Alvin at Santa Cruz HQ
First impressions are highly important, regardless of how much we might say otherwise. For better and for worse, we are attached to our initial assessment of a place, person, or thing. Santa Cruz Bicycles seems to have read up extensively on this topic, because my factory tour at Santa Cruz HQ was about as good a first impression as they could’ve made.
Kyle (my tour guide for the afternoon) greeted us with a warm smile and a Modelo in hand. He started us off in their showroom, which prominently displayed the all-new Santa Cruz Blur and Highball XC bikes, as well as their new Nomad/Juliana Strega, and other rad bits. Before entering the assembly area, Kyle showed us two things: an old Santa Cruz Nomad 3 frame and swingarm cut in half, and a mold for a carbon bike. While their engineers might be embarrassed by the ¼” of rippling and imperfection inside the carbon chainstay, it was deeply impressive to see how much carbon varies in thickness according to specific needs; the downtube was at least twice as thick as the top tube! Pictured here is a mold of an old Santa Cruz full suspension mountain bike. One front triangle takes 6-8 hours to produce. Molds are $70k each, and are size specific. Joe Graney saw that the old factory used Santa Cruz's build processes on other brands, so they cancelled their contract and bought their own factory. The factory that makes Santa Cruz rims follows a similar vein; they only produce Santa Cruz Reserve rims. QC and factory returns are wild here. This Santa Cruz Reserve rim was turned down due to a blemish by the valve stem, but it’s something I would hardly be able to see, even upon inspection. Frames come in from a factory that produces only Santa Cruz bicycles. Full suspension bikes receive hardware upper/lower links that create the Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) design, then go thru the first QC check.
From here they go the supermarket aisle. Recipe to go with shopping cart, outlines the specific build of the particular bicycle. Today, about 30% of their bikes are built to order, a sharp decrease from their 100% built to order bikes of not too long ago. Here they pick up parts specific to the bike’s build kit before undergoing a second QC check. A full shopping cart. Bicycles are put together about 75% of the way. An additional QC check happens after wheels are put on, then again one derailleur/brake/dropper post cables are installed. The whole process happens in a small space, which allows for running changes within production, ala Tesla. A frame box that’s more like action figure box. Bicycles are zip tied to cardboard half box which holds the frame in the middle of the standard box. No damaged frames from this method. Santa Cruz aims to be a wheel company AND a bike company, not just a bike company that builds wheels. All wheels (Santa Cruz Reserve or otherwise) are built in-house. Each wheel takes about 14-15 minutes, compared to the 30-60 minutes per wheel for a normal person. Spokes are preloaded into hubs by one person, then laced to rims by another. Lacing usually can be done as quickly as 2 minutes. A wheel machine brings them up to tension. After, they’re checked again for equal tension. Wheels with ideal spoke tension go to the green Santa Cruz logo, wheels that need a second look go to the red logo. Innovation. Each Santa Cruz Reserve wheel will eventually come with a tag that not only has the wheel builder’s name, but a personalized image of the builder themselves. Employees are incentivized to ride a bike to work, and they have spaces for everyone who needs space. Behind the wall of staff bikes there is their top secret R&D department. In just two weeks, they can design and create a prototype bike (Danny Macaskill’s new “Danny” trials bike as a recent example), and even do their own powder coating. I can’t say what was back there, but it was way cool. Santa Cruz offers factory demos for a small donation fee. This visit to the Santa Cruz HQ was eye opening. Today, that Santa Cruz Blur is a pile of parts. A week later, that bike is in China and someone’s new favorite bike. I’m not quite sure what it is about cyclists, but standing in a warehouse, layered floor to ceiling with boxes and boxes of raw frames made me more excited than I care to admit. Maybe it was the palpable sense of energy in the factory, even with most employees already gone for the weekend. Maybe it was charming checkered floors, or the clear dedication everyone had to riding fun bikes. Whatever it may have been, there is no doubt that Santa Cruz builds some of the best bicycles available anywhere. Thanks to Josh for setting this up, and for Kyle for being an affable tour guide.