Updated: Apr 14, 2020
There’s a bit of a trend in trail bikes. They start life as something short travel, aimed at cross country whippets, then grow up alongside the market. There are numerous bikes that have undergone this evolution, but the latest to join the fray is the Santa Cruz Tallboy. The original Tallboy went into production back in 2009, at which point it had 100mm of travel and geometry steeper than a cliff face. The 2020 Tallboy, the fourth of its name, is a very different beast.
A bump up to 120mm of travel, paired with a 130mm fork, pushes the bike solidly away from the XC crowd and into the all-round trail bike category - a group that has seen a massive resurgence of late. That’s not the only trick up the Tallboy’s sleeve, however. The geometry is rather radical; the most obvious part of this being the 65.5 degree head angle which is exactly the same as it’s enduro-ready big brother, the Hightower, a bike with 20mm more travel at the front and rear. The reach, stack and default chainstay length are almost identical too, although the Hightower gets a slightly longer wheelbase and taller ground clearance by virtue of having a longer fork. They’re remarkably similar on paper, albeit one being aimed at the trail crowd and the other at the Enduro crew. Santa Cruz have set out to make the new Tallboy as capable as a mid-sized bike can be. In their own words, it’s built “for going hecka fast, everywhere”.
Gone is the familiar layout that Santa Cruz aficionados have come to know so well, with the new lower link VPP system keeping the weight close to the bottom bracket for better balance and handling. This system is being rolled out on all new-season bikes, including the Megatower, Hightower, Bronson and Nomad. Only the 5010 and Blur retain the old system. As effective as this system is, I must mention that it’s a pain in the a-hole to set sag on, with the shock shaft disappearing off inside the seat tube. This is one of the few times where I would love an on-the-frame sag meter to be incorporated in the bike’s graphics package. Speaking of which, I’m not sure if the colour choice really cuts the mustard for me, but there’s a more conservative black and dark purple option available in any case.
There’s variable geometry built into the Tallboy in the form of adjustable chainstays. A pretty nifty trick: they allow you to alternate between 430mm and 440mm of stay length, to make the bike a little more stable or wheelie-friendly, depending on your preference and choice of terrain. For my test I left it largely in the 440mm setting.
My test build was on the money, with a SRAM XO1 Eagle group-set, the new G2 brakes and a swanky feeling under-bar lever for the Reverb dropper. Santa Cruz’s Reserve Carbon wheels were also a highlight, with plenty of width and stiffness to play with. I have no doubt they will live up to their strength claims. It’s not an especially lightweight bike for the money, I’d pick something different if I were looking for something to serve double-duty as an amateur marathon racer’s bike.
The influence of the Tallboy’s longer-travelled sibling is evident from the get-go. It’s a well-balanced bike that’s a breeze to wheelie, even in the longer setting. I found it easy to lift the bars and get the rear wheel pumping through terrain, on demand. The low weight and bottom bracket certainly do it favours in the corners, as long as you remember to get your lean on. It’s so capable, in fact, that I often found myself double checking that I hadn’t been given a Hightower to test instead. I was expecting a trail bike, but what I got instead was a mini enduro bike with 130mm of travel. Santa Cruz have hyped this thing up to be a warp speed wagon wheeler and in that respect, it delivers.
As we know all too well, what goes down must go up, and the Santa Cruz is a traction-rich pedaller. I doubt you’ll have issues with spinning out on all but the wettest roots. It’s efficient, but I never felt compelled to leap out of the saddle and charge the hills on this bike. Some 130mm 29’rs encourage that (my own bike is one such example) whereas others are a little more planted. The Tallboy fits firmly in the latter category. To its credit, I never had issues with the front end wandering despite a slack head angle, short stem and wide bars as standard.
I found that to get the most out of this bike I had to send it on some really steep stuff, but in doing so I couldn’t help wondering that with the main difference being 20mm of travel, would I be better off just riding a Hightower?
Santa Cruz have a place in their range for a 29’r all-rounder’s trail bike and the Tallboy was built to fill it. But does the Tallboy skirt too closely to the Hightower to justify itself? To me, the thing that makes a great trail bike is its ability to make the rider feel equally happy entering a stage race as he/she does lining up for a bit of light enduro racing. Most importantly, in my mind, the defining characteristic is being incredibly fun to ride on a range of trails. In this respect, I feel the Tallboy is very single-minded: it’s fixated on speed (and certainly offers that) but has lost some of the liveliness of its old self in the process. Given the Hightower is very similar to ride on the tamer trails but can huck bigger stuff when the going gets tough, I feel the Tallboy becomes a very specific tool for a very specific job, rather than a true all-rounder. Maybe I’ll look back in a few years and declare it was a bike ahead of its time, but for now it’s progressive for the sake of progression.
If you’re wanting to set the KOM on your local flow trails but still have something to spare for the steeper stuff, look no further. This is a very fast, capable, confident bike worthy of the Tallboy name. Just be sure a mini enduro bike is what you’re after and it will treat you well.
Words: Robin Page Images: Cameron Mackenzie