Santa Cruz Bronson – the next word in trail riding

It started with a rumour, the whisper was that 650b was coming. Santa Cruz heard it early and Bike Magazine’s Seb Kemp was in on the action. Invited to test a ‘mule’ way back in 2012, he got the first taste of a new 150mm all mountain quiver killer – what was to become the Santa Cruz Bronson.

Way back in the early days of Mountain Biking, Tom Ritchey has suggested that he and his Mount Tam riding buddies should leave behind the 26” cruiser tyres on their adapted Schwinns and try the French touring rim size instead. 650b, he argued, gave you a better chance of rolling over obstacles, a bigger contact patch with the same width tyre and held speed better once rolling. While his buddies agreed, the shortage of tyres in the right size led to the forefathers of mountain biking sticking to the 26” options that were available in far greater numbers. 650b was to vanish from the scene and 26” rule the roost for 30 years to come.

By the early 2000s, some progress had been made with alternatives, as 29ers began to pick up popularity amongst the American trail riding and XC racing set. Based around 700C wheels, they certainly rolled brilliantly over large obstacles, held speed and performed exceptionally on tough climbs. They looked set to replace the humble 26er in time and may well have done so had it not been for three factors; the enduring popularity of downhill (they refused any wobbly wagon wheels), British rider’s love affair with 26” hardcore hardtails and one man – Kirk Pacenti.

Pacenti had been singing the praises of 650b for as long as anyone was willing to listen. He ran the telemetrics over and over, giving presentations to all and sundry to prove that 650/ 27.5” wheels would offer the grip and rolling advantages of 29ers with the strength and handling characteristics of 26” wheels. Many dismissed him as a dreamer. The die was cast. The US market was sold on 29ers. The XC racers had gone the same way. While downhillers, the UK and the emerging Enduro posse would ride 26 until the day they died.

But Santa Cruz were listening and they were not alone. Somehow, over the course of the 2011-12 development season, the major players went 650b mad. Some simply threw together an adapted 29er, some created an entire range of up scaled 26” bikes. A few however, Santa Cruz among them, did something that no one had done since the birth of the mountain bike. They created a whole new set of bikes dedicated to the ‘new old’ wheel size.

One of the first bikes to take on the ‘new size’ in a completely new design package, rather than a 29er frame with a short back end (as mentioned above), the Bronson also represented the first entry for Santa Cruz into the most competitive part of the mountain bike market – do-it-all 150mm carbon full suspension bikes. This was a brave move. The big boys and girls of the MTB world had this sewn up and, riders dedicated to boutique snobbery aside, everyone had turned to the best known names for their 150mm bikes during the reign of the 26” bike. Somehow, Santa Cruz believed they could crack this tough market at the first go. Well, they had form.

The Nomad had been the go to Enduro bike for years and Santa Cruz had offered up to 140mm with long travel version of the, now long in the tooth, Blur for a while. Both had been market leaders in their own right and the time had come to put in the missing piece of the puzzle. A longer travel trail bike that could climb and descend with equal skill; a machine with Enduro pretensions, but that didn’t feel cumbersome on long days out; something light enough for the local trail centre but burly enough to tackle rock gardens and doubles. In short, Santa Cruz were aiming to build a bike to do everything. They had tried before, but 26″ wheels wouldn’t climb well enough on big travel bikes and 29ers didn’t have the flexibility (not to mention being too rangy for short riders). 27.5″ wheels offered the compromise they were (and everyone else) looking for and suited the latest iteration of the VPP (virtual pivot point) suspension design down to the ground.

Borrowing tricks from the capable Blur TRC and the big mountain killing Tallboy LT, the Bronson was a ground up design for new wheels. Not a rehash of an existing model as many manufacturers had gone with, but a totally new build. Unsurprisingly, the press loved it. The Bronson was fresh, hard hitting and hugely versatile. Not weighed down by the expectations of an old name (the only thing Santa Cruz recycle are plastic bottles) the Bronson was an instant hit at trail centres, short form Enduro races and out in the big hills. Proving that 150mm travel can do just about anything the Santa Cruz Bronson might just be the ultimate do-it-all machine.

Competition was stiff, though. The market for this level of bike is packed to the brim with serious hardware. Bikes running DW links, proprietary faux bar, four bar suspension, unique floating pivots and well developed single pivot designs abounded. Alloy and carbon machines with top notch brakes, forks, running gear and even carbon wheels pack out the options available. Riders could choose machines with super progressive geometry, carbon rocker links, ultra-short rear end, adjustable rakes and incredibly slack head angles. If the Bronson was to stand out, Santa Cruz had two choices, either build a bike with a gimmick so shocking that the world had to take notice, or make something so perfectly balanced that no amount of trickery could out-perform it. Being pragmatists, Santa Cruz chose the latter. And it worked.

First up, they offered the Bronson as an aluminium model to gauge performance, then went straight to carbon, trusting the quality of their lay up to create a machine lighter than the rest and tougher than the best. Angles were the slack side of sensible – this machine had to be fun, but could not afford to be labelled as a descender only or a one trick pony (they’d hit that problem with the Bullit back in the early 2000s). Nor could the Bronson be allowed to simply appeal to the Enduro market. First off, Santa Cruz had that one covered and secondly, there were simply too many trail riders out there, looking for an extra something, to ignore. This needed to be a bike which made technical singletrack fun, could cope with huge days out on the hills and enjoyable enough to pop off to the local jump spot on a whim. A huge ask.

It immediately clear that they had got things right, Josh Bryceland, their World Cup winning downhill ride and Santa Cruz Syndicate rider reportedly refused to hand his back after a video shoot and went off seeking more thrills. Magazines clamoured to a test ride, meaning that a whole extra felt had to be released, just to get bums on seats.

Fast forward three years and Santa Cruz has subtlety evolved the Bronson in line with technological advancements and current mid-travel trends. Half a degree has come off the head angle, the chain stays are a touch shorter, with some work done on the upper rocker to tweak the shock rate slightly. The weight has come down a touch and the whole thing is available in two new colour ways. The aluminium ‘mule’ model has also gone, with carbon being the go to material with so many riders. As ever, Santa Cruz offer a great range of build kits, but the only real way to get your head around the Bronson is to swing a leg over one.

Pop into Biketart to check out a Bronson in the flesh take a quick spin on one of our shop bikes. In the meantime, take a look at some of the video and reviews below to see how much the magazines love both the carbon c and cc versions of this amazing bike. See you soon – the Bronson awaits.