I own a Santa Cruz Heckler. I looked up the definition of heckler in my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and couldn’t find it. I did find the word “heckle” which means “to harass and try to disconcert with questions, challenges or gibes: BADGER syn see BAIT — heck-ler” OK so that’s what I thought it meant, but what a silly name for a mountain bike – or is it?
But I digress. Santa Cruz Bicycles was originally founded in 1993 in Santa Cruz California. Around the North Bay where I live, Santa Cruz has a reputation for building quality bikes. Although they once welded their frames in their tiny California shop, the bikes are currently out-sourced to overseas manufacturers to keep costs down. Out-sourcing has become an industry wide practice these days with very few exceptions.
Their first bike, the Tazmon, was a single pivot dual suspension bike that was truly advanced for its day. They now manufacture nineteen models of mountain bikes from hardtails to ten inch travel downhill machines. Their suspension designs range from single pivot designs to their awesome and unique VPP system.
The Heckler was first introduced in 1995. Now offering 150mm of travel via a burly aluminum frame, the Heckler currently features the same angular contact bearings and oversize alloy pivot axles as Santa Cruz’s downhill VPP® bikes, and has evolved with aggressive contemporary geometry to take on rough downhill terrain with confidence.
Santa Cruz Syndicates sponsors many of the best racers in the world. Greg Minnaar took his Santa Cruz V10 carbon fiber downhill bike to the World Cup Downhill championship in 2012. He has won numerous downhill championships since his first in 2001. Before taking up downhill bike racing he raced motocross for eleven years and still rides for fun whenever he gets a chance.
Santa Cruz also sponsors downhill racers Steve Peat and Josh Bryceland, free rider Jamie Goldman, and endurance and cross country racer John Waddell. Santa Cruz is committed to building the very best machines for their racers which translates into cutting edge technology incorporated into bikes sold to the public.
My last new mountain bike was a Trek Y-22 carbon fiber full suspension model bought new in 1996. With only three inches of rear suspension, two inch bumper forks, cantilever brakes, and bushings instead of bearings; it has lost its appeal as a high tech modern wonder bike. My Trek only weighed 26.6 lbs., and I paid $2,000 for it brand new, but fifteen years later it is worn out and showing its age.
Today’s dollars don’t go nearly as far as they did in 1996. Also, there is the new technology being poured into mountain bikes, much of it borrowed from off road motorcycles. They are much more sophisticated than they were fifteen years ago and way more expensive.
In February 2010 I wandered into an old friend’s shop, Solano Avenue Cyclery in Albany, California (The shop is still there but it is now Wheels of Justice Cyclery). I knew that Charlie who owned the shop still had a top notch reputation among local racers (he’s not old – our lapsed friendship is). We used to race for a local club called BTU (Berkeley Trailers Union or more literally Big Tough and Ugly). He ruled on the downhills. In addition to racing, he was our main sponsor.
The long travel bikes on the showroom floor and hanging from the ceiling were all out of my price range; that is until I spotted the Heckler. Wait a minute, was I seeing things? The price tag said $1,299.00. Charlie assured me that it had almost six inches of suspension at the rear. Although it was a 2009 model, it had disc brakes and all the good stuff.
I noticed that it had the less advanced type single pivot rear suspension but I was comfortable moderating my braking over rough surfaces and so I did not consider it to be a deal breaker. Simplicity has its virtues. It also had quick releases rather than the more rigid all mountain large diameter axles. That is the reason older models are discounted I said to myself under my breath.
I thought I could live with it especially as the rest of the bike was so well put together starting with a beefy all black aluminum frame and rear triangle. It had a first rate Shimano Deore XT component group including derailleurs, shifters and hubs, with Avid disc brakes, Fox RP-23 ProPedal shock, and a rugged Rock Shox Tora fork.
With a fairly short top tube, moderate wheel base and a steep 69 degree fork rake; it was not a modern “all mountain” downhill oriented bike. I purchased it hoping that it would keep up with the newer mountain bikes with slacker angles and longer wheel bases.
The moment of truth came the next day when I took it out for its first ride. After adjusting the sag with the air pump I was ready to go. All together it weighed about thirty-one pounds. It had strong Swiss EX 510 26″ rims with 2.3 Kendra Nevegal tires. When I pedaled uphill in a low gear, it rolled along with an easy cadence that was hard to reconcile with the beefy all mountain wheels and tires.
Shifting, braking; it responded with quiet precision to my lightest touch. It had been a long time since I had ridden a new bike. It was just what the doctor ordered to rejuvenate my waning enthusiasm for mountain biking.
As I headed up the steeper hills, the gearing let me relax. The bike pedaled without any power robbing suspension bob, probably due to the location of the swing arm pivot above the middle chain ring. I didn’t have to touch the pro pedal lever to feel the bike respond effortlessly as I clicked up the gears. It had a thirty-six tooth inner rear sprocket and twenty-two tooth granny gear in the front. I had to shift up a little bit to get a little resistance to my spin.
The moment of truth came when I turned around to go back downhill. After adjusting the fork and shock rebound dampening to my taste, it handled like a dream. The suspension absorbed everything from small; to medium-sized; to big bumps. I just sailed smoothly over every obstacle including jagged rocks and square edged bumps.
Holy Cow! It was easy to bunny hop without clip in pedals. With the ProPedal lever on the shock engaged, I just twisted the bars and kicked it up with my feet. It was a cinch to pull up the front end at speed. It was effortless. The position of the bars (high) and pedals made it feel almost like a BMX bike. It felt incredibly quick and maneuverable.
I came upon a water bar with a really smooth built up dirt slope which I used for a take-off ramp after letting it rip on the downhill. I caught the look of astonishment on the faces of some hikers as I flew past them on my bike. I was stoked: It got really good air.
I could go fast without fear of catching a wheel and cart-wheeling down the hill. It turned on a dime, and was a blast sailing through berms with momentum and speed. The bike was stable, although it demanded total concentration. Good stuff I muttered as I turned around for home.
It was hard to find a trail near my house that challenged the Heckler: That is until I found “Cow Poke Trail”. Cow Poke Trail is a single track with some steep drop offs and tight berms on the outside of the turns.
We named it after it had been “ruined” by cattle after a heavy rain. The moisture had turned the trail into soft mud causing the herd to sink into the muck almost up to their bellies. When it dried and hardened again it was what we called “cow-poked”.
The trail was deeply pockmarked and so badly rutted that it seemed almost impossible to ride on a bike with less than four inches of suspension. That is until my friend, Mike, who is an expert bike handler, rode his 1980’s style Bridgestone behind us as we flew down the trail. It was completely rigid front and rear, and, of course, a lot slower on the rough trail than our full suspension bikes. Predictably he always suggested other trails when the discussion turned to where we were headed on the downhill part of our rides.
I continued to ride Cow Poke Trail enjoying how fast I could go over obstacles and the ease that the bike went around sharp rutted corners and flew off drop offs. One day I was feeling especially frisky and steered towards a steep three-foot step at speed and misjudged my wheelie with devastating results. I wasn’t hurt when the bike somersaulted through the air.
Predictably I went tumbling over the bars. Unfortunately there were hikers nearby who witnessed the whole thing. They were very nice, and expressed their concern as they tried to help me by picking up my bike. I assured them that I was fine and then pedaled back home to lick my wounds.
Other than some black and blue spots and a little road rash, I was basically unscathed; that is except for a little hurt pride. I skedaddled home with my head sunk low.
On the way home I imagined the bike was chastising me for my lack of skill and the embarrassing crash, forcing me to acknowledge the terrible truth: I had a lot to learn if I was going to satisfy the aspirations of my new long travel all mountain bike.
After a while I was chomping at the bit for something more demanding and a little faster. Then one of my friends, Bobby, who has a Norco downhill bike, took me to his favorite stomping grounds near Mount Shasta.
Steep rutted sandstone trails reminded me of the terrain where I rode my motorcycle. It almost felt like I was on my Honda racing down steep drop offs with eleven inches of travel on both ends. It was really exhilarating feeling the joy of flying down the trail. Each time we got to the top we descended a little faster and it seemed that the only barrier to really outrageous speed was fear of crashing.
It wasn’t until Bobby urged me to go first that we raced down the hill with total abandon. I slowed down a little to mentally size up a steep really rough section of trail when Bobby pulled up beside to me. The race was on and we both let go of the brakes. A little friendly competition is a great inspiration for real speed. My Heckler was in its element as we flew down the hill. Big Fun!
My only complaint is the Avid Juicy 5 brakes which are a little grabby on steep drops where you have to brake hard to stay in control.
I am beginning to understand the bike’s name. It is a Heckler in that it challenges its rider (me) to try ever more demanding terrain at greater and greater speeds. “You think you are scaring me with this stuff. You have got to be kidding. We can go a lot faster”. It heckles me each time I think I have found something new.
Our next challenge will be the black diamond trails of my youth; the ninety degree chutes of pure terror. We will see if we can get up to speed. I have a feeling the Heckler will be more than willing if it can convince me to let go of the brakes. Predictably it will never quit demeaning me for the size of my balls or lack thereof.