Santa Cruz released today a completely reshaped version of its cross-country race bike, the Highball. The Highball has been in production since 2011 and alongside its wilder sibling, the Chameleon, represents only a few hardtails amidst Santa Cruz’s line of legendary full-suspension bikes. When designing the Highball 3, Santa Cruz sought to engineer a lighter frame while also improving the overall ride quality. Earlier this month, I escaped our snow-covered Canadian trails to experience the Highball firsthand on some flowing singletrack in Santa Cruz, California.
Construction and Frame Details
The first thing you notice when looking at the new Highball is its modernized silhouette, particularly the rear triangle. The bridgeless seat stays now join the seat tube below the top tube. Artistically, the lines are clean and flowing. Looking at the bike from the side, one could picture the seat stays extending to a rear shock under the top tube, blending in seamlessly with the rest of the line. While Santa Cruz makes some pretty attention-grabbing bikes, how they ride always comes ahead of how they look. While the new Highball is easy on the eyes, the new look is an upshot from setting their sights on improving the ride quality. “This was initially a case of function dictating form. We learned separating the seat stays and top tube gave us the ride characteristics we wanted, so we then worked on making it look good. In general, we don’t make things look a certain way because it “looks cool”, the most important thing about a bike is how it functions.“ explains Peter Mueller-Wille – Lead Engineer, Highball 3.
The Highball is now available exclusively with 29” wheels. Given that it’s an elite level XC/marathon bike, this is a sound move. By the numbers, the bike has grown slightly with relative angle revisions. A size large frame is now 21mm longer with a 450mm reach measurement. The wheelbase has been stretched out accordingly, from 1100mm to 1140mm. Chainstay length remains unchanged at 430mm, as does the bottom bracket height at 314mm. The head tube angle has been slackened by one degree and the seat tube angle steepened by half a degree. The frames have gained some standover height as well, from 756mm to 740mm. Achieving one of their primary goals, the Highball frame has been trimmed down to a svelte 1140g. The new frame is said to be 225g lighter than before.
Despite getting some grief for choosing to spec a 27.2mm seatpost on the previous version, Santa Cruz has stuck to its guns on the seatpost barrel size. While a World Cup XC race may be one of the only places left to spot a rigid post in the wild, it’s the right choice on the Highball. The only thing you’re dropping on this bike is watts. There are several options available nowadays for a 27.2mm dropper post. The frame is fitted with internal stealth routing should you wish to run one. When we reexamine Santa Cruz’s higher purpose of improving the overall ride quality, we see how the smaller diameter post makes more sense than ever. The 27.2mm post works in tandem with the new frame to take away what chatters, but not what matters. The name of the game is to increase vertical compliance without sacrificing torsional stiffness. While a dropper will get your saddle out of the way, it has little to do with actual ride quality. More on that later.
To achieve their goal, Santa Cruz engineers first ran hundreds of computer simulations exploring different rear triangle configurations. Scrutinizing the shape, size and position of the seat stays, as well as the height and design of the dropouts before making anything rideable. “We ran stiffness analysis for a ton of different iterations, making sure the gains we made in one area didn’t negatively impact other aspects of the ride.” explains Peter Mueller-Wille, “We knew we had landed on a good design when we found a way to increase vertical compliance without compromising stiffness and strength in other areas”.
Highball 3 CC Carbon, XX1, Reserve Specifications:
- Fork: FOX Step-Cast 32 Factory 100 Remote
- R. Derailleur: SRAM XX1 Eagle 12spd
- Shifters: SRAM XX1 Eagle 12spd
- Brakes: SRAM Level Ultimate
- Rotors: SRAM CLX Center Lock – 160mm
- Crankset: SRAM XX1 Eagle DUB 34t – 170mm (S), 175m (M-XL)
- Cassette: SRAM XG1295 Eagle – 12spd, 10-50t
- Chain: SRAM X01 Eagle 12spd
- Handlebar: SCB XC Carbon Flat Bar – 31.8x750mm
- Stem: Syntace LiteForce Stem
- Grips: ESI Chunky Grips
- Headset: Cane Creek AER IS Integrated Headset
- Seatpost: Syntace P6 Carbon HiFlex Seatpost – 27.2mm
- Saddle: WTB Silverado Carbon
- Front Tire: Maxxis Aspen TR – 29×2.25
- Rear Tire: Maxxis Aspen TR – 29×2.25
- Front Hub: DT 240 – 15x110mm, 28h
- Rear Hub: DT 240 – 12x148mm, XD, 28h
- Rim: Santa Cruz Reserve: 25 Carbon – 28h
- Spokes: DT Competition Race
- Weight: Weight: 19.1lbs. / 8.7kg
- Price: $10,499 CAD
Build Options and Price (Prices listed in CAD)
More Information and build options: www.santacruzbicycles.com
Calling on the experience gained from working on other projects in their in-house carbon lab, Santa Cruz was able to optimize carbon layups to further enhance the ride characteristics they were after. The bridgeless rear triangle is a two-piece design, divided in right and left halves. On previous models this was a four-piece design. Santa Cruz engineers succeeded in eliminating a bond joint, helping create a lighter frame and simplifying the joining process.
The new Highball is 1x specific but by designing a dropped drive side chainstay, Santa Cruz engineers have ensured maximum tire clearance and drivetrain options. “Dropping the drive side chainstay allows you to fit a 38t chainring, a 2.4 tire, and still have good tire and mud clearance. We could have compromised one of those parameters, but would much rather not limit the rider because we didn’t feel like trying hard enough to fit everything.” says Peter Mueller-Wille.
Riding the Highball 3
I only had the one ride on the Highball 3, not enough for a comprehensive review but it certainly left me with an impression. We had lots of time and help setting up the bikes, but mine was ready to roll in minutes. At 5’7”, the size medium frame fit perfectly straight out of the box. I adjusted tire pressure, saddle height and lever position, that’s it. With the stock 70mm stem and no fore/aft saddle adjustment required, I felt perfectly positioned over the pedals and able to weigh the front wheel as I liked. Nary a spacer was moved above or below the stem. That may seem like a given these days on modern bikes but we’ve all had that feeling of getting on a bike and having it be so off the mark you don’t know where to begin making it right.
We rode straight out the factory’s front door and enjoyed some amazing singletrack at Wilder Ranch. The trails were buff and flowy, the perfect proving ground for the Highball. No doubt where Santa Cruz mules spent a few days during development. The loop we completed was roughly 35km with 800m of climbing; enough to give me a good sense of what the bike was capable.
The CC Carbon, XX1 Eagle, Reserve build I was on weighed a scant 19lbs. I was very impressed at how burly the bike felt at that weight. The Highball handled precisely with quick steering but could hold its own on fast, loose turns just as comfortably. The Reserve carbon wheels greatly enhanced the overall experience, matching agile cornering and power transfer with a soft touch over the roots and rocks. The 2.25” Maxxis Aspen tires were well-suited to the dry, loose over hard pack trails but felt a bit vague transitioning from braking to cornering knobs. I have nothing else to moan about with any other components on the bike.
As expected, the bike made quick work of the climbs with no wasted energy. The front end didn’t feel tall and remained planted without any front wheel flop. Descending, the bike was well balanced, and I didn’t feel like I was getting tossed around like one would expect on a 8.7kg hardtail. To put it in perspective, my current road bike weighs close to that and I haven’t been on a 32mm fork in years. The fact that I felt so comfortable on this bike says a lot.
The trail network had a proper mix of rocks, braking-bumps and hoof-pitted sections to evaluate what the bike had to offer in the compliance department. I found the ride very forgiving and didn’t feel a need to hold back on anything we rode. Even on the sustained, arm-burning decent back down to the coast, the bike felt fluid and composed.
Overall, on the high amplitude and repetitive rock gardens the bike felt flawless. I’d ride that stuff all day on the Highball. Over bigger roots and square edge hits, the bike was light and maneuverable. The fact that the bike weighs so little really made that aspect of the ride a lot of fun. It was nothing to pull up and clear an entire section of trail. On rolling terrain, predominantly while seated, is the only time I got worked over a bit. I had a few of those oddly timed rollers that served up a decent thump. Out of the saddle was fine, but for those awkward pitches or sustained climbs, avoiding impacts meant riding an inch off the saddle and that can be draining after a while. On the Blur I was able to sit and spin over most of that stuff while maintaining good traction.
Coming full circle to my comment about the dropper post earlier, I had one. To be fair, I made that choice a month out, not knowing what or where I would be riding. I wasn’t the only one who went that route and I did use it more than once on the ride. There are sections I would have ridden much slower without it. We didn’t ride anything gnarly by any means but knowing your saddle is out of the way goes a long way to letting the bike go on unfamiliar trails. In retrospect, I would have really liked to try those sections with the rigid post. I think it would have made a big difference, particularly on this bike, which has been designed around that. Mea culpa.
I would say that Santa Cruz reached its objective and that the bike has a wonderfully dampened feel while remaining lively and responsive. The Highball will take any power you can put down on it: you push, it goes. We rode hard the next day and I didn’t feel any more knackered than I would have had I been on a plush dually the day before. If you’re looking for an efficient, lightweight bike that can give as good as it gets, this bike should be at the top of your list. Be the hammer, not the nail, on the Highball.