These days, mountain bike brands are all about gravel bikes, but one company started its foray into drop bars way back in 2007. Santa Cruz Bicycles first launched its quirky and fun ‘cross bike, dubbed the Stigmata, back before disc brakes proliferated the drop-bar bike phenotype. It was made from Easton EA6X aluminum in the USA and had cantilever brakes. It was weird. Funky. Cool.
Then, in 2015, the brand brought back the Stigmata but in carbon with disc brakes. I spent some time in New Zealand on the bike and logged many miles in Los Angeles. I loved it. So much so that I copied its geometry for my custom Firefly in 2016. Later, the Stiggy got another refresh and the 2019 iteration sported 27.5 x 2″ tires and was a carbon monster truck. I posted that review the day we refreshed our web design of The Radavist.
So when Santa Cruz announced its 2023 model, with the full SRAM AXS kit, including the RockShox Rudy suspension fork, I had to try it out, too. I’ve been ripping around on this lightweight and capable bike here in Santa Fe through the remnants of a dry and dusty El Niño year and have some thoughts on what makes the Stigmata so magical. Check it out below!
The 2023 Santa Cruz Stigmata is a carbon chassis gravel bike built with either a rigid carbon fork or, as reviewed here, with the RockShox Rudy 40 mm suspension fork. Santa Cruz offers five build levels: a sole cable-actuated Apex group build spec ($3,999), the Rival AXS build options in 1x ($4,899) or 2x ($4,999), and an additional Force 2x ($6,999) build spec. Finally and shown here, the top-of-the-line spec with AXS Force 1 electronic shifting, AXS dropper, XPLR fork, and Reserve wheels is priced at $7,699.
The marketing surrounding the 2023 Stiggy has a speed-dominating slant, but traditionally, the platform has been a veritable do-it-all bike for many people. From racing ‘cross or gravel, to singletrack riding, commuting (the 2023 model has hidden fender mounts!), light touring, and bicycle camping, Stigmata owners have been able to run the gamut of the cycling experience, thanks to the frame’s versatility. New for 2023, a revised geometry and clearance for a 700 x 50 mm tire (1x; 45 mm for 2x) further speaks to the broad use case of these lightweight drop-bar gravel bikes.
This new model ups the ante a bit from the previous generations…
Let me just say this: I prefer metal bikes, but sometimes a carbon bike just hits differently. Or, like I pointed out in the intro, sometimes a carbon bike has been part of your life for so long that you feel a connection to it. The Stigmata was the first drop-bar carbon gravel bike I rode that I really loved. That 2015 model was light, snappy, and felt more equipped than the ‘cross bikes I had previously ridden for the terrain I was seeking out. It had more of a road geometry than a twitchy ‘cross bike feel.
I have a lot of respect for the Stigmata, and I was hoping that riding this bike for a few months would be like reconnecting with a friend you lost contact with.
I received the Stiggy when I was in the throes of the legal proceedings to get The Radavist back. I built it up, took it on a few rides, and was nonplussed. Something about it just didn’t do it for me. I couldn’t vibe with it. It had all the bells and whistles a lot of carbon gravel bikes have these days—electronic shifting, a dropper post, inner-frame storage, plenty of tire clearance, and a RockShox Rudy fork—yet, I just wasn’t experiencing the glee I had hoped for.
Looking back, I realize it wasn’t the Stiggy that was at fault. It was all the other shit I was going through. So, the bike sat for a few weeks while I worked on other projects and pushed through the legalese. Then, one day, I decided to throw some wide drop bars on it and give it another go. Suddenly, the bike was transformed for me. No more 46 cm wide Zipp bars. Turns out, all I needed were wide, 57 cm bars (at the hoods) to make the bike come alive. We’ll look at these bars in detail tomorrow…
Putting wide drop bars on bikes I like to ride off-road has transformed this class of bikes for me. I’m 6’2″, 190 lb, with a 46″ chest, wide shoulders, and long arms. Forty-six-centimeter bars might as well be 42 cm bars under my hands. They don’t offer control or leverage, two things I need for bikes I’ll ride on our New Mexico “gravel” roads and XC singletrack.
I was hooked after the first ride on the new, wide-bar Stiggy. Shortly after making the swap, I pedaled it off on my favorite mixed-terrain routes, ranging from neighborhood doubletrack and cutty singletrack rides that are only 12 miles to my favorite 35-mile long summer alpine ride and a 60-mile mixed surface loop in our volcanic tablelands to the west of town. It was after riding the Stigmata through Northern New Mexico’s rugged terrain that I reconnected with the old friend I knew…
Run the Numbers
Down to the brass tacks, er carbon stakes? The numbers on the 2023 Stiggy are an improvement over the 2019 Stiggy. For one, the head angle dropped from 72º on the XL I reviewed back then to 69.5º (these numbers are unsagged). Then, the seat angle slackened a half a degree from 74.5º to 74º. And, the bottom bracket lowered 4 mm across all sizes. The reach grew as well to 435 mm from 392 mm on the XL.
Then to keep the “fit” numbers the same, Santa Cruz changed the stem length from 100 mm to 70 mm. This makes it easier to control the slack head angle of the bike by keeping your hands behind the front hub and your weight centered, versus being over the front end too much.
What was most noticeable for me when looking at the geometry chart of the 2023 Stigmata was the presence of a “rear center” measurement in place of the chainstay length of the 2019 geo chart.
The inclusion of a “rear center” reminded me some of the conversations that arose out of Travis’ Dust-Up article: The Dust-Up: We Need A Better Way to Measure MTB Seat-Tube Angle
Measured at 423 mm, the rear center is only a couple of millimeters off from the 425 mm chainstay length, so we’ll call that dimension a wash in terms of geometry tweaks.
What really vibed with me was the increase in stack height from 609 mm to 612 mm. Yes, it’s pretty subtle, but I’ll take it! I wish this measurement was more but we’ll get to that later…
Santa Cruz Bicycles makes some of the best bikes on the market, and they didn’t hold back on the new Stiggy. This frame has all the same carefully designed details as their high-end MTBs, scaled down for a gravel bike. It’s got clean, rattle-free internal routing, hidden fender mounts, a threaded bottom bracket, bottle bosses under the ST, a SRAM UDH for T-Type Transmission, a beautiful chain stay protector, a sculpted dropped chainstay for tire and chainring clearance, and a finish to die for.
Fancy Parts for a Fancy Bike
Here’s where Santa Cruz threw gasoline on the fire that is the Stigmata. While my personal gravel bike is low-tech with friction shifting and an 8-speed drivetrain, I love riding modern review bikes with electronic shifting, a dropper post, and yes, even that 40 mm of travel Rudy fork. I’d rather review drop-bar bikes specced like this than a 80-100mm XC racing hardtail any day of the week. Why?
The V word: versatility. Nothing against XC hardtails but it’s hard to beat a 22-pound gravel bike (as shown here with pedals and bottle cages) with wide bars and 45 mm tires (not to mention 40 mm of travel). Suddenly, the eight miles of pavement I have to ride to get to the dirt climbs here go a lot faster, and while you compromise control and handling riding drop bars on singletrack, I kind of like the challenge.
SRAM AXS is the smoothest shifting groupset the company has ever made. Sure, wireless shifting might not be your favorite, but on a bike like this it just makes sense. The Rudy fork got an in-depth look back when I outfitted my old Sklar gravel bike with it, as did the AXS dropper, so if you want to see more on those products, check out that review: The RockShox Rudy XPLR Gravel Fork and SRAM AXS XPLR: John Reviews His Sklar Gravel Bike.
I’m in great shape right now, so the gearing on the 2023 Stiggy felt sufficient, although “early spring John” would probably want a 36t front chainring to mate with the XPLR 10-44t cluster. The 40t x 44t for our climbs here means “ouch.”
What I was most impressed with on this build kit are the Reserve Wheels. I thrashed these wheels. Casing jumps, mobbing rocky descents, hammering them on singletrack, and I thought for sure 24-hole wheels would be unhappy. Nope. They’ve remained unwavering, unfaltering, and unscathed.
A couple of nitpicks about the parts spec and the geometry:
- I’d like to have this bike with more stack.
- I’d love this bike to be specced with wider bars.
I cannot emphasize how being just slightly more upright while in the drops would up the fuckin’ ante on this thing. When I ride bikes with wide bars like this, I’m almost exclusively in the drops. Be it an adventure bike, a touring bike, or a drop-bar MTB, I prefer the leverage and control of being in the drops. For the Stigmata, it was almost there–and I get why the stack is relatively low, since it is marketed as a race bike–but a higher stack (even just those couple of centimeters) paired with wider bars would transform the Stigmata into a dirt-road monster. The whole time descending in the drops with the dropper down, I felt like I was too hunched over…
A cool feature on the 2023 Stiggy is the “Glove Box,” or inner-downtube storage, that’s accessible underneath the DT bottle cage. There’s plenty of room for a pump, tools, and a spare inner tube—all you need for a jaunt on your favorite mixed-terrain ride. Or, if you wanna go there, a small burrito or tamale (I went there.)
While in-frame storage is nothing new for carbon bikes (Specialized has been doing this for years), it was a welcome addition to the Stiggy. Santa Cruz supplies two bags: one is a “riding wallet,” and the other is for a spare tube. I loaded these bags with my pump, Dynaplug, Wolf Tooth Pack Pliers, and a multitool. Having “stuff” off your back and “stuffed” into the frame is nice!
However, I did find the “latch” to be finicky and hard to close with gloves on.
Riding the Stiggy: A Pushback on the Marketing
Once I widened the bars on the Stigmata, I found the bike transformed. I elected to ride the XL but in hindsight, a XXL would have me fit better. When I spoke with Garen from Santa Cruz about the review initially, I knew I’d put these bars on the bike, so I expected the additional width would make the bike more comfortable. It did, by 97%, but there were a few moments when a few extra millimeters of reach would have helped (like riding in the drops into a gnarly headwind).
Yet, more reach would have reduced the fun factor, and right now, I need all the fun I can get. I primarily used the Stigmata at the end of a long day with an hour left of sunlight to rip around on in my neighborhood trails and double-track roads. These weren’t casual pedals, lamenting the day’s stresses, rather they were full-gas, out-of-saddle sprint fests, fueled by whatever black metal album I wanted to listen to in order to release pent-up energy. I’m a sucker for Dis-beat!
On the weekends or weekdays when I wasn’t busy, I’d elect for longer rides, ranging from 35 to 60 miles. While the mash-fests were super fun on a 22-pound gravel bike with wide bars, it was on the longer pedals that the Stigmata showed its true colors. This bike is comfortable. It’s not Rivendell comfy but comfy for a modern “race” bike as it’s been dubbed.
Speaking of, I found the Santa Cruz marketing to be a bit of a conflation. The duality of “racing” and a “quick strike mission to an objective overnight armed with just a credit card” is incredibly disingenuous to the personality of the Stigmata. I get that it’s the bike industry’s job to make you “feel fast” and to make everything feel easier. We see it all the time, “let the bike do the work for you,” “less work, more results.” It all just kinda falls dead to me, like the scene in The Cabin in the Woods, where the hawk hits the invisible barrier in the sky.
Bikes like the Stigmata should be punk as fuck; think Iggy Pop, not Blink-182. Stiggy Pop, if you will (thanks, Kyle!) Categorizing them as pedigreed credit-card tourers just feels like a cheap marketing ploy. I don’t race, and I’m sure many of you don’t either. Nor do my tours constitute zone 4 efforts or a mad dash to the hotel at night. And, I’m sure if each of you threw a leg over the Stiggy, you’d be engaging with the bike in a different manner than its marketing suggests. We are a large majority in the bike industry, riders who just like to pedal and enjoy ourselves, and we’re often left out of the conversation.
You don’t have to ride fast to feel fast. You simply need to ride just at or a notch above your comfort zone.
Even the phrase “no unsightly riv-nut zits” in the description of the carbon fork on the standard 2023 Stigmata build spec just speaks to the inability of some brands to read the room. Most people use their gravel bikes for mixed-terrain riding and light tours or overnighters. Why deny them useful features under the guise of some higher aesthetic purity? I’d much rather sacrifice a few grams to the weight-weenie gods to be able to run cargo cages on a fork. Bikes are meant to be utilitarian. Liberate them to their highest potential.
TL;DR and the Wrap-Up
The Stiggy is not a metal bike, but it is a mettle bike. It navigates the terrain with ease, it’s comfortable, it’s slacker, with a higher stack height, and it is featherlight, making big and small rides all the more enjoyable. Thanks to Santa Cruz’s top-of-the-line CC carbon layup, the Stiggy pedals smoothly without being too harsh, and if you spring for the Rudy fork build option, find the correct PSI in the 45 mm tires, the entire package makes for an incredibly silky smooth ride.
Have you ever seen a fish navigate shallow, rocky waters? How they just glide through the path of least resistance with a powerful, thoughtful, and intentional purpose? That’s what riding the Stigmata is like. Intentional purpose.
I loved this permutation of the Stigmata. It’s the most capable bike in the long line of drop-bar bikes Santa Cruz has developed since 2007. Its ride quality is smooth, the new geometry tracks with how I like to ride gravel bikes, and even though the size XL was a little small for me as a 6’2″ 190-pound human, it upped the bike’s shred factor considerably. While I disagree with Santa Cruz’s marketing of the Stigmata–mostly because I wouldn’t want it to deter you from wanting to try one out!–it’s not about the marketing; it’s about the meat and potatoes.
Riding the Stigmata during a very stressful time in my life brought about much-needed clarity and joy. I found myself staying out longer, well after the sun went down, soaking in the Sangre de Cristo alpenglow and using the coyotes’ yipping as my alarm clock to return home. Bikes have a way of influencing your rides; the more capable they are, the further you’ll push yourself. That applies to 140/160 enduro bikes and, yes, the 40-millimeter-travel gravel bikes. Get out. Have fun. And if you want, turn it up to eleven.
- Lightweight at 22 lb for the size XL
- Geometry feels the most versatile yet.
- Plenty of tire clearance 700 x 50 mm (1x), 45 mm (2x)
- The Glove Box is sweet (great name too!); fits your tools and even a norteño burrito.
- The paint finish is sublime (as are all of Santa Cruz’s bikes).
- The AXS XPLR kit transforms the carbon chassis into an XC-ready drop-bar bike.
- CC layup is smooth yet accelerates when needed.
- Wide bars bring this bike to life!
- No cargo mounts on the Stigmata carbon fork.
- Mild nitpick: Could use a bit more stack.
- 46 cm bars feel pinned.
- Glove Box latch is finicky to open with gloves on.
Check out more at Santa Cruz Bicycles. Thanks to Garen for sending me this bike. Sorry, I had it for so long, mate. And a huge thanks to Kyle Klain for killing it with the photos (again!)