Santa Cruz Nomad Review
The Nomad was a lot to adjust to for me. In my deranged push for this bike I prematurely sold my Ibis HD leaving me with but a single horse in the barn. My Independent Fabrication Deluxe singlespeed is a very capable machine and it rides great anywhere I’d care to take it. Colorado can be…. unforgiving on a singlespeed but it performed so well during the interim between one carbon superbike to the next that I began to consider the relevance of a new Nomad in my stable versus my IF and a big fat pile of dirty, sexy money.
The Nomad eventually won the debate, not on its merits alone but because the deck was stacked in its favor. In my life I have made many dollars. A modest salary over 15 years, hundreds of thousands of anonymous bills exchanged for goods and services, but I know by heart all the bikes I bought and how much they cost. These are dollars already spent long before they are earned. Allocated well in advance to better serve my own hedonistic cause. I spend a lot of money on bikes. Money I should probably save, or put away for my son’s education or use to fatten a retirement fund. But such is the price of passion. I have successfully avoided many dangerous vices. I stay clear of hookers and heroin and casinos and the Home Shopping Network. And boats. I do not have a boat. My vice is bikes.
In its initial release and media blitzkrieg the Nomad enjoyed the adoration of the cycling press. The third instalment of an already popular platform. The video with the horses and Chilean Stratovolcano. Testers falling over themselves to ride it. Nothing really bad to say. Let me cut to the heart: I love this bike, but there’s plenty bad to say.
I built it up from scratch, based on a nebulous projection of an assemblage of various deals and hook-ups and old favors I could call in. I enjoy the process of building bikes this way: researching, considering, weighing options, the slow trickle of UPS deliveries, and finally the build itself. It is a narcissistic thing, building a dream bike, and something every cyclist should do. That being said it can be a tedious process and for many people one that produces results marginally better than buying a complete bike. In any case, I think my gripes and praises aren’t particularly idiosyncratic to the spec but rather the frame. Which is as close to a disclaimer as you’re likely to get out of me.
The general geometric philosophy is what first drew me to this bike. Many of the little complaints I could have found with my last bike were theoretically solved on paper. Wide bars, short stem, long top tube, slack headtube, steep seat tube, short stays, longish travel, decent tire clearance.
On the trail, theory is proven. Even with the longer top tube, short stem and wide bars the cockpit felt on the small end of the spectrum. The bike felt awkward at first but within about 20 minutes of mucking around on the street all my proprioceptors had recalibrated. There is a definite forward bias to this bike. Even with the lengthened top tube this bike wants you to ride on the fork, dig the front end into turns, and really drive. The slack head tube keeps things in check though and plows the bike through whatever you run into. There are times that the front end begins to feel drifty, like its about to wash. This may also be a function of the Maxxis High Roller II’s. There seems to be a gap in traction between the fast rolling center knobs and the lateral row. On several occasions I found myself in an unnerving two-wheel drift in the twilight zone between these knobs. I never went down and a little body English in either direction is enough to lean deep or straighten up, but until I got accustomed to it it was absolutely terrifying. The other geometric change for me involved the bottom bracket height. It’s low. I have already destroyed on pair of Crank Brothers Mallet DH’s, smashed against a thousand rocks. This puts the rider deeper into the bike, brings that center of gravity down, and turns the Nomad into a high-speed, railing, carving, downhill rocket. Which means that when those pedal strikes occur, they occur at high speeds.
This bike is a deceptive climber. Everything I thought I knew about what makes bikes climb well was invalidated. I expected the long travel, slack head angle, and tight cockpit to go upward like a lead balloon. I was surprised. The seat tube ang!e is a major factor here and the single-ring-only drivetrain and recessed lower link allow for the steeper angle while retaining respectable-length stays. I spec’d a Race Face Next SL crankset with their Narrow Wide 34-tooth chainring. The narrow-wide magic seems to work amazingly well paired up with the SRAM XO 11-sp type-II rear derailleur. No jump. No slop. No noise. No issues and no additional chain-retention appendages. The 34t chainring sounded a little stout to begin with so I ordered a bonus 32t for a little lower low. So far, I can’t see the need for it. With the dinner-plate 42t out back this bike gets plenty low. I still get off and walk when things get burly but much lower than this and I don’t think I’d be able to stay upright while spinning on a big incline. I have the Rock Shox Monarch Debonair, and the 3 position damping switch make a substantial difference in climbing. The bike rides higher in its travel and is a traction monster with this feature engaged. However… This “advantage” really highlights a greater limitation of this mediocre shock.
This bike rips. If you like to go downhill fast you will like this bike. End of review. Read nothing else. This is a faster bike than you are probably used to riding. Its a big bike and it can be a lot to handle. Riding it the first time is like shooting a large caliber handgun like a .357 magnum or .50 caliber Desert Eagle for the first time. Its a rodeo. Big bars and big wheels, bigish travel, slackish geometry. This bike demands your attention the way a Ferrari would. You need to pay attention. This bike got me in deeper, faster than I was ready for. The Debonair is a good choice for a nice and light rider, where its large air volume creates a nice, pillowy, linear-ish spring that has a lively feel and excellent small bump sensitivity.
However, there is a tipping point at which a larger rider will find the Monarch to be a wallowy beast. I’m about 190 pounds all kitted and packed out and I’ve struggled to set the air pressure to where I get full travel with “proper” sag. The Monarch seems to live in the 2nd half of the stroke. You really “feel” all the travel, it seems to constantly be in motion, and I found myself exaggerating my riding to compensate for this. This feeling is worst with the shock lever in the “descend’ setting. It feels plush, but in my experience I’d prefer “well-controlled” to “plush”. Plush isn’t particularly fast. Plush isn’t tight or surgical or precise. Plush is a big bouncy Cadillac. Plush is a jumpy castle. Plush feels great in the showroom but fails when what you really need from your suspension is for it to continuously and predictably erase your mistakes. “Controlled” is actually the feeling you want from a shock. Controlled is a Porsche, controlled is the elimination of extraneous inputs and the quickness of response to your own. The perfect shock is the one you could ignore completely. One that quietly does its duty in the background, iisolating the bike and ultimately the rider from extrinsic forces. I found that running the Monarch in the middle or “trail” setting helps to keep the bike a little taller in its travel and minimize the monkey motion.
A Custom tune from a professional service like PUSH Industries or TF Tuned or Dirtlabs might go a long way toward fixing these issues. I had the opportunity to spend a day shuttling a short little local trail with a friend who happens to be a foremost suspension industry expert. I was able to swap out my Monarch for several other shocks with a variety of custom tuning alternatives and found that to really make this bike shine it took a coil spring and tuneable compression settings. Perhaps the most interesting improvement among the aftermarket shock choices I rode, those with better, tuneable compression settings were able to keep the bike riding higher in its travel, producing noticeable fewer pedal strikes without negating that bike-on-rails feeling.
The Cane Creek Double Barrel was my favorite of the off-the-shelf models. Unfortunately, what I found I really wanted was a shock that is relatively lightweight, has high and low speed compression adjustments and some kind of dual mode climb/descend setting with a coil spring. That’s the shock I want. HEY BIKE INDUSTRY, PLEASE PRODUCE SUCH A SHOCK!!!!
My gripes are pretty idiosyncratic. I am probably more on the Princess And the Pea end of the rider spectrum. But, then again, based on the kind of money that is demanded for these bikes shouldn’t we demand perfection? The Santa Cruz Nomad is close. It’s an all-mountain ripper that has defined the category since it’s inception. The third generation with 27.5 wheels, carbon frame and cutting-edge geometry produce a stereotype destroying ride that truly excels in traditionally mutually exclusive areas. It climbs. It shreds. It weighs (mine anyway…) 28.4 pounds. Such a remarkable platform demands more from a shock than the Rock Shox Monarch Debonair can provide.