Holy Heck! The same Santa Cruz you’ve always loved with a little extra boost.
Prepare yourself for a lot of heckin’ puns. The Santa Cruz Heckler is a heck of a lot of fun. Holy heck, what the heck and oh my heck. There — I got them all out of my system. I couldn’t be happier with Santa Cruz’s first entry in the e-MTB market. It rides more like a classic (non e-mtb) than any other e-bike I’ve thrown a leg over. I’m going to hit you with the greatest hits before we dive deep into how this thing rides. First, the Heckler is based on the Bronson. The geometry is super similar with a few modifications to fit a battery and motor. It has the same playful characteristic that we all love about the Bronson. It’s quick to corner, easy to get airborne and can monster truck when the trail gets rocky. Second, it uses a tried and true Shimano Steps motor. I’ll dive into this more, but for now, the Heckler has the smoothest and most natural feeling power delivery out of any e-MTB I’ve ridden. And finally, it’s an e-bike so you know it’s going to put a heckin’ big grin on your face.
Santa Cruz Heckler Geometry, sizing and money stuff
If you’ve been on a Bronson, you’ve pretty much been on a Heckler. Unlike the Bronson, the Heckler’s geometry is not adjustable. You get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit. Lucky for you, the Heckler’s geometry is spot on for an all-mountain bike with a 65.5° head tube angle, 75.4° seat tube and a roomy, but not stretched 490mm (in XL) reach. Those numbers hit all the sweet spots for a bike that needs to go uphill, downhill, left-hill and right-hill. The front end is slack without being floppy, the wheelbase is long and stable without feeling like a school bus and the chainstays are about as short as they can be for an e-bike. All of this adds up to a well-rounded and balanced bike.
I’ve always been a fan of how Santa Cruz bikes fit me. They are in that Goldilocks zone of just right — not too big and not too small. At 6’2” with a healthy amount of legs, I found the XL to fit like a glove. From the time I first threw a leg over it, the bike just felt comfortable — no weird and glaring fit issues. In XL, the Heckler comes stock with a 50mm stem and a 175mm dropper post. It also comes stock with a surprisingly short 165mm crank. Something I never noticed until 30 seconds ago as I was writing this. There can be some advantages to running a shorter crank arm. First, your foot speed for any given RPM is slower on a shorter crank. There’s also less range of motion at the knee to complete a rotation. I think the biggest reason e-MTBs come with shorter cranks is for better ground clearance. A 50lb bike going 15mph uphill is going to hit things harder than a classic bike. Keeping the cranks shorter will help reduce pedal strikes in bumpy terrain. Now, that’s enough bike nerd stuff to hold us over for a few days.
The Heckler I tested came in at $8399. Normally that kind of price would put you heckin’ close to top of the line. Not so with this one. Santa Cruz makes four builds of the Heckler. My test bike was the S build, meaning one up from the bottom. It comes with a Sram GX drivetrain, Code R brakes and RaceFace ARC 30 rims laced to DT 370 hubs. Suspension duties are covered by a Rockshox Super Deluxe Select+ (that’s a mouthful) and a Fox 36 E-Float Performance up front. All of these parts fall in the “Good Value” category — they perform well without breaking the bank. The top of the line XX1 AXS RSV build comes in at $13099 while the entry level R build costs $7399. All four build roll on carbon frames with the same Shimano DU-E8000 motor.
It’s kind of funny talking about how an e-MTB climbs. Shouldn’t they all climb well? I mean they all have motors in them. There’s a little more to climbing performance than pure power output. Things like geometry, suspension and how the power is used comes into play. That said, the Heckler climbs very well. The geometry and fit put your weight right over the middle of the bike. Having your weight centered helps when it comes to climbing steep, loose and bumpy terrain. The power delivery from the motor is incredibly smooth and natural. There’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to climbing on an e-bike. The added power from the motor and overall weight of the bike can accentuate bad form. Put your weight too far forward and the rear wheel is going to spin out and lose traction very easily. Weight too far back? Yeah, you’re going to be doing unintentional wheelies on every climb. Too much power from the motor and things will get squirrelly when you need control. Not enough power and you’re trying to lug a 50lb bike up a steep hill. The Heckler is good at finding the right balance for all types of terrain. It plants your weight over the center of the bike and delivers power so smoothly it feels like an extension of your legs. Combine that proper balance with the VPP suspension platform and you have a bike that most closely resembles a mountain goat.
Santa Cruz did lower the amount of anti-squat on the Heckler compared to their classics. They favor suspension performance and traction over pedaling platform. I guess when you have a motor for a little extra power, you can get away with a bike that bobs a bit under pedaling forces. I never felt like I needed a firmer pedal platform. I certainly did appreciate the extra traction, though.
There were a few times the motor felt a little underpowered compared to some other e-MTBs I’ve ridden (namely the Orbea Wild FS with the Bosch motor.) I tried one ridiculously steep and loose climb. Even in “Boost” I didn’t have enough power to make it up the hill. If I’m being honest though, my legs are probably underpowered. My number one criteria for an e-MTB is that it rides like a classic mountain bike. I want it to feel like my normal bike with a little extra juice. For me, more power isn’t always better if that power can’t be delivered in a natural way. The Heckler has a very smooth power delivery. It doesn’t feel on/off like other e-bikes I’ve ridden. The power ramps up without you even noticing — something I definitely appreciate.
If the Heckler is impressive on the ups, it’s mind-blowing on the downs. It rides so much like a regular MTB. It doesn’t feel sluggish and heavy, it’s easy to corner and gets surprisingly airborne. Most e-MTBs feel like 50lb sleds when pointed back downhill. They can be very difficult to jump, especially at slower speeds — not the Heckler. Hats off to Santa Cruz for making this bike fun as heck.
It’s going to be tough, but I’m going to try not to fanboy here. Let’s start off with suspension performance — it’s truly amazing. Most e-MTBs feel pretty good when it comes to suspension. The added weight of the frame and motor (sprung weight) vs wheels and tires (unsprung weight) makes the suspension better over small bumps and chattery terrain. The Heckler is no exception. Where the Heckler becomes exceptional, is in how the suspension ramps up to provide a ton of support in the mid and end strokes. The suspension doesn’t rob all your “pop” on jumps. Instead it transfers all that energy into airtime. I had very little trouble clearing jumps that take a bit of effort even on a classic 30lb bike. Partly, due to carrying more speed and partly due to how well the suspension performs. Pretty impressive for a 50lb bike. The ramp up at the end of the stroke makes bottom outs disappear. I never noticed a harsh clang as I ran out of travel.
Second, let’s chat about how well this bike gets around a corner. Small wheels, weight down low, tons of traction and dialed geometry — perfect recipe for cornering. The Heckler can get itself around a corner with ease. I couldn’t help but think I was back on the Bronson. I’ve always enjoyed how agile the Bronson feels and the Heckler gives it a run for its money. The added weight is noticeable but I don’t think it hinders the cornering performance. In fact, combined with the phenomenal suspension, it might even help to increase traction. I was able to set a line and lay off the brakes in the corners without feeling like my tires were about to break loose. The wide 2.6” Maxxis Minions hook up very well and provide a little extra cushion at the same time.
The Heckler’s geometry lend itself to very balanced handling. At high speeds it feels plenty stable without feeling sluggish on slower sections of trail. It’s relatively easy to change lines and make adjustments. It’s not a purebred monster truck though. Don’t expect it to do all the work for you. It prefers a rider who will take the reins and ride it like they mean it. That’s not to say it doesn’t have your back when you make a mistake or two. With 150mm rear and 160mm front, there’s plenty of travel to soak up your bad lines and poor choices.
And finally, a quick note on jumping. The Heckler jumps better than a lot of classic bikes. It is very stable in the air and is predictable on takeoffs. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of support in the suspension for maximizing height on jumps. Typically I’m a little timid jumping more technical doubles on e-MTBs. The added wight can make it hard to get extra height when you don’t have the speed you need. The Heckler gave me a lot of confidence on jumps. Are you more of a wheels on the ground type rider? Don’t worry. The Heckler likes doing that too.
The All around Santa Cruz Heckler
Here’s my one sentence review of the 2020 Santa Cruz Heckler — “The most normal feeling e-bike you’ll ever ride.” Picture it as a heavy Bronson infused with a little Lance Armstrong for the climbs. If you want an e-MTB that feels like a normal bike, be sure to check this one out.
STANDARDIZED SUPER SCIENTIFIC SLIDING SCALE SCORING SYSTEM
We have an entire demo fleet of Heckler from small to extra-large. Come check one out. It will put a heckin’ big grin on your face.