Santa Cruz Nickel (frame only) - First ride review£1,299.00

Versatile, tackle-anything mountain bike

BikeRadar score3.5/5

Santa Cruz have been producing a lot of new designs recently. They’re mostly carbon configurations of existing models, but we’ve also been blindsided with two totally new alloy framesets.

The bigger Butcher overlaps the current Heckler, but the Nickel tested here fills a whole new travel and mission bracket between the existing single-pivot Superlight and Heckler platforms. It gets up-to-date frame features and a completely new suspension system to do it with, too.

It's heavy, but if you want a truly versatile, tackle-anything mountain bike at an affordable price but still with prestige appeal, then Santa Cruz have just dropped a great new option into the running.

Ride & handling: Planted and predictable, yet enthusiastic and fun to ride

It’s always hard to know what to expect from a bike that’s designed for general riding, but it’s the versatility and engaging enthusiasm of the Nickel in all situations that really strikes you.

At 27lb, it’s heavy for a 125mm-travel bike, but the APP linkages stabilise the suspension and remove pedal- and power-related bob to a remarkable degree. That produces a planted, predictable feel as you pour on the coal, staying flat and connected to the terrain.

The Nickel charges with equal purpose in the saddle or out, and the neutral suspension means you can always stab in a few pedal strokes between technical sections to keep speed high without affecting balance.

Santa cruz nickel frame: santa cruz nickel frame
Santa cruz nickel frame: santa cruz nickel frame

We’re not sure why Santa Cruz describe the Nickel as long, because the medium model is relatively short in the 23in top tube, and you’re certainly not going to want to stick on a long stem.

What you miss in stretch on the climbs you make up for with easy rider movement, though – you can shift your weight to stick or slide the tyres around at will. The Nickel flicks and hops around any trailside launch lips with an addictive glee, too.

There’s still the potential fit-gap problem between the medium and large frames that Santa Cruz have always suffered from, so try to bag a test ride at a demo event if you’re unsure.

If the frame does fit, then the tapered head tube and chunky down tube give a very solid grip on the RockShox Revelation fork to let you fully exploit the accuracy of the Maxle-stiffened tips.

And the reasonably but not radically slack head angle gives the Nickel an easy confidence on the trail without feeling as though the front wheel is wandering about like a wheelbarrow at low speeds.

The bottom bracket height is also a happy balance between being close enough to the ground to feel in touch at lower speeds and having enough clearance to keep pedalling on rocky and rutted trails. You could always steepen it with a 120mm fork or lower it for a more cross-country feel. That would match the rear travel more closely too.

With slightly rearward wheel movement and a falling rate through the first bit of travel in the long stroke shock, the back end feels impressively smooth over small stuff. It then tightens up progressively as you push further into the stroke to collect bigger hits and drops without hitting the stops too hard.

The new suspension design combines actual and virtual pivot point linkages: the new suspension design combines actual and virtual pivot point linkages
The new suspension design combines actual and virtual pivot point linkages: the new suspension design combines actual and virtual pivot point linkages

Frame: Well finished, and suspension works well, but on the chunky side

As you’d hope for a 2011 frame, things start off with a tapered head tube, using a conventional bottom cup and inset top cup to keep the cockpit low. A kinked top tube keeps standover clearance generous and the S-curved box-to-oval down tube gets a side-welded saddle mount that puts the big main pivot in roughly the same place as Santa Cruz’s single-pivot bikes.

The main pivot also uses the same serviceable collet design as Santa Cruz’s second-generation VPP bikes, so reliability should be excellent. What’s new then? Well, the two Actual Pivot Point (APP) linkages that pivot off the top corner of the back-sloped rear swingarm to drive the shock through a Virtual Pivot Point (VPP)-style hanging linkage.

This means that while the rear axle path is very similar to that of Santa Cruz’s single-pivot bikes, the APP linkage modifies the shock path to mirror the falling and rising rate of VPP twin-linkage bikes. This also allows Santa Cruz to lean the forward parts of the extensively hydroformed rear swingarm right back to keep weight low. Having said that, at 7.3lb for frame and shock the Nickel is definitely on the chunky side for its travel/use category.

Slight asymmetry gives extra chain clearance on the drive side too. Elsewhere, the distinctive vertical rear dropout plates include a bottle opener and rear brake mount. The frame also features up-and-under bottle cage mounts and big tyre clearance between the indented stays, plus the now obligatory cable routing for a remote controlled adjustable seat post.

Big loops of cable between the frame halves make paint protection patches essential, though, so ensure you take the time to protect any one of the seven colour choices – black, red, lime green, white, sea bright blue and chocolate – prior to riding the Nickel in anger.

Santa Cruz will be bringing out complete packages later this year but, for now, the frame is an ideal host for the latest tough, light components. The distinctively stiff, well-controlled and light Revelation fork we rode was a great match and the Easton short stem/wide bar setup was spot-on, too.

We’ll never complain about the double SRAM X0 and Avid Elixir double act either. We’d go for bigger volume tyres than the 2.1in Panaracers our bike had, though; while they’re fast, they undermine the otherwise surefooted bike on sketchier terrain.

The tapered head tube holds a well behaved 140mm rockshox revelation fork: the tapered head tube holds a well behaved 140mm rockshox revelation fork
The tapered head tube holds a well behaved 140mm rockshox revelation fork: the tapered head tube holds a well behaved 140mm rockshox revelation fork

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