Reviewed: Santa Cruz Tallboy vs. Hightower
Wherever there are siblings, there are bound to be rivalries. These rivalries can be, and often are, a source of motivation for both parties to push ever harder, raising the bar in the process. But they can also result in hurt feelings. Santa Cruz’s lineup has been cultivating its own set of sibling rivalries for generations now, which has made for some distress lately as one sibling, the Hightower, has largely stolen the spotlight that the Tallboy once enjoyed. However, we had it on good authority that it was a mistake to ignore the latest Tallboy, so naturally, we put both the 2017 models to the test to see which one shines brightest.
That the latest Tallboy has not received its due since its release in the summer of 2016 is a cruel injustice. The original 2009 Tallboy is widely regarded as the 29-inch trail bike that blew the doors off the entire genre. That reputation is due mostly to quick-handling geometry that dispelled the idea that big wheels meant limousine-inspired ride. However the marketplace has changed, and the Tallboy has some serious competition.
Its 110mm of travel, paired to a 120mm fork, positions it squarely within one of the most hotly contested market segments of the past two years—namely, short-travel 29ers. The 68-degree head angle is relaxed, but it’s also on the more restrained end of a segment that’s been getting decidedly more extreme. Ditto the relatively short 17in chainstays. Compared to bikes like Evil’s Following, Pivot’s Mach 429 Trail, Yeti’s SB4.5c, and Ibis’s Ripley LS, the Tallboy looks fairly conservative—but actually, that’s a good thing.
Many of the bikes in the Tallboy’s travel range handle like short-travel enduro sleds—a byproduct of the obsession with ever lower, longer, and slacker frame geometries. While the Tallboy certainly pushes in that direction, it’s clear that Santa Cruz’s designers exercised a degree of restraint, focusing on poise and balance rather than exploring the physical limits of the short-travel platform. In that regard, it’s probably most comparable to Niner’s excellent JET 9 RDO. Although hyper-aggressive handling is personally appealing, bikes that push this envelope can invite the rider to charge full-bore into sections that quickly expose the limits of the bike’s suspension, occasionally with disastrous results. One can’t help but applaud Santa Cruz for maintaining the Tallboy’s civilized demeanor. It allows the rider to get away with a lot, but doesn’t taunt the rider for not diving in over their head.
Hopping aboard the Tallboy, the balanced position is impossible to ignore. The rider position is almost perfectly centered, allowing for weight shifts with minimal effort. As compared to the previous Tallboy, the seat tube angle is more upright. In conjunction with a roomier reach measurement, it makes the Tallboy an inspiring climber. This trait is enhanced by the updated VPP suspension, which is noticeably more supportive in the midstroke than the previous version. The changes have also improved the Tallboy’s descending, allowing it to ride higher in the travel, keeping more stroke on hand for dealing with big impacts. It’s also worth noting that the Tallboy is built around modern component standards, including 27.5 Plus tire compatibility. This is certainly not a curmudgeon’s bike.
One wouldn’t mistake it for a longer-travel bike, but it handles chunky terrain, muting nearly all mid-amplitude chatter, and rewarding rider input with just enough feedback to give good tire feel. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was its cornering. Put simply, the Tallboy absolutely rails. It’s low enough to be planted, supple enough to be grippy, and balanced enough to be completely intuitive, without any of those traits sacrificing the classic trail bike handling.
So then, the new Tallboy is a phenomenal trail bike and a nearly perfect steed for endurance races like the BC Bike Race—but how does it stack up against its bigger brother?
Injustices and hurt feelings aside, it’s understandable that the Hightower gets so much attention. After slowly gaining steam, the past year has seen the long-travel 29er segment explode and the Hightower has become a serious contender in this highly competitive category. And much like the Tallboy, the Hightower stands out for its restraint in a category that seems hell-bent on pushing the geometric envelope.
Coming off the Tallboy, you immediately notice the Hightower’s family resemblance. The reach measurement is identical, and although the seat tube angle is steeper, the added travel and sag place the rider in essentially the same position relative to the rear wheel. The Hightower is firm at the pedals, which completes a package that climbs like it has something to prove, at least as compared to the rest of its class. In short, it represents something of a sweet spot between the most aggressive big-wheeled trail bikes and their short-travel counterparts. It also allows enough adjustments in setup to challenge the very best of its competitors.
At 135mm of rear travel, the Hightower immediately invites comparisons to Pivot’s Switchblade and Yeti’s SB5.5c, both of which are excellent machines and worthy adversaries. In comparison, the Switchblade boasts both longer reach and shorter chainstay measurements. The SB5.5c is also slacker, and it has more travel, although the reach is slightly shorter. Both ship with longer travel forks than the Hightower’s 140mm unit, although the Hightower accepts a 150mm fork, should you want to level the playing field. Much like the Tallboy, the Hightower finds itself in a contest where it looks to be lacking just a bit, at least on the surface. Dig deeper, and you’ll find that the Switchblade and SB5.5c are, in essence, western-style enduro race bikes. Although it’s certainly enduro race-worthy, the Hightower’s focus is slightly broader, inviting comparisons to the Tallboy’s most aggressive competitors, like the SB4.5c or the Following, where it stacks up extremely favorably. The upshot is that the Hightower affords a noticeable buffer when pushed to the limit in rough terrain, where some of the shorter travel bikes run out of legs.
Where the Hightower gains a serious advantage against its competition, bigger or smaller, is cornering. While the Tallboy is low, the Hightower is very low—noticeably lower than the Switchblade or SB5.5c. It’s roughly the same height as the Evil Following in its “high” setting, but when factoring in the added travel, the Hightower’s ride height is lower than even this ground-hugging Following. The tradeoff, as ever, is reduced ground clearance, but personally, it’s 100% worthwhile for such instinctive handling. It helps that the suspension is both supple and supportive, and that the chassis has a finely-tuned flex that keeps it tracking smoothly. Its handling is a half-step less aggressive than the Pivot Switchblade, due mostly to the slightly steeper and shorter front end, but it remains stable, almost equally so, when pointed through hairy rock sections at speed. While the overall differences between these bikes are fairly minor, the Hightower’s handling gives it more of the feel of a precision instrument. The net effect is something like riding a pair of giant slalom skis—carving large radius, high-speed arcs—and it’s absolutely fantastic.
But the question remains—between these two Santa Cruz standouts, which one to pick?
Sibling rivalries often serve to highlight family resemblances, and this is just such a case. Both bikes have something of a non-conformist streak. They’re both aiming to be the most refined version of their respective selves, while much of their competition seems focused on pushing measurements as far as possible. That said, the difference between the two is more pronounced than a geometry sheet might indicate. The Hightower continues to get better as speeds increase. Accordingly, it asks that the rider look farther ahead and drive the bike to really make it sing. The Tallboy doesn’t require the same degree of intent from the rider, which makes it incredibly inviting. Instead, it prioritizes easy handling over outright stability, and still leaves enough in reserve to accommodate for line choice blunders or the occasional desire to get wild.
So which sibling reigns supreme? Full disclosure: I purchased the Hightower that was supplied for this review. It was a sweet deal, to be sure, but that didn’t make much difference—the Hightower immediately felt right, and I had to have one. Then again, that decision was influenced by intended use, which will include racing enduro and 20-30 lift or shuttle days this season. In light of those considerations, the Hightower is the obvious choice. For a rider more focused on trail riding and the occasional XC race, and who wants just enough forgiveness to push their limits, the Tallboy a true standout. Just as importantly, it’s absolutely worthy of sharing the spotlight with its star sibling.