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First Ride: The New Mixed-Wheel Santa Cruz Bronson

This is all happening so fast...

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You know what, bike industry? You’re all right. I don’t care what people say about you. You are finally bringing the mixed-wheel concept out of the back alleys and into the light. Sure, it took about six years of half measures and missteps, all weighed down by the regrettable name “mullet,” but it seems like you’re now ready to commit. We shared the news of two mixed-wheel bikes just last month, from Transition and YT. But today is a big day. Santa Cruz has released a new Bronson, alongside Juliana releasing the new Roubion. And other than the XS size (which is a triumph in itself) every one of them is only available in a mixed-wheel configuration. 

The easy road would have been to make a handful of subtle updates to the Bronson’s geometry and leverage-rate curve, bolt on a SRAM universal derailleur hanger and call it 2022. That’d have been consistent with the updates made only six months ago to the Nomad which, let’s face it, was just as deserving of a mixed-wheel facelift as the Bronson. But change has to start somewhere, and it’s pretty poetic that it started with the Bronson.

Looking back at the launch of the original Bronson is like opening up a time capsule. It was developed in 2012, released in 2013, and was Santa Cruz’s first 27.5 bike. The choice to go 650b (in the parlance of their times) happened in the middle of the Bronson’s development after the designers sensed The Change coming and acted accordingly.

The first Bronson was introduced at a time when we weren’t sure if this new concept in wheel size would ever catch on, who it was for, and what the hell we should even call it. Sound familiar? 

The new Bronson sits on 150mm of rear travel and 160 up front. That extra 10mm of fork travel makes quite a statement. If the Bronson were aiming to be a mixed-wheel direct analog to your garden variety 20mm-over-forked 27.5 bike, Santa Cruz would have designed the it around matched front and rear travel like Transition did with the 160mm Patrol and YT did with the 170mm Capra MX. But choosing a bigger wheel and bigger travel out front positions the new Bronson as a specialist in steep descents. Same goes for the 64.7-degree head angle (in the high setting) and the new, taller 35mm house-brand handlebar Santa Cruz is speccing on the Bronson. 

For a little backstory, I’m a big fan of mixed-wheel bikes. I’ve used shorter-travel 29er forks to convert a Yeti SB165, SB140, and a Transition Scout to make for some unorthodox but surprisingly balanced macines (one of which was re-created in a recent Dream Build). I’ve also tried off-the-shelf conversions from Specialized and Forbidden. All succeeded in combining the strengths of two wheel sizes, but all came with slight compromises. And I expected the same from the Bronson. I assumed Santa Cruz would have made compromises behind the front end. But the rest of its numbers are extraordinarily … ordinary. Nice, modern reach, relatively steep seat tube angle and a pretty low bottom bracket. And the Bronson is the second bike in Santa Cruz history to feature size-specific chainstay lengths, ranging from 432mm to 443. That presents some interesting questions about exactly what the mixed-wheel concept is meant to accomplish. Questions I could only answer by riding it.

The Bronson arrived at my doorstep less than 72 hours before I had to sit down and share my thoughts. I’ll need a few more weeks to chase down and identify all of this bike’s strengths and weaknesses. But I packed about 55 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing and descending on the Bronson this weekend, so I’ve got plenty to un-pack.

My first ride was done with no knowledge of any numbers other than fork travel, which I needed to set sag. And I remember thinking during my initial setup that the rear travel must have been 160, not 150. Santa Cruz’s lower-link VPP bikes tend to have that effect. The straight progressive leverage-rate curve makes the travel feel consistent and endless, without an obvious soft spot below sag or a premature ramp-up below that. With the saddle in the middle of its rails and the stem clamped in the middle of its stack of spacers, I set out to pedal, neutral and unbiased.

First thing I noticed was the bar height. It’s high. I suppose I had some bias, because I accepted high bars as a characteristic of some mixed-wheel bikes. I gave it a shot as it came out of the box, but I swapped some spacers after my first ride. I think the Bronson was an odd bike to introduce the higher-rise bars. It’s not a Nomad or a Megatower, but size-for-size, it has a higher stack than either. I ended up with just a 2.5mm spacer under the stem, and will go lower when I eventually flip the geometry chip. Thankfully, for those who might want to leave the bar high, the steep seat angle allows your weight to be right where you want it to be on the climbs. That’s when my assumption that the bike had a 160mm rear end all but disappeared. The Bronson wouldn’t sink into its travel until I really started misbehaving. It rewards calm, even pedal strokes, but it never sucks you down out of an optimal neutral climbing position. I happen to have a lot of smooth fire road to climbs on most of my loops, so I made use of the lockout quite a bit, but that got interesting once I took the saddle position and flip chip into account.

Over my two and a half days on the Bronson, I only rode it in its high position. Normally, I would skip right to the low position, but I trusted Santa Cruz to err on the side of shreddyness with this bike. Sure enough, I was still able to regularly get a pedal in the dirt, even in the high setting, so I left well enough alone. And that decision paid off on the climbs. After sliding the saddle forward to the max line, I was no longer tempted to flip the rear shock’s climb switch. Sure, it wouldn’t hurt when I was on those fire roads, but it wasn’t necessary. Then, on singletrack climbs, everything came together. It was efficient, even rewarding to hammer the Bronson through technical sections. Part of that is how Santa Cruz’s application of VPP has successfully dialed down the input the drivetrain has on maintaining ride height, and dialed up the input the suspension has. The other part is the get-up-and-go you achieve with a 27.5-inch wheel. No, it doesn’t fully float through rough stuff, but it does charge through it. On a bike that makes clear its preference for the downhill, the Bronson truly gets the job done on the climbs. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

So, I’m appropriately embarrassed to bring Strava into this (or any) conversation, but  I bagged my most sought-after KOM on my very first descent on the Santa Cruz Bronson. It’s a steep one. About 3,000 feet in about 3 miles. The top half is beautiful, loose rocky chaos that seems to shift a little every time I see it. It’s what I’d call technical straightlining. The trail doesn’t twist much, but it is beset with dangers. You need to be on your toes to pick the right line. Honestly, a matched-wheel 29-inch bike is a better tool for these sections, especially if you’re at or above 6 feet tall like I am. But there are two little stabby drops in that section, and I noticed immediately that the rear wheel was not buzzing my shorts as I lowered myself to absorb them. Combined with how readily the new lower-link VPP gives up the first 75 percent of its travel, I thoroughly enjoyed how the Bronson handles technical straighlining.

But what really stood out was how it handled everything else. When I would have to late-brake into a dog’s leg in the trail to swerve around a boulder or a bush or a chasm, the Bronson put me in the optimal position to do it. I was never one to complain about lack of control in 29ers, but I felt extra control on the Bronson.  As I got more used to the freedom I had over the rear wheel, the more I would take advantage of it. The benefit in stiffness and clearance over a 29er gave it the trail-friendly-DH-bike feel that has made the mixed-wheel concept so compelling to the most aggressive of riders. Or, more specifically, racers. I find that I lose the most time, not by going too slow, but by making too many mistakes. Slight bobbles in turns, taking too long to regain my footing after a rough section or recovering from a drop. These are the situations where the Bronson excels. It seems ready to respond to subtle inputs and fine adjustments in weight distribution. It brought to mind a question flooding the internet when the mixed-wheel concept first appeared. “Are mixed-wheel bikes faster?” 

No, they are not. They are inanimate objects. But they can bring out the fast in you, especially when you’re very familiar with the terrain you’re on. You get a more direct understanding of and control over what happens when there is traction and what happens when there isn’tThat doesn’t mean the Bronson is an especially playful bike, At least not in the XL size. The 443mm chainstays on my test bike kept it from being the manual-ready, skid-friendly BMX bike that some people might want out of a mixed-wheel platform. Sure, it’s easier to move around than it would be if it had a 29-inch rear wheel, but it could have been easier if every size had the shortest chainstay possible. Except, that’s not the only way to do a mixed-wheel bike. The Bronson is for riders who want to maintain intimate control, but do it at the fastest speeds possible. And until the day someone inevitably takes my favorite KOM, I say it succeeds. 

Oh, and I almost forgot. The Santa Cruz Bronson is kind of expensive. To be fair, all bikes are going to get kind of expensive in the coming months. New bikes just have a head start, so keep that in mind, but you can’t get into the new Bronson for under $5,000. The good news is, that $5k build prioritizes the frame and suspension quality. You get a Float X shock and Lyric fork, each of which can easily keep up with what this bike is capable of. The SRAM G2 brakes and NX drivetrain, maybe not, but you start with good bones. The sweet spot is probably the $6,950 XT build, which gets you a full XT kit, RockShox Super Deluxe Select+ rear shock and Fox Performance Elite fork with a Grip2 damper. And Santa Cruz should be commended for how deep they went in options in the lower-priced C carbon frame. You don’t have to go for the higher-priced higher-modulus carbon if you want an option with Santa Cruz Reserve carbon wheels and a top-shelf build kit. 

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