Mountain Gear

First Ride: Santa Cruz Highball 29 and 27.5

Full-suspension heavyweight brand launches its carbon fiber hardtail with two wheel options and updated geometry

When you opened the Santa Cruz Bicycles homepage yesterday, you would have first seen a goggled rider on the Nomad, Santa Cruz’s 6.5-inch travel enduro bike. Then, you’d see World Cup downhiller Josh Bryceland on the latest iteration of the V10. Below the blown-out photos was a glimpse of Santa Cruz’s lineup: the V10, Nomad, Bronson, Heckler, and Tallboy LT. All full-suspension bikes, no hardtails in sight. There wasn’t even a true cross-country bike.

For better or worse, the hardtail is not a bike genre that people associate with the California brand, and while the latest iteration of the Highball may not change those mindsets, Santa Cruz is re-upping its investment in the category.

It’s still a hardtail. What’s left to change?

The major changes to Highball are the introduction of a 27.5”-wheeled model and new geometry across the board. The Highball 27.5 will be available in sizes small through XL, while the Highball 29 will be available in medium through XXL.

Both wheel sizes will be available in each of the five carbon builds. The CC frame will retail for $1,900, and the base-model Highball C will go for $2,800; the base CC with Shimano XT will retail for $4,300. The difference between the C and CC frames is just 200 grams, the higher-end CC is lighter thanks to stronger carbon — less of it needs to be used.

The new Highballs will be available in Santa Cruz’s less-expensive “C” carbon, in addition to the CC and aluminum models. The new Highball 29 C and Highball 29 CC will adopt the aluminum’s geometry, which quietly changed months ago, and like seemingly every new bike announced in the last two years, the latest Highball geometry is longer and slacker than the previous model.

The new Highball 29 sports a 70-degree head tube with the stock 100mm Fox Float CTD, which isn’t the slackest in this segment, but falls right in the middle. By comparison, a size-large Trek Superfly sports a 69.6-degree head tube, and a Niner Air9 RDO has a 71-degree head angle — which is on the steep end these days. The top tube is also lengthened by about 1.5cm across the size spectrum. Santa Cruz says the Highball can be run with a 120mm fork as well, though they do not offer a model with that spec.

The Highball 27.5 has a slacker head tube angle at 69 degrees and the stack height is 28.5mm lower than the 29 in a size large. The top tube lengths are nearly identical across the size spectrum between the 29 and 27.5 models. The 27.5 model offers lower stack and shorter chainstays (by 5mm), though the overall wheelbase of the 27.5 is about 20mm longer than the 29, due to the head angle.

Like the new Stigmata ’cross bike, the new Highball carbon uses full-internal cable routing, with the same internal sheath for the brake line to keep it from making noise, though on the first ride, my bike had quite the rattle going on in the down tube or chain stay. Though, it could have been in part due to my shorter and lower stem, which caused the brake line to bunch up. All the other riders had perfectly quiet bikes.

First Rides

Santa Cruz made the Highball 29 CC and the Highball 27.5 CC available for editors to test along the Old Ghost Road in the northwest corner of New Zealand’s remote south island. Both rides were around 20 miles long, on fairly tame terrain.

On the first day, I rode the Highball 29 CC with the XX1 build kit, and stock WTB rims with DT Swiss 240 hubs — the very same wheels as the new Santa Cruz Stigmata ’cross bike. The frame was stiff, it was lively, but most of all, the head angle and geometry seemed to be just right.

The Highball 29 was confidence-inspiring — I was navigating tight switchbacks, both up and down, a skill I’ve never perfected, but a challenge that demonstrates control on any bike.

I felt like I was able to drive the 29er. The stem was slammed. Giving me just the right amount of drop. When I switched to the Highball 27.5 CC the following day, I added a 5mm spacer, barely compensating for the 27.5’s substantially lower stack. I felt like my body weight was positioned above the 27.5, feeling almost top-heavy on the same switchbacks I’d ridden the evening before. When I was on the Highball 29er I felt like I was inside the it, not attached to it, like I did on the 27.5.

When it comes to a hardtail race bike, it needs to be a 29er for me, but I’m sure there are those that are shorter than my average 6-foot stature that would want the slacker head angle and smaller wheels.

The short amount of time spent on both bikes left me wanting more of the 29er, and I look forward to reporting back after giving it a proper test on my home trails.

Editor’s note: Santa Cruz Bicycles provided travel and accommodations for this product launch.