Santa Cruz Blur long-term review: A sharper focus, but more limited appeal

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After a short hiatus, the iconic Blur nameplate is back in the Santa Cruz lineup, this time as a dedicated XC racing machine designed for chasing finishing lines rather than laughs and grins. Without a doubt, the Blur’s newfound speed and quickness is better suited to competition than any previous iteration has ever been. But as a result, it also loses some of the wider appeal that characterized earlier versions.

Story Highlights

  • Purpose: Cross-country MTB racing and riding.
  • Highlight: A lightweight and rigid full-suspension chassis designed to cover distance quickly.
  • Material: Carbon fiber.
  • Key details: VPP suspension design with 100mm rear travel, threaded bottom bracket, long and low geometry.
  • Price: Frameset, US$3,000/AU$3,000/£3,700/€4,400; complete bikes: US$3,700-9,600/AU$TBC/£3,700-8,200/€4,300-9,700.
  • Weight: Frame (size medium, claimed): 2,060g, without rear shock; complete bike, as tested: 10.27kg (22.64lb), without pedals.

A turning point

Few nameplates truly qualify to be labeled as iconic, but the Blur has had such an impact on the Santa Cruz brand that it’d be almost impossible to not label it as such. When the original Blur first debuted in 2002, Santa Cruz was already established as an early pioneer in full-suspension mountain bikes. However, the brand at that point had solely relied on the simplicity of single-pivot designs, with such memorable models as the Tazmon, Heckler, and Superlight.

The Blur (along with Santa Cruz’s first-generation V10 downhill platform) marked the first major use of the then-revolutionary Virtual Pivot Point concept, a design Santa Cruz bought from original inventor Outland, a tiny niche mountain-bike brand that was never able to fully realize the concept’s potential. Mountain-bike rear suspension was arguably still in its infancy in the early 2000s, and so the VPP system of dual short counter-rotating links joining the otherwise-rigid front and rear triangles was truly radical.

The original Santa Cruz Blur was more of an all-around trail bike, and nowhere near as focused on a single discipline as the current model. Photo: Santa Cruz Bicycles.

That original Blur turned out to be wildly successful for its ability to balance pedaling efficiency, bump compliance, and control in a way no other bike that came before could. VPP has undergone multiple revisions since those early days, and though Santa Cruz would continue to offer single-pivot bikes through 2015, the VPP system has come to define the brand.

A less blurry Blur

One of those early Blur offshoots was the racing-focused Blur XC, which would eventually morph into a more advanced carbon-fiber model in 2009. But Santa Cruz walked away from that segment of the market when the Blur XC was discontinued in 2013. It wasn’t until last year that the company decided it was time to come back.

Five years is a long time to be away, but the latest Blur (technically it’s the “Blur 3”) benefits from the break by skipping a lot of the awkward transition period that befell many cross-country bikes in the interim. It’s now far more of a dedicated XC racing machine than ever, sporting 29in wheels (the predecessor rode into the sunset on 26in ones), a lighter and more rigid carbon-fiber frame, and a shorter-travel VPP rear end that is purpose built with a firmer and more efficiency-oriented tune. Previous Blur XC frames offered 105-115mm, but Santa Cruz now caps it at 100mm out back, with both 100mm and 110mm options offered up front.

Santa Cruz’s Virtual Pivot Point suspension design relies on one-piece front and rear triangles that are connected with two short counter-rotating links.

Claimed frame weight on the top-end Blur 3 CC version is just 2,060g (medium size, without shock), and with the almost universal acceptance of 1x drivetrains, Santa Cruz didn’t bother to incorporate front derailleur compatibility, instead adding a second upright on the drive side of the rear triangle for extra rigidity under load.

Geometry-wise, the Blur wholly embraces the new school of thought when it comes to how cross-country bikes should handle.

As compared to most other cross-country racers currently on the market, like the Specialized Epic, Trek Top Fuel, and even the “XXC” Cannondale Scalpel, the Blur has both a longer reach and shorter stack, which allows for an especially aggressive position, especially when used with the racier 100mm-travel fork. Chainstays are notably short at just 432mm across the S-XL size range, and seat tube is fairly upright at 74° in order to place the rider in a more powerful position on steep climbs, while the moderately slack 69° head tube angle slightly mellows out any front-end dartiness.

As a bonus, that more relaxed head tube angle also lengthens the wheelbase, which combines with the low 42mm bottom bracket drop to promote high-speed stability.

Santa Cruz’s lengthy history in the full-suspension market shows in several finer details of the new Blur. The large-diameter aluminum pivot axles use a neat expanding collet design that automatically wedges itself up against the surrounding frame structure to help prevent creaking, for example, and though most of the lines are internally routed for cleanliness, the rear brake cable still runs along the top of the down tube so you don’t have to rebleed the line during removal or installation.

There’s also enough room inside the main triangle for a large-sized water bottle (with an additional mount on the bottom of the frame), a bolt-on plastic guard on the underside of the down tube to protect against rock strikes, and — hallelujah — a standard threaded bottom bracket shell to further help keep things pleasantly silent.

Build kits and options

Santa Cruz offers the Blur as a frame-only (US$3,000 for the lighter-weight Blur CC version), or with a number of complete build kits starting with SRAM’s entry-level Eagle NX groupset and topping out with SRAM XX1 Eagle or Shimano XTR component groups. Santa Cruz’s own Reserve carbon fiber wheels are optional across the board, too, as are “TR” variants that include a slightly longer 110mm-travel fork, a bigger front disc-brake rotor, meatier tires, and an internally routed dropper seatpost.

Prices for the complete builds range from US$3,700/AU$TBC/£3,700/€4,300 to US$9,600/AU$TBC/£8,200/€9,700, with the two lowest-priced options using a slightly heavier frame built with a lower grade of carbon fiber.

SRAM’s new X1 Eagle carbon crankset uses the company’s latest DUB axle design, which is built around a universal 29mm-diameter aluminum spindle that supposedly fits just about every frame on the market, regardless of shell format.

For this review, Santa Cruz sent the SRAM X01 model in cross-country trim, upgraded with the company’s 25mm-wide (internal width) Reserve carbon wheels. Retail price is US$7,600/AU$TBC/£7,000/€8,200, and actual weight for my medium sample is 10.27kg (22.64lb) without pedals, and with the tires set up tubeless — a touch lighter than company claims.

A conundrum

Let me get this out of the way first: Cross-country bikes have gotten a bad rap in recent years — and maybe deservedly so. While it’s certainly true that race bikes from just a few years ago were far too biased toward going up, with little consideration for how they’d perform going down, modern XC bikes (like this Santa Cruz Blur) are far more capable and versatile.

One might even say they’re fun, even if you’re not totally interested in suffering.

A race bike the Blur most certainly is, and its behavior on the trail still adheres faithfully to this mission. Even with the rear shock intentionally inflated slightly lower than manufacturer recommendations, the XC-tuned VPP rear end is highly efficient while pedaling, with very minimal unwanted bob, even on smoother fire roads and pavement. To further stiffen things up, Santa Cruz equips most Blur models (including the one I tested) with a handlebar-mounted remote lever that instantly locks out both the rear shock and fork.

Santa Cruz fits the Blur with a dual remote lockout that simultaneously operates the fork and rear shock. It works as advertised, almost completely eliminating any suspension movement, but it’s debatable how much it’s really needed. The rear suspension is already very efficient on its own, and the suspension remote takes up valuable real estate that could otherwise be used for a dropper-post remote.

“We use a digressive compression tune on this bike, whereas we use the linear tune on our trail bikes,” said Santa Cruz product manager Josh Kissner, referring to the way the rear shock is factory-set to be a little firmer than usual at the beginning of the travel. “This gives it a little more of an XC feel and platform. [The leverage curve] isn’t dramatically different than the Tallboy. I’d say it’s a little better, which is easier to do with shorter travel: less fall in the beginning, a little more rise later on.”

This sort of scenario strikes me as a bit perplexing, however.

Such a pedaling-focused shock tune is usually more desirable when a suspension design is mechanically less efficient — in other words, when the kinematics of the various pivots and linkages doesn’t inherently resist pedal-induced motion. Santa Cruz shouldn’t be limited to that sort of thing given the flexibility of its VPP design, though, and so the combination of what feels to me like a heavy-handed compression damper tune plus a remote lockout on top of that seems like overkill. The standard shock tune provides a sufficiently firm pedaling platform already, at least in my opinion, and if Santa Cruz is insistent on including a remote lockout, I would have preferred a more compliant base tune that provides better suspension performance overall.

Historically, Santa Cruz has built all of its full-suspension bikes (save for dedicated downhill models) with a single upright on the non-driveside joining the seatstay and chainstay, in order to allow room for a front derailleur. Modern drivetrains no longer use front derailleurs, though, so the latest Blur gets the double-upright treatment, too, along with the boost in rear-end rigidity it provides.

Nevertheless, combined with the fantastic rigidity of the front and rear triangles, the aggressive positioning, and the bike’s very low total weight, the Blur is a joy when climbing — not quite like a hardtail, but I suspect that only the most diehard racers will be regularly reaching for that remote when the trail heads upward. Steady, seated climbing ticks by with nary a complaint, and the bike is highly responsive when rising out of the saddle for a steep pitch.

That focus on all-out speed is also evident in the choice of rolling stock. The Maxxis Aspen tires roll as quickly as you’d expect given the minimal tread, and they’re also very light with a claimed weight of just 645g apiece. The relatively generous 2.25in casing width puts a healthy amount of rubber on the ground, though, and at 19-21psi (and on reasonably forgiving dirt), they grip better than you might think. I didn’t suffer any punctures during testing, but riders who regularly find themselves on rocky terrain will want to keep in mind that the minimal tread will provide minimal protection, too.

And yet despite the impressive climbing chops — and even with me slamming the stem and flipping it upside-down for maximum handlebar drop — the Blur is pretty damn fun when it comes time to bomb back down. That firm suspension tune does make for a slightly bouncier feel relative to more softly tuned designs that do a better job of keeping the tire contact patches more firmly adhered to the ground, but given just a little bit of finesse, the Blur is more than capable of blasting even moderately technical descents.

Like the rear shock, the differences between the Fox 32 Step-Cast Performance Elite fork and the flagship Factory version are subtle, comprising a simpler black anodized finish on the aluminum stanchion instead of the slippery gold Kashima coating on the Factory edition. In theory, the more standard surface is a little stickier, but few riders will ever feel the need to upgrade.

A big part of this capability is undoubtedly due to the progressive geometry. The tires may slide on occasion, but the more forgiving front end makes it easier to control that slide through the corners, and without making the bike handle like the Titanic. Likewise, the lower bottom bracket provides a more stable feel, and although there’s just 100mm of travel available, it’s well controlled so you’re at least able to make the most of it. Fox’s higher-end Factory suspension components (mid-range bits are fitted here) would help, but the difference would be so subtle that few people would even notice. However, just swapping the front tire for a grippier model would do wonders here.

What would make an even bigger difference is a dropper seatpost. Santa Cruz only includes a dropper post in the TR build kits, which also come with a larger front rotor and knobbier tires. A good dropper would add about 400g or so, but the positive effects on overall maneuverability can hardly be overstated. Even many World Cup racers — the most weight-conscious of all mountain-bike disciplines — are now using dropper posts, and not because of convenience. It’s because they help riders go faster overall as courses are becoming more technically demanding.

Unfortunately, Santa Cruz’s decision to run stock remote lockout levers for the front and rear suspension complicates matters, since there’s no real estate on the handlebar left for a dropper remote. TR builds swap the lever-type suspension remote for RockShox’s new GripShift-like control, but anyone starting with a standard Blur would have to add that separately. Removing the standard remote altogether isn’t an option, either, as the rear shock defaults to the locked-out mode when the cable is disconnected.

Parts, schmarts

Aside from the suspension remote, I have few complaints with the rest of the spec.

The SRAM X01 Eagle 1×12 drivetrain is well proven at this point, and offers a very usable 10-50T range out back that should satisfy the needs of even moderately fit riders. Chain retention is a non-issue with SRAM’s refined narrow-wide chainring tooth profiles and the clutch-equipped rear derailleur, and especially so given the intended application. Shifts aren’t quite Shimano-esque in terms of smoothness, but that’s to be expected; it works nonetheless.

There’s a good reason why SRAM has taken firm hold of the 1x mountain bike drivetrain market. Shift performance of the XO1 Eagle rear end is precise and consistent, and chain security is more than ample for cross-country applications.

Braking duties are handled by SRAM’s Level TLM hydraulic discs, which use the same dual-piston calipers as the company’s road groupsets, along with a pared-down lever design that saves weight relative to the more trail-oriented Guide family. Lever action is reasonably light and snappy, and overall power is very good, as is the level of fine control on loose ground. For most XC riders, the standard 160mm-diameter front and rear rotors will be just fine, and it was only in the wet that the brakes offered up any sort of audible protest.

When it comes to wheels, I’d strongly recommend that prospective buyers with sufficient funds opt for the Reserve carbon wheel upgrade. They’re lighter than the standard DT Swiss aluminum wheels, yes, and the DT Swiss 240s hubs (Chris King and Industry Nine hubs are also available) should also be very durable long-term. But what’s more appealing to me here is the generous lifetime warranty that Santa Cruz includes with the rims.

“In short, we cover all breakages, regardless of defect, and we replace the entire wheel, not just the rim,” said Santa Cruz Marketing Manager Brian Bernard. “It’s a pain to have to deal with bent spokes/new nipples/getting the wheel rebuilt, so we just ship a new one out so that folks can get back to riding. If someone were to back over their wheel with a truck, or melt it with their exhaust, we’d do rock-bottom, crash-replacement kind of pricing.”

Spoke holes are reinforced with additional layers of carbon fiber to prevent pull-through.

I even asked Bernard for further clarification on the policy, specifically about JRA-type incidents where a rider merely cracked a rim after hitting a rock on a trail, and when there’s no specific rim “defect” to speak of.

“We’d replace it [free of charge],” he said. “We definitely don’t encourage people to ride like Danny MacAskill did in our launch video, but nailing a rock and breaking your wheel happens, and we don’t want anyone to miss a ride because of our product. Our intent was to make it as simple as possible for the customer, and to stand behind products we make that may well break under normal use. Everyone’s hit a too-sharp rock at some point.”

In short, those wheels are more expensive initially, but they potentially represent a better overall value in the long run, and even more peace of mind than what you’d usually get with aluminum. And the fact that they’re pleasantly light, durable, and not overly rigid is a nice bonus, too.

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