Aaron Gulley

Santa Cruz Nomad Review

The Nomad really performs on steep, burly terrain. Photo: Jen Judge

In a time when “enduro” has become a tired epithet, the Nomad virtually reclaims the genre with downhill manners equal to any big bike and a weight that rivals many trail machines

Santa Cruz launched this revised Nomad in spring 2014, but we were so busy—and enthralled—with the bike’s little brother, the Bronson, that we didn’t get on this tester until late last fall. The two bikes look similar on paper—the Bronson has 150mm of rear travel and the Nomad has 165mm, and both have 27.5-inch wheels—but they couldn’t feel more different on the trail. We love them both, but the Nomad is decidedly more aggressive and ready to push way harder on steeper, burlier terrain.


The Takeaway

The Good: This bike descends like a beast but also goes uphill surprisingly well. The build was spot-on, with a RockShox Pike fork, the complementary Monarch Plus shock, and Shimano XTR brakes. Our test bike was sexy as hell, with black-on-black finish set off with bright pink Enve carbon M70 Thirties. 

The Bad: I’ve grown to appreciate the added control of wide bars, but the 800mm broomstick on this tester left me with bruised and battered knuckles from slashing through weeds and punching trees. The $10,300 price tag is ridiculous, though nixing the carbon wheels makes it less stratospheric (by a couple thousand), and Santa Cruz offers builds that cost half as much.

The Verdict: The Nomad blunts the scary edge of even the wildest terrain, and thanks to the lightweight wonders of modern carbon construction, it does this with very few compromises. It’s a bike that pushed me to ride well beyond my abilities, but when I got into trouble, it rescued me from catastrophe every time. 


The Specs

  • Wheel Size: 27.5+
  • Built For: Enduro racing
  • Size Tested: Medium
  • Bike Weight: 26.8 pounds
  • MSRP: $10,300 as tested; build options down to $5,900
  • The Test: Nine months on trails ranging from rocky desert terrain in Tucson and Phoenix to big-mountain settings in the high country

The Frame

The Nomad uses Santa Cruz’s tried-and-true VPP suspension design, which isn’t as firm or efficient as, say, the DW Link or Split Pivot, but still pedals well while allowing for full, supple shock activation on big-hit terrain. The numbers are what you’d expect for a bike that’s made for railing downhill: a slack 65-degree front end, a low 13.4-inch bottom bracket, and short 433mm chainstays. Those stats are more in line with a full-fledged downhill machine, but the Nomad weighs a shocking 26.8 pounds and has a 74.2-degree seat angle for surprisingly deft pedaling.

Aaron Gulley
  Photo: Jen Judge

In line with current trends, the Nomad’s top tube is longer than previous iterations, with the intent of running a shorter stem. The setup is pronounced (with a 50mm stem on our tester), but not nearly as extreme as, say, the Kona Process we tried earlier this year.

Aaron Gulley
  Photo: Jen Judge

Meanwhile, the carbon frame design is beautifully simple, without any awkward linkages or extra gewgaws tucked between the two triangles. Even though it’s a lot more bike, the Nomad weighs less than half a pound more than the Bronson. A dozen people beat this thing up in pretty rugged and rocky terrain over nine months, but we saw no chips or damage to the carbon.


The Build

Santa Cruz is known for pimping out test bikes, and ours came with a price-be-damned top spec that included a SRAM XX1 drivetrain, house-branded carbon bars, a RockShox Reverb dropper, and those Enve M70 Thirty carbon wheels. For a dizzying package price of $10,300, this bike better ride like a dream—and it did.

It’s worth noting that the Nomad can also be had with a more reasonable spec (think SLX and aluminum wheels) for $5,900. That’s not cheap, of course, but it’s more attainable.

Santa Cruz has nixed the option of a front derailleur on the Nomad, and while we thought we might miss it, the gearing with a 32-tooth front ring was fine, even for 3,000-foot climbs at 10,000 feet. Given the low bottom-bracket height, we appreciated the single ring up front for the clearance it afforded.

Aaron Gulley
  Photo: Jen Judge

About those wheels: We absolutely love the look and feel of the Enve M70 Thirty hoops. They are stiff and burly and took a beating without so much as a scratch or digger. Having said that, we also rode the bike with an aluminum Stan’s Flow wheelset, and though they weren’t quite as decisive or fast, they worked just fine.

Our Nomad was hung with lots of excellent bits and pieces, too, including beefy Maxxis High Roller tires, which stood up to nine months of hard abuse, and a comfy WTB Volt saddle. We’ve seen the durability issues that plagued the RockShox Reverbs early on diminish over the past couple of years, but this particular tester did require more than one bleed to keep it running.


The Ride

This bike is designed to go downhill—there’s a reason the guys in the awesome promo video rode up on horses and trucks, not bikes—but it climbed better than expected, especially with the lightweight spec we tested. The super-slack front end meant that big step-ups and rocky terrain caused some wheelie effect, and the low bottom bracket led to pedal strikes in techy terrain, but we usually cruised right up.

Aaron Gulley
  Photo: Jen Judge

What really won us over, however, were the Nomad’s grin-inducing downhill manners. We rode it on everything from the big rock-drop terrain of South Mountain in Phoenix to the steeps of Crested Butte’s 403 and Doctor’s Park. On every ride, the bike made us faster and more confident. That low bottom bracket and raked-out front end locked in on steep descents and encouraged us to lay off the brakes and pick up the speed. There’s no front-end nervousness, thanks in large part to the 160mm RockShox Pike fork. The dual chamber on the Monarch shock made it impossible to bottom out, even on major drops.


The Competition

For such a big and burly bike, the Nomad actually has plenty of competition. The Specialized Enduro 27.5, which has a similary slack setup and enduro-specific focus, is probably most comparable. Two other contenders include the Intense Tracer 275 (review forthcoming) and the Ibis Mojo HD3. These bikes have slightly higher bottom brackets and steeper head angles (67.5 and 66.6, respectively) so they’re better for all-around trail conditions. But we never found a descent the Intense or the Ibis couldn’t handle.

Aaron Gulley
  Photo: Jen Judge

If you’re looking for an all-around trail bike, this is not your ride. A slightly shorter travel bike with less slack angles, such as the Bronson or (for 29er devotees) the Tallboy LT, would be a better choice if you like to climb as much as you like to descend. And if you don’t live somewhere with technical terrain, the Nomad is definitely not the right choice.


Bottom Line

The Nomad represents the continuing evolution of mountain bikes. Thanks to improved carbon layups that make frames lighter and stronger and the constant refinement of suspensions and geometries, bikes continue to get more and more capable. Performance-wise, the Nomad would outride full downhill rigs from just a couple of years ago, yet it weighs and pedals more like a trail machine. That means more riders can take on bigger terrain and harder obstacles, or just feel more confident on the trails they normally ride.

This bike isn’t for everyone, though, and many riders, even those who want to get a little rowdy, will be better served on something like the Bronson. But for those looking to push themselves on hard terrain, the Nomad is a compelling choice.

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