pivot location. Keeping the pivot roughly in line with the middle chainring (where you probably spend most of your time) allows for minimal chain growth and for the pedalling forces to be perpendicular to the direction of wheel travel. As well, a lower pivot reduces the leverage placed on the system by the wheel’s contact patch while braking, and minimizes the amount of feedback from braking (squat).
- Falling rate frame/rising rate shock – Air shocks are inherently rising rate and can be tuned for more/less ramp up. The suspension designer can easily get their preferred suspension characteristics by tuning the shock and the pivot location to get the desired effect. In this case, a gentle rising rate with a bit more of a spike near the end of travel to reduce bottoming.
As you can see, careful thought in the design process means that even the lowly single pivot bicycle can be tuned to provide specific attributes. Multiple pivots might get you fancier leverage ratios and whatnot, but it can be argued that the simpler system might be all that you need.
So, ya, it’s cheap and simple. So what? So was the Trabant. None of that matters if the thing can’t ride. We’ll start with climbing.
Apologies to the sexually assaulted primates of the world, but this thing climbs like a raped ape. Ya, sure, there are some XC riders out there scoffing at my perception of climbing ability, but this thing felt like it was flying up the hill. The light, tubeless Paulinas probably had the most to do with this, but the single pivot placed level with the middle ring seemed to have just the right amount of chain growth to fight off any serious bob, in either granny or middle ring with the shock “trail” mode. I never once put the shock in “climb” mode and never felt the need to. There is a bit more bob if you leave the shock in “descend” mode, but it is far from problematic. On more technical climbs this bike just keeps on trucking. With Paulina helping to roll through the bumps and all of the non-bobby travel, the bike is relatively happy on rough climbs.
This bike has all the climbing ability I would ever expect out of a six inch travel bike. Mine weighed in at 32 pounds on the button (XL frame with no attempts to save weight). I’m sure there are fancier packages out there that will weigh less and climb a bit better. I’m not sure the cost will be worth it.
You know that really terrible trail you’re forced to ride every once in awhile? It has all sorts of momentum-sucking roots and rocks? You meander along at a walking pace with all sorts of ups and downs and never really get going very fast? Well, dear readers, I went and rode that trail. Just for you. I didn’t really want to.
And this bike kind of liked that trail? Sure, I’m not heading back anytime soon, but once again Paulina to the rescue. She really does roll through things easily. Really begs for a dropper post though.
For the first few weeks that I had this bike I found I had to adjust my riding style once the terrain got steep and gnarly. I’m a bit of a finesse rider but the bike didn’t want to do that. Things work best when you picked a line, pointed it in that direction and let the bike blast on through. “Must be the Paulinas” I thought. I adjusted. I started to prepare some tactful phrases to suggest that this was a great bike for just about everywhere other than the North Shore.
Then the Deore brakes showed up and totally changed everything. Absolutely no exaggeration, the slow speed performance totally changed. I could once again feather my brakes and pick away at lines to my heart’s content.
I can now boldly proclaim that this bike likes to go down hills. Steep hills, shallow hills. Rough hills, smooth hills. (Red hills, blue hills.) Whatever. It likes to go down. The geometry feels pretty bang on – not too twitchy, not too slow. There are probably a few riders out there that could overwhelm the capabilities of this bike – and I wasn’t exactly clicking off Cypress laps or storming through the bike park with the thing – but for most riders (that want to climb up to the top first) this bike will get you down almost any trail you could want. You will probably fold the wheels before you break the frame or overwhelm its capabilities.
My problem with this review? Every single nitpick I had seems to be related to the pre-productioness of this bike. Not quite enough room to drop the seatpost as far as I’d like? Pre-production frame. Fork issues? Actual bike gets the updated 2014 spec. Brakes suck? Bike comes with different ones. People complaining that Santa Cruz cheaped out by not putting clear over the decals? Pre-production frame, fools! It’s like Good Guy Greg is running things over at Santa Cruz, or something.
There you have it. A pretty great bike at a pretty great price that would only require a few personalized changes. You can definitely spend more money and if you are adept at working on bikes and tuning suspension, you probably will. But the other 95% of riders looking for a 6 inch travel, all-mountain-or-whatever-we’re-calling-it-these-days bike, will probably be pretty happy on this Heckler with this parts kit.
Are you in the market for a budget-conscious bike? Considered a simple single pivot lately?