Wednesday, September 07, 2022

RoadTrailRide: Santa Cruz Highball Review

Article by John Tribbia

Editor's Note: Many of our contributors are also hard core cyclists and cross training on bikes is great training for runners. So, starting here at RoadTrailRun and soon on a new site RoadTrailRide we will be covering cycle gear with a focus on the cross training runner. John is not only a top and formerly sponsored mountain runner but in earlier years was a top junior road and mountain bike racer who still rides a lot.

Santa Cruz Highball ($3459)


Spoiler alert: I’m a runner. But I started my endurance addiction on my mountain bike exploring my hometown in high school. While finding success domestically and internationally on the trails, by foot, I frequently use bikes for cross training while injured, supplemental training, and commuting. As a trail runner who has a proclivity for uphills, I’ve found that riding bikes has significant crossover benefit for improving cardiovascular fitness and endurance without all of the pounding. And, it can help build underdeveloped muscles that can actually improve uphill running economy. 

I recently took the Santa Cruz Highball hardtail mountain bike for a 20 minute test ride and found it to be fast, stable, and versatile across multiple terrain types and distances. I specifically sought out the Highball because, on paper and visually, it seemed like a bike that would suit the type of riding I enjoy - longer hill climbs, dirt and paved roads, and a small mix of single track. While it is a capable race bike, it is also an excellent ride for recreational enthusiasts or cross-training athletes because of the wide gear range that makes this bike both powerful and efficient through steep and/or technical climbs, while the long wheelbase provides expert and novice riders with stability and control on descents. 

Pros and Cons


  • Immediately comfortable ride with all of the features in a hardtail to reduce vibration and trail bumpiness 

  • The carbon frame and Rock Shox SID front suspension fork create a stiff, stable, responsive, and forgiving ride

  • Efficient climber thanks to geometry and 1x12 gearing

  • Maxxis Aspen TR tires are great on loose dirt and are a great all-around tire


  • Excellent option for larger riders, but it took a few adjustments for my small body frame to find an optimal fit

  • Might be too much bike for entry level riders, but it is really fun to ride and could inspire a lifelong passion for bikes if they do start out on it!





    $3,549 USD


    11.2kg / 24.68lbs

    Frame Material

    Carbon C


    RockShox Sid SL Base, 100mm w/ Remote


    SRAM NX Eagle, 12spd, 11-50t (rear cassette)


    SRAM NX Eagle, 12spd

First Impressions

Tight rear geometry, Maxxis Aspen TR tires, and wide range gearing make the Highball a climbing machine. 

The first thing that captures my eye on the Highball is the rear seat stay / seat tube triangle. The compact dimension and angling would make me think it is optimized for uphill riding. As I expected, the Highball performs really well on the climbs and does comparably well on rolling dirt or paved roads. The rear geometry with the seat stays joining the seat tube below the top tube junction, according to Santa Cruz, is also intended to keep the rear wheel closer to the ground and minimize trail bumpiness, giving versatility to the type of terrain the Highball is able to comfortably navigate. Even though the Highball is a hardtail, it rides through choppy terrain with forgiveness and grounding thanks to the rear geometry and carbon frame. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a full-suspension type of forgiveness, but it brings some relief to a bike that’s only 25 lb


Hardtail mountain bikes can get a bad rap because they can be harsh to ride. But, they don’t have to be and the Santa Cruz Highball demonstrates how and why. By dropping the seat stay / seat tube junction by about 2 inches, the Highball produces a smoother, less bumpy ride than the old myth suggests.

Rear seat stay / seat tube junction looks a lot like a full suspension rear, providing excellent compliance for a hardtail.

That said, it isn’t going to prevent a harsh ride altogether, especially in technical trail sections with tight turns or washboard dirt roads, but it descends quite well for a hardtail regardless. What I love most about this bike is its ability to feel good over long distances in mellow terrain and killer climbing ability. Chalk that up to the lightweight frame and tight geometry.  I found the Highball to perform as good (or better) on dirt roads than many gravel bikes out there. The gearing is perfect for steep, unrelenting climbs. 

The geometry is compact and generates a lot of pop and response on uphills


I’m 5’6” and have a short torso. I would not characterize the fit of the Santa Cruz Highball as compact. In contrast to other carbon hardtails like the Pivot LES 2 or the Specialized Epic HT, the Highball has a longer reach. After a few minor adjustments, I was able to find the right fit, but it  is definitely well suited for larger framed people. Notwithstanding, the geometry of the bike puts your body over the pedals, ensuring optimal pedal position for power and speed. 

Longer reach is great for taller riders, but was more challenging for my short reach. 


The Santa Cruz Highball is a fast, stable, long distance mountain bike that can tackle a variety of terrain. Because it performs well in chossy technical stuff (i.e. like a “soft” hardtail) with vertical compliance and can take on long distances (i.e. like a flat bar gravel bike) with the long wheelbase, it is a great do-it-all bike to have in your quiver. Moreover, the range of gears on the 1x12 drivetrain ensures no climb is too steep. 

This bike is suited for endurance enthusiasts to weekend warriors to serious XC racers. At $3,549 in the base model R / Carbon C, it isn’t the most budget friendly of hardtails on the market but it comes equipped with high quality components and (of course) a super lightweight carbon frame!

Ride - 9/10 (fast, energetic, and compliant on the bumpy stuff )

Fit - 8.5/10 (points off for longer reach for smaller riders like myself)

Specs - 9.5/10 (top quality for their entry level version)

Fun Factor (out of 5) - 🙌 🙌 🙌 🙌 🙌

Overall Average: 9 / 10

Tester Profile

John Tribbia is a regular technical reviewer for running-oriented product testing website RoadTrailRun with a large readership domestically and internationally. He has other writing about NAAWK Sunscreen, Thule Jogging Strollers, Atlas Snowshoe Running, and Yuba Cargo E-Bike (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). 

He dabbled in bike racing both mountain and road as a junior Cat 5 and eventually upgraded to Expert on the mountain bike. After his brief stint of cycling racing and once in college, John crossed over to running and found success as a sponsored mountain/trail runner by placing atop the podium in domestic and international races. But he always kept his bikes nearby for cross training while injured, supplemental training, and commuting. Given that cross-over experience as well as 6+ years of working at University Bikes in Boulder, CO and over 20 years of competitive running, he loves the opportunity to test the latest and greatest in both sports. 

PC: Santa Cruz and John Tribbia

Samples were provided at no charge for review purposes. RoadTrail Run has affiliate partnerships and may earn commission on products purchased through affiliate links in this article. These partnerships do not influence our editorial content. The opinions herein are entirely the authors'

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hopefully this basic racing mtb puts everything into perspective for runners. We are so fortunate not to have to spend thousands to be competitive.