A while back I went on a Santa Cruz bike release for the new carbon Highball 29er and 275 (as well as the Stigmata CX bike, see my post here) and we rode them along the Old Ghost Road. Whilst I had a great time, my body took a beating for many reasons associated with riding a hardtail off road for the second time in my life since 1992.
Then that genius ideas guy Caleb Smith (Spoke Magazine's founder) made me race the Highball 275, which I had scored for a long term test, in the Karapoti Classic this year (see Issue 61) which was sort of fun but I hated it all the same.
Why all the angst? I’m just not an XC kind of guy. I’m old… my spine is 49.75 years battered and along the way got hacked into by a French surgeon with mixed results. I'm fat… according to my weight (87kg) versus my height (183cm) so say the medical charts. I’m lazy… says my wife, and I can’t climb hills with any degree of speed… so all my riding buddies keep showing me. But I love to ride and I love a crisp handling lightweight trail bike and I just couldn’t have the Highball sitting in the shed with a rusting chain, now could I? So I had one of my lightbulb moments and decided to prove that a race hardtail could be fun with just a little tweaking.
Luckily the chaps at Santa Cruz were very forward thinking with the number crunching on the Highball, and it blurs the line between XC race and XC trail. Also they cunningly gave this bike a 27.2 seatpost to add a little flex for a bit of comfort, so all I had to do was swap a few bits over and voila! A monster was born.
Due to the beating my back was taking from the stiff carbon frame and Enve M50 wheels, I had to soften things up a bit. Cue my Derby rims built around a set of Hope Evo Pro 2s. Due to the 35mm internal rim width I can run much lower pressures in my WTB Trail Boss and Vigilante 2.3 tyres than the Enves with 2.2 Ikons (see Jeff Carter's post here), 18psi rear and 16psi front in fact. What a difference! Because I was going to be a bit quicker on the downhills I chucked on a pair of 180mm rotors for some skids and stoppie action too.
Next I wanted to lazy up the head angle a tad and luckily most 100mm Fox forks can be extended to 120mm by moving the air rod base plate up the shaft. That got me to about 68 degrees which is pretty spectacular for this type of bike.
The long (80mm) stem and weirdly curving 680mm xc bars that were freaking me out got replaced by a 35mm Easton Haven/Havoc bar/stem combo that have been on just about all the Spoke staffers' bikes at some stage. Perfect for this build at 50mm by 750mm and clashing beautifully with my colour combo so far, the cockpit still feels roomy as the reach for this large frame is a generous 438mm.
And there we have it. All sorted and ready to be ridden like a trail bike but with the weight (23lbs) and handling of a high speed XC missile.
Where did I go for the maiden voyage? My favourite hill of all time, Mt Victoria in Wellington where it’s tight/fast/loose/rutty/rooty and littered with dogs/kids/walkers/runners and other riders. I rode it like I ride my Tracer T275 and scared myself silly, but I was giggling more than usual and my bike handling skills notched up a little in a very short time.
So I’m a little bit excited about this bike again, I’m loving the precision and snap of a stiff ride combined with a set up that mimics my 160mm T275. It has got me thinking about a short travel trail bike again; why are we so enamoured with big travel and lazy angles? Isn’t a greater percentage of our riding either climbing or pedaling along a trail? How much radical descending do we need to get into each ride to justify an "enduro" bike as our daily driver?
Hey, I’m not trying to work it out, all I’m saying is I’m now thinking long and hard again about the ultimate bike when you can have only one bike. Luckily that conundrum is never ever going to be an issue for me as I am a bike nut and officially that means I can legally own five bikes (plus one, or maybe two) at any given time.
I’m still not or ever will be a hardtail sort of guy, but this bike is so much fun now I think it will get a hell of a lot more use from me when I’m on smooth trails or just want to go on an epic mission. Thanks Santa Cruz Highball, you have just lifted my game and given me another reason to smile.