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Mountain Gear

First Ride: Santa Cruz brings back Blur; refines superlight Highball

After a four-year hiatus, the Blur cross-country mountain bike is back in Santa Cruz’s stable.

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SANTA CRUZ, California (VN) — After a four-year hiatus, the Blur cross-country mountain bike is back in Santa Cruz’s stable. And the sabbatical did it a lot of good: What we have today is a modern race bike that’s stable and fun enough for everyday rides and lightweight to boot.

It makes sense for the Blur to have such a clear focus on XC racing. Santa Cruz has loads of bikes that fill the fuzzy “trail” category that can range from 120mm of travel to 150mm. Even some of the Santa Cruz employees we rode with agreed that it is a slippery slope — bikes easily deviate to the trail category with a little more travel here, a dropper post there, or perhaps a slacker head tube angle. The Blur fell into that trap a few years ago with an LT (long-travel) version, a TR (yep, “trail”), and even a 4x model for jumps and berms.

Today’s Blur 3 is not falling into that trap. The full-carbon 29er sports just 100mm of travel front and rear. Its head tube angle is 69 degrees. Complete bike weight for the top-of-the-line build is 21.9 pounds. Speed is the priority.

Happily, that fixation on cross-country minimalism doesn’t veer into the realm of impracticality. As is the case with all Santa Cruz bikes, the bottom bracket is threaded. There are rubberized down tube and chain stay protectors. It has standard boost axles and even an option to run a dropper post cable internally if, you know, you want to make it more like a trail bike.

Similarly, on the trail, the Blur feels like a cross-country bike, but not too much like one.

On the way up, positioning is balanced and comfortable. It’s not too stretched out, but it helps you get over the front wheel on steep pitches, and the front wheel rarely wanders. Although the Fox dual remote lockout makes the cockpit more crowded, it encourages quick changes of pace, sprinting up short rises with a fully locked-out bike. The remote isn’t a truly essential detail for most riders, especially if your races and trails have fewer short, punchy hills, but it does help the Blur’s XC racing cred.

While plenty of superlight XC bikes scoot up climbs, only the best feel confident — even fun — on the descents. The Blur approaches that level of balance. Though a 69-degree head tube angle is a bit steep by modern day mountain bike standards, its 1,136mm wheelbase (size M), helped keep things stable on fast fire road downhills.

The Blur uses the same VPP suspension design found throughout Santa Cruz’s line-up. A tidy rocker link attaches to the mainframe at the one-o’clock position above the bottom bracket. This gives the suspension a slight backward motion as it pivots through its travel. Without a front derailleur in the way, the main swingarm can surround the seat tube, perhaps one of the reasons why the bike feels surefooted.

Though it was comfortable and fun for most descents, the Blur is still an XC bike. When things get faster, rougher, steeper, or all of the above, we found its limits. The Maxxis Aspen tires are first to cry for mercy. They roll fast and would be great for some cross-country courses, but the low-profile tread is not as grippy as Maxxis’s Ikon, for instance. The bike itself also gets a tad skittish when forced into a difficult line. Fortunately, that behavior can be managed and predicted most of the time.

As is the case with Santa Cruz bikes, the Blur is available in a host of build options, ranging from a $3,699 Blur 3 C with an R build (SRAM NX) to the Blur 3 CC with SRAM XX1 and carbon Santa Cruz Reserve wheels for $8,999. There are six complete models and a frame-only option, with the lighter CC construction, for $2,999. One thing you won’t find in these builds is a front derailleur — this frame is built specifically for 1x drivetrains only.

Sub-20-pound Highball 3 for hardtail purists

The new Santa Cruz Highball has dropped seat stays and lighter weight for pure XC racing. Photo: Spencer Powlison |

Unlike the Blur, the new Highball 3 is the next evolution of an existing model. The changes, however, are noticeable.

First of all, the Highball will only be a 29er going forward — no more 27.5 wheels. The new frame is also single-ring drivetrain specific, like the Blur.

When it comes to the frame design, Santa Cruz started by dropping the seat stays, to a lower position on the seat post, similar to what we’ve been seeing on a lot of road bikes lately. To accommodate this change, engineers kinked the end of the stays by the dropouts. Santa Cruz says these features combine to give the 29er bike a bit more compliance.

Here’s a visualization of how the frame’s compliance features work, as seen in Santa Cruz’s carbon fiber development and testing lab:

The frame’s increased compliance is subtle, but it is there. That said, this is truly a racing hardtail. It is great if you’re throwing elbows in your weekly off-road training race, but it can be a bit tiresome on rough trails that wear you down.

With a 69.5-degree head tube angle and a 1,116mm wheelbase (size M), the Highball is a bit more aggressive than the Blur, as you’d expect. But similar to the Blur, this bike can corner and fly downhill capably, while at the same time dancing up long, hard climbs.

And compared to the previous version of the Highball, the 3 has a head tube angle that is slacker by one degree. Santa Cruz also lengthened the wheelbase by 37mm.

Above all, with the new Highball, you’ve got a lot more build options. Santa Cruz sells the Highball 3 with six, ranging in price from $2,799 to $7,999. The top three models are the lighter CC frame construction. The Highball 3 CC frame is $1,899. If you go for the premium build with the CC frame, overall bike weight is a claimed 19.1 pounds — more than two pounds lighter than the old version of the Highball CC.

If you live in a region that favors hardtails — due to terrain or geology, perhaps — the Highball will serve you well.

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