Photos by Sven Martin.
After much speculation, Santa Cruz dropped a somewhat unexpected pair of bikes on the public, with a return of the Stigmata cyclocross bike and a refreshed Highball carbon hardtail with new geometry and a second wheelsize.
The bikes were introduced on the South Island of New Zealand, perhaps the most picturesque place I’ve ever visited, and a warm respite from the bitter cold back at Dirt Rag HQ. Our guides for the week were Anka and Sven Martin, who get the eternal summer every year, splitting time between the race circuit in the Northern Hemisphere and the rest of the year down south. They also somehow find the time to run HouseMartin All Mountain Adventure guide service, and I’d be happy to recommend them.
I am also quite jealous of their 4×4 adventure van:
On to the bikes….
About a decade ago, Santa Cruz released an aluminum cyclocross bike which became an instant favorite. Long after it ceased production Santa Cruz still received regular requests for frames and sponsored riders like Steve Peat were still riding their old Stigmatas for training.
The new Stigmata is full carbon fiber with all the modern standards, including a first for Santa Cruz, a press fit bottom bracket shell (we are as shocked as you are). All cables are routed internally and in true race bike style, there are no fender or rack mounts. Tire clearance is generous, with room for a 41 mm tire, so this could be a hell of a dirt road bomber as well.
After lunch in Nelson, we all headed about an hour out of town to stay at the Kimi Ora eco resort located inside the Kaiteriteri Mountain bike park. A small group of us took a quick rip on the Stigmata to get dialed in for the next day’s ride. Stateside, we know a bike park as ski resort/downhill trails, but this bike park is mostly purpose-built cross country tracks, with a few faster and more technical trails.
We took most of the next day to ride a abandoned mining rail line, ending up at the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge in the early evening.
Our ride covered a ton of different terrain, from pavement to short bits of technical trail. The Stigmata handled it all in stride, feeling best when pushed hard, as a race bike should. I’m curious to try it with bigger tires, but I was impressed with the stock Maxxis Mud Wrestler 700×33 cross tires. These were set up tubeless on WTB i19 rims, and even at 60 psi they provided decent traction, and zero flats. Props to Santa Cruz for shipping these bikes (and most all of its bikes) set up tubeless.
I rode the CX1 model, and much like a 1×11 mountain bike drivetrain, I didn’t miss a second ring on my crank. I wouldn’t have minded a smaller chainring than the stock 42, but this is a race bike, and a 42×11-36 sounds like race gearing to me, so I should just HTFU.
Frame and fork will be $2,300, with complete bikes from $3,700 to $6,800. All bikes use SRAM drivetrains and hydraulic brakes.
Day three was on the new Highball 29, the CC XX1 model to be exact. We took on the almost complete Old Ghost Trail. When complete it will be New Zealand’s longest singletrack. More importantly than length, this is a stunning place to ride a bike. It is a 50-mile-long point to point trail that uses old mining trails and rail lines combined with some very modern trail building that snakes around, up and over some seriously amazing mountains.
The Highball 29 is now 10 mm shorter in the chainstays (430 mm) and longer in the top tube (24.6 in the large I was riding) with a steep 70.5 degree head angle with the stock 100 mm fork. This gives the bike a somewhat high-strung racy feel. Santa Cruz is aiming this bike at the cross country and endurance race crowd, and this geometry should appeal to that class of rider. I swapped out the stock 90 stem for a 70 mm and felt very at home after that.
All cable routing is internal, the head tube is tapered, rear dropouts are 142×12 and the bottom bracket is still threaded. A port at the bottom bracket area should help installation of all the cables, along with internal carbon fiber tunnels that add considerable cost (and engineering) to the frame, but it is an extra step Santa Cruz thinks is worth it to make maintenance less of a pain in the ass.
Modern disc brakes use a connector so the caliper can be installed, the hose is threaded through the frame with a connection made near the lever without the need for a brake bleed. This improves assembly times but all openings in the frame need to be big enough to handle the oversize connector and those carbon tunnels inside the new frames need to be oversize as well, which means the brake hose can rattle on rough terrain.
Highball Carbon 29 photos
In testing, the hoses were kept quiet by the grommets where the hose entered the frame, but on the bikes we rode many of them rattled. While at the media camp, Santa Cruz decided to make a running change to the assembly, adding some o-rings to the brake hose inside the frame. This is only possible because Santa Cruz still handles all assembly at its U.S. facility, and since parts are still waiting on ships due to the labor disputes in California, every production bike should ship with o-rings installed. I was glad to see Santa Cruz address this issue quickly. I almost didn’t mention it, but it was refreshing to see this handled so well.
Since the trail wasn’t finished up to the hut where we planned to spend the night, we called for an assist.
This made people very happy.
We spend the night at Ghost Lake hut. While the lake itself was more of an pond that looked overgrown with algae, the hut was built on the edge of a cliff, with views of the trail leading away in both directions.
Highball Carbon 27.5
Day four was all about getting down off the mountain, and the Highball 27.5 was just the ticket.
For the first time ever, I actually preferred a 27.5 hardtail to a the 29er version. The slight differences in geometry ended up with front centers that are almost identical, but to me the day was won by the more reasonable headtube angle (69 degrees) of the 27.5. Or maybe it was the dropper post on the smaller wheeled bike? While these hardtails are aimed at the cross country race market, even that is seeing more riders on droppers. There were zero issues installing the 27.2 mm Thomson dropper, but the zip ties on the top tube were unsightly on such a clean bike. If 27.2 droppers get an internal routing option, riders with a 1x drivetrain (or using a single shifter on a XTR Di2 2×11 set up) can use the empty front derailleur port to route a dropper cable.
Once I learned to trust the diminutive 2.2 Ikons, the 27.5 Highball was a blast on the rolling descent. It felt a little more trail-bike-like than the 29 version, but don’t be mistaken, this is also very much a race bike.
Highball Carbon 27.5 photos
For a company that is so focused on trail bikes, these bikes come as a surprise, but not a bad one at all. Expect to see Santa Cruz represented at more cyclocross races this year, and I would expect to see plenty of Highballs lined up at cross country starting lines in the future. A Highball 27.5 followed me home from New Zealand, so expect a more in depth review of that bike in the coming months.
There are two levels of Highball frame offered, the high-end CC or less-expensive C. Santa Cruz claims there will be little difference in ride quality, just more weight for the C frame. There will be five complete bikes, two C-level and three CC-level. Prices start at $2,800 for the base model to $8,800 for the full XTR/Enve bling bike. Bare frames only come in the CC level, for $1,900. Prices are the same for 27.5 or 29.
With zero fanfare the new aluminum version of the Highball was released a few months back, with the same geometry as the new carbon bikes. While the aluminum bikes won’t have internal routing, they still have the swappable dropouts that can now run a thru axle as well as a singlespeed setup. A bare frame is $750, with complete bikes offered at $1,700 and $2,000.
There is NOT a 27.5 version of the aluminum bike, just 29-inch. Santa Cruz figures the 27.5 Chameleon should keep most riders happy. Personally, I’d love to see a 29er version of the Chameleon as well, but much like much-rumored Santa Cruz fat bike, we’ll have to wait and see.
I shot a lot more photos than I usually do, but when I looked through my photos and what Sven Martin provided, I thought my readers would be better served with his work. Thanks Sven!
Even pro photographers can’t resist a helicopter selfie:
Due to the slowdown at West Coast ports, these bikes are still a few weeks out, but keep an eye on the Santa Cruz website for details and right here at Dirt Rag for our bike test on home soil.
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