I faithfully ascribe to Rule 12 of cycling: The correct number of bikes to own is
n+1. While finding excuses to own two of the same type of bicycle—two road bikes, to MTBs—has always been fairly easy, few things are as exhilarating as having a different type of bike to purchase.
Several years before the gravel bike craze went mainstream, a few of us began seeking out any gravel roads we could ride. I and another cycling friend own several Ridley road bikes, and always found they performed very well on gravel with slightly wider tires—23 mm and 25 mm—that weren’t quite the norm then as they are now.
On one of our summer trips to Ft. Collins, CO, in fact, we found long stretches of gravel, and I was immediately enamored with the somewhat ‘tweener quality of gravel riding; it felt similar to road riding, my true love, but had some of the challenges of mountain biking as well as being on roads so remote that the inherent dangers of road cycling, cars, were greatly reduced.
I am also sort of a big-gear plodder on the road bike, which seems to suit the inherent grind of riding gravel.
Having made some major life changes, I have found myself with far less space and already struggling with my n+1 commitment to cycling so I resisted joining the gravel bike movement until—as luck would have it—this summer when I discovered that bicycles were in very high demand.
The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have slowed production and distribution of bicycles, but demands of bicycles have also dramatically increased.
My local bike shop can barely keep bicycles on the showroom floor.
A few weeks before my summer trip to Colorado this past summer, then, I foolishly tried to buy a gravel bike to take with me to Ft. Collins; that effort was a bust so I settled for traveling with a road bike and MTB.
By early August, however, I committed to finding and buying a gravel bike. My first order, originally a two-week delay on delivery, soon became a late October delivery.
After daily checks on the order status, and wistfully looking through other brands and models (all unavailable as well), one day I noticed the Santa Cruz Stigmata (scroll down for build tech specs and geometry; I own the 56 cm model) in stock in a Midnight Green color scheme that I really like.
Competitive Cyclist allowed me to switch my order, and within about 10 days, my Stigmata arrived.
I have been a long-time fan of Santa Cruz and have recently declared my Blur the best bicycle I have ever owned (totaling about 45-50 bicycles over 35+ years of serious cycling); therefore, I was eager to own the Stigmata for quality alone.
Yet, part of my gravel bike purchasing was also guided by interest in 1x drivetrains (one of the best developments in MTBs in my opinion) and my commitment to SRAM components.
The gravel bike craze has become dominated by the new Shimano GRX line so it was challenging to find available gravel bikes with the combinations I wanted; the Stigmata ticks off every box.
My local options—within 30-minute drives—are a mix of gravel and paved roads, maybe 2/3 gravel, but I have many miles of gravel-only roads at both Dupont and Bent Creek (mountain biking paradises in North Carolina), hour-log drives. These options also offer extended climbing, very challenging terrain where most rides include 100-feet/mile for rides of 15-20 miles.
My cycling life has also shifted some to include riding on rail-to-trail paved bike paths, and I have wanted a gravel bike for those more casual (and sometimes more bumpy pavement) rides.
My early impressions of the Stigmata include mixed-surface rides, one challenging ride at Bent Creek, and a rail-trail ride as well as doing some road laps on a course where I typically ride my road bike.
At first, the cockpit of the Stigmata felt a bit tight, but the build came with a 0 setback aluminum seatpost that I have swapped out for a carbon seatpost with 20 mm setback; now the fit feels really comparable to my road bikes (effective top tube is the same with the reach within 0.2 mm).
I had a very similar experience with the fit of the Santa Cruz Blur, which I have since come to appreciate.
Once on gravel, the road, or paved trails, the Stigmata rides extremely well. The tracking and handling are solid and dependable.
The beefy fork is really stable in heavy gravel and on steep descents, and the 40 mm tires do well to offset some of the harshness of the stiff frame and fork.
Overall, I would say the comfort level is much better than I expected—considering that the bike handles and responds at a very high level.
It some getting used to, but the extended hoods for disc brakes and the flared handlebars now common on gravel bikes are quickly forgotten while riding.
In the early 2000s, I made two important changes, switching to Speedplay pedals (from Look) and to SRAM drivetrains. I have used Red, Force, and Rival in the SRAM line, preferring Force for a great balance of price and performance.
I am a huge fan of SRAM drivetrains, the feel and quality of the mechanical shifting. I also loved the original hood design, but have adopted to the current design.
What I have always marveled at from SRAM is that shifting performance is incredibly similar from Rival to Force to Red. The Rival 1×11 drivetrain on the Stigmata has performed perfectly as I expected.
However, the one flaw in SRAM that many people have noted is the disc brake feel and quality. For disc brakes on MTBs even low-level Shimano brakes have a much better feel and performance than SRAM for me.
The Stigmata is the first non-MTB for me with disc brakes, and I was slightly concerned about the stock SRAM disc brakes.
After riding some steep gravel descents and even doing several laps of a mountain biking trail with roots and sharp hairpin turns, I find the SRAM disc braking adequate; the feel still leans soft for me, but disc braking is so superior to rim braking that I am satisfied so far with SRAM/Rival quality.
On balance, then, considering cost and performance quality as well as aesthetics, I am incredibly happy with my first gravel bike purchase.
The only real issues I have had were a couple faulty bolts on the Easton stem (which Easton has never responded to) and a bit of an issue with the rear tire losing air more quickly than the front. I chalk these up to minor and expected issues with any new bike purchase; I had extra bolts and added some sealant to the rear tire.
I am not quite as stunned by the Stigmata as my Blur, but I cannot recommend Santa Cruz bicycles more highly.
I also want to offer a nudge to those considering making the gravel riding jump; you would be well served if you choose the Stigmata—if you can find one available.