Santa Cruz Tallboy 3 XX1 AM29 review

Can Santa Cruz’s game changer still win a changing game?

BikeRadar score4/5

The original Santa Cruz Tallboy was the bike that put the lead in the 29er pencil. Tallboy 'the third' is being born into a far more competitive, densely populated trail 29er category where it’s impossible for it to be as outstanding. It also joins the Santa Cruz line up on the heels of the slightly slacker, but still very XC capable, 135mm travel Hightower. That meant it took a while to find the true strengths of the Tallboy and you might be as surprised as we were when you find out what they are.

Santa Cruz hasn’t lost sight of what it wants from the Tallboy, though, and the ‘trail not race’ intent couldn’t have been more clearly communicated in its launch video. In it, Santa Cruz DH legend Greg Minnaar misses the start of the Cape Epic XC race and then deliberately takes a highly technical, maximum fun trail to the finish, rather than the official race route.

That’s why, while some 100 to 120mm travel race focused bikes with a Race Face Next SL and XX1 build would be rolling out at around 10kg, our sample just scraped under 12kg. The reason is the frame is built tough not feather light at 2.7kg (6lb) for a large.

The build kit also includes 2.3in Maxxis Minion DHF front tyre, Fox 34 fork, 780mm handlebar, and a stealth routed RockShox Reverb dropper post. In other words, it’s fully equipped to tackle a bouldery black run or survive anything you’re likely to meet on even the lairiest trail ride.

The super low slung, extended seat tube frame shape also puts the centre of gravity very low as well as making sizing up for a long reach easy (L is 450mm, XL is 475mm). Add a super durable threaded (not press fit) bottom bracket, grease injected DIY adjustable suspension bearings and moulded frame protection panels, and Tallboy is a bike built to last.

The Performance EVOL shock has a firm feel
The Performance EVOL shock has a firm feel

Despite the low belly and tough kit, the 29er Tallboy is definitely a survivor not a thriver on properly challenging terrain, though. While it’s not as chain reactive as it was, the VPP suspension still tugs back hard through the pedals if you hit something big. Add a relatively firm shock feel through the Fox Performance Elite EVOL shock, even with the low speed compression damping minimised, and it’s enough to knock you out of pedalling rhythm and jolt traction away under power.

Even by 110 to 130mm travel standards, it struggles to carry speed over medium to bigger blocks, particularly in sequential hit situations. While the single piece asymmetric back-end and twin linkages are very stiff, it tends to kick off to one side rather than tracking over trouble, too.

As well as Boost chainset and axle spacings, the rear stays are also shaped to take up to a 3in wide 27.5in plus-tyre on a 40mm rim 

The Performance Elite FIT4 model is effectively the same as the Factory version, just without the gold Kashima leg coating, but the Fox 34 doesn’t handle bigger hits well. It isn’t stickily supple or particularly stiff either, and combined with a 68 degree head angle meant even the big bars and normally safe hands of the DHF front tyre couldn’t stop us from losing the front-end and crashing out of corners several times at first. Compared to the Hightower and the best descenders in its shorter travel category, it was a handful we hung onto rather than a DH dominator.

Whenever we did crash, though, we were absolutely flying, and while it isn’t a natural on the biggest and most relentless descents (it is only a 110mm travel bike after all) it is outstandingly rapid the rest of the time. While it chokes if you punch it in the throat with a rock, the suspension reaction that sets pedal torque against shock compression gives it a very direct, addictively aggressive power delivery on smoother surfaces.

The steeper head angle means it can hook a flat or climbing turn hard and fast, rather than finding space for the wheel to wander wide. Even in this trail weight build, that meant it’s a savagely quick ride if you point it skywards. And that’s only going to get better if you choose the frame only option and build it up with lighter wheels and fork.

The interactive suspension, low slung weight and stiff frame also make it a full gas blast to pump and pop on rolling, rise and fall, hip and lip trails, and it’s far more accurate and hard driving than a pure race bike such as Yeti’s ASRc or Niner’s JET 9.

The TB3 it isn’t a natural on the biggest and most relentless descents, it is outstandingly rapid the rest of the time
The TB3 it isn’t a natural on the biggest and most relentless descents, it is outstandingly rapid the rest of the time

Pressing the big button

There’s a whole other side to the Tallboy we’ve not yet touched that totally flips the way it rides. As well as Boost chainset and axle spacings, the rear stays are also shaped to take up to a 3in wide 27.5in plus-tyre on a 40mm rim and, to our surprise, that’s when the TB3 really started working for us.

The hard driving suspension is perfect for off-setting the extra weight of the big tyres and wheels, and the 68 degree head angle meant the steering never felt too slow. The super soft ground connection of the tyres sucked all the spikes out of the suspension and erased all but the biggest impacts. We went from being wary of the front tyre in corners, to almost brushing the bars on the ground without losing grip, and the level of braking adhesion is nothing short of insane.

Less travel also means the extra unsprung weight doesn’t have the same rebound retarding lag/clunk you can feel on longer travel plus bikes. In fact, the control and speed sustain advantage of plus-tyres was enough to be over 30 seconds quicker on back to back runs of five minute rocky descents. We’d probably have been even quicker had we not freewheeled to make sure the two runs were comparable.

While they feel slow and draggy, rolling speed in the rough is actually better on the bigger tyres, climbing traction is crazy and it still smashed up road hill sprints the same way as it did on 29er wheels. Given our plus experiments were conducted with £300 Halo wheels and WTB tyres, you’re effectively getting a totally different ‘second bike’ for an absolute song too, and whichever way you end up running your TB it certainly adds a whole other level of versatility to this totally modern trail warrior.

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.

Guy Kesteven

Freelance Writer, UK
Guy started filling his brain with cycle stats and steaming up bike shop windows back in 1980. He worked the other side of those windows from '89 while getting a degree in “describing broken things covered in mud" (archaeology). Dug historical holes in the ground through the early '90s, then became a pro bike tester in '97. Guy has ridden thousands of bikes and even more components the world over since then and can remember them all in vivid, haunting detail. Can't remember where the car keys are, though.
  • Age: 45
  • Height: 180cm / 5' 11"
  • Weight: 68kg / 150lb
  • Waist: 76cm / 30in
  • Chest: 91cm / 36in
  • Discipline: Strict sadomasochist
  • Preferred Terrain: Technical off-piste singletrack and twisted back roads. Up, down, along — so long as it's faster than the last time he did it he's happy.
  • Current Bikes: An ever changing herd of test machines from Tri bikes to fat bikes and everything in between.
  • Dream Bike: His Nicolai Helius AM custom tandem
  • Beer of Choice: Theakston's Old Peculier (not Peculiar)
  • Location: Yorkshire, UK

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