This review was originally published in the May 2017 issue of Bike mag.
Santa Cruz's venerable Tallboy holds a hallowed place in the annals of 29er history. Back in late 2009—when fork manufacturers were still running suggestive advertisements centered around bikini-clad women and 29ers were widely viewed as a fad that should die—the Tallboy rolled in on its wagon wheels and crushed 29er skeptics' preconceptions (ours included).
Our debut rides on the original Tallboy were in October 2009, during our first-ever Bible of Bike Tests in Whistler, British Columbia, and the big-wheeled beast towered over the competition in that year's 65-plus field of bikes. Most of the dozen or so testers in that inaugural Bible were biased against the early 29ers, with their awkward geometry and unwieldy handling characteristics, but the Tallboy quickly laid to waste our big-wheel bigotry.
Most testers were stunned by the Tallboy's playfulness and versatility, and for the first time in Bike's history a 29er got a universally glowing review. "The Santa Cruz Tallboy blew holes in the standard criticisms of 29-inch wheels," we wrote. "It sprinted up climbs. It railed steep, technical descents. It cornered. And it felt well balanced, even for shorter riders."
From that point, the Tallboy set the benchmark for 29er performance. And once word of its roll-over-anything advantages began to spread, deep-seated prejudices against bigger wheels gradually softened. Encouraged by this slow paradigm shift, other bike companies began working to develop and improve on their own 29ers.
Fast forward to today, and most major bike makers have incredibly capable 29ers in their lines. While those in the 120-millimeter-travel range remain popular, longer-travel versions have come of age, with some companies introducing 140- and 150-millimeter incarnations that manage to climb almost as well as they descend. Riders (like me) who love 29ers are spoiled for choice.
In this landscape, the Tallboy no longer eclipses its competition outright, but Santa Cruz has made sure its groundbreaking model has evolved to remain contemporary. In keeping with the current trend of slacker front ends for 29ers, this new Tallboy features a sensible 68-degree headtube angle—three degrees slacker than the original Tallboy's 71-degree head angle. This more relaxed front end, coupled with the 120-millimeter-travel Fox 34 Performance fork, makes the bike a capable descender, even when the going gets steep. Once I got over the initial gun-shyness of migrating from my 160-millimeter-travel personal bike, I found myself seeking out the steepest rock rolls on my local trails, building my confidence from one ride to the next. Even on chunky descents, I often forgot that the bike has only 110 millimeters of rear-wheel travel.
When it came to climbing—one of the Tallboy's traditional strengths—the bike continually hit its stride, with the 73-degree seat-tube angle giving a comfortable body position that allows for efficient pedaling. The bike's newly revised Virtual Pivot Point suspension provided a stable pedaling platform, though on climbs with consecutive, square-edged hits I at times felt a sapping of momentum that is minimized on some other suspension platforms.
Despite this, the Tallboy's overwhelming impetus is to charge hard, up and down, covering ground and smashing over obstacles with the speed and fury of a dictatorial new president issuing executive orders as if it's his last day in office. Experimenting with sag levels on the Fox Float Performance shock allowed for noticeable differences in ride quality. At about 25-percent sag with the shock fully open, I found the Tallboy to climb more efficiently, but setting it closer to 30 percent added a welcome plushness while descending and delivered the best overall suspension performance.
The new Tallboy is available in an impressive variety of builds and configurations—including 27.5-plus alternatives with a 130-mil-travel fork—but the 'C-level' frames offer the best value. These use a slightly heavier, less-expensive grade of carbon fiber, but Santa Cruz claims it achieves the same stiffness and durability of its higher-priced, 'CC-level' carbon frames (which range from $6,100 to $8,000, depending on the component spec). This is a significant cost savings, especially considering that the C-level carbon only adds 280 grams to the overall frame weight. Given Santa Cruz's stellar reputation for bombproof carbon frames, this C-level carbon option seems like a pretty safe bet.
At $4,600, this C-level 'S Build' comes with a smart array of parts, including a Fox 34 Float Performance fork and Fox Float Performance shock. The SRAM GX rear derailleur and shifters deliver crisp shifts, and the Race Face Aeffect AL cranks paired with a practical 30-tooth chainring round out a reliable drivetrain. The SRAM Level TL brakes provide solid stopping power and ample modulation, while the 150-millimeter-travel RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper post and comfy WTB Volt Race saddle make the Tallboy ready for action straight out of the box.
By offering this no-nonsense parts spec along with a lower-modulus carbon frame, Santa Cruz has made its much-improved Tallboy more affordable to the everyday rider. And with complete builds featuring aluminum frames starting at $2,600, the legendary Tallboy is within reach of those on tighter budgets.
Santa Cruz's Two Cents:
When we dove into the Tallboy redesign we had a few specific goals in mind—to modernize the geometry by making it longer and slacker, to give people the option to run 29 or 27.5-plus wheels without compromise and to expand its descending capabilities without sacrificing anything on the uphill side of things. We also updated our current version of VPP, which has a more linear shock rate that's supple off the top, firm mid-stroke, and progressive at the end for that bottomless feel. Racers and everyday riders alike are telling us that this newest version is indeed the most capable, most versatile and most fun Tallboy in the series, so mission accomplished!
—Don Palermini, Marketing Manager, Santa Cruz Bicycles