Like many, this story begins as the proud owner of either the legendary Tallboy or its updated follow-up the Tallboy 2. Both were undeniable, leading-edge bikes in the budding 29er market. In my case, it was the second version, and like countless skeptics was the bike that sold me on the big wheels. The capabilities of my Tallboy 2 never ceased to amaze me until the day we parted ways. While the changes made from the V1 to V2 model can be described as restrained, the changes to the new Tallboy 3 are extensive.
Santa Cruz recently offered to send me a Tallboy 3 to review but I chose to review my personal ride instead. While the bike will have a slightly different build, it’s comparable and I think most folks are interested in how it rides more than the bits.
My Santa Cruz Tallboy 3 CC build details:
Fork: Fox 34 Float Factory, Kashima, FIT4 Damper, 15mm Thru-Axle, 130mm
Shock: Fox Float Performance Elite
Shifters: Sram XX1 11sp trigger
Rear Derailleur: Sram XX1 11sp
Cassette: Sram X01 10-42
Brakes: Shimano XTR Trail, 180mm
Hubs: DT Swiss 240
Rims: [29″] ENVE M60 HV / [27.5+] ENVE M60 Plus
Crankset: Raceface Next SL 170mm
Tires: [29″] Schwalbe Nobby Nic, 29×2.35″, EVO Folding, Snakeskin, Trailstar, TL Ready / [27.5+] Maxxis Rekon+ 27.5 x 2.8 EXO Folding
Stem: Raceface Turbine
Headset: Cane Creek 110, Integrated
Handlebar: Santa Cruz Carbon Flat Bar; 31.8mm clamp, 750mm
Saddle: WTB Silverado SLT
Seatpost: Rock Shox Reverb 150mm drop
Weight: 26.06 lbs (with XTR trail pedals)
The move from the Tallboy 2 to Tallboy 3
I loved my Tallboy 2 and cannot fault it in any way. It was a very capable XC bike that many, including myself, hammered hard as an everyday trail bike.
Prior to making the move to the Tallboy 3, I had already made changes that almost got me there, but not quite: a Tallboy 2.5 if you will. Some of those changes included a Fox Float 34, Rock Shox Reverb dropper post, Cane Creek DBinline shock and Cane Creek -1° Angleset. These changes made vast improvements towards making the bike better matched with my riding style. While the bike felt more like the 29er trail bike I fancied, it was still the same bike at heart. That’s not a bad thing. Enter the Tallboy 3.
Watching Greg Minnaar in the launch video miss his start at the Cape Epic and make a day of riding the techier line, followed by that awesome beer cap pop off the spokes, perfectly sums up the focus of this new bike. It’s the coolest and most expensive beer opener on the planet. I’m joking obviously, but that’s the part that rang true to me, it’s about having a great ride and cracking a cold beer – more than hammering a race, head down and suffering. Make no mistake though, the Tallboy 3 is more than capable enough to roll up to the start line and take down the carbon hardtail next to it on anything but the flattest sections of the racecourse.
Riding the Tallboy 3
This is still very much a Tallboy in spirit but it’s also a much deadlier trail bike. Every ride on this bike I am hitting lines that I would have never hit at those speeds on my Tallboy 2, maybe even faster than on my 5010 V1. I constantly have to remind myself that I’m on a Tallboy. If the V2 was the angel on my shoulder, the V3 is the devil: ”go for it”. Where I would have ridden more cautiously on the V2 (in case I got in over my head), on the V3 I just let it fly knowing it can handle it.
The newly stretched out cockpit was something my modifications to the Tallboy 2 could not address. At 5’7 on my size medium, the shortest stem I could run was 75mm with 760mm wide bars. With the steeper, 70° head tube angle of the previous bike, a longer stem complemented the front end nicely. That said, I’m much happier running a 50mm on the relaxed, 68° Tallboy 3. That’s just a degree sharper than the first generation Bronson to put it into perspective.
The slacker front end really lets this bike shine for me. The bike carves now. I hate the feeling of turning and knifing in the dirt. I want to lay my bike over and hold a turn until I rip out the other side. This new Tallboy will do that for you until you run out of turns. And while the steering isn’t quite as sharp as the previous models, it can whip you around the tightest crook with ease. There were times on the old bike where I would have to adjust my line through corners that this bike just holds until it can hold no more. That micro-adjust in turns and flop that I sometimes felt on climbs, is gone.
The wheelbase has grown by 53mm, now 1145mm for my size medium frame. Although longer, the fact that you’re more centered over the bike makes this a better cornering machine for my style of riding. The length only helps you at speed but I haven’t been thwarted when the trail gets so tight you’re ratcheting around the curve. The longer front center and compact rear end leave you right where you want to be. If the trails are fast and flowy you can steer from the hips, ready to pounce at whatever the trail pitches you. If it’s techy and slow, you can easily negotiate the terrain while seated or standing without needing to get way fore or aft on the bike. Like most 29ers, it’s about the bar-drop more than turning the bars and this new bike greatly facilitates this style of handling.
The neutral and balanced feeling you’re assured on this bike is where the bike really inspires. For the Tallboy 2 to handle the steep, rooty, eroded sections of my local trails, I had to be way off the back and keep her straight. Line changes were dicey at best. There simply wasn’t enough reach to feel both ‘in’ the bike yet back enough and not have your arms and legs locked out. With reach growing by 40mm on the new bike, you are in the sweet spot, fully able to apply ample english to any section of the trail. The 13mm shaved off the chainstays make it effortless to float the front end or manual sections of trail. In the rough stuff this new bike goes from hail mary to hell yes.
Climbing on the Tallboy 3 is effortless, whether seated or standing. I prefer to sit and spin on climbs myself but it rocks out of the saddle if that’s your jam. In either position, the bike charges up the hills. The slightly more upright seat tube angle puts you square over the pedals, ready to apply power to taste. There is more compliance and less loss of traction during hard efforts out of the saddle. The transition from seated to standing is unbroken without the folding in half feeling when you shift your weight off the seat and onto the pedals. You can quickly apply power and get into a rhythm. On the previous bike you could ping off the changing terrain and lose traction, but the freshly sophisticated platform takes it all in stride.
The greatly improved VPP3
To complement the composed feeling the revised geometry provides is the extremely poised and perfected VPP3. With VPP2 in previous models there was a dead spot in the stroke causing a bit of hammocking sensation at the sag point. You had to nail the percentage of sag recommended by Santa Cruz or the bike didn’t work quite as well as intended. Other mini-link type bikes share this trait as well. The shorter the links are, the narrower the optimal sag point is. While the bike worked well once set up correctly, it took riders some time to get it right. I don’t want this to be one of those reviews where it’s about how bad the bike they said was so great a year ago is now crap, ‘cause that’s not the case at all. However, the improvements to VPP3 are quite substantial.
The new suspension kinematics provide ample support from the beginning to the end of the stroke. Small bumps and trail chatter are well muted, providing abundant and predictable traction. The stock bike comes with a more progressive tune right out of the gate. I have swapped out my rear shock to the Cane Creek DBinline on both my Tallboy and Hightower. I like to be able to dial in the beginning and end stroke of my shock. While the DBinline made a marked improvement on previous models, the new bike is pretty damn impressive with the stock Fox Float shock. I’ve already blown both Cane Creek shocks sadly, but that’s another story.
With VPP3, setup is much simpler; it only took a few rides to establish the correct air pressure and settings front and rear for both wheel sizes. Santa Cruz recommends between 12-14mm on the Tallboy 3. The bike feels light and lively but remains very planted and predictable. The raw, from-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling people love about VPP is still very much there. You feel every bit of the trail but with improved grip and more constant damping. The soul of the VVP is there but it’s refined.
The additional 10mm of rear travel, now 110mm, doesn’t take away from the handling or efficiency whatsoever. It’s nice to have that reserve for bigger hits but I think the real benefit is in the middle ground, which makes this bike hug every bend and compression on the trail. You can pop and pump on this bike all day long. It just feels like a perfectly engineered trail bike.
The link placement has changed slightly. Most notable, the lower link is now tucked away in the frame. I never really had an issue with the previous link position but this is a better location. It protects the linkage while also making the frame distinctively stiffer. I would have to say the stiffness is one of the first things you notice riding the new Tallboy. From the headtube, through the core and back to the rear axle, the bike feels much more stout and responsive. The revised upper link plays a greater role in the new kinematics of the suspension. The new placement also allows riders to run a 150mm dropper post. Some of the hardware has been beefed up as well but the same, flawless, collet style pivot and bearing preload system with grease-port remain. In my opinion, this is the best in the industry.
Swapping between 29” and 27.5” plus size wheels
I’ll get right to the point here: this bike is mind-blowing in both wheel sizes. And while this is a Tallboy review, as I revealed above, I also have a Hightower. I know that’s not realistic for most riders and I am lucky but if you can swing it, it’s pretty terrific. The idea was both frames with one 29” and one 27.5”plus set of wheels. My vision was that this would give me four bikes in two, which it absolutely has. I’ve read a lot of questions from riders debating which wheel size to get but for me, the answer is both. I won’t go much into my impressions on the Hightower other than to say it’s brilliant in both configurations, just like the Tallboy is.
To make the hot-swappable setup work across both bikes the wheels are all built around DT Swiss 240 Boost hubs with 180mm rotors and Sram XX1 11sp cassettes. The 29” set are laced with Enve M60 HV rims and Schwalbe Nobby Nic 2.35” tires. The plus wheels are laced with Enve M60 Plus rims and Maxxis Rekon+ 2.8” tires. On my previous Tallboy I had Enve M50 hoops and, if I were running them on the Tallboy exclusively, I would have stuck with that rim width. They remained true for two years of trail riding without having to tweak a nipple. Being that these have to play double duty and also handle what the Hightower can, I opted for the wider, beefier rims. Both bikes have the flip-chip to adjust geometry for each wheel size and the process of changing wheels takes all of five minutes.
I am running a Fox Float 34 on my Tallboy at 130mm and a Fox Float 36 on my Hightower at 150mm. I have run the Tallboy at 120mm and the Hightower at 140mm in 29” configuration. They do ride very well that way, which was intentional for the 29er wheels, but I am quite happy with the taller front end given the options it allows me. The axle to crown increase is minimal once you incorporate the correct sag. I’ll add that across the Santa Cruz line, I have favored a longer travel fork. I’ve also ridden the Tallboy with 29” wheels and the chip in the high position and think many riders looking to get that sharper steering and more XC feel back would enjoy it. At this point I don’t think I have a preference and find it’s all about horses for courses. Some trails naturally ride better on 29er wheels, others on plus. If you’re looking to get one size for now and add the other down the road, you can either buy the plus bike with 130mm fork and get a set of 29” wheels or buy the 29” bike with the fork at 120mm and bump it up when you’re ready to try the plumplife.
If you want to run both wheel sizes seamlessly, you will have to spend some time on each and tinker with the suspension. There is a slight shift in the kinematics going from the low to high position on the flip-chip. You’ll soon find a baseline and from there it’s a matter of 1-2 clicks of low speed compression and rebound to have the bike handling comparably. The ride impressions I have already shared adequately describe my time riding the bike in both wheel sizes but I will add a bit more on the mid-fats for the plus-curious.
The wider, yet smaller diameter wheels, do whip around turns quicker. The bike feels like a mini dirt bike in the loam. I have enjoyed it more on dirt with mixed roots and rocks than all rocks. The plus tires really level out the trail but not to the point where it’s dumbed down. I have tried all sorts of tire pressures but have settled on 12psi front and 14psi rear as the starting point. Unlike with a rigid fat bike, there is no bouncy castle feeling at a given pressure. The suspension takes care of that much like it would pedal bob. So you can run the tires purely based on the traction you’re after. I like to run them low enough that I get that dull thud of the tire ever so slightly bottoming on the rim.
The bike rolls crazy-fast in plus mode. I PR’ed a full trail segment this fall which I have ridden for over 10years on over a dozen bikes, in all wheel sizes. You feel glued in corners and exiting them sounds like you’re tearing Velcro apart. The smaller diameter wheels spin up faster so you can get up to speed in a hurry. The softer more compliant tire can get you hung up in technical bits, so be mindful of that and perhaps increase your tire pressure accordingly. They don’t have the rollover capability or precision 29” wheels with traditional width tires do but they’re a riot – and faster in many situations.
This is my daily ride, the bike I can’t wait to get on again the very second I get off it. I dream about seeing just how zesty I can get on this thing. I did miss my Tallboy 2 for a while but if you were to tell me I could have mine back in exchange for this one, you would not have a deal. The quiver-killer expression gets tossed around a lot but this really is just that. The Tallboy was always a bike that could be stripped down to the bare bones or beefed up to handle more. It’s still that bike, just vastly improved with the beefier build straight out of the box. The Tallboy is now more adaptable than ever with the simple way it allows you to run either 29 or 27.5+ inch wheels. If you’re dubious of the 29er or questioning plus, this bike will make you an aficionado of both. If you want a slightly modified version of the V2, toss on a 32mm fork, an 11sp XX1 drivetrain, pinner XC hoops and lose the dropper post. Though having ridden both, my take is the stock Tallboy 3 is ready to rumble if you are.