Sometimes, you need to bring some heavy artillery with you out on a ride. A day out riding horrendous trail at high speed warrants this. There’s a new breed of big trail bikes this year and they are quite a bit different than the big bikes of the past. Bikes of old were heavy, pedaled horribly, and didn’t really perform that well. Things have changed with geometry, shocks, and materials advancements. These bikes work much better going down the hill as well as going up. Two bikes stand out from all the rest. The Giant Reign and the Santa Cruz Nomad. Both are designed for one single task…to win World Cup Enduro races.
This is the 2014 Santa Cruz Nomad. Medium. A large would have been a better fit.
After a few colorful Facebook threads, I was contacted by Quoc Phan of Tam Bikes in Mill Valley to take a very well spec’d Nomad out for a week of riding. He was looking for the kind of input nobody but PVD could give. I’m specific about what I like and clearly say what I think. Without hesitation I took him up on this offer. This coincided with a week I had off from my day job. This gave me time to test the bike in a deep way. To feel what it would be like to have one of my own, set up like I like.
Of course, I did some work to the bike right away to get it working the way I needed for bay area riding. My perspective for this bike is that of a Marin trail rider and bay area local. I wanted the bike posed for use here and in the Bay Area as a versatile trail bike that could handle the climbing challenges as well as the hard descents. Anybody could set this up as a pure descender and call it done. A pro racer could deal with the set up poorly for climbing to shave seconds off the descent. I wanted to know how it would work as an everyday trail bike. The way 95% of the people who buy it will be using it. It needed to climb well but still go fast as hell down the hill.
* Race Face Atlas Flat bar, 740mm. Trees. Period. Bars over that for Marin riding are simple novelty items. Tight trees are real on these trails.
* Salsa Pro Moto 3 stem, 100mm x -15, much improved climbing performance with little loss of descending prowess.
* Continental Trail King 2.25″ front tire. Grip. Period.
* WTB Wolverine 2.2″, light (A horrible tire) I should have found a Maxxis CrossMark 2.25″ EXO. It was a shame not to have a sturdier tire mounted on the rear although it was a problem only once.
* 160mm rear rotor. 180mm rear on trail is just slippery. I trail brake so big ain’t great and the rear really jumped out a lot with the 180mm.
- Ride 1: Friday, A quick loop around Tamarancho before dark and after a hard rain. The trails were soaking wet and I wasn’t used to the bike at all. I was still doing initial stem swaps. Still,the bike was planted and would make up for wheels darting out from underneath. I had started the ride with a 120mm x -5 stem. I had to swap that out right at the beginning of the ride to a 110mm x -5 stem as the 120 was simply way too stretched out. This was better but the bars still needed to be lowered and I pulled a spacer out in the process. The first problem noted, pedal strikes. Probably 25 times going around the ranch and that’s with suspension set up properly. Strikes continued throughout the week but lessened as I intentionally clocked my cranks in later rides. It was nice to feel the bike and get used to moving around it.
- Ride #: SF Bike EXPO. No ride. Insane rain in the morning anyway.
- Ride 2: Sunday, less of a ride than I would have liked but I was taking a novice rider up the mountain. Simply, up Eldridge Grade to the top of Tam. After chilling at the top, short poach and high speed fire road decent to the bottom on Rock Springs fire road. The original 2.35″ tires just had to go after this as they proved to be more punishment than fun for this trip. 2.35″ tires really stink for riding in Marin and these were really heavy. The stem had been lowered considerably to a 110mm x -15 and a 5mm spacer which felt great climbing. Descending the fire road was planted. Simply planted. Still, the fatal flaw (unexpectedly) of this bike first starts showing itself, acceleration. More on this later.
- Ride 3: Monday, China Camp for skinny singletrack and some know bigger hits. Riding the bike here was like shooting fish in a barrel. So fast, so solid. Way more bike than needed but plenty enough to make you a hero wherever you like. The bike was far better in tight quarters than expected and really hooked up in waterfall corners. An example of the burl of the bike is airing into elevator drop #6 without one fuck given. This wasn’t intended to be a large ride but lots of trail was ridden.
- Ride 4: Tuesday, The real test. Better tires and the bike fairly well sorted. Another trip up Tam, twice, to hit two of the hardest and most challenging trails on the mountain and then onto finish with one of the most unrelentingly aggressive trails that is a benchmark for the enduro crowd. This is where the bike showed another weakness and it’s stellar strength. In the weakness column, poor climbing as this ride had 5,200 feet of climbing, it was clear. In the strength, unbelievable descending. More later. I decided after this ride that the stem indeed needed to be reduced to a 100mm length and that is what I settled on.
- Ride 5: Wednesday. An easy loop to loosen up at Tamarancho in dry. Perfect dirt. Just trying to spin legs to be ready for the next two hard days of pedaling. The bike was just nice and comfortable and really enjoyable besides the work to move it.
- Ride 6: Thursday. The Annual Thanksgiving day ride in Fairfax. The great loop around Pine Mountain and 3,200′ of climbing. After getting destroyed up the hill by some incredible climbers on hardtails, we got to have a nice race down the fire road to the bottom, Frisbee Knoll to Kent Lake. The classic Marin Super D run and so much fun. We had a great pool of talent at the top and it was going to be a sick race. Two problems showed up here. Crappy rear tire burped out on me even though I had about 38 psi in it. Sucks! I had to throw the towell 2/3 of the way down. Also, the narrow 1×11 gearing was just spun out where real pedaling needed to happen. This let other strong riders catch up where they shouldn’t have. 1×11 has a lot of issues, this is one of them.
- Ride 7: Friday. The Black Friday ride out of Tam Bikes. An incredible ride with some strong climbers and strong descenders. 3,200 feet of climbing. A fast race down Coastal View with Justin and Alex that was just amazing. Again, the 1×11 was a let down here and cost me a lot of time. Then a run down Tenderfoot with Alex that was eye opening as Alex is a great rider and completely ripped the trail. Still, I could follow his new lines at his speed on the Nomad without worry. That was amazing. Probably the best run down Tenderfoot I’ve ever had.
The five main points to garner in all of this:
- Acceleration – This is the real chink in the armor of this beast. This is not a bike for the weak of body or spirit. It does a lot but it doesn’t want to change directions or speed up quickly. You have to throw this bike around hard and pedal it very aggressively to make it work for you over other options. This is important. Aggression is the fuel for the flame. You must attack hard on this bike at all times!
- Climbing brutality – This bike wears you down. I was riding it with the incredible $2.7k Enve 70/30 wheelset, and even with small fast rolling tires and I was utterly destroyed by the thing. Without the fancy wheels, I think riding uphill would be a very different story in a worse way. Don’t take this warning lightly. You need to be very strong to ride this bike. If you aren’t a strong climber, forget it. It climbs well for what it is but it’s not in any way an XC bike. Use of a shock with a climb switch of some kind is absolutely mandatory if you plan on doing any climbing with this bike.
- Pedal Strikes – If your not used to riding downhill bikes, you’re going to ‘love’ this. Just like a DH bike, this thing loves to kiss the ground…a lot! My test bike had 175mm cranks on it and I’ve heard of other Nomad 3 riders using 170mm cranks to lessen the problem. If you like to pedal, you will just have to get used to this. I think if I was using this as a pure shuttle bike and was running 170mm or 165mm cranks it would be fine.
- Gearing – Being dedicated to a single front chainring is an issue for me. Yes, a professional rider would be able to run a 34 tooth ring and not have the issue and a slower rider will just coast downhill. But I’m somewhere in the middle and a 2×10 is something that gives me the range to go up and down at the speeds and in the comfort I like. I like to pedal downhill and I really missed 2×10 on this bike. This is where the Giant Reign beats the Nomad for sure. I can use 2×10 on the Reign.
- Downhill insanity – This is what you buy this bike for. It is absolutely stunning going downhill. Provided you don’t have to accelerate a lot out of dead corners, you will be going so much faster than you are used to and be riding lines you didn’t know were there. It covers for your mistakes just like a downhill bike. Quite simply, this bike scares the crap out of me. I’m lucky that it was lent to me so that I can give it back as I’m worried out my survival riding it. The bike is so capable and demands to be ridden so hard that my speed going down trail is terrifying and my line options double. I can make mistakes or do stupid things and the bike simply corrects for them, leaving just the most horrendous crashes to bring me to a halt. Riding the bike without a full face helmet and body armor is an exercise in the most dangerous type of temptation. This is a downhill bike that get’s you to the top of the hill. It’s for real expert or pro riding as a trail bike or as a lady’s downhill bike or a world cup enduro bike.
Some other points to mention:
- The ‘in frame’ small water bottle mount is a nice touch although it is hard to access while riding. I’m glad it’s there as it’s nice for riding without big bags for sure.
- The bike sits very tall. It’s hard to mount, dismount, and get around when not actively riding. I find that it is definitely worth dropping saddle when dismounting for easier remounting.
- 150mm of saddle drop is so nice on this bike. Worth it over 125mm. You will be using all the room you have.
- Fitting a bike like this to the rider is a collection of tough choices. Primarily, the stem is swapped as most dropper posts have zero offset and don’t offer much range of adjustment. I tried several stems that many would consider unconventional here but make sense in many ways. Essentially, you can dial the bike in for climbing bias over descending.
120 x -7 No. Ruled out in 100 yards. Too much reach.
110 x -7 Reach is great for climbing. Not low enough.
110x-15 This was the best for climbing but not for shredding really hard.
100x-15 Better mix. Sacrificing some climbing for DH stability. Probably the best balance here and more comfortable over time
Many pro and top expert riders that are my size choose to select a large size frame for even faster speeds on their race bikes. The large is about 25mm longer up front compared to the medium. The increased length of these bikes allow for the use of shorter stems that produce similar riding positions to what I ended up with. It is something to consider but will also add a degree of cumbersomeness to an already long bike when riding on technical trails and climbing. Choose wisely here. Are you really looking to win races or are you just riding trail rough?
An interesting comparison for folks to make to understand this bike is that a large Bronson has a 10mm shorter front center compared to the medium Nomad. For many people, the Bronson would be a much better choice of bike. An Angleset and a full 160mm fork would be enough to set the Bronson up even better than the Nomad for some pretty crazy riding while still climbing very well and having front gear choices. My personal preference would be a large 5010 with an Angleset and 160mm fork for a Front center in the 720mm range.
I’m an unabashed fan of multiple chainrings on the front of my drivetrain. It’s nice to have some real range and gear choices when riding. This was honestly my first time out on the XX1 system. It works excellent. I really had no issue with shifting the entire week. Still, the XX1 shifter is utter garbage and completely inferior to a Shimano unit. It really is the worst part of the system and a major downgrade. The 32t ring that the bike was set up with along with the 10-42 cassette was fairly well matched to my climbing ability but forcing me to work hard. I could have used a bit lower gear for the longer rides but I also ran out of gearing on many descents that I could have pedaled deeper into. Considering this as a narrow focused bike, it could be acceptable. As a bike intended for a more broad use, the single ring will be an issue.
The Race Face Turbine Cinch crank is very poorly spec’d on this bike. It is otherwise a gorgeous piece but it is way too wide (Q177mm). A XX1 Q168 crank would be a far better choice with regard to fitting the frame provided the requisite durability (ala pedal strikes) is achieved. Another issue is that the Race Face ring interface isn’t compatible with SRAM GXP standard that most aftermarket rings and spiders are designed around. Crank choice is definitely something to give good thought into for this bike.
The bike weighed 28.4 lbs (12.89kg). Do you like how I buried this? Crazy.
One issue that I have with the engineering of this bike is that so much real estate was ignored rather than taken advantage of in the lower pivot area. I’m sure that an easy 30% increase in pivot stiffness and durability could have been achieved by designing specific Nomad linkages rather than digging into the existing parts bin. Getting these bearings spread apart as far as possible is the goal of the design but it seems ignored. Ugh. It’s a glaring issue. Also, without going to BB92 interface, Santa Cruz leaves so much possibility off the table. I don’t understand the use of threaded bottom brackets on modern bikes. The lower link area on this bike is something that really need correcting on revision 4. It seems like such a shortcut on V3. A real shame for a bike so well sorted and on this level.
Here’s the crazy thing about this bike:
It has a 5mm longer front end than my 2013 Giant Glory DH bike. Granted, to help with climbing, I have the bars 95mm forward and 10mm lower of what I would on the the “big” bike. Amazing how times have changed and how quick.