This review of the Highball will be in three parts:
  • Introduction by Francis Cebedo
  • Review by mtbr guest reviewer Clint Classen
  • Ultimate upgrade analysis as the 23 lb bike with XTR kit is modded to a 16 lb. singlespeed.

We wondered how Santa Cruz would follow their success with their full suspension Tallboy 29er. The Highball hardtail 29er seemed like a good sequel for them but it was not obvious how they could come up with a competitive advantage in the hardtail arena when their forte is clearly in full suspension designs. They were confident however that they could offer something special with all that they've learned in producing carbon fiber frames.

By the numbers, the things that pop out with this frame are the:
  • 2.4 lb weight - In size medium, this is ridiculously light. They said they could have gone lower but they wanted uncompromised strength and stiffness.
  • 12 inch bottom bracket height - This is low. The Ibis Tranny shares this 12 inch bottom bracket height but it has 26-inch wheels. The Trek Superfly is already low at 12.3 inches
Our test bike came with the full XTR kit. It came with a 3x10 gearing setup and it weighed in at 22.75 lbs without pedals.

Video Interview with Mike Ferrentino of Santa Cruz Bicycles:

First Impressions:

What is instantly obvious is this is a fast bike both up and down. It is very responsive to pedal input as the BB stiffness allows excellent power transfer to the wheels. Climbing steep walls is a almost a delight with this bike as it goes up when motivated by the rider and it maintains excellent traction. Handling is A+ as well as the low bottom bracket allows the bike to carve the turns with confidence. The lateral stiffness of the bike is achieved through the tapered steer tube in front and massive chainstays in the rear. It holds a very good line with little correction needed.

The surprise is it is comfortable as well. The seatstays are thin and flattened and they meet up in a yoke that seems to smooth out the ride. This is a hardtail but it is definitely smoother than all 26er hardtails and many of the the 29er hardtails that we've tried. We've been riding a very smooth steel Niner MCR and the rear comfort of the Highball is comparable.

The downside is the low bottom bracket height on certain situations. If you ride in the East Coast where the terrain is very rocky and rooty and pedal strikes are common, then this 12 inch bottom bracket height may not be right for you. For the West Coast however, where there is a lot of singletrack carving, then the low BB height just helps the rider carve and corner as the center of gravity is lower and the rider sits more in the bike between the two big wheels.

The frame is an A+ in our book. It just answers all the calls of weight, climbing, handling and looks. The spec on the other hand is not nearly as compelling. The 3x10 drivetrain is inferior to 2x10 setups optimized for 29ers. The Santa Cruz wheels, Maxxis Crossmark tires, Lizard Skins grips, SDG saddle are ok but they do not do the $6770 MSRP justice. They work ok, but you have to expect the best of breed compponents for a hardtail that costs nearly $7000.

But now it's time to have fun. We'll modify this spec until it reaches its potential and complements our needs. Also, our guest reviewer Clint Classen went the route of a frame only purchase and a full custom build.

Clint is an mtbr member and a pro-level racer in the Northern California area. He's ridden many 29ers including the Giant XTC, Cannondale Flash, Specialized S-Works so he has a depth of experience to evaluate the Highball.

Review By: Clint Claassen

Check Clint's background in his Blog

I've had a few months of riding and racing, about 700 miles total, on the new Santa Cruz Highball frame so I wanted to share my impressions of this new rocket. And that's exactly what it is.

I transferred the build directly over from the Giant XTC 29er I was on previously, which was a great bike in itself. It was extremely quick handling, like a BMX bike. It made for a very fun time and gave you a lot of feedback. You had to stay on top of it though as it could very easily be described as "twitchy." But I actually liked the super quick handling. The head angle on the XTC was 2 degrees steeper than the Highball and I was interested to see how much it was going to slow down the handling.

The new Highball frame was 1.3lbs lighter than the XTC!

So here's my build spec:
  • Frame: XL Santa Cruz Highball Carbon
  • Fork: 2011 Fox F29 100 Terralogic, 15mm axle
  • Drivetrain: Shimano XTR M980, 1x10 with FSA 36t chainring and MRP 1x guide. (later switched to triple)
  • Brakes: Formula The One
  • Rotors: Ashima 160mm
  • Bars: Easton EC70 Riser 680mm
  • Stem: Shimano PRO XCR 100mm
  • Headset: Cane Creek Taper
  • Seatpost: Crank Brothers Cobalt 11
  • Saddle: WTB Silverado SLT
  • Wheelset: WTB Stryker 29
  • Grips: ODI 'O' Grips
  • Pedals: Crank Brothers Candy 4ti
  • Tires: WTB Nano
All that built up came to just 21.24lbs!

So it's pretty to look at... how does it ride?

In short, it's exactly what you'd expect in a hardtail from Santa Cruz. Stiff, firmly planted, and easy to control. The steering is slower than the XTC, but it is not sluggish in the least bit. You can still rip it around corners, berms, and flick it around rocks with ease but it is much more "stable" feeling than the Giant and it's much easier to conserve energy. A very good thing for a long XC race.

With the head angle a bit slacker, it takes the bumps from the front and absorbs them into the frame horizontally (rearward) more than vertically. Same with the 73 degree seat tube, allowing a good carbon post to flex and absorb chatter. It's really easy to stay seated and pedal on this bike. The rear seat stays are flattened and shaped in a wishbone style which allows for vertical compliance as well, all while keeping incredible lateral stiffness. That stiffness holds true in the BB (power) area and up to the tapered head tube, making it incredibly responsive to rider input. When it's time to get out of the saddle and really lay the power down, it just launches forward and says "this all you got!?" It's every bit as stiff as other carbon hardtails I've ridden (Cannondale Flash 29er, Specialized Sworks Stumpjumper 29er HT, Leopard 29R), but to me felt more compliant than the Flash and Sworks Stumpy.

Another nice touch from SCB is the use of a standard threaded BB instead of press fit. Which gives you more options of BB's and cranks (you can just transfer from an old bike if you upgrade the frame) and you can also run a BB mount chain guide.

I've raced this bike plenty and it's a fantastic weapon. I rode it to 24th at XC Nationals this year, and a number of wins and podiums closer to home. I'm getting more and more used to hardtails in general (used to be just a suspension guy) and the range of race courses where I still choose this bike over the Tallboy is broadening more into the rough category. Just because it is so stable over the rough and chatter. I've also had the pleasure of taking this bike out on 3-4 hour training/fun rides and it totally rips. I never thought I'd choose a hardtail over my Tallboy for a fun ride but with this bike, sometimes I do! It isn't the lightest frame in the category (still incredibly light!) because the Santa Cruz brand to me also represents durability. They made it strong too. You can have some serious fun on this bike, racing or just riding, mashing into rocks as much as your wheels and wrists can take, taking drops and even jumps.

Ride, race, or look at this bike and it will bring a smile to your face!