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First Impressions: 2018 Santa Cruz Nomad

The release of the fourth-generation Nomad, and its identical twin the Juliana Strega, represents a homecoming of sorts for this storied Santa Cruz model.

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The crew of testers taking a breather. The steep, rocky terrain accessed by this shuttle trail in Bountiful, Utah is occasionally punctuated by sculpted sections, making it an ideal location to experience the new Nomad and Strega in their element.

The original Nomad made its way onto the trails in 2005, during an era defined by freeriding. While it offered less travel and was a fair bit lighter than the era’s piggish freeride bikes, it quickly found acclaim with those who sought out difficult trails and wanted to pedal back up for the next lap. The formula of all-out technical ability, blended with enough efficiency to make climbing manageable, has informed every Nomad since, especially the wildly popular third-generation Nomad (hereinafter referred to as the Nomad 3). With a completely new frame design that borrows heavily from the V10 downhill race bike, the new Nomad looks the part. But how do those aggressive looks translate to the trail?

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At 5’4” tall, Competitive Cyclist Associate Clothing Buyer Sheila Delaney would have chosen the small Strega over her medium test bike. Regardless, she quickly adapted to both the terrain and the bike, noting that the Strega felt unstoppable, super fun, and was surprisingly easy to pedal. Her personal ride is a size small Yeti SB6.

Perhaps the most pressing question is how the new Nomad stacks up against the version it replaced. The short answer is: quite favorably. The Nomad 3 hit the market during the first wave of enduro mania, and accordingly, it adopted a race-influenced feel, as well as longer geometry that was a big step forward. While it’s a fairly easy bike to ride fast, the Nomad 3 can’t rightly be described as “playful.” For plenty of riders, it can be a handful.

On paper, the latest Nomad should be even more of a sled. It’s much longer and it gets an extra 5mm of travel. Neither of those changes would typically be considered steps in the “lively” direction. However, the new Nomad feels more spritely on rolling sections, more stable in chunky rock gardens, and more forgiving when overshooting jumps. It also climbs better. So, what gives?

Two major changes are at play with the new Nomad: the rider position and the suspension. By extending the front end roughly an inch per size, as well as steepening the seat angle, Santa Cruz has shifted the rider’s neutral weight balance forward, applying more weight to the front wheel. The upshot is that the new Nomad is much easier to turn, both climbing and descending. It’s not outrageously long, but it’s decidedly modern.

in-article-4Santa Cruz Retail Marketing ninja Garen Becker was on hand to help with testing. Although it was his first time riding the new Nomad, he got his size large test bike up to speed almost immediately. Garen is 5’11” tall and rides a size large 5010 back home in Santa Cruz.

And then there’s the suspension. It is, in a word, sublime. Moving to a lower link-driven shock, à la the V10, changes the characteristics of the VPP system significantly. An upper link-driven VPP bike tends to reach its highest leverage ratio in the middle of the stroke, which encourages the bike to settle into the middle of its travel—a trait that’s further exaggerated when paired with an air shock. With the lower link-driven VPP design employed in the new Nomad, the leverage ratio drops consistently throughout the stroke, which creates a predictable ramp up. Basically, the bike gets slightly firmer the deeper it gets into the travel, and it does so at a very consistent rate, which improves the bike’s stability on hard hits without giving up small bump sensitivity.

This change in leverage curve, accentuated by the optional Rock Shox Super Deluxe Coil, is perhaps the most significant improvement with the new Nomad. Where the Nomad 3’s suspension can feel flat, the new Nomad’s displays the true “pillow” feel that a downhill race bike gives you. And as someone who’s owned and raced a 27.5 V10, I’d argue that the Nomad’s suspension feel is actually more inspiring than its bigger sibling. It keeps the same supple feel off the top, but where the V10’s midstroke feels fairly neutral, the Nomad gently ramps up, which keeps the midstroke feeling a fair bit more responsive to both rider input and the terrain. The upshot is that it tracks astoundingly well through high frequency impacts in high-load scenarios, like braking bumps in the middle of a g-out.

in-article-5Competitive Cyclist Marketing copywriter Garson Fields found that his size large test bike suited his 6′ tall frame well, providing enough room to get comfortable in variable terrain. His current trail bike is a size large Santa Cruz Hightower.

So it descends wonderfully, which is to be expected. And there’s some inherent tradeoff for the supple suspension action, namely that it’s not quite as firm at the pedals as the Nomad 3. In spite of that, I’d rather tackle big climbs aboard the new version. Santa Cruz claims the same seat angle between versions, but the new Nomad positions the saddle noticeably farther forward of its location on the Nomad 3. Paired with a longer front end, the new Nomad settles into a very comfortable climbing position that’s ideal for long, consistent ascents. The pillowy feel doesn’t inspire the rider to attack climbs, but it does generate tons of traction, which is easily appreciated as the terrain get steep and loose. If you need to hustle up a punchy uphill, it’s not your best choice. But if you have time to settle in and find your cadence, it’ll do the job surprisingly well.

The new Nomad is probably best compared to Evil’s Insurgent , Yeti’s SB6 Turq, or Pivot’s Firebird—all long travel, 27.5-wheeled, and descent-focused. The Insurgent is worth looking at for its exceptional suspension, with its similarly terrain-flattening feel. The Nomad does slightly outclass the Evil in terms of suppleness and sensitivity, with similar perceived efficiency. Of course, the Nomad’s extra 20mm of travel plays a significant role, as do its shock options, since both the air-sprung Super Deluxe and Super Deluxe Coil are a step ahead of the Evil’s Monarch Plus in terms of feel and sensitivity. That the Nomad’s extra travel doesn’t seem to hinder its efficiency as compared to the Insurgent is perhaps more noteworthy.

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The new Nomad’s V10-inspired linkage benefits from extensive testing and fine tuning. The result is a split personality that’s both confident and playful, making this the author’s favorite iteration of the Nomad platform by a wide margin.

Moving down the list, the EWS-dominating SB6 looks to be a contender, at least on paper. While it certainly has the composure to match the Nomad’s speed, its longer chainstays and supremely settled suspension give it a more serious demeanor that pays dividends on a race track, but makes it a less compelling option when a more casual pace is on the agenda. As for the Firebird, its geometry and demeanor are nearly identical. The similarity in geometry serves to isolate the suspension feel, and although DW Link is widely regarded as perfectly balancing suppleness and efficiency, the Nomad feels more forgiving and playful, especially when pushed to the edge. The Nomad doesn’t quite have the same firmness at the pedals, but for a bike that’s intended to be ridden up at a measured pace, then ridden wide-open back down, the balance it strikes is very close to ideal.

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Although it retains the previous Nomad’s appetite for speed, the new version practically begs the rider to seek out bonus lines and side hits as well.

Surely, you ask, the Nomad has imperfections? True, but they’re fairly minor. While it’s versatile, it’s also extremely aggressive, which means that for many riders, it’s going to be a second bike in the quiver. If your local trails demand pads and a full face, the new Nomad is an obvious choice. For mellower trails, it’s a bit much. Then again it’s arguably easier and more enjoyable to ride everywhere than the Nomad 3, which plenty of people love as daily drivers. On a different note, the single-ply tire rear tire punctured not a minute into the test ride. A set of Double Down, or similar reinforced casing, tires are warranted. And the long upper link and overall arrangement isn’t as aesthetically beautiful as some other designs. No matter. In this case, pretty is as pretty does.

While enduro bikes have dominated the marketplace for the past few years, the Nomad breaks through the barriers associated with the E-word and pushes full circle back to where it started—as a freeride bike, in the truest sense of the word. It could easily be raced in enduros, where it will excel on the roughest, steepest courses. It could also see success as a CAT 1 downhill race bike shod with dual-ply tires, and that same setup would be more fun in a bike park for many riders than a full on downhill bike. But ultimately, the Nomad is compelling for how effectively it blurs the lines between these increasingly disparate elements of the sport. True to its lineage, the Nomad seems to be most at home anywhere that steep terrain and big features can be found. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then you will not do better than this hard charger from Santa Cruz.

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