For a bike lover like me, walking into the Santa Cruz Bicycles factory for the first time felt like walking into a candy store. I guess that is fitting since the site used to be the home of the Wrigley Chewing Gum plant, which produced 20 million sticks of gum daily during its heyday. Now in this storied candy factory, Santa Cruz Bicycles builds sweet bikes for its devoted and growing followers: candy for the soul.
It was a pro skater by the name of Rob Roskopp who set the wheels in motion over two decades ago and has kept them rolling ever since. Santa Cruz Skateboards was Roskopp’s sponsor and it was SCS’s owner Rich Novak, who proposed they start a bike company together. Joined by bike engineer Mike Marquez, the three founded Santa Cruz Bicycles in 1993.
Santa Cruz Bicycles began its operations in a facility no larger than a single car garage – the old Seabright Fruit Cannery in Santa Cruz, California. During that period the Cannery was an incubator, housing other pioneers such as Rockshox founder Paul Turner and Keith Bontrager. It was also home to Santa Cruz Skateboards where Roskopp also worked. It was there that he learned the ropes, eventually landing on the marketing side of the business, which was his gift.
Santa Cruz introduced its first mountain bike in 1994, the Tazmon. It was an 80mm travel, single-pivot, dual-suspension bike designed by Tom Morris. Controltech produced these first 100 frames for them. Bikes were sent to dealers to try out and rarely came back. At a time when the industry was filled with guys in ties and anything with four inches of suspension was called a downhill bike, it wasn’t hard for this emerging brand with a vision to make a name for itself. The Tazmon was the foundation of a philosophy SCB still lives by today: to build bikes they would want to ride. This original game-changer, rocked preconceived concepts and anchored the brands “simply advanced” ethos. Not long after the Tazmon was introduced, Hans Heim (Keith Bontregar’s former partner) joined the team.
Santa Cruz had nailed the pivot location on their bikes and other manufacturers were quick to follow. In 1999 they acquired the Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) patent from Outland Bikes. After considering other designs, including Paul Turner’s Maverick system, they went with the more scalable VPP platform. They then granted an exclusive license to Intense Cycles to co-develop the system. Intense Cycles owner Jeff Steber was know for his striking designs and allied with Santa Cruz would ensure the platform reached its potential, both in form and function.
Sixteen years later, after multiple iterations, VPP has been the backbone behind iconic bikes such as the V-10, Nomad, Blur XC and Tallboy just to name a few. SCB employed three additional engineers to help realize all the nuances of the multifaceted counter-rotating VPP linkage. One of those engineers was none other than current COO, Joe Graney. We need not look further than the current Nomad, with its V-10 inspired lower shock mount, to see that they aren’t done yet. Even with the VPP patent now expired, it’s left other manufacturers endeavoring to adapt it into their designs more bewildered than triumphant.
In 2014, after numerous expansions, SCB outgrew its home in the Cannery and relocated into its current 87,000 square foot space. Santa Cruz are shareholders in their South Asian factory, Skybox, and have a hand in production at every step of the way. Every single bike that hits the dealer floor is assembled in the Santa Cruz factory by staff that rides. Each front end and swing arm is inspected by hand prior to assembly. This hands-on approach and concept of working in tandem with the factory is implemented throughout their entire process. Most manufacturers never even see the bikes they sell. With around 150 employees, the new factory now cranks out over 200 bikes a day during peak season. It’s all about the bikes, and the people who lovingly craft them. But you didn’t come here for a history lesson, and neither did I. I came to find out what makes SCB special and to get in some sweet rides.
My SCB experience started well before I ever set foot in the place. Bike reviews and factory tours aside, I am a consumer just like you. I choose SCB because of their quality and unparalleled performance. If there was a better bike, I’d be riding it.
Seeing the factory could have gone two ways, sometimes you don’t want to see where your food comes from. It’s rare in this day and age that when a company pulls back the curtain you aren’t a bit disappointed and that some of the magic is lost. It’s all about the bottom line and sometimes corners get cut. Living up to their under-promise and over-deliver reputation, getting an inside peek only confirmed why I love these bikes so much. Visiting Santa Cruz was like seeing your favourite band live and realizing they are the real deal. So what makes SCB so great? Well, just like a killer band, it’s the members.
While sitting in the showroom waiting for my tour, everyone who walked by stopped to introduce themselves and tell me all about their role. There is tremendous satisfaction exhibited by everyone who works there. I felt the same dynamic while touring the assembly line. Not sure how you would feel about people sightseeing at your office and taking pictures while you work but everyone I spoke to enjoyed telling me their story and sharing a smile. It was really inspiring to see that level of happiness in the workplace, bike industry or otherwise. Knowing someone was stoked when they built my bike makes me even more stoked to ride it.
The Santa Cruz headquarters is a hive, buzzing with creative people who love bikes. Their offices, labs and assembly area are all interconnected with one another and the place feels like the world’s coolest bike shop more than a factory. There is a cohesive energy and everything seems to gel. It’s an atmosphere where departments aren’t isolated silos but clusters of specialists looking to help each other make the best bike possible.
Santa Cruz believes in insourcing more than outsourcing. They deem the higher cost outweighs the measure of quality control this affords them. Everything from producing the eye-catching launch videos, to prototyping and custom wheel building, is done by Santa Cruz employees.
That ‘develop from within’ rational applies to the employees as most of the upper management has come up through the ranks. All the engineering, artwork and design are done internally. The Syndicate is another example of something they grew from the ground up, at a time when big race teams were folding. Josh Bryceland was 14 when he joined the roster. It’s a family affair and everyone who works there is into it. They host world cup parties in the showroom on weekends and everyone shares in the highs and lows together.
What I was most impressed with were their labs, testing and prototyping. They want to understand all aspects of materials and performance so that they can drive the technology. The easy route is to send drawings to the factory, get samples, ride sample and send feedback. Not good enough. Santa Cruz have their own test labs where they scrutinize not only their bikes but also everybody else’s. They have their own machine shop where they manufacturer custom frames and suspension linkage. Composite Engineer Nic McCrae, the man behind the new Reserve carbon wheels, has a carbon lab to fabricate carbon components he is developing. He can then relay what they engineer in-house to the factory for production. I don’t think it will be long before custom frames come out of that lab much like their aluminum mules do. Nothing is left to chance.
Santa Cruz make killer bikes, we know this, but it’s all the small things that complete the experience. The impression I have when I build, and work on my bike is that someone who rides, travels and races bikes has solved all the problems for me. How many times in life today do you use a product and ask yourself “did the engineer even try this?”
Much in the same way they design bikes they want to ride, SCB engineers make them easily serviceable. While they require little maintenance, when needed, it’s a breeze and enjoyable. Crack a cold beer and you’ll have rebuilt your pivots by the time it’s done. The collet-style hardware they employ is the best in the industry, bar none. A hollow axle adjusts bearing preload while an end cap locks it all in place. Grease ports allow for lubrication between service.
Standard length bolts are used for the shock hardware so that you can walk into any hardware store and grab one should you need to on the road. You can buy hangers, bearings, pivot hardware and small frame part for every frame they have produced, going back ten years, from the Santa Cruz website. This is a company who never wants to see you miss a ride. With a lifetime warranty on frames, bearings and now wheels, it’s clear they stand behind what they make. The buck stops with Santa Cruz. Reach out and someone will get back to you within 24hrs.
I haven’t left much time for the riding but that won’t take long. It’s amazing! Santa Cruz set my buddy Brian and I up with some killer Hightowers and we hit the Demo Forest in Aptos, Mt. Hough, Downieville in the Sierras and the local trails just outside the SCB factory. This is a beautiful area of the world and the best part is that you can just as easily test ride a bike and hit the trails like we did. SCB sends out over 3000 demo bikes a year for only $20, all of which they donate back to local trails.
This visit only reaffirmed why I love these bikes. You rarely get the hard sell from SCB and that’s because, frankly, they don’t need to. They have always let the product do the talking. They make bikes we want to ride and they stand behind them. Seeing all the other rad stuff first hand just substantiated what I already feel riding my Santa Cruz bikes, these guys have thought of everything.
This was a very fulfilling visit and I can’t thank Seb Kemp, Don Palermini, Nic McCrae and the entire team at Santa Cruz Bicycles enough for their time and the great experience.