SANTA CRUZ HECKLER EBIKE
EXPLORING NEW TRAILS IN DOWNIEVILLE
AN EXCLUSIVE FIRST RIDE REPORT
Words by Drew Rohde
Video by Brian Niles/Treeline Cinematics
After having to lie to me for six months about the development of Santa Cruz’s eMTB, Seb Kemp, Santa Cruz Bicycles’ brand manager, finally got the green light to bring me into the circle of trust. After a cryptic email, I got a phone call from Seb, “Well man, you’ve been bugging me longer than anyone else and I’ve had to keep this latest bike super secretive, but I think you’ll be very interested. What do you think about a weekend trip to Downieville?” Seb didn’t offer many details, and I didn’t ask. I just grinned from ear to ear knowing that Santa Cruz finally had an ebike and I was going to be one of the first people to ride it! I asked Seb to book a ticket for me and my video guy and we’d see him soon enough.
About a month later, Brian Niles (Treeline Cinematic) and I arrived at the Sacramento airport and strolled outside. Santa Cruz’s Seb Kemp was at the curb waiting in a rented Grand Caravan. He opened the trunk and there they were – four new ebikes…covered in moving blankets. Dammit!
I’m not going to lie here, as a total bike nerd who’s cynicism has been invigorated by all the new technology and engineering behind these eMTB machines, the fact I was going to have to wait another two and a half hours to see these bikes killed me. I didn’t know what it was called, I didn’t know what color it was going to be, how much travel it had, nothing!
Not wanting to appear overly excited, I ignored the voice in my head. The three of us made small talk as we headed east into the Sierra Mountains, bound for Downieville. More specifically, we were headed to The Lure. It is a riverfront adventure lodge with cabins, scenery, and access to the quaint yet somewhat odd town of Downieville. The old gold mining town is a home away from home for Santa Cruz Bicycles and where they come to test new bikes. It was a regular proving ground for their new eMTB, so it made sense for us to get the first ride on the trails that helped shape it.
As we twisted our way into the Sierras, sunshine turned to snow and we all watched the temperature drop on the Grand Caravan’s lovely digital dashboard display. If nothing else, we’d have a great time hanging in our cabins by the fire talking about ebikes. Luckily for us, the snow wasn’t sticking to the ground and we arrived at The Lure with enough time to unload the van and get our first glimpse of the new Santa Cruz Heckler. After playing the guessing game in my head for the last month, I thought for sure it was going be the MegaWatt, I was blindsided when I read Heckler on the top tube. After roughly seven years away, it was time for the Heckler to make a comeback.
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense though. Santa Cruz Bicycles was founded by Rob Roskopp, who has a bit of an anti-scene mentality, and the Heckler name was a bit of a jab to go along with Santa Cruz’s somewhat unorthodox bike and mentality in the mountain bike space. So, it’s fitting that the Santa Cruz Heckler comes back during such a contentious time. The Heckler is here to stick its tongue out and wiggle its fingers at us all, reminding us that fun is fun.
After pulling the bikes out of the van we rolled them into our riverside cabins to warm up by the fire and talk tech. Santa Cruz Bicycles is a brand known for keeping it real, and when it came time to make their first ebike, they weren’t about to break stride.
“One of the hardest things for us, and something engineers didn’t think was going to happen, was keeping the lower link VPP design,” Seb told us. Lucky for us, engineers, like mountain bikers enjoy a challenge and put their heads down to make it happen. “After some back and forth debates, it finally happened and we’re very stoked that it did, as we’re very happy with how the lower link VPP design works,” Seb continued.
Using the Bronson as the starting point, Santa Cruz builds the new Heckler using their CC carbon. Sporting 150mm of rear-wheel travel and 160mm of e-specific travel up front, the Santa Cruz Heckler is a well-rounded machine and has the same “all-around thrill seeker” backbone as its non-electrified brother.
Other important elements while developing the Santa Cruz Heckler were reliability, durability, and ease of service. While aftermarket battery options are available, Santa Cruz chose to use a fully integrated Shimano system. Seb explained that “There are lighter, larger or cheaper battery options available, but that would mean Santa Cruz would have to stock those items in case any issues arose. Dealers would also have to stock them, and we just didn’t think that was worth risking our customers having a long wait should something happen. Shimano batteries work well, they’re readily available and can be quickly replaced in the unlikely event an issue comes up.”
We pushed a bit, asking why Santa Cruz chose to spec a 504Wh battery when the current trend seems to be going bigger. “Weight and trail performance,” was Seb’s initial reply. He’s not wrong either. The Santa Cruz Heckler weighs just over 46 pounds. We had just returned from ten days of testing 16 ebikes at our 2020 eMTB Roundup and every single bike we tested in the 150/160mm range was 48-53 pounds. Two pounds is a significant difference and while the range is undoubtedly shorter, most of our local rides don’t drain batteries.
The question then becomes, are owners willing to own two batteries for big mountain epics or riding exotic destinations, or would they rather have a heavier bike on their weekly loops just to have the range for their quarterly big trip adventures? We’re not sure yet but having a lighter bike sure is fun.
Geometry on the Santa Cruz Heckler eMTB is right on par with other ebikes and pedal bikes in the all mountain genre. Here is the chart with all the numbers you’re curious about.
Our first day in Downieville was a cold one. We awoke to frozen ground and 28-degree temps outside. Needless to say, we were moving slow, until Mr. Lost Sierra himself, Greg Williams arrived. To those who live, ride and work in the Sierra Mountain Range, Greg is a lot of things. He’s been instrumental in the employing locals, the building and maintenance of trails thanks to his leading role with the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, and as the owner of Yuba Expeditions bike shop and the Downieville Classic, to name a few.
Since the SBTS had just cleared some new trail that hadn’t been running in years, Greg was excited to show us the new trails and lay down some first tracks in a zone that most mountain bikers haven’t been. Despite having more trails than you can shake your handlebars at, a huge portion of riders that visit Downieville don’t ride anything that isn’t shuttled by Yuba Expeditions.
“I’m really excited about these bikes because there are so many great places to ride and so much trail that doesn’t get used. Thanks to ebikes, the number of users can spread out over a larger range of trails and reduce the usage and wear on the shuttle trails,” Williams told us. “The rides we’re doing aren’t all that far from town, however, the amount of vertical and steepness make them once-a-year torture fest rides for those who like Type 2 fun. Having an eMTB like the Santa Cruz Heckler will get so many more people riding these truly awesome trails,” Williams continued.
We loaded up in Greg’s truck and headed west out of Downieville for our first ride of the day. A ten-minute drive from The Lure and we pulled off the highway and parked. In less than a mile from the truck, we’d climbed well over 1,500 feet and as we looked at the steep mountainside in front of us, we weren’t even halfway done climbing!
The first trail was steep, beyond steep. It was easy to see why most mountain bikers don’t ride the trail. Switchbacks are tight, and the grind seems to go on forever. The Heckler made light work of the climb. Our legs were working, and we were definitely out of breath, but we were moving at a much higher rate than we would be if we were pushing our bikes.
After nearly draining the batteries on our first ride, we ate some sandwiches by the river, did a very quick battery swap at the truck and rode the newly opened river trail. It was technical, beautiful and quite fun. Definitely would fall into the Type 2 fun category on a pedal bike but was a blast with some e-ssistance. Our first day we completed over 25-miles and did nearly 6,000 feet of climbing. If we hadn’t been filming and shooting photos, we could have definitely gotten some more miles in but as it was, we were spent! Day two was shorter and consisted of a lot more filming yet we still locked down nearly 20 miles and almost 3,000 feet of climbing. Not a bad couple of days of freezing cold riding and shooting in the Sierras. So, how did the bike do?
The 65.5-degree head tube angle 76-degree seat tube angle on our large-sized test bike put us in a natural position and kept the bike maneuverable when it came time to navigate raw mountain trails. The 445mm chainstays were short enough to keep the bike playful and nimble yet long enough to keep our front tire down and delivering power on the steep climbs. Wheelbase on the large Heckler is 1,237mm with a reach of 465mm.
Some may criticize these numbers as “2018 geometry,” it’s becoming apparent that my riding style may be out of touch with the current trend of bike design. I for one am thrilled that Santa Cruz’s Heckler is versatile on what I consider proper mountain bike trails. I enjoy rugged, rough and natural terrain. Just one look around the Lost Sierras and it makes sense why this bike doesn’t have a 485mm reach or a 64-degree head tube angle. It just won’t work out here.
The Heckler is designed to be fun, playful and versatile. It is very much those things. If you live to self-shuttle fire roads to access wide open bike park level groomers, maybe it isn’t the right rig for you, although we rode plenty of high-speed trails and I felt pretty dang confident on this bike. What’s great though, is that Santa Cruz didn’t go so extreme that the bike handles like a limousine trying to make a U-turn in a cul-de-sac.
While the geometry, looks and playfulness of the bike are all highlights, I would have liked to have more time on trails I’m familiar with to properly set up the suspension. I admitted to Seb, and for those who’ve read my reviews over the years you already know, I’ve never been a VPP prophet. I’ve come around lately and found the lower-link design to be a great advancement compared to older designs, however I felt a couple harsh hits come from the rear end that reminded me of my old VPP critiques.
I played with the sag once or twice which helped, but the shock didn’t have a high-speed compression adjustment so I couldn’t quite make all the tweaks I’d like to. Plus, I’m sure cold hands and 34-degree temperatures are not optimal conditions for testing suspension. I’m going to reserve my official review until I can get home to ride some more familiar and regular trails and allow more time for set up as the high-speed bench cuts, cliffside ice patches and mining trail switchbacks aren’t part of most rider’s repertoire.
THE WOLF’S FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Despite the cold, and some of my critiques above, the four of us had an absolute blast riding these brand-new Santa Cruz Hecklers around Downieville. Overall the bikes are very capable and are exactly what I’d expect from the brand. The Heckler is well balanced, playful, climbs well, descends well and is a solid bike for those looking at buying a high-end eMTB.
We hope to be receiving a Heckler from Santa Cruz very soon so that we can start putting some real time on the bike on our home test tracks to see how it stacks up head to head against the best ebikes on the market. Until then, we’d suggest booking a demo with Yuba Expeditions or another Santa Cruz dealer so you can try one for yourself.
Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship