Five years after being unveiled in 2013, Santa Cruz Bicycles presents its latest vision for their original 27.5” trail bike, the Bronson. Now in its third design cycle, this rowdy all-mountain bike has been meticulously refined with little room for improvement. I’ve been fortunate enough to own all three versions of the Bronson, each with its own distinct personality. When I received the current offering last fall, I was eager to see how it compared to previous models as well as its siblings, the Nomad and Hightower.
For several years, the only bike I owned was a 160mm trail bike, an Intense 6.6 with original Fox 36. This was one of the first all-mountain bikes available back in 2006, along with the now infamous Santa Cruz Nomad. Realizing I could rip trails on a bike with that much travel, completely unlocked my riding potential. That period marked a revival in my passion for riding and has remained the style of bike I relish most. My version 1.0 Bronson was a natural succession to the Intense and each new Bronson model released thereafter, has brought me that much closer to my dream ride.
Like any relationship, my time with the Bronson has had its ups and downs and required some effort. While I loved my version 1.0 Bronson, I struggled to have the suspension work as well as I’d like. Despite shock upgrades and custom tunes, it had a wallow at the sag point that I couldn’t shake. Though the version 1.0 Bronson’s geometry was on point for its day, it felt more comparable to a long-legged trail bike than an all-mountain bike. Despite these few quibbles, that original Bronson still laid waste to just about everything in its era. There was nothing like it.
The version 2.0 Bronson, with overhauled VPP3 platform and revised geometry, was a marked improvement. The suspension was buttery-smooth and the bike was more capable at speed. Santa Cruz engineers had hit a home run and this really was a bike you could do just about everything on. The version 2.0 Bronson held its ground at a time when the enduro-race category was becoming more defined and 29ers were gaining favour over the smaller wheels.
Similar to the “you must be this tall to ride” sign at amusement parks, I’m under that arbitrary 5’9” yardstick to get on the 29” wheel ride. Despite this subjective benchmark established by ‘the man’, I snuck onto the big-wheeled Hightower in 2016. I found the Hightower rode like a more efficient version of the Bronson and hung-up my 27.5” bike.
While the boiling wheel-size debate has simmered since the original Bronson’s debut, this latest version has me revisiting this polarizing subject. With mixed wheel sizes being served up on both the world cup downhill and enduro race circuits, it’s clear the recipe is still only half-baked.
Santa Cruz doesn’t really care much about wheel sizes or developing funky standards. They haven’t planted their flag in one camp or the other. Limiting riders’ choices goes against their very fabric, in fact. They care about making the best bikes possible and, in doing so, have more than once been the brand that cracks the code. Santa Cruz made sense of 29” wheels with the Tallboy and again recently with their V-10 downhill bike. The original Bronson was among those forerunners and shook things up when it rolled out on tweener wheels. Why does all that history matter? Because, I believe Santa Cruz have done it again.
This new Bronson continues that engineering greatness and represents the ultimate realization of a 27.5” all-mountain bike. The appetite of riders craving long travel 29ers may be satiated with the current offering of enduro-race bikes. However, I think many riders are still starving for a proper 27.5” all-mountain bike like the Bronson. Santa Cruz has just rung the dinner bell.
Fit and Finish
The most notable distinction between the new Bronson and its predecessors is the move to the new, Nomad-like, lower shock placement. By driving the shock via the lower link, Santa Cruz engineers are able to generate kinematics that deliver a very subtle rising rate. This suspension platform provides extremely supple initial compliance, followed by progressive ramping through the balance of the travel. The Bronson’s leverage curve doesn’t provide quite the same end-stroke cush’ the Nomad’s does and is therefore better suited to an air shock.
The version 3.0 Bronson frame incorporates two, one-piece, carbon triangles. The front and rear sections are joined by stout, counter-rotating links, which deliver Santa Cruz’s signature VPP ride quality. Everything hinges on industry-leading, collet-style pivot hardware. The rear triangle uses dual uprights, recently showcased on the Blur and now the Megatower as well. This will no doubt be incorporated into the next iteration of the Nomad. The uprights sit meticulously around the ‘chunnel’, which allows the shock to pass through the main frame, where it is actuated via the lower rocker. The Bronson’s chunnel isn’t quite as cavernous as on the Nomad and Megatower, which means running shocks with a large air canister, such as the Float X2 or DB Air, won’t be possible.
Cable routing is ultra-tidy with co-molded tubes and lead-ins that take the pain out of internal routing. The cable management is particularly well thought out where it exits the main frame and enters the seat stays of the rear triangle. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about an internally routed rear brake line. External routing can make it easier to replace a rear brake without requiring a full bleed, which is appreciated when travelling. Once you get accustom to how uncluttered the bike appears, everything else looks likes a dog’s breakfast and there is no going back.
The frame is well protected and muted with molded chainstay, downtube and shuttle guards. Riders will also be happy to find a threaded bottom bracket, a standard found across the entire Santa Cruz line. All these refinements give the Bronson a quiet quality riders will welcome. The only sounds you’ll hear are the dull thud of your tires on dirt and the odd rebound slurp from your suspension.
The version 3.0 Bronson has seen reach measurements grow by roughly 15mm. This spread is proportional to those made on previous models. The Bronson’s head angle has gradually become more relaxed, now resting at 65°. The seat tube angle has been sharpened to 75°, one degree steeper than the previous model. The seat tube length has also been reduced, allowing riders to run longer travel dropper posts. Standover height has increased too, thanks to the new suspension layout. These modifications make it sensible for riders to choose a frame size based primarily on reach dimensions.
Those methodically derived digits and degrees add up to a bike that totals the trail. Santa Cruz hasn’t pushed the limits in any particular direction. The chainstays aren’t especially compact and while the front center is longer, it’s far from the longest. Put it all together though, and you have a bike that feels poised and stable but can turn on a dime.
At 5’7”, the size medium Bronson fits me perfectly. With a roughly 31” inseam, I am able to run a 150mm dropper post with a bit of wiggle room. For reference, I can only run a 125mm dropper on the Megatower. I did swap out the stock 50mm stem to a shorter 32mm option as well as run 170mm cranks and 760mm bars. Other changes to the original build were simply to test different suspension and get the bike as close to my Nomad as possible, for comparison purposes. I’d be perfectly happy riding the XO1 Reserve build, which is the kit I’d recommend to fellow riders.
Santa Cruz Bronson CC XO1+ Details
Fork: FOX 36 Float Performance Elite, 160mm 27.5″
Shock: RockShox Super Deluxe Air RCT
Shifters: SRAM XO1 Eagle
Rear Derailleur: Sram XO1 Eagle
Cassette: SRAM XG1295 Eagle 10-50T
Brakes: SRAM Code RSC
Hubs: DT 350 15×110 28H F, DT 350 148×12 28h XD R
Rims: Santa Cruz Reserve 37 Carbon Rim
Crankset: SRAM X1 Eagle Carbon 148 DUB, 32t – 170mm (XS-S), 175mm (M-XL)
Tires: Maxxis Minion DHF, 27.5″x2.6″, 3C Terra EXO TR, Maxxis Minion DHR2 27.5″x2.6″, 3C EXO TR
Stem: Race Face Aeffect R 50mm
Headset: Cane Creek 40 IS Integrated Headset
Handlebar: Santa Cruz Bicycles AM Carbon Bar 35×800
Saddle: WTB Silverado SLT
Seatpost: Rock Shox Reverb 150mm drop
MSRP: $9,249.00 CDN
Weight: 13.33kg / 29.39lbs (without pedals)
Riding the Bronson
I’ve been on the version 4.0 Nomad for a few seasons now and think it’s the definitive big-mountain, adventure bike. Santa Cruz was careful not to tag the Nomad as an enduro-race bike, leaving that realm to the Hightower LT and new Megatower. Labels aside, I think everyone appreciates the Nomad is a deadly enduro bike. It’s the bike I choose when the air gets thin or its time to put down my best time between the tape. The Nomad is a big bike however and I think the Bronson is better suited to all day epics where the terrain doesn’t demand the lithest bike you can push up the mountain.
As I stated previously, I’ve made the jump to 29ers exclusively for my trail riding needs. I believe there is a point of diminishing returns however, when the bike becomes dull and unwieldy for smaller riders such as myself. That breaking point seems to be above 150mm of travel, right where the Bronson lands.
An all-mountain bike needs to be a proficient climber. Being able to climb like a champ all day, every day, is one of the most notable distinctions between an all-mountain bike and an enduro bike. No doubt, there is loads of elevation gain in an enduro race weekend but it’s about the fastest time down. I’ve done plenty of climbing on the Nomad and Megatower. While they are both shockingly adept ascenders, that’s not their intended purpose. I’d be perfectly content grabbing a shuttle or taking the lift when riding either of these bikes. I plan to earn every millimeter of elevation aboard the Bronson however. I don’t just want to suffer through the climbs; I want to crush them.
The climbing position on the Bronson is easy to settle into and make quick work of whatever pitch lay ahead. The seat tube angle is optimal on rolling terrain and doesn’t require much of a shift forward when attacking sharper grades. I was instinctively able to settle into a pocket and spin over just about everything. On loose climbs, I did find the back wheel broke traction more than I liked. This is largely due to the extremely sensitive suspension. I found it most evident with the Fox DPX2 shock. I normally ride my shock in open mode, rarely using the trail or firm positions. With the Bronson however, I found more low speed compression was required for adequate bite. Switching to trail mode resolved the issue completely and fine-tuning compression in open mode struck the best balance. On long fire road climbs, I did use the closed or firm position. There wasn’t enough pedal bob to bother me; it was more about efficiency and firming up the platform.
So far, I’ve ridden the Bronson with the stock RockShox Super Deluxe Air RCT, Cane Creek DBil and Fox DPX2. If sustained descents weren’t on deck, the DBil, with four-way adjustability, would be my first choice. The DPX2 was the best match for trail riding, with some prolonged descents. It was also the best counterpart to the Fox 36 up front. A larger volume spacer was required for end stroke progression on the DPX2 and Super Deluxe. Adding some high-speed compression was all that was required on the Cane Creek.
Boulder laden trails, which required big physical moves, is where the Bronson shines. I’ve been riding the Bronson with the flip-chip in the high position for most of my riding, unless it’s markedly downhill biased. On technical trails, avoiding pedal strikes and being in an optimal pedaling position outweighed the slightly slacker head angle. The difference between the high and low settings is approximately 3°/5mm, to compensate when switching between plus and regular tires. Though the change between the two positions may seem negligible, I really like having this adjustment available.
After a painless pedal over the top, it’s time to point the Bronson downhill. Descending on the Bronson feels natural and intuitive. Suspension was easy to set up and balance the bike front and back. With roughly 30% sag at each end, I attained the hover-board ride dynamic I was after. The bike floated effortlessly over small bumps and eased into the mid stroke without hesitation. The Bronson still has that raw feeling Santa Cruz aficionados have come to appreciate but the suspension feels more refined. Its greatest attribute is the effortlessness with which it works through the entire gamut. There are no weird hiccups or dead spots, just velvety dampened travel. The rear wheel is quick to move out of the way when the terrain demands it, but pushes back with just the right amount of force to provide sublime traction. It’s a perfect match to the Grip2 damper in the Fox 36 out front.
Normally, job one with my Santa Cruz bikes is to up-fork things by 10mm. I’ve never found the need to increase travel by more than 10mm, but I’ve learned that small bump in travel suits most SCB models (Nomad, Hightower, Bronson, Tallboy, Megatower). I was pleased to see Santa Cruz already spec’d the Bronson with a 160mm fork.
I’d still give the edge to the Nomad on proper descents. The Nomad is absolutely confidence-inspiring, but you’re going to have to burn more matches to get there. That’s not a big deal in an enduro race, where you can take it easy on the climb. When multiple days are in the queue and pace is required up, down and around, the Bronson might be the better mount. On big days, there is something to be said for managing energy and being fresh when things demand all you’ve got. Put simply, I’d ride down the same trails on both but I’d enjoy the journey more on the Bronson.
Compared to the Hightower or other 29ers, the Bronson presents the strongest case offered for a 27.5” all-mountain bike. I still love riding the big wheels, but a few turns on the Bronson makes a pretty clear argument for the tweener wheel size it helped usher onto the scene. While there isn’t quite the same roll-ability provided with 29” wheels, the front end on the Bronson is unflinching. The recent surge of mullet bikes presents the theory that 29” wheels may have an advantage up front but that a smaller wheel out back also has its merits. These hybrids also exist due to certain brands not being able to develop an effective long travel 29er. When that happens, we may see big wheels front and back again. As an experiment, I’ve tried the mixed wheel size combination on several of my bikes. For the most part, I haven’t found it to work that well and would still prefer a dedicated 29er such as the Megatower. For me, it would have to be a very specific situation for the pros to outweigh the cons. I found the Bronson struck a seamless balance and was perfect in its intended configuration.
Lately, there is an embarrassing amount of marketing and videos promoting long travel 29ers and e-bikes whose purpose is seemingly to proclaim, “look, these don’t suck as much as you think”. While I think there is a time and place for every bike, the time and place for a bike like the Bronson is everywhere, anytime. Anyone can make a bike longer, lower and slacker but not everyone can make it work. This bike forces you to look at the whole bike, not just the wheel size, and ask yourself what really matters. If having fun on a perfectly engineered bike is what matters, your search is over.