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Santa Cruz Highball 29er hardtail – first ride

08:58 13th September 2011 by David Arthur @davearthur
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As I drop into the gulley the Highball instantly rockets up to full speed. Hands tightening on the soft grips, I clock my line through the narrow tree-lined singletrack. The big wheels coast over the roots and holes. I flick the bike left around a stump then right over a large bank, the bike going light as I crest over this small rise.

Into a sweeping right hand off-camber bend, the tyres rail through the thick dust, a plume kicking up in my wake. On the gas again, I propel forward with huge speed, the bike quickly back up to speed and hurtling towards the next. This is one seriously fast bike, I think to myself, before I line up for the next corner.

The Santa Cruz Highball is one of the latest breed of 29er carbon fibre hardtails that are doing a lot to win people over to the benefits of bigger wheels, with sorted handling, comfort and performance.

Frame

It’s light, just 2.45lb. This is achieved with a full carbon construction, using a one-piece layup  for the front triangle, the rear stays then bonded to the main frame for an ultra stiff and light package. Continuous fibres run through the junctions to increase the stiffness and strength of the frame.

Stiffness is further enhanced with the use of a tapered head tube, with the top and down tube merging together a long way behind the head tube. The head tube is really short too which helps with the stiffness and along with the zero stack upper bearing drops the front nice and low.

A distinctive flat wide wishbone seatstay design offers decent levels of mud clearance and curve around the rear wheel for heel clearance. A visual clue to this bike being a 29er is the curved seat tube, allowing the rear axle to be as close to the bottom bracket as possible. Chainstays are best described as chunky, with a small bracing strut inside the rear triangle to support the disc mounts.

There’s two bottle mounts, cables are routed cleanly underneath the top tube, and the decal kit is understated and stylish. Four sizes, including an XXL option which will please the taller riders out there, are available.

Groupset and components

This sample is fully loaded with an XTR XC 29 build kit that includes a full Shimano XTR groupset (with a triple ring chainset), Fox 32 F29 100mm forks, Easton EC70 bars, EA90 stem, Thomson Masterpiece seatpost, Formula The One 160mm discs, WTB Thinline saddle, Mavic TN719 rims on Hope Pro 2 hubs and Maxxis Crossmark 2.1in tyres.

Weight on our scales is a couple of ounces over 22lbs (10kg) without pedals.

Performance

Let’s cut to the chase with this first ride review. The Highball offers a scintillating ride. It’s fast, but not just because it weighs 22lbs. I’ve ridden plenty of similar weight bikes from rigid steeds to full suspension race weapons, but none have ever felt this fast. It’s on another level.

My first proper ride was the Brighton Big Dog enduro, which uses a course famously tight and twisty with some of the finest singletrack in the country, all compacted inside the woods of Stanmer Park. Its mix of fast flowing trails interspersed with lots and lots of incredibly narrow and tight singletrack, lined with closely packed trees, is the perfect habitat for a quick handling bike with good acceleration from any speed.

I initially thought the Highball might be the wrong choice, but at the end of my first lap, heart rate maxing out as I crossed the finish line and handed over to the my team mate, I realised it was in fact the best choice.

It’s a rider’s bike. It encourages you to take it by the scruff of the neck and hustled along the trail as fast as it allows. And it allows some scary fast speeds. 29ers have come a long way in the last few years, and the Highball is a fine measure of how far that is. Santa Cruz have hit the nail on the head with the geometry, it’s a nimble and agile bike, easy to flick around the singletrack. It’s brilliantly fast, on the open wide flat tracks but also through the twisty bits.

You quickly get used to the subtle difference between a 26in wheeled hardtail and a 29er, but the most noticeable difference is the height of the handlebars. Even with the short head tube and low riser bar, the relation between our saddle height and handlebars still felt a little out. We flipped the stem, which we’d already changed for a shorter one on this size large frame, and that went a long way to helping us reach a satisfactory fit.

After a few laps of pounding around the Stanmer Park course, what most impressed was just how well the Highball manages to smooth out the bumps. It’s clearly a stiff frame, power transfer is quite incredible, but it didn’t beat us up on the roots and rocks like it really should have. That’s the advantage of the big wheels, with the larger diameter rims reducing the approach angle to trail obstacles when compared to 26in wheels.

First ride verdict

It’s too soon to give a full verdict on the Highball, more riding on a wider range of trails yet needs to be done. But based on the hours we’ve put in on it, we’ve came away bloody impressed. It’s not the low weight or the stiff carbon frame that has amazed us, it’s how nimble and agile they’ve made this 29er, and how much fun it is to ride. We certainly don’t want to give it back in a hurry.

£1,699 (frame only) from www.santacruzbikes.co.uk.

Like it? Discuss the Santa Cruz Highball in this forum thread.

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