The Six-Month Test: Santa Cruz Tallboy LT Carbon
Proof that big wheels and big travel are not mutually exclusive
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The flood of 2014 bikes has begun and our mechanics are feverishly wrenching to get ready for our annual test trip in January. But before we shift gears to the latest, we wanted to ruminate on a couple of our favorite bikes from 2013, starting with the Santa Cruz Tallboy LT Carbon. Sure we’ve already written about it in print, but this is a bike worth dwelling on—and one we’re quite certain is unlikely to be outdone by anything for 2014.
We’ve heard for years that 29er wheels are just too awkward and cumbersome to work in a big-travel platform.
The Tallboy LT Carbon is the bike we most regretted having to send back at the finish of testing. With 135mm travel in the rear and 140mm up front (that’s 5.3” and 5.5” inches respectively), it pushes the envelope of what’s been largely been deemed the best suited application for 29ers, namely XC or light trail riding duty. With the Tallboy LT, Santa Cruz said convention be damned—and we agree.
It’s worth nothing that Santa Cruz was one of the last companies to come to big wheels, largely because founder Rob Roskopp just didn’t believe the hype. However, when they finally jumped into the fray, they did it right. Santa Cruz’s first big-wheeled entry, the 100mm Tallboy, became an instant classic that virtually no one could—or still can, for that matter—find fault with. Having named the original Tallboy Gear of the Year, we shouldn’t have been surprised that the Long Travel edition would be just as well thought out and effective as the original. And yet this bike still made us take note.
Before everyone jumps all over us for only testing ultra-premium bikes, it’s worth noting that the Tallboy LT comes in both carbon and aluminum editions, with approximately 1.9 pounds and $800 separating the two (aluminum: $1,950 and 7.1 pounds; carbon: $2,700 and 5.2 pounds). A complete aluminum Tallboy LT can be had for as little as $2,700. And while it’s unlikely to be as spritely or explosive as our fully equipped carbon model, the frame geometry and shock valving is the same, so the handling and trail manners are bound to be just as good.
Having said that, our Tallboy LT was the carbon iteration, with two carbon fiber triangles joined by dual aluminum linkages. Whereas some carbon frames can feel flimsy, this one is built for heavy-duty riding, with reinforced carbon plus a rubber protector on the bottom of the down tube for extra bash protection and clearance for up to 3.5 inch tires. Custom-valved for Santa Cruz’s time-tested VPP suspension, the Kashima-coated Fox Float CTD shock has a firm feel at the beginning of the stroke to counteract pedal bob and a softer end to the stroke for extra plushness. The frame is equipped with all the modern niceties, including a short but tapered head tube, ISCG mounts, and a 142x12mm through-axle rear end.
The LT’s real magic was on the trail, where it managed the trick of being that rare big-travel 29er that doesn’t feel big at all. At 27.9 pounds complete, it’s hardly a lightweight machine, and yet even on punishingly steep ascents, like the climbs in El Paso’s Franklin Mountain State Park, it rode much lighter than its weight suggests.
There’s a couple of passages of precipitous, burly descending on that Texas course, including a downhill scree field that is only barely (and occasionally) rideable, and that’s where the LT really came alive. Thanks to the fairly slack 69.5-degree head tube and a slightly slacker seat tube than is on the shorter-travel Tallboy, this bike surfed through the steep rubble and chunder. It is at complete ease on techy downhill terrain and hyper stable on fast descents, which contradicts the conventional wisdom that big wheels aren’t as technically capable as smaller ones. Every single tester agreed that the LT allowed them to ride more terrain—and ride it better—than any comparable 26er.
We rode the XTR AM 29 package, a premium build at $8,600 that included full Shimano XTR components, brawny WTB Frequency rims laced to best-in-class DT Swiss 240s hubs, and other agreeable little bits such as the awesome Thomson stem, Easton EC70 carbon bars, a the top-shelf titanium-railed WTB Volt saddle. The Shimano parts were as impeccable as ever, with a special call-out to the Trail model brakes, which we think are without peer in the market at the moment. Also, while most companies are following the trend of 2×10 setups, we really appreciated Santa Cruz’s decision to spec a triple on the LT. Our feeling is that all-mountain bikes like this one deserve the extra gearing options.
The other standout part was the Fox 34 Float CTD fork. Look, 32mm stanchions are fine in shorter-travel bikes. But the extra girth here really makes the bike, with a super stiff front end that tracked exactly where we wanted it no matter how rough or tricky the terrain.
And, silly as it may be to worry about tires given the variety of conditions and terrains a bike will face, we were still impressed that Santa Cruz ships the LT with Maxxis Ardent tires. Whereas many companies spec the cheapest, lightest rubber they can find, the decision to include these tires, which are not light (and are, in our experience, the best-riding, hardest-wearing model out there), shows that the company is committed to the ultimate ride experience it can provide.
One final note: A bike like this demands a dropper post, and we were happy it was part of the package. However, we continue to have durability issues with the Rockshox Reverb posts, which seem to need constant bleeding and attention. To that end, while the internally routed Stealth version of this post might look pretty, we appreciated Santa Cruz’s decision to go external as it makes for easier servicing. Still, we wish companies would look at using the more reliable KS Lev or Thomson Elite Dropper for their standard spec.
We’ve heard for years that 29er wheels are just too awkward and cumbersome to work in a big-travel platform. Many companies seem to be intent on proving that wrong (Yeti SB-95, Diamond Back Mason FS, and Specialized Enduro 29, to name a few), and the Tallboy LT sits at the head of the vanguard. It might just be our favorite all-mountain 29er yet.
What’s most compelling about the bike, however, is that we didn’t ever think about it as a 29er per se. It’s simply one of the best-riding all-mountain machines we’ve tried—26, 27.5, and 29 notwithstanding. If you live somewhere with technical terrain or you favor a rock-crawling style of riding, you’d be remiss to not at least consider the Tallboy LT for your next bike.