February 22, 2012
It sometimes seems that for anything new to have a fuss made about it in the bike world it needs to have three things; big wheels, carbon fibre and a price tag that brings a tear to the eye. Santa Cruz have decided to buck the trend, most of it at least, by inviting the knobbly tyred press over to the States take a look at a pair of bikes that’ll offer big wheels, value and aluminium (or aluminum) construction.
Jon has been wandering around in the desert near Sedona, sitting on vortexes, feeling the vibrations from healing crystals, riding the new bikes and pondering the meaning of it all.
The Superlight can trace it’s history back to the very first bike Santa Cruz made, back when 29″ wheels were just a glint in an eye shielded by a pair of oddly shaped glasses. The single pivot design has evolved over the years, getting tweaked, tuned and tautened into what SC regard as the value ‘backbone’ of their range. With that in mind, it wasn’t overly surprising that they’ve chosen to fit some big wheels into it.
The bike shares geometry with the VPP suspended and highly successful Tallboy, a model which is currently outselling the rest of the Santa Cruz range in the States by some way. The design follows that of the 26″ Superlight closely, with 100mm of rear wheel travel, the pivot mounted above and in front of the big ring. The 15mm pivot axle is held in place with a lightweight and rather neat thru axle with collet head, moving on sealed angular bearings. The swingarm itself has fixed 135mm dropouts, SC reckoning that a thru-axle arrangement doesn’t offer enough of a measurable stiffness increase to be worth the limiting choice of rear hubs at the price point the Superlight 29 targets. This philosophy extends to shunning the plethora of BB standards and keeping a normal, threaded BB shell as well, something that remains a constant in the ever changing world of bike standards.
Up front the headtube is a dinky tapered item, being about as short as it’s possible to go while still fitting a headset above the fork taper. Keeping the front end at a reasonable height on the big wheeled bikes is something that the SC engineers feel is highly important to getting the bike to handle as it should.
There’s plenty of standover height thanks to the dropped and kinked top tube and the full length cable runs – complete with dropper post mount – sit neatly underneath.
The small and medium sized bikes actually use a shorter shock and different swingarm, increasing that standover height further. All the sizes have the same amount of travel, but by increasing the leverage rate on the shock it means that lighter riders run a greater air pressure and consequently get a much more useable range of damping, something that can be a hard trick to pull off otherwise.
The contrasting mix of red slickrock, deep dust and loose stone scattered about the winding a varied trails in Sedona make it a good place to find the limit of grip and bring handling traits to the fore on any bike, nevermind a shorter travel machine. Despite only holding 100mm of travel front and rear, the Superlight handled the wide range of riding, never feeling ponderous despite the extra rolling mass, presumably a by product of the relatively short wheelbase and 71° head angle.
The predictability of a single pivot is always reassuring, especially a well executed one. The custom damped Fox RL doesn’t kill the lively feel nor does it deaden all feedback, a nice blend of information letting you know what’s happening with a minimum of negative interference. Despite the long swingarm it’s no wagging dog; the flex that is present working with rather than against the rider. Even when loaded up mid corner there’s no unpredictable twang on exit, more a sensation of the bike untensing. It all adds up to a fun, short and lively feel.
It’s capable too; though it’s a nonsense that bigger wheels are somehow worth more physical suspension travel, the fast rolling nature and ability to bridge small bumps mean that you’ll end up riding very fast into things, the moment of realisation that the bike only has a relatively small 100mm of travel usually coming about mid-way through the rock garden.
As with most big wheelers, it comes into it’s own when cranked up to speed, high frequency trail chatter effectively muted and an impressive level of grip being produced mid turn. If you corner with conviction then the Superlight will hold you more often than not and when it does break away the slides are entertainingly long and predictable.
If you’re a fan of hugely long, slack trail bikes then the short feel might not be right up your street but it’s hard to deny that the Superlight 29 is anything other than a bundle of fun.
If you prefer a bit of steep and tech, you can always stick a 120mm fork in the front, which would relax the handling as well as increasing the forgiveness when wildly riding into things.
Following from that, you’re used to slacker and longer 26″ bikes (as I am) then you’ll need to stay awake to stop it following it’s own path – I struggled occasionally when riding steep uphill, possibly thanks to the wide bars and dinky stem I’d slapped on – but with requisite attention paid and weight correctly balanced the bike can be hurried along and happily darts where it’s pointed. It’s a bike that’s controlled by being actively turned rather than passively leant into a corner; after all it is a cross-country trail bike rather than choppered out descent killer. It’s to the Superlight’s credit that it’ll handle the broad range that it does before feeling like it might be getting out of it’s depth.
We’re waiting on UK pricing but expect it to cost a similar amount to the Superlight 26, which currently retails at £1,074 for frame and Fox RL shock.
The bike will come in two standard colours; a gloss burnt orange with silver decals or a gloss black with green livery. A whole host of custom colours will be available at an upcharge too, as will build kits and complete bikes. Jungle Products will have stock of the new bikes in around four weeks, so expect to see them in your local bike shop or at a Santa Cruz demo shortly after.
It’s not all fully suspended action though – nope, the popular carbon fibre framed Highball 29 hardtail is now joined by an aluminium little brother packing some neat touches of it’s own – see here for more.