Santa Cruz’s 29-inch carbon Highball hardtail has looked fast since its inception, with a minimalist power-to-the-pedals shape that leaves zero confusion as to its purpose at the party. It’s light, lean and could care less whether you’re having fun too—the certainty is speed, the secondary bonus is winning and the afterthought? Your enjoyment.

Its wire-thin seatstays, weight-over-the-front-axle posture and gazelle-like physique have long placed it deeply within XC territory—so much so that Santa Cruz categorized it ‘XC’ or ‘XC Race.’ Business or corporate merger, your choice of upward mobility.

So why mess with success? For one thing, the Highball has quietly lurked in 142×12-millimeter territory. We don’t talk about that place. For another, it was Santa Cruz’s first internally routed frame. While the brand is often praised by mechanics for ease in hiding unsightly cables within, Santa Cruz has learned a lot since the first episode of “Nip/Tuck” and the Highball was long overdue for a fancy plastic surgery upgrade.

What else changed? Let’s have a gander at the geo chart:

Correct, the XXL is missing. Or is it? The reach on the new Highball in XL is actually 7 millimeters longer than that of the previous generation’s XXL. The wheelbase also grows by 22 millimeters, the seat tube angle stands straighter by half a degree and the headtube relaxes a full degree. Not quite the long, low slack treatment we’re now accustomed to wading through, but perhaps the Highball has let its hair down, ever so slightly. Care for trail anyone? Maybe some ice cream?

Chopping Block

Gram counters need not worry as the third generation Highball has stayed true to its ultralight origins. Santa Cruz revised the rear triangle’s construction by eliminating a male/female bond previously existing on the seatstay two-thirds of the way back toward the rear axle. This did two things:

1. It saved 50 grams. That shit counts.

2. It added compliance. Lots. That shit super counts.

They also dropped the seatstay, seat-tube junction lower, again adding compliance while almost breeding somewhat more of a roadie-aero look.

You know how I know you’re mountain bike? From this angle, it could be a super big kid gravel bike with a dropper, or a welter weight mountain biker’s trail commuter, or a mountain biker’s road bike, in the form of a mountain bike … a bird … a plane … a super light bike.

Dropping a seatstay is a delicate balance as it can compromise bottom-bracket stiffness. Compounding Santa Cruz’s worry over BB stiffness was the need for ample clearance for mashers, as the new Highball is 1x-specific.

Crusher-tested, heavy-man approved. The author did not notice BB flex and the kids can fit a 38 tooth. Kids are crazy.

By adding material below, creating a huge bottom bracket, chainstay and seat-tube junction, Santa Cruz claims to have accounted for stiffness while clearing a 38-tooth chainring. In the process, the Highball gained a bolt-on downtube protector and third water bottle mount. The larger junction allows the cables to run beneath the bottom bracket, now additionally accommodating dropper post routing along with a downtube window to help micro-manage the cables’ chain of command.

Santa Cruz claims to have added compliance while retaining torsional rigidity, taking what was learned with the Reserve carbon wheels and applying newfound know-how to frame construction. This adds up (subtracts) to a half pound reduction from the previous second-generation-29-inch frame.

Beautiful weather, porpoises frolicking in the ocean, rain two days prior, full XX1 builds—yes, too many pleasantries converging indeed. Photo by Gary Perkin.

Wanna Be a Baller

Ok, enough claims and cool stuff, how’d it ride?

It feels like cheating to ride the Highball in Santa Cruz. It rained two days before we arrived, sky sunny, dirt perfect while enticing singletrack danced between coyote bushes and redwood groves, occasionally pausing to overlook the Pacific. Our test bikes were full SRAM XX1 Eagle builds with Santa Cruz Reserve Carbon 25 28-hole rims laced to DT Swiss 240 hubs. We even had WTB Silverado carbon-railed saddles. Damn right the bikes were light. Santa Cruz claims 19.1 pounds for the XX1 Reserve build and while I didn’t do that thing scientists of bicycle testing do—smuggle a digital scale within checked baggage—I have no reason to believe otherwise. It’s light enough to eat excuses, eradicating any rationale for not galloping triumphantly uphill.

There are those that climb quickly uphill. The author, however, did not. Photo by Gary Perkin.

Eat Yer Words Sonny

The most noticeable quality is the smooth nature of the ride. I’ve wondered recently why somebody would ever buy a non-plus-size hardtail. Does he or she hate compliance? It’s not as though a plus hardtail is inefficient, you gain bounce for extra trail fun, so why ever subject oneself to stuttering along straddling pinner 2.1- or 2.2-inch weenie tires?

I definitely had to pause and reassess things, pinch myself and ensure that I was looking past the build and wheels that already tout compliance, remind myself that I was generously bestowed manicured dirt and undulating terrain. But try as I might to second guess things, it was indeed a smooth hardtail. Remarkably smooth. Yet it didn’t feel like a noodle, the first thing that comes to mind when you eliminate suspension and add the word ‘soft.’ I’m 190 pounds and I flex things. Forks, light wheels, frames—I’m a bit suspicious of svelte accoutrements. The Highball doesn’t avoid flex entirely but it’s a very acceptable amount of flex, ironing out the edges while leaning through corners without boomeranging back at the apex and also not feeling flimsy. It bends when weighted, it still feels steady.

Boom without the rang. No boomerang. The revised Highball tames corner chatter without relying on an excessive amount of lateral flex. Photo by Gary Perkin.

Nosing down a brief patch of stair-step style redwood roots felt doable and the Highball behaved as though it could comfortably achieve more than the relatively tame Wilder Ranch trails we pedaled to from Santa Cruz’s door. It’s not a bike to pedal full-speed into roots, hunt for missing pieces of trail connected by jumping or blast into tech sections with a bike-will-do-the-work attitude, but an XC hardtail makes no false promises of these childish behaviors anyway. Accentuate the soft ride with a thoughtful line choice and things work out. I didn’t receive the geo chart until post-ride and I was surprised to see the 69.5-degree headtube angle. Our revolving stable of trail/all mountain test bikes favors 65- and 66-degree headtubes. Sixty nine point five, alarming as it may sound, was pleasantly capable. The other modern nuance is the 44-millimeter offset fork. All Highballs arrive this way. Indeed, decreased offset isn’t just for senders, it’s for sprightly senders too. Maybe even ah-senders.

Decreased fork offset for XC bikes? You crazy. There was something to it. Photo by Gary Perkin

To shake things up, we did descend a drawn-out, very rocky stutter of eroded trail subjecting us to bedrock, grass mounds and runnels. While the Highball wasn’t comfortable by any means, it was far more composed than would be expected of a race hardtail. Maybe the decreased offset fork and elongated reach and wheelbase were at play but the Santa Cruz XC Flat Bar Carbon 31.8 x 750-millimeter bars were a standout. They have enough flex to tame things, not enough to feel fragile, with enough sweep for a comfortable and neutral riding position.

What also stood out was the Fox Step-Cast 32 Factory 100 Remote fork, specifically the Remote portion. Being a heavier rider, I expect die-hard XC forks to feel a little wispy for me so I wasn’t surprised to feel a bit of twanging about when grabbing fist-fulls of front brake and despite being a very efficiency-minded fork, the suspension quality and control taking hits was impressive as well. But, all that said, I certainly do not care for the remote lever or the thought process behind it. At Bike we often approach the plate from the trail/all mountain side of the dugout so you’ll have to pardon me if I’m nitpicking a World Cup XC winning feature, but, XC-be-damned, I still want to have fun when I descend, gram-counter bike or not.

A cable engages the compression setting on the damper. Not cool man.

In its neutral setting, the Remote lever leaves the fork locked out. Correct, locked as in rigid. This wouldn’t be a problem except the Remote resides right where we’ve all now been trained to hunt for the dropper lever, beneath the front brake lever. As the roots and descent approach and our left thumb instinctively pushes to activate fun mode … poof! We’re locked. This results in a hurried where oh where did my dropper lever go hunting session, while trampolining over roots on a rigid high poster, then a rigid low poster, then a suspension reengaged low poster hardtail, problem finally solved. It’s invigorating.

So when ordering a complete, know that unrelenting efficiency in the form of the Remote permeates every iteration of available complete options, from the $2,800 Highball 3 C R Build to the $8,000 Highball 3 CC XX1 Reserve Build we rode. A rigid post also accompanies each complete. Yep, racer-like, still unapologetic.

For those looking not to just set lap times, Highball frames are compatible with 120-millimeter forks and it does not void the warranty. With dropper routing neatly navigating the BB junction there’s already a head nod toward broadened usage. Hope is not lost.

Also available in ‘Hero Fog’ color.

So where does this leave us? We have a race whip that went on a diet and while coming back seemingly meaner at 19 pounds, it also gently softens blows from repeated trail punches. It comes built to win but can dress for trail success starting with the $1,900 CC frame-only option if going custom. It takes modern geometry cues, incorporates a longer reach approach and a lean-it-over ride style while not losing any of the carbon-soled clan. It makes a strong argument for the non-plus-size hardtail while decidedly falling into the performance-first category at a $2,800 entry for what we’ve thought to be a traditional hardtail, leaving question as to what that is now that it rides so smoothly. The revised Highball is an excellent bike for those who want more than a race-only hardtail without compromising cross country performance and is priced accordingly. Find out more at santacruzbicycles.com