Coming to Santa Cruz from the midwest, I quickly discovered that I had brought along the wrong bike. My trusty Surly Long Haul Trucker is perfect for long rides through rolling hills along the empty backroads of Wisconsin, but I’ve only taken it out a handful of times since moving here: Coastal California’s backroads are long stretches of grade going up, up, up or, if you’re facing the other way, down, down, down; No gently rolling anything, and car traffic galore to boot. There’s no way I’ll be doing any long bike tours around here (although I see that many others do, and more power to them). Sure I could use my Surly to commute in-town, but I almost always end up taking my wife’s cargo bike for short trips – it’s a far more practical and comfortable ride for the short haul.
However, the mountain biking trails in the mountains here are breathtaking, and I’ve been dying to, as the locals say, “shred” them since the day we arrived. After a less-than-fun attempt at taking the Surly up the mountain, I quickly realized I needed a bike built for this place. And what bike better for traipsing around the Santa Cruz mountains than one with “Santa Cruz” emblazoned in nice retro-futuristic chunky font on its sides, assembled right here in town?
The Santa Cruz bike company makes several models of mountain bike, ranging anywhere from shred-tastic to ultra-badass. Since I knew from bitter experience that I’m not going to be doing anything too, uh… “rad”, I ordered one of the more restrained models, the Bantam.
It’s probably their least-well known bike, being a new model without the storied history of the Superlight or the Heckler, and is on the low-end of their budget scale, thus unlikely to be written up in bike magazine reviews. But it’s still quite a lot of bike by anybody else’s (especially my) standards. Heck, it doesn’t even remotely resemble the mountain bikes from my youth. Every one of these fundamental changes comes as a delightful surprise to me:
- Front and rear suspensions with seemingly bottomless travel, multiple levels of lock-out and adjustable rebound,
- 27.5’’ wheels (that absorb bumps and climb better),
- Tubeless tires,
- Hydraulic disk brakes,
- Shimano “shadow plus” rear derailleur with a new clutch mechanism practically eliminates chain slap,
- 15mm front thru-axle, 12mm rear thru-axle (no more quick release skewers),
- Dual (as opposed to triple) front chainring mated to 10 speed rear cassette, offering insane gear ratios for climbing,
- Long top tube/short stem geometry,
- Last but not least, a dropper seat post (yes, I ordered one of these with the bike).
When I was trying out the Bantam at the bike store (Capitola’s super-friendly Family Cycling Center) I felt that it just disappeared out from under me: The geometry and controls are such that I was able to forget I was on a bike, and left me feeling like I was skipping along the road super-fast without any effort. I know that sounds cheesy, but I haven’t felt that way about any other mountain bike I tried, and I test-rode quite a few.
In any case, I picked up the new bike this weekend, and immediately took it out on a ride around Wilder State Park: Mostly easy trails with just a couple of steep drops and rocky segments, and lots of climbing. I didn’t push the bike, having recently wiped out on a borrowed bike, and still have bruises to show for it. This meant that I dismounted on some of the roughest segments, preferring to walk the bike rather than discover the limits of my riding skills the hard way. Nevertheless: The trails I took are frequently rutted, hard clay with baked-in troughs criss-crossing the path where rivulets once cut through. The Bantam, with its 5’’ of travel, made for an almost laughably easy ride over these tortured paths (my previous attempt at riding the same trails on the Surly caused me to want to chuck the bike into the bushes and call it a day).
And the climbing, oh the climbing. Wilder ranch stretches from the seashore all the way up to a nearby mountain ridge. My first ride involved several dips into canyons, then back up again along twisty paths. I only had to get off the bike at maybe three spots total on the uphills, where the trail tipped up what felt like 45 degrees, and was miraculously able to pedal up everything else. Exhausting? Sure: Google maps assures me that the specific trail I picked netted around 1100’ uphill. Exhilarating? Utterly: This is a climbing bike, and as I transition from adrenaline-fueled highs of my youth to more endorphin-based fun, I think my new Bantam is the perfect companion for my adventures.
Oh, and the bike’s a looker: I ordered the black paint option with white decals, and mounted white platform pedals from Specialized. The resulting color scheme is downright natty. I’d like to say that this wasn’t a factor in my purchase but… it was. Santa Cruz makes some of the most gorgeous mountain bikes out there, and I’m glad to call one of them mine.