Review: Santa Cruz Heckler

…For my money (all loaners), the bike with the least compromise and the most surprising performance has been the 2003 Santa Cruz Heckler.

By Joel Kennedy

Santa Cruz Heckler
Rider: Joel Kennedy
Height: 6’5"
Weight: 220 lbs.
Inseam: 36"

In my modest experience, I have had the opportunity to ride a few backcountry, epic, freeride or whatever you want to call them style of bikes. They’ve all had some good points and none have had catastrophic failure, at least while I was riding them. But for my money (all loaners), the bike with the least compromise and the most surprising performance has been the 2003 Santa Cruz Heckler.

This year, the Heckler has been totally redesigned. So much so that when I asked Rob at Santa Cruz to explain some of the differences between the current and past models he just said, "It’s a completely different bike." OK.

As it turns out, the new Heckler was on the drawing board all through 2002 getting a complete makeover while Santa Cruz was unveiling and shipping their VPP bikes. That gestation period was time well spent and has produced a versatile frame with brand new geometries and tubing. Do not be fooled by the giant gussets up front or the enormous tubing of the swing-arm. The frame, combined with a Fox air shock, weighs just 6.4 pounds which means you can either set it up as a lean but muscular 26 pound cross country machine, or load it up with all the heavy duty parts to abuse at your leisure. The choice is yours. And what’s better is that Santa Cruz offers build kits that cover both of those ideas and most ground in between.

The Heckler is a butted, 6064 aluminum alloy, five-inch travel, single pivot suspension bike that has been tweaked to a very high level of efficiency. To some of you, the single pivot may seem passé. But you should be reminded that the single pivot has had many successful incarnations over the years, and that there are a number of characteristics that make it superior to some other suspension options. Pedaling efficiency comes to mind, as does the overall simplicity of having fewer moving parts to maintain or replace when the time comes. The most common shortcoming of the single pivot design, "brake jacking" (a tendency of the suspension to extend during hard braking) has been addressed on the new bike by moving the pivot down and forward, away from the bottom bracket.

This bike is made to be fitted with either a Fox Float Air shock for the weight conscious, or Progressive’s super tunable 5th Element coil-over. I rode the 5th Element and as I’ve heard, it’s a sweet and complex piece of hardware that complements the Heckler’s ride characteristic beautifully. With beginning and end stroke compression damping, rebound damping, air adjustable progressivity and spring preload you get 5 (as in 5th) ways to adjust the ride. It sounds complicated, but if you take the time (as you should) to set it up correctly for yourself, the bike will be buttery smooth. The damping eliminates all but the slightest amount of bob even while climbing in the granny gear, and that’s more than I expect from any shock technology. Even one that claims to have "anti-bob" features.

Other interesting features on the 2003 Heckler are the cable guides that accomodate full or partial housing and the replaceable dropout on the drive side of the frame. Not to be confused with a replaceable derailleur hanger, the entire dropout bolts on for superior strength. Most replaceable hangers are flimsy pieces of aluminum, only half the width of the dropout. That means the drive side dropout is only half the width of the non drive side, making damage to your frame more likely whenever a stick jumps out and tries to rip your derailleur off. This solution makes a lot of sense.

My test ride came set up with a mix of the freeride and lightweight build kits. A Shimano LX and XT drivetrain, Hayes hydraulic brakes with 6 inch rotors, a Fox Vanilla 125 RLC fork, Bontrager Race Lite rims laced to Onyx hubs, a Titec seat and stem, a Thomson seat post and Easton Monkeylite bars all rolled on Intense Sticky 2.35" DH tires. As it sat, the extra large bike tipped the scales at slightly over 31 pounds—perfectly acceptable for a solid ride. The dimensions and geometry were as follows: 24.9" top tube, 20.5" seat tube (props to Santa Cruz for building ’em big), 44.6" wheel base, 17.1" chainstay, 13.2" BB height with a 71° head tube and a 73.6° seat tube. That seat tube angle has to be one of the reasons this bike climbs well.

Something that I don’t think I can overemphasize is the stiffness of the swingarm. The Heckler is able to accelerate surprisingly well for a bike with 5 inches of rear travel and has no noodly feel whatsoever. Looking at the pivot area and the vertical tube that extends up to the shock mount gives you an idea, but the ride says it all. It’s stiff I tell you!

What did I actually do on this bike that made me like it so? My first step with most test bikes is to take them right out the back door of Dirt Rag and climb up our Home Trail. It’s a good introduction because it requires the granny gear climbing I mentioned earlier combined with a couple of tight switchbacks and some serious pitches. It’s mountain goat, Pennsylvania style. The first ride on the Heckler got me up the hill and into the park without seeing spots. Good. Once in the park, I was definitely motoring through the trails at a higher-than-average speed (for me) and hitting the ubiquitous log piles like they were speed bumps. Up and over with control, no problem.

My most enjoyable and informative ride was a three hour doozy in the mountains of central PA. There was a group of people on racer-type bikes, a guy on a downhill rig and myself on the Heckler. For starters, we blazed around on some sweet, rock-strewn trails in a constant fifty degree mist for an hour or so enjoying the great outdoors. My traction on the slimy rocks was damn good considering, and riding over slippery, sloping roots was easier than expected. The rear suspension kept the tire on the ground where it’s supposed to be, and I felt especially Jeep-like as I navigated technical rock sections at low speed. Then we headed farther up some fire roads in order to get to "the gnarly trail" that we were told lay just ahead. Our downhill friend hung in there even though he often had to do his best impersonation of a bobsled captain. Dude was in shape. Finally, when we reached the trail head and our guide was giving us some precautionary advice, the man on the DH rig rolls right through and takes off down the trail. "So, it’s gonna be that kind of party," I thought to myself, and promptly followed his lead. The trail looked more like a dry stream bed than a road, and I mean the kind of stream that would have scenic waterfalls in it. Big boulders everywhere with very tight lines. It was starting to get sketchy when I noticed my colleague up front going over everything instead of picking his way through. He had 8 inches of travel up front and 7 in the rear, so it was only natural for him to want to get the most out of the trail. Well, I was inspired by his lines and decided to go for it. Up and down with increasing amplitude led into some random gap jumps at high speed. And then it happened. I saw the leader hit a good size drop and I was on it in no time. Ulp! It was bigger than I thought and I endoed pretty badly, but! I was able to ride the endo a few feet (on purpose of course) and managed to survive the NEAR death experience. Thank you, Heckler.

The point is, I rode all the climbs and didn’t have any trouble keeping up. Then I bombed the downhill on that guy’s tail doing things I’d never done before and lived to tell about. That’s what I’m talking about when I say versatile, and that’s what I think Santa Cruz had in mind when they christened the new Heckler a heavy duty trail bike!

The Heckler is $2600 complete with the Fox shock or $1050 for the frame. The 5th Element upgrade is $120 more. Available in S, M, L and XL and a ridiculous number of colors. For color choices check out the color picker on the Santa Cruz Bicycles website. All polished and transparent colors are $70 extra.


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