Santa Cruz joins the e-mountain bike movement
In the timeline of every movement, there are key points that mark its adoption and acceptance. In the e-bike movement, we consider the introduction of this Santa Cruz Heckler to be one of those moments in time. Why? Because Santa Cruz, although not number one in ownership continues to be the most desirable brand among enthusiast mountain bikers year after year. Whatever they do, in terms of frame design, wheel sizes, styling, colors, and even decals, riders and other brands seem to follow.
That’s why the introduction of a Santa Cruz e-bike is a significant one and judging by the number of leaks we’ve seen on our forums, this is a highly anticipated release.
What they’ve come up with is a bike based on the Bronson Platform, with 150mm rear and 160mm front travel rolling on 27.5 wheels. The other key attribute is the use of the Shimano STEPS E8000 motor and the 504 wh internal battery.
Why the Bronson Platform?
The silver bullet of this bike is it has a new lower-link suspension design. This is an absolutely crucial attribute that will maximize the longevity and competitiveness of this bike in the marketplace. This is Santa Cruz’s new suspension layout that has proven better than the upper link design in every way. Pedaling efficiency, suppleness, traction and big hit ability all seem better with the new suspension layout. But the lower link is in the way of the motor and battery so it is a real estate issue and no one has successfully released a lower link e-bike to date. Santa Cruz solved the puzzle with this Heckler so we have something pretty special to play with here.
Santa Cruz went with the 27.5 wheeled platform to address the agility issues of e-bikes. These assisted machines tend to weigh around 50 lbs and that slows down a bike’s handling and maneuverability. 2.6 Minions tires are their spec and there are no options for going with 2.8 tires, mixed wheel sizes or 29er configurations.
Compared to a Bronson, the chainstays grew 15mm from 430 to 445 due to the room required by the motor and the lower linkages. Standover height rose 24mm from 721 to 745 on a medium bike. They went with a 5mm shorter crank length from 170mm to 165mm for most sizes to prevent pedal strikes associated with the required spinning of cranks to keep the motor engaged. Reach was increased 9mm from 436 to 445 perhaps to be more current and to balance out the increased chainstay length. Everything else stays within a mm or two of the Bronson. The flip-chip is maintained to adjust the head angle by half a degree.
Something interesting to note is the Heckler is available in the high end CC Carbon only. Perhaps we’ll see the more affordable C Carbon in later versions of the bike but we doubt that an aluminum version will ever be sold. A C Carbon frame typically weighs 1.75 lbs more than the CC and that is really not of great consequence in an assisted bike that weighs around 48 lbs. A frame/motor only option is not available for purchase at this time.
Too soon, too late or just right?
So there’s quite a debate in the Mtbr Forums discussing whether this is a good or bad move for Santa Cruz. Among loyal fans of the brand, there is a split between, “Finally! Yes it’s a good move.” and “No, the end is near. Cancel my subscription” The other discussion revolves around is if this move is, “too soon, too late or perfectly timed.”
In our opinion, this is an absolutely crucial move as the mountain bike world is buying e-bikes at an unpredictably fast rate. When we asked another major bike manufacturer if and when they believed e-mountain bikes would surpass traditional mountain bikes in revenue, they answered, “Yes, and in some markets/countries, it has already happened.”
Santa Cruz is certainly not an early adopter here and they are in version one of their e-bike while others are already on their third revision of their offerings. But it is absolutely key that Santa Cruz gets its first e-bike out in production to allow them to participate, compete, and dominate in this category. They need to understand the category, learn from their customers and build up an entire engineering team focused in this realm.
The lower link suspension
The good news is there is an opportunity in e-mountain bikes, particularly in suspension quality. No one has yet produced a lower link suspension e-bike and Santa Cruz answers that with this Heckler effort. A classic real estate problem with the motor and the suspension competing to occupy the same space, Santa Cruz solved the puzzle with an elegant design.
Everything fits with proper suspension kinematics intact. And a big water bottle fits and it looks dialed and well-proportioned. The chainstays had to be lengthened a bit and the top tube raised but they came up with an elegant solution.
How does it ride?
First off, the bike is meticulously put together and this is of ultimate importance in an e-bike. We’ve tried so many that shake, rattle, and roll that it makes the experience unpleasant. A motor or battery mount gets loose or a wire gets dislodged and it wreaks havoc on the system. These bikes are portly and they will climb and descend 2-3 times more than traditional bikes so it’s key that they’re put together perfectly. We’ve only had one ride on it but we could tell immediately that this bike was dead quiet. And looking at their special jigs and hand-picked staff to assemble just these bikes, we’re confident that this will fare well in a mid and long term shakedown tests.
Climbing and traversing terrain, the ride is unmistakeably Shimano. It’s not the smoothest or most powerful but it’s predictable and dead-on balls reliable. Sound is noticeable, especially at very high loads or pedaling cadence. And with the 20 mph speed limiter, it really starts limiting power at 18 mph. The suspension is very calm ad controlled. It doesn’t bob much under power and the bike has great traction climbing rocks and roots since the rear is still responsive to terrain, even under all that power.
Descending is where this bike excels as it is a rock-solid bruiser. We bombed down the rough segment Enchanted loop in Wilder State Park about 10 times and each time was so calm and composed. Any line was easy and it was a delight to adjust, react and point the bike down many different option lines. Jumping, this feels right at home and it was easy to get up in the air, boost little roots and drop off bigger ones. There is so much opportunity to send this machine down demanding terrain at ballistic speeds. It’s planted and calm, yet still playful. The 27.5 wheels, stiff chassis, and supportive suspension work in concert to deliver a ride that just feels like a burly all-mountain mountain bike.
Working with the Shimano STEPS E8000
Santa Cruz had to get in the e-bike game and they could not afford to get it wrong. They had to choose a motor and battery that was proven, reliable and serviceable. After an extensive search, they arrived at the E8000 motor and its new, internal 504wh battery. This is a proven system that is supported by many service centers around the world.
We agree that this is the most reliable, bulletproof system around and it is a good horse for Santa Cruz to place their first e-bike bet on.
But many other bike manufacturers have been using it for years and it has some limitations. It’s not the smoothest and quietest system around and the software and phone app options are limited. The good news is it now has a smaller internal battery that Santa Cruz is one of the first to use. But it is only 504wh in capacity. And unless Santa Cruz creates their own battery, that will be the upper range limit of the Heckler which will be about a 4000 foot climb ride.
What we liked
- * absolutely dialed suspension
- * Spec and build is of the highest quality
- * stunning color choices
- * 27.5 with 2.6 Minions is a great choice
- * bulletproof motor system with great service and support
- * Internal Shimano battery is safe and reliable. Rider can carry a spare battery for big adventures
- * 46 lb weight on the top model is competitive
What we didn’t like
- * Limitations of the Shimano system software and range. And it’s hard to differentiate from other bikes using the same system
- * 504 wh battery is a limitation especially today
- * Pricey and only Carbon CC
- * Two years late
- * The competition is very stiff
- * It’s not a 29er and it cannot support that configuration which is the faster, burlier platform
- * It would be good to get at least one Shimano 12-speed build to match the motor system and take advantage of their great brakes
- * This is the safe bet but it’s not innovative in a red-hot market
It is great that Santa Cruz finally has an entry in the e-bike market to allow it to evolve and compete in this category. The bike is a safe bet and many fans of the brand will flock to it. It is a dialed package with excellent suspension but its range, motor, price will prevent it from elevating above this very competitive category.
But it is the opening shot from Santa Cruz and we’re sure to see many more episodes in this saga.
For more information, visit: https://www.santacruzbicycles.com/en-US
Q&A with Santa Cruz Bikes’ Seb Kemp:
Mtbr: What are some of the names you considered for this new bike why not the name ‘e-Bronson’?
Santa Cruz Bikes: Once someone suggested ‘Heckler’ it just felt right. Once that tiny piece was ticked off it was back to the real work of design and engineering.
Mtbr: Can you describe the team that was dedicated to the product development of the Heckler? What kind of support did they get from the rest of the company? When was this team assembled and how do you see it growing in the next three years?
Santa Cruz Bikes: Three years ago there was a small core team assembled to just explore ebikes, what it could mean for the future, research the market and the current offerings, and discuss/debate if we should do it or not. After that, we built a plan to get us to this point we’re at today (and beyond). We hired additional members of the engineering team to help this. Aaron Foley was the lead designer on this but he tapped into the collective experience and knowledge of the entire engineering team to get this done and everyone has had a hand in this bike. I think the engineers really enjoyed the challenges of designing an ebike and they were jazzed to make something they’re really proud of. And they should be. From the Product Management side, Todd Ford was hired to manage all the additional ebike sourcing and speccing details. Again, he was not on an island and the team used past experience to inform future decisions. There’s also been a lot of other decisions and problem-solving inside the Santa Cruz (California) factory to tool up a new assembly unit within the building specifically for the Heckler. It’s been so great to see all the teams approach the challenges and new needs to make this happen.
Mtbr: At MTBR are we consider 700 Wh batteries or modular batteries to be crucial to enjoying the massive sweet spot options of the ebike. Given your 500 Wh battery, what options will your riders have now and in the future to have a longer range?
Santa Cruz Bikes: We tried a lot of different bikes in different configurations and feel that the 500Wh Shimano battery was the right choice for the Heckler because it balances output with lighter (than 700Wh) component weight to make a really agile and uncompromised ebike. For the kinds of rides you might need more battery for it’s likely you’ll need more than 700Wh anyway, so we made sure the battery is really quick and easy to swap out with an additional 500Wh battery.
Mtbr: Given that some of your competitors are already on version two or three of their ebike efforts what are you going to do to bridge the lost time gap and accelerate or expand your ebike offerings?
Santa Cruz Bikes: I don’t wanna throw shade but a lot of “first offerings” that are and have been available on the market looked, felt and rode like they were rushed to market. We spent the time making the Heckler really dialed so really we feel it’s as good or better than anything out there. Big words, but out on the trail (where it matters) I think that’s just the truth. Word on the street with dealers is that some established players are trying to block the Heckler being sold in some stores (IBDs), so we must have done something right if those guys feel threatened.
Mtbr: Is your Shimano motor tuned in any way to work differently for your purposes? Do you have different support levels of power curves? Or will the heckler have the same motor behavior as other ebikes that use it in the market?
Santa Cruz Bikes: So we have a default setting that we use when setting up the bikes but the beauty of the Shimano e-Tube app is that riders can customize the support levels.
Mtbr: Why did you choose Shimano over other motor brands? Did you consider a custom motor or battery system? Are you restricted to using Shimano now in future efforts or is that wide open?
Santa Cruz Bikes: We tried them all. We deliberated everything. Shimano was the choice because of their bombproof construction (reliability), that Shimano is a global presence (worldwide rider support at any bike shop), that they’ll be around in years to come (reliability of aftermarket support), that they’re well known for building really good components (a proven record of making super reliable ebike motors and batteries etc), they’re investing heavily in their ebike component program (research and development), that we could get all the components from one supplier (a durable, complete system), and the way the Shimano system rides is great.
Mtbr: What about trails and the impact of ebikes? What efforts are you taking to protect trails, your brand and ensure ebikes become part of a healthy mountain bike ecosystem?
Santa Cruz Bikes: We won’t be dooming your favorite spot like some kooks, if that’s what you mean. We promote responsible mountain biking and giving back. Have done so for 25 years. I believe we give back and put more effort into trails, trail groups and rider experiences than any other mountain bike company. This past year we increased that commitment to a three-year, $1million effort to support the trails, communities, and access to trails: PayDirt. Ebikes or regular bikes, it’s still mountain bikes and we’re no leech.