Santa Cruz Bronson, Ridden and Reviewed

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These days 27.5″ wheeled enduro-style bikes are all the rage.  Carbon frames,  buzzwordy linkages, specially tuned suspension components and a list of other superlative features are all too common.   That is until you realize that Santa Cruz set the bar with the Bronson- and everyone else is scrambling to catch up.

So why the hype?  Well it turns out that either Santa Cruz cracked the code on what a mid-wheel, long travel bike should be or the segment is starting to settle itself out.

First, let me say that 27.5″ wheels are the right call for this kind of bike.  They do roll over things markedly better than 26″ while being appreciably lighter and stronger than 29″ wheels.  They really do get most of the 29er goodness of roll-ability and traction with the flick-ability and cornering ease of 26″.  Large, square edged obstacles aren’t devoured as they would be with a 29er, but the ability to run more suspension makes up for it (while we’re talking wheel size I think 29″ is absolutely the right call for most hardtails and even short travel bikes).

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Second, the dialed geometry and VPP suspension take the bike to the next level as far as performance is concerned.  Tuning nerds and bro bra knuckle draggers can agree on the benefits of the VPP linkage so I’ll have little to offer in terms of new, enlightened commentary beyond the fact that it just simply works.  After a relatively short and straightforward setup you can go for a ride and feel like you’re getting a reasonable amount of suspension performance without stressing about oil viscosity, late-stage damping or spring rates.  Sure, you need to spend some time tweaking it to maximize it, but you don’t need to do that to get out and enjoy the bike.  After I’d gotten it setup I was able to climb standing or seated and felt like the back end was planted to the ground  while not bouncing around under pedaling torque.

I opted for the carbon frame and the upgraded CTDK Float shock/TALAS K fork package.  Of course I also had a bunch of slightly used SRAM X0 parts sitting around so I did some tweaking to the stock drivetrain and contact points.  I had the blue saddle & grips sitting around from another build I swear…

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The CTD thing is interesting and is a relatively simple way of getting a lot of adjustment with relatively few levers.  I followed the instructions of the guys at iRide and went with about 90-100% of body weight in the shock and wide open to halfway damped in “trail mode”.  The TALAS fork took a little more fiddling but I settled on about 68% of my body weight and the middle “Trail” setting.

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Perhaps the geometry is the thing that surprised me the most about the Bronson.  In spite of the fact that it has a visibly very slack head angle it is not a chopper and negotiates corners well at nearly any speed.  My cross country-centric friends who have ridden it have said the same thing- that in spite of all indications to the contrary this is a smooth handling, capable trail bike that you can ride all day that still will blast any descent as fast as you can push it.  In short it likes going fast, but is still manageable at low speed and on slow, technical terrain.

I’ve ridden 29″ wheel full suspension bikes and anything with more than 100 mm of travel has felt like a monster truck.  Sure, no argument about how well they roll, but they’re god awful heavy, parts selection is minimal and the bike really needs to be driven hard and kept at speed in order to be able to maneuver it.  Once those big bikes slow down they are very tough to maneuver- and I’m no weakling at 185 lbs.

So how does it ride?  Uphill it’s surprising, and the added travel means a traction advantage to help clean obstacles with relative ease.  As I mentioned before it doesn’t move unnecessarily under pedaling forces and it climbs better than you’d expect for a 28.5 lb bike with only a 32t chainring.  The cockpit length is reasonable, which helps, but the efficient suspension means that you aren’t flailing even without going into “climb” mode on the CTD damper.

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Downhill it’s unbelievable- stable, predictable and begging to be pushed to the limit.  And I haven’t yet found the limit of what this bike I can do- I get scared and chicken out before the bike gets out of its depth.  Corners and drops are predictable and handled with aplomb- just drop the saddle out of the way, square up and let go of the brakes.  Probably the best indicator of the bike’s skill is that  I was able to ride all of Burning Spear and all of Joe’s trail clean, end-to-end on my first try on this bike.  I’ve ridden each of those clean before, but not together end-to-end.

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Other more skilled pilots could certainly get more out of it for anything short of full-on, lift-assisted DH.

One of the nice things about the Santa Cruz approach is that they offer the same basic frame design and well proven VPP suspension platform in aluminum and carbon with several different build options; you can go from a basic Deore build for about $3300 right up to a full XTR, Enve wheel halo bike for $10,000.

Before getting the Bronson I rode many modern long travel trail and enduro bikes, and I have to say that the Bronson is hands down my favorite.

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