It was just under a year ago that I flew into California for a week of riding and touring the factory at Santa Cruz Bicycles. The riding was unreal and visiting Santa Cruz Bicycles head office left me with a lasting impression about the brand and its philosophy about bikes. You can read all about my experience visiting the factory here.
While at Santa Cruz, I was able to see first hand how the building is a creative hive. It’s filled with like-minded souls; deeply passionate about the bikes they are all part of in some way. Departments aren’t silos and no one job is more important than the other. There is a trust on the factory floor, where the person at one station knows the person at the previous station has their back and they pay that forward. They all own it.
Most of the top brass have come up through the ranks and there are many long time employees at Santa Cruz. Like a proud father, CEO Joe Graney will never pass up the opportunity to show anyone around the building. When Joe walks you through the stations and introduces an employee, his first question is usually “and how long have you worked here?” Everyone is proud to answer and it’s usually been a while. Joe has taken the time to familiarize himself with most, if not all, of the stations along the assembly line and understands the role each member of the team plays. They respect that about him and it shows.
The entire building is a moving puzzle being solved as a collective. Everything from the custom assembly-line trolleys to the one-off control panel in the carbon lab, are unique solutions created by inspired Santa Cruz employees. This echoes the ‘promote from within’, in-house, quality first practices they live by. “Any good business book will tell you to outsource,” says Joe Graney. But Santa Cruz won’t take the easy route and is determined to find ways to beat the house: making it cost effective while keeping the quality high. Most other brands’ bikes that hit a dealer’s floor come straight from Asia, having never been touched by the manufacturer. In contrast, every single Santa Cruz bike is assembled by hand in their American and German factories. Their wheel program is another example of something that could easily be farmed out. Instead, the factory now delivers hundreds of hand-built wheels every day – including their new Reserve Carbon wheels, which were developed in-house in their very own carbon lab.
When I toured the factory last year, I met the man behind the Reserve wheels, Composites Engineer Nic McCrae. I was again amazed at the level of design and testing that went into developing the rims. Just like with the custom jigs to test frames, Nic made his own equipment to test and determine optimal spoke reinforcement and bead strength. As Nic and I chatted about the lab and its future potential, he hinted at the idea of building trials rider Danny MacAskill a custom, carbon trials bike.
Fast-forward to a month ago, when I was one of the lucky few invited to Santa Cruz for the recent Blur and Highball launches. After one of the incredible riding days, we had the opportunity to tour the factory. Santa Cruz even let us get our hands dirty and showed us how to build our very own Reserve Carbon wheels. At the end of that day came the real surprise, as we were asked to leave the cameras behind and step into the carbon lab. Sitting there in the dark, lit with a single floodlight, was a custom, carbon bike for Danny. Nic and his team had done it.
This bike is a massive engineering feat but what it really represents to me is the desire to push the limits and never settle. With bikes advancing a millimeter here and there at times, it’s pretty mind-blowing to see something like this. This is a bike that no one will ever be able to buy, which they will never sell. So why make it?
Well, for one thing, it’s for Danny MacAskill. While I’m certain this was a difficult pitch at the budget allocation meetings, this is branding on another level. You know a rider has hit the mainstream when your mum sends you the link “have you seen this?”. Danny’s “The Ridge” video has been viewed 56 million times. If Danny comes to you asking for a bike to help him realize a new video project, you’d have to be crazy not to do it. The Danny bike project was also an opportunity to learn about new manufacturing techniques and materials.
“Danny wanted us to make him a carbon trials bike” explains Nic. “I had no idea what kind of journey that was going to be, but it sounded like there’d be a whole lot of new stuff to learn working on a project like this so I just said yes, and used it as an opportunity to take our in-house R&D facility to the next level.”
Santa Cruz frames are currently manufactured using a technique that uses an expanded polystyrene (EPS) mandrel which has a nylon bladder placed over it. Carbon fiber segments are then draped over the bladder-covered mandrel according to the layup schedule. At this point the frame is ready to be placed inside the tool where the bladder is inflated. When the frame is cured inside the mold the EPS mandrel shrinks and breaks apart, which is what allows it to later be removed from the nylon bladder. Both the mandrel and bladder are then waste. This is a process that was first developed while producing the Blur XC a decade ago.
Alongside learning about new materials and manufacturing, Santa Cruz wanted to make the process more environmentally friendly. The Santa Cruz factory in California is already quite green but they hoped to develop a process that could be transferred to their facility in South Asia. One of their goals was to develop a system that incorporated reusable latex bladders. Fabricating a CNC-machined mandrel is how reusable latex bladders have traditionally been used in non-bike manufacturing applications. To develop its latex bladders, Santa Cruz chose to use 3D printing to create the mandrel. While it could take weeks to CNC-machine a new mandrel, Santa Cruz could print a new one overnight, working in real time and making numerous revisions to produce the best possible outcome. This 3D printing method also allowed for previously impossible shapes to be fabricated.
Santa Cruz used glass beads inside the bladder to give it a rigid shape while applying the carbon layers. A vacuum was used to keep the shape rigid during layup, which once complete, could be released and the beads removed. Smooth is the friend of carbon and the latex bladder produces a cleaner inner surface with no creases or pinch lines.
Carbon bikes are made up of an assortment of fiber materials, which vary in thickness, weave and grade. Most frames incorporate between six to ten types of fiber materials, depending on the application. In making the bike for Danny, Santa Cruz sought to expand its knowledge and use of cutting-edge materials. By doing the R&D in-house, Santa Cruz was able to experiment with state-of-the-art materials developed in the aerospace industry. You’ve got to fill out a lot of forms and jump through many hoops to take these materials out of the country. You probably end up on a list you don’t want to be on. By keeping the materials local to the USA, Santa Cruz was able to order small amounts to be used for prototyping.
For the Danny bike, Santa Cruz used an aerospace grade “braided” carbon fabric used in jet engine cowlings. Its purpose is to shield the fuselage should a turbofan blade break free – kind of important. Unidirectional and woven materials are used readily in the bike industry but this material has three alignments within a single material. Given its current application, it seemed like a good choice to reinforce impact prone areas on Danny’s bike.
While Danny’s trials bike and the Highball are completely different machines, increasing the strength to weight ratio was a common goal for both bikes. Making Danny a bike that was both lighter and stronger than his metal equivalent was no small task. Exploring these new materials and procedures helped realize that and we’re already seeing the payoff in production bikes like the Highball.
The question I asked Nic a year ago and again on this trip is “will you be making your own carbon prototypes now.” Santa Cruz is known to make their own aluminum test mules in-house but this could open a whole other area of pre-production testing. I never got a definite answer on that one but I’d describe the response as a very hopeful “maybe”. What is clear is that having an in-house composite lab has taught them a lot about the manufacturing process and allowed them to explore new emerging materials.
Sure that budget could have been spent on some wind tunnel time determining optimal beard length for max watts, but who really cares about that stuff. I think when we see Danny’s new video project we’ll be blown away. Whatever Danny feels he needs this bike to realize is bound to be something special. More importantly, we’ll all get to ride a piece of the magic, in some way down the road. The 24” Reserve carbon wheels on Danny’s bike aren’t a new wheel standard. But make no mistake; Santa Cruz has definitely set a new standard.