FRAME & BUILD
The frame is laid up as a one piece mould, eliminating the need to bond bits on at various points in the build process. Cable stops and the rear brake mount are integrated into the layupn as well, with all cabling slung underneath the top tube. A short, tapered-bearing zero stack-compatible head tube works to keep the front end as low as possible, while flattened seat stays are there to try and filter out some rear end stiffness. A regulation threaded bottom bracket shell ensures a wider range of crank options, too.
It’s hard to see at first glance, but the seat tube is slightly kinked just above the point where the front derailleur sits to facilitate the use of ultra-short 17.3″/432mm (for a 29er at least) chain stays. That’s a full 13mm shorter than those on the KTM 29er we test in another write up, yet there’s still plenty of clearance for 2.1 inch (53mm) tires In fact, the larger 2.25″ )57mm” Schwalbe Racing Ralph also fits in; a good choice for a longer day in the saddle.
We’re not overly impressed with the low-tech soft alloy chain suck plate fitted under the right stay – from the look of our test bike, the damage from dropping a chain actually occurs right above where the plate is double side taped on. And there’s nothing protecting the stay itself other than the 1990’s-spec neoprene protector that Santa Cruz throws in the box. A regulation bolt-on derailleur hanger provides some insurance against rock strikes, but it can also be a source of mis-shifting when even slightly tweaked.
The Highball is the modern iteration of the racing hardtail; it’s light, fast, stiff, simple and totally rideable. If your discipline is marathon, or your trails are gravelly and stretch for days, and you build it up right, we can’t think of a better bike.
If you’ve come off any form of duallie, you need to give it some a) respect and b) some tuning time. It’s simply not going to clatter consequence-free through a chute of baby head boulders like your favourite squisher. In the saddle on long grinders, the highball almost lunges forward, every crank stroke converting into forward motion, making this average climber look a lot faster than he was. The 700mm-wide bar fitted deserves a quick mention, too – it makes a big wheeler a lot easier to manage.
Smooth-packed, rolling single track is epic fun on this bike, with a responsive helm not typically found on big-wheelers. The short rear stays also contribute to a snappy buoyancy that belies the large hoops. It’ll negotiate tricky, rocky descents more readily than you’ll initially give it credit for, but take liberties with it and the seat will remind you, via your butt, that you’re still on a hardtail. It’s as flickable as a good 26-incher in tighter stuff, though it’ll still stumble just a tiny bit at walking pace. At quick middle-ring speed, though, the Highball is a hardtail revelation, The bottom bracket is quite low which adds to the feeling inherent stability, and while we didn’t struggle in rock fields, the battered ends of the XT cranks tell another story.
Santa Cruz’s boss will be happy – this is a 29er that benefits from watching the others for a couple of years, eschewing bells and whistles for excellent fundamentals, superior manufacturing techniques and a rock-solid, entertaining ride.