Hardtail performance, redefined.
Even with all the advancements in frame technology and suspension designs, a full-suspension frame still can't hold a candle to the brutal efficiency and featherweight ride of a hardtail. Construct that frame out of carbon fiber and then that chasm widens even further. If the thought of cross-country racing gets your pulse pounding and you still want a fun bike to trail ride on, sans number plate, have a look at the Santa Cruz Highball Carbon R Mountain Bike and prepare to hop aboard a lightweight whippet that will have you ripping it up every climb while remaining surprisingly adept in handling a good portion of technical singletrack on the way back down.
Like with every new generation reboot of a Santa Cruz model, it manages to roll out some small but significant improvements that hone the bike and this year's Highball Carbon 29er is no exception. Santa Cruz's engineers looked at new frame construction techniques to lower the weight through a meticulous application of carbon in zones critical to stiffness and structural integrity, while trimming the frame down in all other areas for the utmost in weight savings. In this proof of Santa Cruz's mastery of the black material, it built a frame weighing barely 24 pounds to allow this Highball Carbon R build with SRAM NX Eagle components and FOX Rhythm fork to barely trouble the scales. The value-packed build gets out the door at a very affordable price and provides the perfect foundation to toss on upgrade parts down the road if need be.
That lightweight frame and drivetrain efficiency does come as a tradeoff and a hardtail will never quite have the smooth ride of suspension nor allow you to take a point-and-shoot approach when selecting lines on the trail. That doesn't mean the bike has to ride harsh though and with the frame redesign, the engineers sought ways to help mute trail chatter and excess vibration too. The new seat stays wishbone attaches to the seat tube at a much lower junction to direct jolts through the frame versus passing them through the seatpost and towards you. Speaking of post, Santa Cruz specs a 27.2-millimeter seat post diameter for additional deflection over larger diameter post imparting more compliance and preventing the feeling that you went 12 rounds of a heavyweight fight complete with kidney punches.
Santa Cruz does realize that you'll want to have a bit of fun on rough trails while racing and training on the bike, so it provides progressive geometry, for a racing hardtail at least, allowing you to stay a little better composed while tackling technical trail features at speed compared to other steeper head tube angle bikes on the market. On this third-gen Highball, Santa Cruz kicks it back a hair sporting a 1-degree slacker angle sitting at 69.5-degrees. While a head tube angle beginning with a number less than 7 is typically un-cross-country like and even borders on being blasphemous by slowing down the handling and making the bike sluggish, it retains the razor-sharp handling of the last generation by spec'ing a fork with a 44-millimeter fork offset. With less rake, it increases the bike's trail so you still get great navigation at slow speed while you're threading a needle through a minefield of babyheads yet doesn't get overwhelmed while you're holding off until the last second to grab the brake levers as the trees blur by.
Other modern geometry changes include a moderately longer reach and wheelbase (increases in reach and wheelbase for a size medium are 0.9 and 1.4-inches, respectively) for a touch more stability at speed and over rough terrain while allowing you to run wider bars and a shorter stem. The tried-and-true low-slung 12.4-inch bottom bracket and snappy-short 16.9-inch chainstays that made the previous Highball so fun and playful directly carry over, something we are very happy about.
Even with these subtle tweaks to the frame's geometry, lowering its weight, and increasing its ability to quell trail chatter, Santa Cruz didn't lose any of its prized torsional stiffness and strength we've come to expect from the brand. The second you clip in and put in a pedal stroke, the bike leaps forward in excitement and the stiffness further bolsters the handling, keeping the bike tracking where you want it to even when being pushed hard. Santa Cruz is so confident in its frame strength, it's backed by a lifetime warranty, free of rider weight limits imposed by other manufacturers. Other frame features include three bottle mounts handy for long days, internal dropper post compatibility, and internal routing of all cables to keep everything looking slick and less likely to become contaminated. Last and certainly not least, the threaded bottom bracket shell deserves a mention as it is easier to install and service and provides an interface that is way less likely to creak.
- Santa Cruz lightened and smoothed out this carbon hardtail
- Low seatstay/seat tube junction and 27.2mm post improve the ride
- 69.5° head tube angle is surefooted but not sluggish
- Fox 32 Rhythm 100mm fork with the remote lockout is plush on demand
- Threaded bottom bracket for creak-free reliability
- Three bottle mounts and internal dropper routing
- Carbon frame provides improved pedal response and handling