Some people want a quiver of mountain bikes, one for every type of ride. Others are seeking one bike to rule them all. Santa Cruz’s Tallboy 4 fits into the latter category, and it does so almost flawlessly.
By adapting the industry-leading Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) suspension design to a lower-link frame with 120mm of travel, Santa Cruz has nearly perfected rear-end performance. With a stretched-out reach and slack head tube angle, the Tallboy boasts modern geometry in the best possible way.
All of this adds up to make the Tallboy 4 the only mountain bike in my garage, and perhaps the only one I will have for quite some time. This may be the perfect bike. Let’s examine how Santa Cruz did it.
VPP suspension — something for everyone
One of the biggest highlights of the VPP suspension design is that it resists pedal-induced bobbing. Counterintuitively, this climber-friendly design actually means that a bike like the Tallboy is even better on the downhills. Why? Because you don’t have to de-tune the shock to remain firm on climbs or during pedaling. The linkage does most of the work for you.
This stroke of engineering brilliance dates back to the mid-’90s, a time when mountain bike designs were wildly variable in both quality and execution. In 1995, the now-defunct bike company Outland introduced its VPP bike at the Interbike tradeshow. It immediately impressed Santa Cruz CEO Rob Rosskop.
“This thing is really cool,” Rosskop told Mountain Bike Action. “It solved all the things that we were trying to address with a single pivot, and accomplished things that we couldn’t make our system do.”
In six years’ time, his company would buy the linkage design to replace its primitive single-pivot suspension system. Working with Intense founder, Jeff Steber, they created Santa Cruz’s first VPP model, a downhill race bike. Remember what we were saying about how a firm pedaling platform can result in a bike that descends better? Well, that’s how Santa Cruz’s engineers saw it, and their pro downhillers were the first to benefit from a new setup.
Nineteen years later, every full-suspension bike in the Santa Cruz line-up uses the short, counter-rotating VPP linkage to drive shocks on everything from its 100mm-travel Blur XC race bike to its 215mm-travel V10 downhill bike.
Back to the Tallboy. Compared to the previous model, the Tallboy 3, the most obvious visual difference is the suspension configuration. The old model looked more like that weight-weenie Blur with a top-tube mounted shock. The new Tallboy 4 has a lower-link mounted shock that makes it look like a miniature V10 with the shock neatly tucked in above the bottom bracket.
Santa Cruz tells us that this low link configuration results in a perfect combination of progressive spring rate, small-bump compliance, mid-stroke support, and beefy bottom-out resistance. Goodness, is there anything it won’t do well?
On the trail, the Tallboy’s suspension can back up most of those bold claims. It smooths out most minor trail chatter, although the shock’s compression lever is best left in open mode. For a bike with merely 120mm of rear travel, it rarely feels overwhelmed through choppy rock gardens, and that speaks to the rangy mid-stroke of the suspension that never feels confining. As for the big hits and bottom-outs, perhaps Santa Cruz is overstating things a bit. I wouldn’t seek out major hucks to flat, but in normal trail conditions, hard compressions are handled with good manners.
The VPP design lives up to expectations in its pedaling efficiency. However, it is best to flip the shock lever to climb mode, or at least the middle “trail” setting when heading uphill. Santa Cruz notes that the high link design from the old Tallboy and the current Blur affords more pedaling platform. (Read the Blur vs. Tallboy comparison to learn more about their differences.) That seemed true when I rode my Tallboy in a 50-mile race. It was happiest while riding steadily on the climbs. But the suspension wallowed a bit under violent efforts. I wouldn’t hesitate to ride this bike in another 50-mile race, though.
The only other critique of the Tallboy’s suspension is that the shock’s adjustment lever is very low on the frame and a bit hard to reach. That’s a minor detail, however, and one you’ll get used to after riding it for a week or two.
Downhill geometry on an XC(ish) bike?
There’s another, more subtle way in which the Tallboy 4 resembles it’s much bigger brothers in the Santa Cruz lineup. Its geometry is almost identical to that of the 140mm-travel Hightower, and the 160mm-travel Megatower.
In its most-aggressive low geometry setting, a large Tallboy has a 65.5-degree head tube angle, a 76.2-degree seat tube angle, and 468mm of reach. Long, low, and slack indeed.
The idea here is that a longer front end, paired with a shorter stem will make the bike more stable at speed. The slack head tube angle contributes to this, although bikes like this are now coming with forks that have less offset to avoid floppy, sloppy slow-speed steering. Also in play is a low bottom bracket (41mm drop) and a long wheelbase of 1,211mm.
As you might expect, this geometry makes the Tallboy feel more like a long-travel enduro bike than a short-travel trail bike when subjected to the old roll-around-the-parking-lot test. But we don’t ride mountain bikes in parking lots, do we?
On the trails, this geometry isn’t offputting in the least. The steep seat tube angle works miracles on the climbs, allowing you to easily shift weight forward on difficult maneuvers and keep the front end from wandering. The roomy reach contributes to the feeling that this bike could climb for hours without being a nuisance.
Heading downhill, which — let’s be honest — is what this bike is truly designed for, the Tallboy roars to life. Yes, VPP’s suspension characteristics contribute to this bike’s descending capabilities. But it’s remarkable how much the geometry helps the Tallboy ride bigger than it really is. It is reliably stable on high-speed sections. On swooping corners, it carves, and on steep, off-camber bends, it resists understeer, relenting to input at the bars.
The low bottom bracket occasionally leads to pedal strikes, but that’s pretty normal with most mountain bikes these days and a worthwhile trade-off for surefooted cornering. Over a few rides, you’ll adapt and learn when to time your pedal strokes.
Also, from a practical standpoint, I would ding Santa Cruz for the geometry flip-chip, which lives deep in the VPP linkage at the shock mount pivot. Changing this chip around isn’t the easiest thing to do on a whim, so after doing so once or twice, I’ve left it alone. Honestly, I didn’t perceive a huge difference between high and low, which differ by mere tenths of a degree or millimeters.
The Tallboy also has a dropout insert that can be similarly flipped to increase chainstay length by 10mm. I never messed with that and couldn’t see myself preferring longer chainstays on this bike. It’s a nice touch, but perhaps an unnecessary feature that adds a little weight.
Components, frame material, and setup
I won’t dive too deep into parts spec because there are seven different build options that range from entry-level SRAM NX builds to high-end XTR parts. I went with SRAM XX1 AXS, and I love being cable-free with wireless shifting, and a wireless dropper post.
It’s worth noting that brakes can really influence how this bike (and any bike, really), will perform. Tallboys are typically built with SRAM Guide brakes, a solid choice for all-around riding. I happened to have a cool set of personalized, red Code brakes in my parts bin, and I thought, why not? These four-piston downhill brakes are heavy, but their power and modulation give this bike even more confidence beyond what it already has with the geometry and suspension.
Speaking of heft, I also have been riding this bike with 29” Zipp Moto wheels and meaty WTB tires — a Vigilante 2.5 in the front and a Trail Boss 2.4 in the rear. This also tilts the bike more toward enduro territory.
Spencer's personal Tallboy 4 C. He later replaced the cable-actuated SRAM XX1 parts with SRAM XX1 AXS and swapped the 130mm-travel Trust Message for a 140mm-travel RockShox Pike Ultimate.
It’s worth noting that I have been riding the C frame, which is a slightly heavier carbon fiber layup than the CC. However, as it is lower modulus, it may have better impact resistance in some crashes. Fortunately, it hasn’t come to that. Santa Cruz also makes an aluminum version of the Tallboy frame.
As you can tell, setup really influences how this bike rides. Tire choice alone can be the difference between a ready-to-shred descender and a marathon XC contender. In fact, I have an extra set of wheels, Santa Cruz Reserve 27, so I keep XC tires on those and swap them out when I want to shave a couple of pounds and reduce rolling resistance. I guess a one-bike quiver might require a spare set of wheels or tires.
The more I ride my Tallboy 4, the more I wonder if I can ever find a mountain bike that will be better. My typical rides involve tons of tough climbing, just as much gnarly, fast, rough, and loose descending, and every so often, I like to do marathon-distance XC races. My Santa Cruz really checks all those boxes.
If I had to gripe about one significant attribute, it probably would be weight. With pedals, water bottle cage, and the heavy wheel/tire combo, my bike is about 31 pounds. Throw on the XC wheels and tires and we’re down to about 28 pounds. That’s not bad, but if I had to do it all over again, I might spring for the CC frame to bring down the weight. I also have to wonder if Santa Cruz could make a lighter frame without the axle and geometry adjust chips, but the versatility of those features is nice. Then again, I’m the one who chose to run those DH brakes and the Trust Message fork, which is also a slight weight penalty.
Is this the right mountain bike for you? By now, it should be clear that a pure XC racer might not be the ideal candidate. It would be tough to get the Tallboy competitive in terms of weight. Also, the benefits of high-speed downhill handling might be lost on a rider who is accustomed to the feeling of a twitchy thoroughbred. You could probably race most enduros on the Tallboy, but its suspension might be outgunned on some tracks. Lift-served riding might also be a stretch, although the Tallboy's geometry wouldn't hold you back.
But all of that is okay with me. The majority of my rides fit into the happy medium between the extreme spectrums of the sport. There was a time when I had a downhill bike, enduro bike, XC race bike, and a dirt jump bike in my garage. I liked my quiver, but did I need it? Things have changed.
For now, I think this purple Tallboy 4 is the only mountain bike I need.
Photos courtesy Santa Cruz Bicycles.
What does your bike garage look like? Do you want a quiver-killer, or is it impossible to live without dedicated bikes for different types of rides? Let us know in the comments!