2020 must be my lucky year because the opportunity to build up a totally custom cross-country race bike arose at the end of 2019.
Naturally, I jumped at the chance and got building this ready-to-race 9.03kg Santa Cruz Highball CC.
Santa Cruz Highball CC long-term review conclusions
With no racing for the foreseeable future, it’s time to say goodbye to my Santa Cruz Highball. We’ve not been together long but have shared plenty of highs along the way.
As mentioned in my first report, I’m a racer who likes to travel abroad and I wanted a bike that would require minimal maintenance. Luckily, the Highball has fulfilled my niche requirements perfectly.
Impressively, and despite the thrashing I’ve given the bike, I’ve suffered no mechanical failures during the testing period.
The external Rotor bottom bracket is still running smooth and I know when the time comes to finally switch it out, it will be a much easier job than if the Highball had an internal/press fit BB.
Power meter exploits
I like to train with power, so was interested to see how the relatively new Rotor INspider power meter would hold up.
I’ve tested three or four different power meters from Rotor in the past, and while they’re usually very reliable, I do find they read a little high compared to something like an SRM. The INspider was no different.
However, while it may read slightly high, it crucially stayed very consistent, so I was able to track any training improvements easily.
Previous Rotor power meters have suffered from signal dropouts, but the INspider didn’t drop out once during the eight-month testing period.
Getting a grip on it
Having used rubber lock-on grips for the last couple of years, it’s been fun to go back to ESI’s Chunky silicone grips. They’re the gold standard for many XC racers, and I’d forgotten how comfortable the generously sized grips are.
On any jittery washboard trails, they do genuinely seem to take some of the sting and buzz out of your hands.
From this day forward, I’ve made a vow to myself to never use another grip on an XC race bike again!
Not quite perfect
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that in my video review of the Highball, I said the Schwalbe Rocket Ron tyres were amazing.
Despite being a fairly dated design, they’d always been reliable and I could count the amount of punctures I’d had on one hand.
Well, just after filming said video, I catastrophically punctured the rear Rocket Ron tyre on my commute home through a park. Am I cursed? Or, was it just bad luck?
If it happens again soon, I may have to try another brand, so the Rocket Rons are currently skating on thin ice.
Santa Cruz Highball CC long-term review highs
By far the best moment with the Highball was racing the four day UCI Club La Santa stage race in Lanzarote at the beginning of the year. It’s an S1 category race, so attracts a world class field, with some Olympic hopefuls thrown into the mix.
Being far from world-class, I was fully expecting to get a kicking. However after training hard throughout the winter on the indoor Wahoo Kickr bike I mentioned in my previous column, I ended up coming 33rd out of around 80 elites.
This even netted me two whole UCI points. However, as I doubt I’ll be racing again in 2020, I haven’t been able to take advantage of the better grid positioning UCI points holders get.
The result was all the sweeter because with my first baby being due in July, I doubt I’ll be doing any serious racing until I’m well into the vets category.
So, while I didn’t know it was my final race at the time, it was great to go out on a high, with one of my best ever results, on one of the best hardtails I’ve ever ridden.
Santa Cruz Highball CC long-term review lows
In terms of lows, there isn’t too much to report. Perhaps if I could have tested the bike for longer something might have cropped up, but on the whole the Highball has been trouble free.
Compared to a bike such as a Specialized S-Works Epic HT, it is on the weighty side, coming in just over 1,000g for a size large frame. But hopefully what it lacks in feathery weight, it makes up for in durability.
XC bikes continue to get slacker, so Santa Cruz could probably knock another degree off the head angle and steepen the seat angle to 74 degrees.
I am being picky though, and I’m sure my skills would let me down long before the current geometry on the Highball would.
Santa Cruz Highball CC long-term review verdict
The highball may just be the ideal hardtail for the type of riding I like to do; XC racing mixed up with some gravel and even road riding.
It might not be 100 per cent perfect – but which bike is? – and I can safely say I’ve loved every minute of my time aboard it.
A teary farewell to Joe
BikeRadar’s much-loved YouTube extraordinaire, Joe Norledge, has now moved on to pastures new, working for another YouTube channel. That means this’ll be the last long-term update we get from our ultra-fit XC racer.
Santa Cruz Highball CC long-term review update two
At the time of writing, all of BikeRadar’s staff are complying with the UK’s lockdown rules. For me this has meant no racing and very little off-road riding. However, that doesn’t mean the Santa Cruz has been gathering dust in the shed.
Just like many people who would like to keep on top of their fitness, I’ve turned to indoor training for my fix, using a Wahoo Kickr Core with the boost spacing adaptors.
For a relatively inexperienced indoor trainer like myself, it was relatively easy to set up and once paired with Wahoo’s app I was able to dial in the resistance for my training workouts.
This is where I found out smart trainers have taken a quantum leap in terms of technology and performance when compared to my old faithful wheel-on turbo trainer bought in 2009.
Using the ERG mode you can dial in your target watts and the trainer will hold you at these watts no matter your cadence. It’s incredibly useful when you’re working on the higher torque efforts usually found in mountain biking.
Unsurprisingly, the pedalling feel of a direct-drive trainer is far better than a bog-standard turbo. Even when pushing hard, or during out of the saddle efforts, there’s no tyre slip that you would usually associate with wheel-on trainers.
In short, I’ve been impressed with the Wahoo Kickr Core and can’t believe it’s taken me this long to finally try one. It still doesn’t quite beat training outdoors though.
On the subject of training outdoors, I have been using some of my government permitted exercise for a bit of local road riding aboard the Highball.
Being a creature of habit, I do a set loop most days which takes in a couple of climbs closer to home. The only set up changes I make when road riding are to pump the tyres up to around 32psi and permanently lock out the fork.
I’ve spent a lot of time riding mountain bikes on the road and it’s still surprising how quickly you can cover ground on them. They may not have the snap and acceleration of a road bike, but once up to speed, a hardtail 29er still feels fairly nippy.
Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to when we can get back out on the trails with friends, but for now I’m very happy to be able to get some exercise on the Highball CC.
Whether in my shed or out on the road, it still feels great to get the blood pumping and feel the wind, even if it’s from an electric fan, in my hair.
Previous updates continue below.
Santa Cruz Highball CC long-term review update one
February was the wettest month on record in the UK, but fortunately for me I was able to head out to Lanzarote at the end of January for a four day UCI stage race.
It was the first chance to test the Highball against the clock and against world-class competition – Italian world cup podium finisher Luca Braidot was there.
Safe to say I’d see him briefly at the start before he rode off into the distance.
As I mentioned in my initial update, the Highball’s riding position immediately felt like home. So despite the searingly fast starts, I found myself pedalling well and confidently able to navigate the short, loose climbs that riding in Lanzarote is known for.
Stage three was a mountain time-trial, and as I enjoy a bit of solo suffering/climbing it was the day I was looking forward to the most.
I mentioned in my earlier report (see below) that the Highball didn’t feel as stiff as something like a Specialized S-Works Epic, but I’m still not sure if unyielding stiffness really helps when racing.
However, after nearly an hour of climbing, I finished with an almost identical time to my 2018 and 2019 TT times on the same climb. So, regardless of the perceived lack of stiffness, I’m certainly not going any slower on the Highball.
The weather in Lanzarote can be changeable in January, with rainstorms and howling winds making for some tricky conditions. Thankfully we were blessed with light winds and wall to wall sunshine throughout the four days of racing in 2020.
This meant I was able to work on my tan, but also meant my tyre choice came back to bite me on the fourth stage.
In previous years the rain would harden up the sandy sections that stage 4 is known for. However, the dry conditions this year caused riders to sink deep into said sand. My 2.25in Schwalbe Rocket Ron tyres – while very, very fast rolling – were too narrow and I ended up sinking into the sand and losing the group of riders I was with.
While 2.35in wide tyres wouldn’t have given me fat bike-like performance, I think they would have helped me stay in contention for a little longer and perhaps I could have gained a few places on the fourth and final day.
Either way, it was an amazing trip and I finished in 31st place out of 77 elite riders. This was good enough to gain me two whole UCI points [Eds note: amazing work Joe!), so hopefully I’ll get a better gridding position for the races later on in the year.
I’m enjoying every minute on my Highball and we’re developing a good relationship, so fingers crossed that continues, and more racing can take place again soon, too.
The original story continues below.
Santa Cruz Highball CC custom build specification and details
The fork is RockShox’ new top-spec SID Ultimate Carbon; very blue, very shiny and with a carbon crown and steerer. It’s not cheap, but it is very light.
The groupset is a mish mash of SRAM and rotor components: SRAM X01 Eagle rear mech, X01 cassette and GX Eagle shifter, then Rotor’s Kapic carbon crankset, Inspider power meter and 34t Q-Ring. I’ve been really impressed with the Rotor products so far, and will do a full update in the coming months.
Brakes are Shimano’s XTR race models. Again, very light, although perhaps not quite as powerful as the competition, but more testing will be needed.
Finishing kit is all from Shimano’s in-house brand, PRO Components, and, so far, it’s performed really well.
Wheels are actually from my 2019 long-term test bike in the shape of FSE’s 30XC-EXL wheels. I liked them so much last year that I thought why change, so they’ll be getting another thrashing in 2020. Did I mention they weigh just 1,190g!
Pedals are Shimano XTR, grips are ESI chunky and the tyres (for now) are some old Schwalbe Racing Ralphs I had lying around. I’m aiming to change these to some Maxxis models before the first races of the season.
Santa Cruz Highball CC custom build geometry
Without sounding like a broken record, cross-country courses are getting more technical and demanding, which means geometry has had to keep up with this trend.
Santa Cruz is a brand more associated with gravity riding, so it comes as no surprise that most of the Highball’s geometry sits on the progressive side for an XC bike.
The stand out figures are the 450mm reach in a size large, 1,140mm wheelbase and 69.5-degree head angle – you’ll find out more about those figures further down the page.
- Head angle: 69.5 degrees
- Seat angle: 73 degrees
- Chainstay: 426mm
- Seat tube: 470mm
- Top tube: 638mm
- Head tube: 110mm
- Bottom bracket drop: 56mm
- Wheelbase: 1,140mm
- Stack: 615mm
- Reach: 450mm
Why did I choose this bike?
Being an XC racer, and loving the ups possibly more than the downs, I was always going to choose a hardtail. Full suspension absolutely has its place in XC, but I wanted something that would also require minimal maintenance to go with the minimal weight. With fewer moving parts, a hardtail is perfect for the riding I do.
That doesn’t mean it has to be a twitchy and unforgiving ride though. With a size large having a respectably long wheelbase of 1,140mm, a reach of 450mm and head angle of 69.5 degrees, the Highball will hopefully be able to handle more than the 71.5-degree head angled XC bikes of old.
Coupled with the drastically dropped seatstays (a trend we’re seeing a lot of in the road cycling world), the Highball should, in theory, offer some comfort and compliance to match the more contemporary geometry.
Finally, it has an external bottom bracket. Hurray! Fans of BikeRadar will know we almost universally love external bottom brackets when compared to their internal counterparts. They’re easier to install, easier to service and, on the whole, make bike maintenance much simpler. In my eyes, this can only be a good thing.
Santa Cruz Highball CC custom build initial setup
As hardtail XC bikes are relatively simple machines, the setup procedure is also nice and easy: Is everything on tight and to the correct torque? Yes. Have you set the tyres up tubeless? Yes. Are the brakes rubbing? No.
And finally, what pressure have you set the fork? Weighing 64kg, I went for the recommended 90psi. So far I haven’t done much fettling with spring rate and compression settings, but hopefully I’ll have a clearer picture by my next update.
Santa Cruz Highball CC custom build ride impressions
In the past few years I’ve ridden plenty of the current crop of high-end, super-fast XC hardtails, including the Specialized S-Works Epic, Scott Scale, Cannondale FSI, Orbea Alma and the BMC Teammachine.
After riding the Santa Cruz for around a month, I can safely say it’s up there with the very best. However, it’s not without its quirks, but I’ll go over the resounding positives first.
Often, when you first jump on a bike, it can take a few rides before it feels right. You need some time to adjust to the geometry and any differences in componentry. But, occasionally, you get on a bike and it immediately feels like home.
I had this with my 2018 long-termer, a Specialized S-Works Epic, and the Highball felt similarly brilliant from the moment I turned the pedals.
This was somewhat of a surprise because I was expecting to struggle to find an efficient pedalling position with the relatively slack 73-degree seat angle. However, by slamming the seat nearly all the way forward on the rails, and coupled with the long (for an XC bike) reach, the bike pedalled nicely.
I was curious to see how the aforementioned longer reach and wheelbase would feel on a dedicated race bike, and so far it has impressed. For a hardtail, the bike feels planted on the descents, yet still snappy enough to tackle most tight/twisting terrain. Although more time on the bike over different types of terrain is needed before giving a final verdict.
The dropped stays provide just enough compliance that you notice it’s there. How much will this help on longer races? Well, I’ll need to do some longer races to find out, and they’re coming later in the year.
Quirks of the Highball CC
It’s possibly down to the drastically dropped seatstays, and the narrow bottom bracket shell (BB), which is a consequence of the external BB, but the Highball perhaps isn’t as earth-shatteringly stiff as the S-Works Epic I rode in 2018.
I say possibly, because stiffness is nigh-on impossible to objectively measure by just riding a bike. Other components can also interfere with how stiff a bike ‘feels’, such as wheels, tyres, tyre pressure, cranks, handlebars… the list goes on. So I’m always cautious when judging stiffness.
It’s also worth mentioning that I’m just as fast on the Highball as any other XC bike I’ve ridden in the last few years, so the perceived lack of stiffness certainly isn’t affecting the bike’s performance. Yet, that feeling is there, so it’s worth mentioning.
Another quirk has been some water ingress into the frame. On closer inspection, it turned out the removable port/bashguard that sits underneath the top tube near the bottom bracket was slightly loose. Since re-tightening I haven’t had any issues, but it’s worth keeping an eye on if you happen to own this frameset. If any sand ended up in there, it could be fairly tricky to get out.
Santa Cruz Highball CC custom build upgrades
As the bike is totally custom, upgrades will have to wait for now. Often when you get the chance to spec a bike exactly how you want, you end up with very little you’d like to change.
However, I do have my eye on some super-lightweight components from Italy, so keep your eyes peeled for my next instalment – the Highball may have been on another diet.
BikeRadar’s 2020 long-term test bikes
At the start of the year, every member of the BikeRadar team selects a long-term test bike to ride over the course of the following 12 months. Some choose a bike from their favoured discipline and ride it hard for a year, others opt for a bike that takes them outside of their comfort zone.
Our long-term test gives us the opportunity to truly get to grips with these machines, so we can tell you how they perform through different seasons and on ever-changing terrain.
We also use them as test beds for the latest kit, chopping and changing parts to see what really makes the difference – and help you decide which upgrades are worth spending your money on.
To see all of the BikeRadar team’s 2020 bikes – and stay up-to-date with the latest developments – visit our long-term review hub.
|Price||AUD $2899.00EUR €1999.00GBP £1699.00USD $1899.00|
|Weight||9.03kg (Large) – Custom build|
|What we tested||Santa Cruz Highball 29 CC custom build|
|Available sizes||Small, medium, large, extra-large|
|Brakes||Shimano XTR race|
|Cranks||Rotor Kapic Carbon with Inspider power meter|
|Fork||RockShox SID Ultimate Carbon|
|Frame||Santa Cruz Highball CC|
|Handlebar||PRO Tharsis XC flat 720mm|
|Rear derailleur||SRAM X01 Eagle|
|Saddle||PRO Falcon Carbon|
|Seatpost||PRO Tharsis XC 27.2mm 0mm offse|
|Stem||PRO Tharsis XC 80mm|
|Tyres||Schwalbe Racing Ralph|