26″ wheels aren’t dead. Though the industry has moved on to promoting other wheel sizes for general mountain biking, they’re still in use, and while parts are becoming a bit harder to find, they’ll always have a place in freestyle. Though it is a niche market compared to trail riding, riders serious about progression and improving their skills eventually invest in a dedicated bike park/ pump track bike. Also known as MTB dirt jump bikes, this genre of MTB is essentially a hybrid of a BMX bike and a mountain bike. The 26″ wheels are optimized for progressive riding at bike parks, dirt jumps, pump tracks and on the street. The best part is that if you have a retired 26″ trail bike, many of your existing parts can be utilized to build up a sweet new steed.
Recently I decided it was time to replace the trusty cromoly frame I had been riding for the last 8 years with something a bit more refined, selecting the latest iteration of the Santa Cruz Jackal as the heart of the build. Although the Jackal comes in at a higher price point than some of the other options, you’re also receiving years of engineering and refinement with features trickled down from alloy suspension models.
While the geometry is for the most part inline with other dirt jump bikes, there are a few changes in spec that were extremely appealing to me.
The Jackal features the same mixed taper headset found on all Santa Cruz models, making it compatible with practically any fork on the market. It’s getting harder and harder to find 1 1/8″ forks, so it’s a major bonus when it comes to sourcing forks for a build. You could also shorten the travel of an existing 26″ fork to work on the frame. The Jackal is listed as being compatible with forks running at 100-160mm of travel, though core riders will likely prefer something on the shorter end of the spectrum for better handling on BMX style lips/ takeoffs.
The adjustable slider dropouts make the Jackal easily set up single speed or with a rear derailleur and gears. Having ridden basic BMX style rear dropouts for so long, the sliding dropout feels super dialed and sophisticated compared to the classic rear entry dropout.
I used to run chain tensioners to avoid issues with the wheel getting knocked loose; the Jackal’s adjustable sliders feature a built in chain tensioner. The best part is not having to readjust caliper alignment every time you change a flat tire.
Seat Post / Seat Tube Angle
The Jackal uses a 30.9mm seat post, which is refreshing after running BMX posts on previous bikes. One: it’s compatible with dropper posts. Two: It’s easy to source take-off posts at a bargin price at local shops. Three: with a quick release, I could feasibly raise the seat a bit to make pedaling around easier on the knees.
It also has a steeper seat angle than typical dj bikes. The 72.7º seat angle is more inline with MTB seat angles, which was huge selling point. Not only does it put the seat in a better position for pinching with my knees for no-handers, (not that I bust them as often as I used to) but I could feasibly toss a dropper post on the bike for playing around on trails in local parks. I’m not sure I will, but I love having the option.
The Build up
Dirt jump bikes are built to take abuse; most tend to outlast their paint jobs and the parts bolted on them.
Building up a dirt jump bike with fresh parts is the best feeling. Everything is solid, without the creaks and noises a well ridden bike accumulates, with straight wheels and tight spokes. Although some of the parts were carried over from other bikes, the recycled components had light hours on them. I didn’t have any major goals with this build, but I did make an attempt to keep the weight down as I ride pump track more than burly djs these days.
Highlights of my initial build included:
- 26″ X-Fusion Velvet R fork. Light, affordable, durable and low maintenance. 1 1/8″ steerer
- Shimano Zee Hydraulic Disc brakes. Reliable and I love the feel. After running a cable disc for years, I’m happy to be running a hydraulic disc on a dirt jump bike again
- Cane Creek 110 Tapered Headset. These are the best, stay tight and last forever.
- SDG saddle Allure saddle. This ladies model has a great shape for a dj bike and is light.
- SLX 170mm cranks with steel threaded inserts – lighter than my Saint Cranks, plenty strong. If I start riding big dirt jumps regularly again, I’ll swap these out for Saint models.
- WTB Dual Duty wheels. I had these from another bike and they were straight and round.
- Maxxis Holly Roller 2.2 tires. I was going to stick with lighter Kenda XC tires at first, but the heavier Maxxis tires are feel way better on bumpy pump tracks and BMX tracks, taking up a lot of vibration.
Initially I was having a twinge of buyers remorse when it comes to sizing. According to the Santa Cruz size chart, I fall under the Large. A better description however, would be for them to list the frames as “Short” and “Long”. (which is how the frame sizing sticker actually is listed)
I chose the smaller of the two sizes titled the medium, as it had similar reach and top tube measurements to my previous 26″ dirt jumper. On paper.
The problem: Santa Cruz measures top tubes based on effective top tube length. Most BMX bikes and Dirt Jumpers measure actual. I chose the Medium based on the top tube length listed, which reads 22.5″. Ideally I would have jumped on on both sizes, but I didn’t quite think it through.
The actual top tube length is 21.5″ which would make it a small from other brands. Indeed, when the frame arrived, I found a sticker on the seat tube that says “Frame size: Short”.
Long time BMX/ Dirt Jumpers will have a strong preference for one size or the other. Those riding urban/ street tend to go with a short reach for spin tricks, whereas those riding at higher speeds tend to prefer a longer reach for stability. These days I’d rather have stability on big jumps than convince myself I’ll finally dial in 360s. I think I could have gone either way.
Those coming from a mountain biking background building up their first pump track or skills oriented bike 26″ would likely be best following the recommendations from Santa Cruz. Especially if you think you might raise the seat and try to pedal it around a bit.
My concerns about fit went away after a few rides. I had debated hard on sizing, and in the end chose the size that matched my Black Market Riot and Mob frames. The shorter reach and wheel base makes it easy to move around, and its super fun to throw the bike into a side ways drift. For my riding style and what I love doing it works, though I’m looking to source a bar with a higher rise.
At our local indoor bike park, the bike has been rad. Everything feels solid, and the 15.25″ chain stays make it super easy to pick up and manual. The build is relatively light, which adds to the fun factor- it’s easy to bunny hop and nimble.
Jumping on the Jackal after coming off my 650b and 29″ mountain bikes feels natural, though the shorter wheelbase base takes a minute to get used to. (compared to jumping on a 20″ or 24″ BMX the transition is easy) I’m running my tires around 40psi at the moment which feels stiff compared to my trail bikes, but should help keep pinch flats down. (that’s not very much compared to what a lot of BMXers run) The stiff frame transmits every bump I’m running bars at 750mm or so wide, which feels narrow compared to my trail bikes; it makes tricks easier though.
I recently installed the front brake to add some versatility, as I miss the option of being able to practice nose wheelies and old school tricks like rock-walks. I also decided it was time to dial in my downhill nose wheelie switch back techniques, because well, enduro.
I have yet to raise the seat for any extended pedaling or hooliganism in local city parks, but we just got through a long winter and I’m having an awesome time riding a dirt jump bike again. Not only do we have a new bike park going in down the street, but Portland has quite a few skateparks that are bike friendly. Time to look up some of the old riding crew to see if they’re up for some sessions!
The Jackal frame only lists for $749. Check it out at SantaCruzBicycles.com