First rides: Santa Cruz Nickel and Nomad-c

Our impressions of new suspension design and carbon frame

April has been a busy month for Santa Cruz, who have added three new mountain bikes to their line-up: the Butcher and Nickel, which feature the company's new Actual Pivot Point (APP) suspension technology, and a carbon version of the popular Nomad.

We've already brought you the basics on these three new models, but we managed to glean more information at their official launch in California – more on this below. More importantly, we managed to get a first ride in on both the Nickel and Nomad.

So, how do they feel?

Both bikes were ridden on the mostly wooded trails surrounding the University of California's Santa Cruz campus. They were also ridden there and back on a mix of roads and trails.

The first bike to get dirty was a black, medium-sized aluminium Nickel. Our initial impression was one of comfort. The default position had us perched atop the bike in a fairly conventional cross-country position, and the 23in top tube gave plenty of room to stretch out, feel powerful and settle in.

One downside to the design is that the frame can't comfortably accommodate a large water bottle on the top of its down tube because this would interfere with the ProPedal platform damping lever on the rear shock.

Riding to the trails, we noticed we weren't wasting any energy bobbing around. With the ProPedal flipped on, the new Actual Pivot Point (APP) suspension remained still and quiet as we spun along. Some members of our group complained of signficant bobbing with the ProPedal flipped off. As set up, our test bike rode well either way, though the ProPedal did make the ride firmer for efforts out of the saddle.

Sue George tries out the new Santa Cruz Nickel on the sun-baked trails of California

On the trails, the Nickel felt lively, like an eager dance partner. We didn't encounter any rock gardens but we did ride plenty of wet, slippery roots. The suspension ate the roots, ruts and drop-offs right up and felt a little springy – in a good way, like it was ready to respond any time it was called to do so.

Earlier in the day, Santa Cruz's marketing director Mike Ferrentino had told us: "We try to have diversity of uses in our bikes. So you can use a lot of them for racing, all-day rides, marathons, etc. The Nickel and the Butcher aren't oriented toward racing, but I would race them if on a budget."

We agreed with his assessment. The Nickel didn't feel like a purebred race bike, but if it's what we had, we would race it, too.

We felt a little pedal tug in some riding circumstances on the Nickel, but it wasn't significant enough to take away from our favourable impression of the bike. All in all, the experience of riding the Nickel was a comfortable, engaging one that suggests it would be fun to spend more time on the bike. For a mid-level 120mm-travel full-suspension bike, it rode well uphill and downhill, and seems to be a good deal at the current price.

And the Nomad?

The Nomad-c also got a test spin of about three hours. With its VPP suspension and carbon frame it felt plusher than the Nickel, and the ride position was suitably 'all-mountain', with a 0.25in shorter top tube and stubby stem providing a shorter and higher front end.

The handling felt intuitive from the start, especially the turning. The 160mm of travel front and rear felt well balanced and confident, and ate up whatever rocks and drop-offs we were able to throw at it. The bike also rode quietly as we flowed through the woods.

Sue aboard the bigger hitting Santa Cruz Nomad-c

Climbing on an all-mountain bike is ... well, climbing on an all-mountain bike. Switching on the ProPedal helped to keep things smoother while ascending steady grades in a seated position, though even with it engaged we noticed some bob, especially when standing up out of the saddle.

However, the front end always stuck to the ground – whether we were seated or standing – on the steeper stuff, and we tended to drop the chain onto the granny ring and spin up to be more efficient. The few times we had to hike-a-bike, we appreciated the lighter carbon frame as it was easier to push or carry over the trail obstacles we encountered.

Overall, the bike felt very stable and surefooted, especially on steeper downhills on narrow singletrack carved into the sides of the mountain. It stayed on a tight and narrow course when directed to do so, but also steered well when called upon to turn. Clearly the Santa Cruz engineers have spent plenty of time tuning their design with on-bike testing.

Who are the new bikes aimed at?

The Butcher and Nickel both feature Santa Cruz's new, more affordable Actual Pivot Point (APP) rear suspension technology. The Nickel, with 125mm of rear travel and designed to take a 120-140mm fork, is aimed at the all-round trail rider. The Butcher, on the other hand, is designed for more aggressive riding, with 150mm of rear travel and a 140-160mm fork. It's named after the Butcher Ranch Trail in the SierraMountains near Downieville, California, which drops more than 5,000ft over 16 miles of singletrack.

"The Butcher is a Santa Cruz Heckler with nicer suspension," said Ferrentino. "The [125mm-travel] Nickel isn't replacing or riding alongside anything else we have at the moment; the Blur XC has 100mm of travel while the Blur LT has 140mm of travel." Interestingly, downhill world champion Steve Peat and his Santa Cruz Syndicate team-mate Greg Minnaar will use a hybrid bike at the dual slalom at this weekend's Sea Otter Classic. They will race Nickels with Butcher top tubes, lower bottom brackets and slacker head angles.

Santa Cruz's marketing director Mike Ferrentino on the new Butcher

The 160mm-travel carbon Nomad is a higher-end machine geared toward riders doing big, backcountry all-mountain riding or hitting the lifts and jumps at places like Whistler Bike Park. It features Santa Cruz's proven Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) suspension design.

The APP advantage

Santa Cruz had great success with their early single pivot bikes such as the Heckler, Superlight and Bullit. More recently, they moved to VPP linkage technology on bikes such as the Blur XC, Blur LT and Nomad. This design has worked well on the trail and in the marketplace, but it's expensive to manufacture, in part due to tighter tolerances. That translates into a higher pricetag.

What Santa Cruz set out to do with APP was to mimic the suspension performance of VPP in a more affordable single pivot bike. (VPP bikes have a virtual pivot point that moves as the suspension compresses. A pair of counter-rotating links isolate the rear triangle from the mainframe, helping to optimise the location of the virtual pivot point and letting designers manipulate shock rate).

The Nickel and the Butcher both feature a high forward rear suspension pivot point, located on the down tube in front of and above the bottom bracket. A pair of linkages are used to create a variable shock rate similar to that found on the company's VPP machines. "We built five different shock rate bikes and rode them next to each other for weeks, along with a Heckler," said Ferrentino. "The one we liked the most was the one with the shock rate of our VPP bikes. The engineers realised they could get the same shock rate without the floating shock and the extra parts that make it hard to pump your shock or adjust your rebound damping."

Initially, both suspension systems have a declining shock rate, for better small bump compliance. This makes the bike feel like it has more travel than it really does. Then the curve flattens out at its bottom before rising again as travel increases. This makes the rear suspension feel more firm as the bike approaches the end of its travel in order to resist bottoming out. It also provides better jump landing and G-out characteristics. In contrast, single pivot bikes such as the Heckler feature a linearly decreasing shock rate.

The Nickel's Actual Pivot Point is located above and forward of the bottom bracket

The high forward location of the pivot on the APP bikes – which is the same as on Santa Cruz's single pivot machines – was chosen because it creates a slight degree of anti-squat, which allows for a more lively pedalling response and a more neutral reaction under braking forces than other, lower, more rearward pivot point locations. In terms of pedalling and braking effects, the APP bikes don't ride as well as VPP bikes, but that is the tradeoff for a simpler, more affordable design.

Commenting on the location of the APP suspension's pivot point, Ferrentino said: "The APP uses a high forward single pivot where the pivot is roughly in line with the big ring. The benefits of a high forward single pivot compared to a low rear pivot is that pedalling torque will have the effect of extending the suspension rather than compressing it. Of course, the amount of the effect varies by gear as that changes the chain angle relative to the pivot. We believe that this approach is better than trying to compress the supsension when pedalling [as is done on some single pivot bikes]."

A VPP bike will experience up to 17mm of chain growth during pedalling while an APP bike will experience up to 24mm. The larger the chain growth, the more noticeable the pedalling effects. Santa Cruz have optimized the design for riding in the middle chainring on both bikes. Ferrentino says the APP system reacts less under braking than any single pivot design.

After four years of work into the design, APP technology was patented in 2009. The Nickel and Butcher are the first production bikes to incorporate this technology. "We have more time and money invested in this APP technology than anything else we've done previously," said Ferrentino.

Details, details, details

In the main swingarm pivot and the APP link/swing link pivot, Santa Cruz use 15mm diameter aluminium axles that roll on angular contact bearings (save for the two that connect the lower APP link to the swingarm). The axles thread directly into their swingarm or counterpart link on one side of the bike and feature a locking collet head on the other.

Close-up of Santa Cruz's new Actual Pivot Point linkage design

The axles and bearings have been designed to be easily servicable, and the rear shock is positioned in such a way that it is easy to access for tuning, maintenance, pumping, etc. The forged aluminium APP links may look the same for the Butcher and Nickel, but they have different geometries, which lets Santa Cruz control the suspension performance for the different travel lengths of the bikes.

Both frames are made of 6000-series hydroformed aluminium tubes. Cable stops have been built in to accommodate dropper seat posts. The Nickel has two water bottle mounts, one above and one below the down tube, while the Butcher has one. Both bikes comes with a bottle opener built into the driveside rear dropout – all the better to open the post-ride beer.

All sizes of Butcher have a 67.5-degree head angle, 72-degree seat angle, 13.8in bottom bracket height and and 17.1in chainstays. The Nickel has a 68-degree head angle, 72.5-degree seat angle, 13.6in bottom bracket and 16.7in chainstays. Top tubes on the Nickel are 0.3in to 0.5in longer than those on the Butcher.

Both bikes will be available in Santa Cruz's standard medley of powdercoat colours: red, white, black, yellow, 'seabright blue' and 'chocolate'. "We're not doing any more anodised colours after this summer," said Ferrentino. "We do all of our own powdercoating here in house. We've also changed our decal process to use water transfer decals, and then we clearcoat on top of it.

"Our frames come from Taiwan in raw state which makes it easier for us to do quality control. It lets us react to changes better – like, if one colour ends up being more popular, we can adapt. We've never done anodising in house, which gives us less control over the colours/size/options. It's expensive to maintain extensive inventory of all sizes and colours, and you end up with some left over. You can't re-colour an anodised frame without losing tube wall thickness, which affects the design and durability."

The Butcher and Nickel are available in a range of colours including 'chocolate'

The Nickel and Butcher should be available from June 15 in the US, mid-June/July in the UK and October in France. Claimed weights are 6.65lb for the Nickel and 6.73lb for the Butcher. Both frames will cost £1,299 (US$1,350) with a Float R shock. Full builds are expected to start at around $2,000.

Going Nomadic

The carbon Nomad is Santa Cruz's fourth carbon fibre bike. "We started experimenting [with carbon] with the Blur XC one-and-a-half years ago," said Ferrentino. "The Blur XC we had at that point weighed 5.2lb, with frame and shock, and it was flexy and weak. None of us who worked here rode them. We started investigating carbon fibre as a way to get a cross-country race bike out. The carbon Blur XC weighed 1lb less and was stiffer and handled better."

Pleased with their early success, Santa Cruz moved ahead with making some of their other bikes in carbon, too. Changing the Nomad's frame from aluminium to carbon resulted in a lighter, stiffer bike. The company boast that a medium frame with RockShox Monarch 3.3 shock weighs just 6.08lb – not bad for a 6in+-travel bike.

"Carbon fibre is much tougher than people give it credit for ... if it is built right," said Ferrentino. "We use a one-piece layup process. Many manufacturers start out with several frame pieces, tube to tube, then wrap them together and put them in a mould to bake it together to form the frame. We have a carbon fibre head tube and botton bracket insert. The rest is wrapped in place by two people in one sitting. 

"They have mandrels and outer moulds to form the frame. Carbon fibre plys are wrapped around them. It takes two people working together two to three hours to get a frame's front triangle ready to go into the oven. Then the frames are baked. Our process is more labourious and requires a degree of dexterity that most people don't appreciate."

Santa Cruz's Nomad-c is built using a one-piece layup process

The company use a mix of 3K weave, unidirectional (UD) and aramid fibres. During layup, extra material is added along the down tube and head tube junctures, chainstays, and other points that experience the most stress during use. "Shock ears, derailleur mounts, pivots, etc, are moulded into the frames directly, not bonded on afterwards," said Ferrentino. "That gives us a more resilient end package. The frame's one-piece nature and the precise shaping of moulds lets us use a minimum amount of material, which also keeps waste to a minimum."

The bike features a 1.5in head tube, ISCG05 tabs and titanium hardware. The lower link, with 12 and 15mm pivot axles, has grease ports built into it. Santa Cruz built in a down tube protector to ward off rocks and minimise crash damage. Pieces of pleather – otherwise known as imitation leather – are found on the bottom bracket, seat tube and driveside chainstay.

"We looked at a lot of options and this material, like you would find on a tennis racket, was what did the best. It holds up, doesn't show a lot of damage," said Ferrentino. "We build our bikes expecting that riders will crash." The company have an extensive in-house testing facility, with head-on impact testing and fatigue tests run by loading the frames in various ways to simulate many hours of hard riding conditions.

The Nomad comes with a 67-degree head angle, 71.5-degree seat angle, 14in bottom bracket height and 17.4in chainstays. It has the same geometry and travel as the aluminium Nomad, but it is 1.1lb lighter. Available in white and black, and in four sizes, it should be available from June 15 in the US, mid-June/July in the UK and October in France.

Prices start at $2,499 for the frame and Monarch 3.3 shock. Add $198 for a DHX 5 Air or $298 for a DHX RC4. Complete bikes will start at $3,650. UK RRPs have yet to be confirmed but the frame is expected to be around £2,499 by the time shipping costs, import duty and VAT have been added.

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