First Impressions: Santa Cruz Tallboy 4
Although the “most influential 29’er” has been debated at length, it’s hard to argue that any model is more deserving of the title than Santa Cruz’s unimpeachable Tallboy. Originally introduced in 2009, the Tallboy offered many riders their first glimpse of a future where 29 inch wheels and full suspension could coexist with nimble, inspired handling. While this reality is a foregone conclusion today, a decade ago it was a revelation. And while there may never be another steed quite so surprising as the original Tallboy, the latest model has the potential to once again open riders’ eyes to the incredible potential of the modern trail bike.
When compared to the previous version, the differences between models are both obvious at a glance and unmistakable on the trail. But there’s no change more significant than the transition to Santa Cruz’s lower link driven VPP suspension platform. It follows the trend we’ve seen with this version of VPP making its way from Santa Cruz’s longer travel offerings and being employed in shorter travel packages. The primary benefit is a massive improvement in mid stroke support for the new Tallboy’s 120mm of travel, which helps the new bike to feel much more responsive to rider input. However, thanks to a well selected shock tune, this additional midstroke support doesn’t come at the cost of suspension feel. On the contrary, the new bike feels calmer in motion, especially as the trail gets rough.
The other big change, the geometry, is equally important to the new Tallboy’s winning formula. As one would expect, Santa Cruz has stretched the Tallboy’s cockpit to keep it in line with current rider preferences. Similarly, the seat tube angle has been steepened considerably, which helps the new Tallboy to winch up steep climbs that would leave the previous bike wandering and searching for traction. And speaking of traction, while the previous bike was 27.5 Plus compatible, the new bike forgoes the option, but gives riders clearance for tires up to 2.6 inches wide.
At the bike’s leading edge, the head tube angle has been relaxed to a comparatively slack 65.5 degrees and matched to a 130mm fork. Some readers will see those number and immediately conclude that the new Tallboy is far too aggressive for their needs. Don’t make that mistake. Although the new bike is almost three degrees slacker, the head tube angle is tempered by a shorter offset fork. The combination makes the bike much more stable at speed and calms the bike on entry to corners, but it retains the old bike’s impressive low speed balance.
In a surprising twist, the Tallboy also gets the same adjustable dropout system as the Megatower, with the ability to choose between a fairly standard 430mm and a more stable 440mm setting. While Santa Cruz suggests that the longer stay setting will be preferred by taller riders, the enhanced stability and front wheel traction afforded by the longer rear end setting will make it a useful tuning option for riders of all sizes.
The new Tallboy retains the previous bike’s flip chip adjustability at the rear shock mount, which allows riders to fine tune bottom bracket height, although the bigger change is actually to the overall progressiveness of the suspension. As with the rest of Santa Cruz’s lower link driven bikes, the lower shock setting is more progressive, offering additional end stroke support and bottoming resistance, which will make it the preferred setting for more aggressive riders.
With a new chassis, new geometry, and more capability than ever, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Tallboy 4 feels like a much more advanced machine when you get it in the dirt. Where the previous bike has come to feel nervous and skittish compared to its peers, the new Tallboy may now be the best handling machine in its class. The feel is much more modern, with a pedaling position that’s plainly more efficient and immediate comfortable, owing to the steep seat tube angle and fairly roomy cockpit feel. As is characteristic of today’s mountain bikes, the new Tallboy prefers to be leaned into corners and driven through the hips rather than steered from the handlebars. Thankfully, the cockpit layout and steering geometry make this technique feel completely intuitive, and will ease the transition for riders coming from bikes built on more dated geometry.
While the previous Tallboy really felt like a cross country racer with teeth, the new Tallboy’s focus has bled further into the trail space, which puts it up against some very stiff competition. For contrast, it’s more stable and feels more aggressive than the Ibis Ripley, in spite of the similarities on paper. The Tallboy’s progressive suspension feel makes the bike more responsive to input and far more resistant to bottoming, which will make it the better choice for aggressive riders. However, the Ripley’s linear suspension feel allows the rear wheel to track the ground seamlessly, which may make it the preferred option for riders who are more neutral on the bike and are willing to trade bottoming resistance for a slightly smoother feel on small trail chatter. Just be aware that the Tallboy will pull away from the Ripley as the trail gets rougher.
In the saddle, the new Tallboy immediately begs comparisons to another benchmark in its class, Evil’s excellent Following MB. Like the Following, the Tallboy feels poppy and lively, and it offers a wide enough range of setups that it can easily accommodate anyone from new riders to Instagram superheroes. Where the Tallboy finds its edge is in its geometry, which is roomier up front, shorter in the seat tube, and more predictable, due largely to the Tallboy’s shorter offset fork. For many of us, the Following has been the bike to beat in this class, and the Tallboy has finally managed to raise the bar set by the long time standard bearer.
What of the Tallboy’s siblings at Santa Cruz? It’s easy to imagine many riders finding themselves on the fence between the Hightower and the Tallboy, especially given that the Hightower gives up so little in terms of climbing prowess or efficiency. Where many decisions between models are driven by terrain, in this case, it might be more fruitful to decide based off the feel you’re looking for. If you want planted and stable, go Hightower. If you want lively and exciting, go Tallboy. The difference is moderate, and to a certain extent the gap can be bridged with suspension tuning, but this particular rule of thumb still holds true. Don’t worry that you’re asking too much of the Tallboy by riding it like a Hightower- the Tallboy and the Hightower both thrive on trails that would recently have been off limits to bikes in their respective travel brackets. As expected, the Hightower’s extra travel gives it an edge when things get rough. However, for those who want to experience the full benefit of new school geometry while keeping things exciting and challenging, the Tallboy’s added responsiveness will make it a smart choice. Better yet, that’s equally true for a new rider pushing their limits, or a seasoned rider looking to breathe new life into their well ridden local trails.
Finally, for those who might feel that the Tallboy has evolved too far in the trail bike direction for their tastes, Santa Cruz offers the Blur TR, which is essentially a lighter weight, more refined version of the Tallboy 3. Cross country racers and those whose local riding skews extremely tight and twisty will likely be better served by the Tallboy’s smaller sibling.
With the latest version, the Tallboy has grown into its potential as a short travel quiver of one. Aggressive riders will find the new bike to be night and day better than the previous bike. More importantly for the average mountain biker, the new bike is a decisively better climber, a more confident descender, and it corners like a set of slalom skis. If you’re looking for the sweet spot in Santa Cruz’s trail bike line up, for many riders, the Tallboy 4 is that bike.