2020 Santa Cruz Tallboy Review
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The 2020 Santa Cruz Tallboy was revamped with lower-link suspension, 120 millimeters of travel, and an interesting axle flip-chip that allows 10mm of chainstay adjustment and clearance for 29 x 2.6″ tires. We’ve put one to the test over the last five months. Here’s our complete review with loads of photos and an analysis of the Tallboy vs. the Ibis Ripley…
Action photos by TJ Kearns
If there was an official historical record of the 29er, the venerated Santa Cruz Tallboy would likely have its own chapter. The original Tallboy debuted back in 2009—at a point when the mainstream mountain bike world still viewed the 29er as a passing fad, and fully suspended 29ers as sheer insanity. But the Tallboy set the bar for what’s possible with a 29er and arguably helped changed the minds of many skeptics. Since then, the full-sus 29er has slowly become widely accepted and most major bike manufacturers have developed well-conceived and fully capable variations on the theme. Even so, the Tallboy remains the archetype. Prior to the 2020 redesign, the Tallboy got upgraded paint schemes and component specs annually with three major revisions, the Tallboy 1 (2009-2013), Tallboy 2 (2013-2016), and Tallboy 3 (2016-2019). We were excited to get the chance to pre-ride the new Tallboy 4, specifically, the 2020 Santa Cruz Tallboy CC X01 RSV. Read on to find out what’s changed, specs, details, impressions, and loads of photos.
Technically, the Tallboy fits neatly in the short-travel 29er class—those in the 120-millimeter travel range, give or take a centimeter—a niche that’s alive and well, albeit a little directionally challenged. One reason that these bikes are popular is that they manage to maintain excellent climbing capability and add enough rear travel to amplify the roll-over-anything advantages of 29er tires. The result is (usually) a bike that maintains good pedaling efficiency, reduces rider fatigue over long days in the saddle, and still punches above its class on more rowdy descents. Bikepackers who are also avid trail mountain bikers (like me) get it, which is why bikes such as the Santa Cruz Tallboy can almost always be found on your local blue-black trails, as well as on the starting line of singletrack-heavy bikepacking races, rides, and routes. With all that said, there’s a shift in thinking to what these bikes can and should do…
- Angles: 65.5° Headtube, 76° Seattube
- BB Drop/Chainstay: 65mm/430-440mm
- Bottom Bracket: 73mm threaded
- Hub specs: TA, 15x110mm, 12x148mm
- Seatpost: 31.6mm
- Max tire size: 29 x 2.6″
- Weight (XL-as tested): TBD
The 2020 Santa Cruz Tallboy: What’s Changed
Although 10mm of additional travel doesn’t seem like much, Santa Cruz insists that the new 120mm Tallboy furthers what short-travel bikes are capable of without sacrificing what short-travel 29ers are known for. That’s the basis of the redesign—bringing the Tallboy back to “being a genre bending folk hero.” The Tallboy was one of Santa Cruz’s last models to get an overhaul, so the changes won’t surprise those following the company. However, pairing a promising suspension redesign with a modern 130mm fork, new-school geometry—and mechanisms to tweak it—should make the Tallboy suited for a little bit of everything. Here are the specifics…
Lower-Link VPP Suspension
The most visible difference between the former (version 3) Tallboy and the V4 model is the move to a lower-link suspension design. This clearly follows the lead and shares engineering principles with the popular and well-reviewed 140mm Santa Cruz Hightower. According to Santa Cruz, this maximizes the efficiency of the VPP (Virtual Pivot Point) design and allows a more responsive, lightweight chassis. From a utility standpoint, this means a single, large(ish) triangle that’s better suited for a frame bag (or a large water bottle). Speaking of bottles, bravo to Santa Cruz for leaving the pair of mounts under the downtube.
Historically speaking, short-travel 29ers have been designed around steeper and more conservative geometries, in part because short-travel bikes are usually pegged for XC-style trails and expected to be ridden more conservatively as a result. However, this is changing. Bikes such as the revamped Ibis Ripley v4 have slacker head angles, steep seat tubes, and longer stances than their predecessors. Similarly, borrowing traits from the Hightower, Santa Cruz’s (more) aggressive 140mm trail 29er, the 2020 Santa Cruz Tallboy has a 65.5° head-angle, generous front center, and steep 76.6° seat tube, numbers that are typically reserved for longer-travel bikes. In essence, the new Tallboy could almost be considered a short-travel Hightower—an enduro rider’s XC bike, if you will. But, all this doesn’t mean it lost its ability to pedal well, which we’ll get to.
Shock and Axle Flip Chips
One of the most interesting changes, partially borrowed from the Hightower, is the use of two flip chip mechanisms to tweak the Tallboy’s geometry. The oval shaped lower-link flip chip sits at the base of the shock mount and adjusts the BB height up and down. When in the rearward (Low) position, it makes the suspension more progressive (more bottom out resistance), and lowers the bottom bracket a hair (38mm vs 40mm in High). This also adjusts the stack height a tad and slackens the head angle by 0.2°.
Even more compelling is the axle flip chip. This swappable pair of drive side axle plates (and reversible non-driveside chip) changes the chainstay length by +/-10mm. The axle flip chip works by moving the threaded axle mount forward or rearward depending on which plate you use (each version—long and short—also corrects the proportions of the derailleur hanger). This provides a rider with the ability to tweak how the bike rides or fits. The shorter chainstay length (430mm) is more playful and lively, and the longer (440mm) is more stable descending and provides more traction for climbing, as well as more stability and comfort over long rides. It also means that taller riders can tailor the fit of the bike and create a balanced front-rear proportion. Additionally, with the rearward plate in place, the Tallboy can fit 29 x 2.6″ tires.
Once the “longer” plates are in place, the Tallboy comfortably fits 29 x 2.6″ tiers with room to spare. In the photo above, that’s a 2.6″ Maxxis Rekon on 36mm IW rims.
2020 Santa Cruz Tallboy CC XO1 RSV Build Kit
The version 4 2020 Santa Cruz Tallboy (and the new Juliana Joplin, which shares the same frame) comes in aluminum, and both C and CC carbon frames. In a nutshell, CC is Santa Cruz’s top tier carbon layup, meaning that they are able to use less carbon than in the C frames, yet retain the same strength, making it a lighter frame. There are also nine build options between the aluminum and carbon models, ranging from the $2,699 AL D to the high end CC XX1 AXS RSV for $10,399. You can also get a CC frame only for $3,099. I’m testing the $8,199 CC XO1 RSV model ($6,999 without the carbon Reserve (RSV) wheels). Here’s the full build kit with impressions following.
- Frame Carbon CC 29 120mm Travel VPP
- Rear Shock FOX Float Performance Elite DPS
- Fork RockShox Pike Select+, 130mm, 29″
- R. Derailleur SRAM X01 Eagle, 12spd
- Shifters SRAM X01 Eagle, 12spd
- Cassette SRAM XG1295 Eagle, 12spd, 10-50t
- Chain SRAM X01 Eagle, 12spd
- Bottom Bracket SRAM DUB 68/73mm Threaded BB
- Headset Cane Creek 40 IS Integrated Headset
- Rear Tire Maxxis Minion DHR II, 29″x2.3″, EXO TR
- Front Tire Maxxis Minion DHF, 29″x2.3″, 3C EXO TR
- Front Hub DT Swiss 350, 15×110, Torque Cap, 28h
- Rims Santa Cruz Reserve 27 29″ Carbon Rims
- Spokes DT Swiss Competition Race
- Rear Hub DT Swiss 350, 12×148, XD, 28h
- Rotors Avid Centerline 180mm
- Brakes SRAM G2 RSC
- Crankset SRAM X1 Eagle Carbon 148 DUB, 32t – 165 (XS) 170mm (S), 175mm (M-XXL)
- Handlebar Santa Cruz AM Carbon
- Stem Race Face Aeffect R
- Saddle WTB Silverado Team Saddle
- Seatpost RockShox Reverb Stealth, 1X Lever, MatchMaker, 31.6
- Grips/Bar Tape Santa Cruz Palmdale Grips
Ultimately, I’m a little conflicted about the XO1 CC [Reserve] build kit that came on the Tallboy I tested. It has some good points and some not so good. Despite the $8,000 price tag, it’s the lowest end of three CC builds (CC represents the top end, lightweight carbon frame construction—the Tallboy is also offered in alloy and the mid-grade “C” carbon).
However, $1,200 of that price is for the carbon Reserve wheel package. The lifetime-warrantied carbon Reserve wheels are solid and definitely improve the build overall, but I’d opt for the Reserve 30 or the new Reserve 37 over these 27mm internal width rims. And I’d also choose I9 Hydra hubs over DT350s for the added engagement speed.
As for the rest of the build, there are a few bits I was pleased with. The 2.3″ Maxxis DHF up front and the DHR in the back make a great combo for the greasy roots and technical terrain that we have in the Pisgah National Forest. And all the cockpit components are nicely done, including the wide 800mm carbon handlebar. Nevertheless, for an $8,000+ bike, I expected the high-end Pike Ultimate to make it into the build. The OEM-specific Pike Select+ functions well enough, and shares the same Charger 2 damper, but it lacks the high speed compression adjustment dial (Open, Pedal, and Firm). Even so, the fork performed well and I didn’t have any complaints while using it. While I’m splitting hairs, I’d probably prefer a cable-actuated dropper post, although the Reverb works well and the current iteration is far more reliable than its predecessors.
Another oddity that I never quite figured out was the Tallboy’s permanently out of tune Eagle derailleur/cassette. I had three mechanics try to dial it in, but the shifting was delayed and off in the mid-gears. As it turned out, this was a problem I had in common with my friend Ryan who bought a Tallboy around the same time. Ultimately, the local bike shop where he purchased it had to replace the cassette to resolve the issue—after quite a few tuning attempts. I’m guessing a bad batch of cassettes may have been specced on this early crop of Tallboys. That same bike shop said that they haven’t had that issue in other Tallboys, including their regularly maintained fleet of rental demos. So, I suspect it was just a fluke.
Lastly, I wasn’t too keen on the SRAM G2 brakes. They didn’t get properly bedded in prior to my receiving the demo, and they squealed to no end for the duration of my review period. I’ve recently been spoiled by new Shimano XTR and XT brakes, and everything else now pales in comparison.
On the Trail
As pictured in many of the clean bike photos (without bags), I initially received a size XL Tallboy. Unfortunately, it was a bit too large to make a full qualitative review. At 6’ 0” tall, I’m within the fit range for a large, which Santa Cruz claims is between 5′ 9″ and 6′ 1″. I was hoping the XL would work, but in the end, it felt awkward when climbing on steep and technical trails, and not as nimble on turns as I expected the large would be. I finally got a hold of a large (as pictured in loaded photos and riding shots) and spent a few months with it for this review.
The Tallboy is positioned as a downhiller’s XC bike, a claim that was an eyebrow furler for me. That either means it’s a jack of all trades and a master of none, or that it excels on one side of the spectrum and falters on the other. Fortunately, after a lot of riding and testing, I decided that it fits somewhere in the middle of those two assumptions.
Considering its progressive geometry, it’s still a relatively quick and snappy bike, ticking a solid 7.5 out of 10 in my XC rating scale. But I guess that scale should be based on what XC means to you. I wouldn’t consider the Tallboy to be an XC race bike destined for timed Saturday laps on stacked singletrack, but it definitely shines bright when descending, making it an excellent XC bike for races in places like Pisgah National Forest or the Colorado Trail. Much of its downhill prowess can be attributed to its slack 65.5° head tube angle, but it’s also partially due to a pretty low bottom bracket—at least when the shock flip chip is in the Low position. All in all, the Tallboy’s well-engineered VPP linkage, paired with a particularly low BB and slack front-end, makes it an extremely fun bike that rides above its suspension class on descents. It turns fluidly and seems to eat up rocks and roots better than 99% of the other short-travel 29ers I’ve ridden.
But as you may have guessed, those same two geometrical aberrations that make it great going down make the Tallboy suffer a little when climbing steep and technical sections. I wouldn’t say it’s bad a bad climber—it’s actually pretty good—it’s just not quite as good as other bikes I’ve ridden. First off, I was plagued by pedal strikes on techy bits—something Ryan experienced as well. Setting the shock chip to High seemed to help, even though it only raises the bottom bracket by 3mm.
I also noticed that the Tallboy can feel a little clumsy when climbing steep trails, but I think this is attributable to another factor other than the slack head angle. While it’s specced with a relatively steep 76.4° seat tube, that number isn’t exact. Santa Cruz’s angle accounts for the effective measurement, meaning it’s measured at the seat post center with the saddle height positioned at or near the headtube height. So, for those of us with longer legs and more seatpost, that angle is actually slacker. This was definitely the case for me and it made the bike feel a little out of balance. I not only had a hard time keeping the front wheel planted, I also had to fight to keep the front end from wandering on ultra-steep climbs. That said, folks who don’t have giraffe legs may not experience this to the same extent.
The Tallboy with 29 x 2.6” Tires
By Ryan Sigsbey
I’d been running 2.6” Teravail Honcho’s on my Karate Monkey for about six months, so when I ended up pulling the trigger on a new 2020 Tallboy with 2.6” clearance, I figured I had to try them out. I swapped the stock wheels and tires for my Honcho’s mounted to I9 Enduro 305 rims with the Hydra hubs and hit the trail. As you’d expect, the wider tires provide great traction while climbing and even seemed to roll slightly better than the stock Minions (although at slower speeds I could definitely feel the bigger tires). The bike also lost some of its nimble characteristics climbing through the technical roots and rocks here in Pisgah, a place where I feel like being able to change your line choice at a moment’s notice comes in handy.
Once I pointed downhill I was happy to have the extra rubber for traction especially in the corners and the longer chainstay required for the axle chip swap had a more stable feel. I think a lot of the differences come down to tire choice and not necessarily width. And you can always run the stock Minion 2.3” tire in the rear with the axle flip chip in the longer position if that’s your preference. That’s the great thing about this bike is the amount of options available to cater to your preferences or fit.
In the end I liked the more playful feel of the shorter chainstay length so I threw a Maxxis Ardent 2.4” on the rear but ended up keeping the Honcho on the front for now. I’m planning to do some bikepacking on the Tallboy this summer and will likely switch back to the 2.6s. I think the more stable platform and extra traction will be a welcome addition to my setup.
I rode the Santa Cruz Tallboy with a fairly lightweight overnight bikepacking kit on a couple of occasions. In one sense, I almost preferred how it felt with the added weight. The load tempered its progressive feel and added some stability when climbing, and it still remained playful while descending. All in all, I was nicely surprised and think this could be a great bike for the AZT or other singletrack-heavy races where a light load is all you need.
A couple things to note about packing and space. As shown above, Porcelain Rocket was kind enough to make a custom 52hz waterproof roll-top frame bag. The bag features a bolt-on design with a Voilé strap closure. This was a great option as it allowed me to pack it wide to accommodate more stuff than would have been possible with a normal zippered frame pack. Also, as shown, I ran my trusty 22oz Klean Kanteen with a King Cage Iris under the downtube. I was pleasantly surprised that it had almost zero front tire interference as long as I was somewhat gentle on bigger root drops. Lastly, there was one issue when it comes to packing the bike. The internally routed cables exit to the controls pretty far forward on the headtube. This required them to be bent dramatically to secure the base of the roll to the headtube (almost crimped), which was a bit of an issue. The Rockgeist BarJam might be a good remedy.
Santa Cruz Tallboy vs. Ibis Ripley
I demoed a lot of short-travel 29ers last year with the intent of finding a favorite to purchase as my own. The two that ended up on the short list were the Ibis Ripley and the new Santa Cruz Tallboy, which are quite similar and both tick a lot of boxes that are important to me. For one, they both have clearance for 29 x 2.6” tires. Each also has a fairly progressive trail geometry characterized by a steep seat tube and relatively slack headtube angle. And they’re both designed around a solid 120/130mm suspension design. To further dissect their strengths and weaknesses, here’s a geometric comparison, followed by my observations after spending a lot of time with each.
As shown above, the key geometry numbers on these two bikes are quite similar. The two main differentiators are the seat tube angle (STA) and head tube angle (HTA). The Tallboy’s specified STA is close to the Ibis’ but Santa Cruz’s number accounts for the effective measurement, as mentioned above. This means it’s measured based on the saddle height positioned at or near the headtube height. The Tallboy’s headtube angle is also significantly slacker, making it more downhill centric and noticeably more clumsy when climbing.
Ultimately, both of these bikes have their share of advantages and disadvantages. In a nutshell, the Tallboy is a tad more confident when descending, whereas the Ripley is a superior climber. I was torn on my decision until the 11th hour, but ultimately decided to purchase the Ripley. That certainly won’t be the case for everyone, including Ryan, who bought the Tallboy. Here’s a list of factors that might help if you’re also weighing your options:
- Downhill performance is more important than climbing advantage
- You want the ability to lengthen the chainstay and tweak the geometry
- Extra tire clearance is important (it has a little extra wiggle room for 2.6” tires)
- You’re short or very tall (XS and XXL sizes are available)
- Under downtube bottle mounts are important
- You like technical climbing and performance is important in that regard
- You have long legs and want to maintain a steep seat angle (Tallboy has a bent seat tube, creating an effective STA that will change with a longer post)
- You ride a large or XL and want a hair more frame bag space; Ripley’s split triangle actually has more volume available than the Tallboy
- You want a more budget Shimano 12-speed build (SLX build available for $5,079 and XT build for $5,799; Tallboy only has XTR for $9,799)
- Well engineered suspension redesign that makes it aesthetically pleasing and one of the most downhill-capable short-travel 29ers on the market
- Clearance for 29 x 2.6” tires
- Adjustable geometry with axle and shock flip chips
- Purple colorway looks really nice
- Santa Cruz preserved under downtube bottle mounts (bike has two pairs)
- Odd build spec with a few cons (as detailed above under Build Kit)
- Can get a little clumsy and wandering on steep climbs (especially for us long-legged riders)
- Despite the lower linkage shock, it still has a relatively small frame bag space in the triangle
- The internally routed cables exit the headtube pretty far forward which was a bit of an issue with a standard handlebar roll
I think Santa Cruz made some great decisions with the latest Tallboy redesign, in addition to making it really aesthetically pleasing. Alongside opening up the frame triangle, retaining two pairs of bottle mounts, and adding a clever axle flip chip (to allow bigger 29 x 2.6″ tires) and shock chip with low/high settings (which allows geometric flexibility), Santa Cruz’s move toward a more aggressive trail geometry makes it an excellent bike that toggles well between unloaded trail riding, singletrack-focused bikepacking, and backcountry exploration. While it may suffer a little on steep climbs, its progressive geometry definitely punches above its weight class when pointed downhill.