Photos: Sven Martin
The three bikes released today from Santa Cruz are nothing like the trail and all-mountain bikes the brand has become synonymous with in the last three years.
There is no rear suspension on any of them, and no suspension at all on one. Instead, Santa Cruz has gone back to the drawing board on two models that will already be familiar to followers of the brand: the Highball and the Stigmata.
If you aren't a superfan, you might not be aware of the Stigmata, which was an aluminum cyclocross bike in the line for about three years in the mid 2000s. It's back, updated to reflect current 'cross trends like disc brakes, a 15-millimeter through axle, a 12×142 rear axle, clearance for tires up to 41 millimeters wide, internally routed cables and a full carbon-fiber frame.
Discerning mechanics will notice that the Stigmata is the first bike Santa Cruz has designed around a PressFit bottom bracket–the company has been a staunch supporter of threaded BBs–but Santa Cruz product manager Josh Kissner said that decision was the exception, not a new rule.
"We wanted to spec 30-mil SRAM cranks because it's a clean and light way of doing it. It does help with frame construction because you don't have to glue a bunch of crap in there. A big plus of PF30 is that it allows us to make the downtube huge, so there's a good stiffness to weight ratio," Kissner said.
The return of the Stigmata comes courtesy of demand from within the company, specifically a couple of guys in the warehouse who are top 'cross racers and well-known on the Santa Cruz 'cross scene. Along with adding a drop-bar bike to its line, developing the new Stigmata allows Santa Cruz to sponsor employees Scott Chapin (who stars in the video below alongside Steve Peat) and Justin Robertson during the upcoming 'cross season.
The Stigmata comes only in Santa Cruz's highest grade carbon fiber in three build kits: SRAM Force with a CX1 one-by drivetrain for $4,700, SRAM Red for $6,600 and a Rival build for $3,700. Framesets sell for $2,300, and a carbon Enve wheel upgrade is available for all builds for an extra $2,000.
The Highball has been in Santa Cruz's line for four years as its race-oriented hardtail 29er. With this refresh, the Highball's identity has not changed, but a 27.5-inch-wheeled version has joined the party. The new Highball does not encroach on the territory of the Santa Cruz Chameleon, which is a more aggressive trail hardtail with shorter chainstays and a slacker headtube angle.
"It's a race bike," said Will Ockelton, Santa Cruz marketing manager. "It's not a wheelie machine meant for uphill drag racing."
That said the geometry on the 27.5 version did get a touch shorter and slacker from the original carbon-fiber Highball 29. In a size large, the new frame has a 69-degree headtube angle, compared to 70.5 on the 29er, and 16.7-inch chainstays, compared to 17.28 inches on the old carbon 29er (the new 29er has 16.93 inch stays). In sticking to Santa Cruz's 'long and low' design philosophy, the bottom bracket height is 12.4 inches (12.36 inches on the 29er), and the toptube measures 24.6 inches for a size large on both on the 27.5 and 29er. The wheelbase is now 44.49 inches on the 29er and 44.1 inches on the 27.5, an increase from the 43.31 inches on the old carbon Highball.
Another feature followers of the brand will notice is the internally routed cables on the Stigmata and the Highball, something Santa Cruz only recently began experimenting with on last year's Nomad. While Santa Cruz COO Joe Graney said he doesn't anticipate continuing this trend on future full-suspension bikes¬–the Nomad worked because of its one-by specific frame¬–going internal was ideal for the new hardtails. Engineers wanted to make sure they didn't create a bike that looked clean, but sounded obnoxious so they molded an internal carbon tunnel for the cables to travel through to avoid rattling. It's expensive–Graney said the system accounts for some 7 to 8 percent of the overall bike production cost–but, in Santa Cruz's eyes, the cost is worth the silent ride and ease of routing hoses.
Other improvements on the Highball include a seatstay-mounted brake and beefier down and toptubes to increase front-end stiffness. Santa Cruz moved away from a 30.9-millimeter seatpost to the narrower 27.2, which limits options if you want to install a dropper post since there aren't as many of the smaller size available. That could change, however, as even the of strictest of weight weenies realize the benefits of droppers.
"With these new bikes, we're trying to keep them more purpose-driven," Ockelton said. "27.2 is a tad lighter, but mostly it's for compliance and comfort."
Santa Cruz marketing and product managers introduced the new Highball bikes last week on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, a rugged, rainforest region where a new point-to-point hut trail served as a multi-day test course to ride both versions of the Highball. Over two days, we rode about 40 miles of the trail of the approximately 55-mile trail, which is still under construction.
On the first day, I rode the Highball 29er on the steady climb from about 650 feet above elevation to just over 3,000 feet covering mostly mellow gravel and shale trail. The bigger wheel size shone its element, allowing me to confidently roll up and over any obstacles, and the bike's svelte weight–a touch under 20 pounds with the SRAM XX1 build in the highest grade CC frame–made me feel like there was an electric motor hidden somewhere inside the frame.
Without any sustained, steep pitches, the one-by spec with a 32-tooth chainring suited the grade well and I never felt myself loving the simplicity of a single-ring setup, but secretly cursing the lack of 'cheater' gears.
There were some sustained baby-head rock gardens on which my entire body wished for rear suspension, but running lower tire pressure¬¬ (21 PSI on the 2.2 Maxxis Ikon) and relying on the capable 100-millimeter Fox Float CTD, set to Descend mode, helped soak up some of the bumps. Aggressive riders may require a tougher tire than the tubeless-ready Ikon, which seemed prone to flats for some of the other riders, but again, the Highball is outfitted as a race-ready XC bike.
For the descent the next day, which decreased about 4,000 vertical feet steadily over 20 miles, I switched to the 27.5 Highball and installed a dropper post. After a few short, steep, rocky climbs, the trail winded down a perfectly flowing pitch for the final hour, during which time I seemingly never had to actually pedal. I noticed the increased maneuverability of the shorter bike, particularly on some of the tight switchbacks, but the overall quality of the ride didn't overtly outshine the 29er.
The lightest possible 27.5 build weighs about 140 grams less than its 29er counterpart so while there is an advantage, it probably isn't enough to sway big-wheel believers to a smaller wheel size. And it doesn't have to. Santa Cruz is offering the same builds for both frames (except for the XS, which comes only in 27.5, and XXL, which comes only as a 29er). Builds range from $2,800 for a carbon frame outfitted with a RockShox Recon Gold TK 100-mil fork, Shimano Deore 2 x 10 drivetrain and Deore brakes, to a $6,300 CC carbon frame with SRAM XX1 drivetrain, Race Face carbon crankset and Shimano XTR Race brakes. If you have another $2,000 to drop, you can upgrade to Enve M50 carbon wheels. Framesets run $1,900.
Availability of the Stigmata and the Highball is imminent, although the current U.S. port strike could delay some containers awaiting entry in the country.