Shootout: One Long Race, Four Bikes Compared

27.5 29er

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Pro Mountain Bike racer and Team Santa Cruz / Fox Racing Shox rider, Clint Claassen. Clint is a long-time friend of Mtbr and he is one of the fastest people we know. He can not only climb but he can also rail it on the most fun and technical descents. He is also very analytical and is not afraid to try new things.

In this session, Clint was curious if bike type and wheel size made a difference in a race. Having access to many different Santa Cruz Bicycle bike types, he decided to take a different bike on each lap. Lap times can be recorded and handling and ride quality can be assessed. Motivation to go fast is taken care of since Clint is racing and results matter in this event. The big caveat of course, is fatigue as that can obviously affect lap time.

Read on and see if you can learn something from his experience.

Francis Cebedo
founder, mtbr.com

I’m not sure when the idea popped into my head, but I figured I’d try something a little different for this year’s TBF 50 Miler in Granite Bay.  Race four different Santa Cruz bikes!  I had three, just needed a fourth.  And talking with fellow racer, Ryan Gibson after the Santa Cruz Super Enduro the week before I told him my idea and he let me borrow his Bronson C!  Awesome!  The plan came together and the race format made it possible to pull off this stunt and get a good comparison; four laps on a fast rolling course with plenty of short punchy climbs, twisty turns in the trees and a few small rock gardens.  It’s a total pedal-fest and the trails overall aren’t technically challenging by themselves, but riding them at race speed makes it interesting and would give me the opportunity to review each bike’s pedaling capability, steering characteristics and overall “race-ability.”  After some thought on the order, the line up would be Tallboy CBronson CTallboy LTc, and Highball C.  I would do my best to give the same perceived effort on each bike but really try to maximize time gain where each bike excelled.

Santa Cruz Tallboy C

The Tallboy would start off the shenanigans and I figured it would give me a good chance at staying with the front group while saving the speedy Highball for the end.

We started out at a pretty fast pace, trying to weed out the group a bit. I hung on in the fourth spot for the first couple miles and made my way up into the lead just before we headed into the “winding woods” where I could really use this bike to its full potential. I kept the hammer down and flowed through the turns slowly pulling away. I could stay seated nearly everywhere, even up the rocky climbs, allowing me to both conserve strength and be fast at the same time.

It’s set up with a 120mm fork up front (Fox Float 32 CTD w/ Trail Adj.) and it’s still quick and nimble, never holding me back in the turns.  It pedals very efficiently once you get the sag set correctly in the “virtual platform” as I like to call it.  But this bike is all about momentum… it just carries any speed you’re able to muster like no other.  The Tallboy really is a true all around racer and I set the fastest lap of the day at 45:56, about forty five seconds faster than I set last year riding only one lap as a four person relay.  I love that bike.  I had a good lead as I came around the final corner and through the start-finish arch I could see my pit crew Jen holding the Bronson and our friend Erin Upchurch in front of her to take my discarded Tallboy.  Sweet!

Santa Cruz Bronson C

And I was off on the Bronson!  I grabbed a neutral bottle handoff to pocket (because even the XL frame doesn’t have room for a bottle with the Fox Float X reservoir) and got my pedal on!  This would actually be my first ride on a Bronson, and first time on a 27.5″ wheeled bike for that matter.  This Bronson was set up with a Fox TALAS 27.5 160 w/ remote which was pretty cool.  The dual cable remote controlled the CTD positions on both the fork and rear shock at the same time.  I started the lap off with the fork down in the low 130mm setting which surprisingly made the bike feel a LOT like the Tallboy I had just come from.  Both in handling and pedaling position.  Oh and pedaling… this thing can do it!  On smooth terrain and flats I really didn’t feel like the bike was holding me back at all.  It had a nice firm platform and I could apply power efficiently.  Where I first noticed the extra heft was on the short steep climbs where it just didn’t seem to power up quite as quickly or carry the momentum as well at the Tallboy.  But once I got into the turns is when I really noticed this bike excel.  “Playful” is the term that seems to fit how this bike felt.  It was noticeably quicker steering than the 29er even with the fork pushed out to 160mm.  And it mowed over anything as long as you had speed.

The Bronson hid its long travel well and never really felt like it was a “big bike” until it came to rocky climbing. That’s where this bike’s weakness was, at least compared to the others. I definitely noticed the smaller wheel size not rolling over things as easily and the slack angles causing a little bit of wander. Throwing the fork down to 130mm helped, but I still had to dab in one tricky spot. I found myself having to “aim” the front wheel when the climbing got slow, something I wasn’t used to. And of course the 28lb weight and beefy, slow rolling tires didn’t help the overall effort. I finished up my lap on the Bronson with a respectable time of 49:36, ditching it to our friend Cabot and taking the Tallboy LTc from Jen.

Santa Cruz Tallboy LTc

Back to a little bit more familiar feel of a 29er, it was nice not to feel like I was “perched” on top of the bike, but more a part of it. And big wheels roll!!! The LTc pedals just as well as the Tallboy C and Bronson (maybe a little better) but with more of a “monster truck” attitude. So for example, in my own head I was saying “BRAP!!!” (but think two stroke… “Breep?”) in and out of corners and jumping off things on the Bronson. It’s just playful. But on the LTc I just say “BRRAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!” and laugh as it just mows over stuff! It’s just plain fun and nothing stands in your way. Not even when climbing. Techy, slow approach rocks on your climbs? MUAHAHHAHA!!! Done. Next. The LTc combines the “big bike” travel of the Bronson with the momentum benefits of the Tallboy C.

If it has one weakness compared to the others it is that it is the slowest turning of all of them, requiring you to “guide” rather than “flick” through corners. On its own, it’s really isn’t that slow and has never been something I had noticed before (after over 1k miles on the LTc) comparing it directly to the Bronson. Setup might have something to do with it as well: 20mm longer stem and 70mm wider bars on the LTc. But as long as you get your approach right, and lay off the brakes, she’ll roll on through.

About half way through the LTc lap (lap 3) I still had a lead and I couldn’t see 2nd place.  But I was catching lapped traffic so unless they were close I couldn’t really tell who was back there.  I felt like I was still cruisin’ well, especially when a guy on a road bike (just out for a ride) drafted off of me on one of the gravel road sections and complimented my pull as I peeled off on the course.  But the heavier bikes were beginning to take their toll on me, and I was feeling the heft on the climbs for the second half of the lap.  With about three miles to go for the lap I heard someone behind me, and there was young Justin Harrell on his hardtail.  He said “Man, it took me FOREVER to catch you! Highball next lap?”  “Yep,” I said, as he stood up and pulled away up a climb.  “See you in about five minutes!” He said.  I laughed… “I doubt that!”  I was seriously starting to fade and he had probably put a good thirty seconds on me before I ditched the LTc to Mike Stinson and grabbed the Highball from Jen.  The Tallboy LTc had thrown down a lap time of 50:25, not too shabby considering my state of fatigue.

Santa Cruz Highball C

The Highball, the rocket, was to be my “closer” and allow me to catch anyone ahead.  The bike is unbelievably snappy and fleet, with loads of acceleration.  Even with the big wheels, it’s super quick and nimble in tight turns and just a blast to ride.

It took me a few miles to get used to the hardtail especially after coming off of the big Bronson and Tallboy LTc. It just felt weird at first, and like I was being bucked around. I was having trouble putting power down but I eventually found my grove and remembered how to go fast on this racer.

As I made my way around the northern, most technical part of the course I was moving fairly well but the legs were burning up and starting to cramp. To complicate my comeback I was catching lapped traffic at the most inopportune times. At one point a rider fumbled climbing up a rocky chute and fell over stuck in his pedals. That caused a bit of a delay until he got it sorted out since there was no way around. But those issues were merely seconds and the biggest factor to my slow last lap (52:54) on the Highball was my fatigue. I just couldn’t lay down the power where the Highball excelled. I had nothing left for the climbs and was just done. I finished off with everything I had and came in 2nd overall.

After I finished, totally cooked, someone in the crowd yelled “Time for a 5th lap!” I laughed… and collapsed into my shoulders. Not so much… “Time for some beer and bbq!” My experiment was done, and I would definitely call it a success. Thanks so much to Ryan Gibson for the loaner Bronson. To Kris and Patrick Morin for taking pictures out on course. To Erin, Cabot and Mike for helping with my bike changes. And of course to Jen for helping enable :-). It was awesome to be able to compare these four bikes together in exactly the same race environment and what better way to cap off a great season of racing bikes than to race them all at once!

If I had to do this again, I would swap the order between the Tallboy C and the Highball. Leading off with the Highball because it was very hard to go back to the hardtail after all the squish. And after the race, people asked me which was my “favorite.” Well they’re all my “favorite” for different things, but for this race if I were to pick one, it would be the Tallboy C… “Comfy fast.”

Continue reading for the Bottom Line and full photo gallery.

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  • Don says:

    The 5010 (Solo) instead of a Bronson would have been nice, but you take what you can get. Good read. Thanks.

  • Jon Dickey says:

    Clint,
    I really enjoyed the article. Thanks for the write up! I have been debating on getting a Tallboy c or LTc for a while. I have a great hardtail for racing. Which do you think is better?

    • Clint Claassen says:

      Hi Jon,
      It kind of depends on where you want to ride with it. If you’re looking to just have a little squish on the same trails that your hardtail has been good for, and you might want to race some xc on it, go with the TBc. If you’re looking for a fun trail bike and a completely different experience vs. the hardtail, go with the LTc. You’ll be able to easily go places that may be a little too punishing on the hardtail while still being able to pedal all day if you want.

  • Hufdaddy says:

    Supercool review. Thanks for doing it. Might of cost you the win, but I really enjoyed the read.

  • MTBDad says:

    Thanks Clint!
    Enjoyed your observations, good write up.
    Have seen you race several times, don’t know how do it-work full time/train/race!!!

  • marc says:

    Cool format for an article. I agree with some of the other commenters that it would be nice to see the solo/5010 c in the mix instead of the longer travel bikes for xc type racing specifically: Tallboy c vs Solo c.

  • r1Gel says:

    This is awesome. Brilliant idea. And great writing! I felt I was right there with you on the singletrack ;-)
    MTBR should have more of these types of “reviews.”

  • Alex says:

    Nice writing overall but I have say anyway that to me the race taken as comparison ground for the tested bikes has really little to do with the purpose the Bronson is made for, therefore the reported impressions about the model are really not very significant.
    We are talking about a 30 lb, 150-160 mm travel, gnarly Enduro racing machine made to tackle almost downhill grade race trails, serious jumps and all what comes in between.
    Do it all over at some Bronson’s proper home ground and all would feel quite different.

  • mtnbike1 says:

    I’m a big SC fan and have raced both first year models of the Tallboy C and Highball on many different races courses over the past few years. Made podium on almost all my local races with both bikes. I’ve raced the National Endurance Shenandoah 100 mile race on both, and have to say the Tallboy is much better for comfort on longer races, with much less numbing and back issues. The Highball however is faster for out of the saddle sprints for positioning on starts and passing. I love the using the Highball for full throttle race pace on shorter, less technical courses. On my regular training rides on a techical course with lots for roots and rocks, my timing is better on the Tallboy, which is surprising since I’ve always thought of hardtails having major advantages for climbs, weight and pedal efficientcy. Thanks for the coverage, great bikes.

  • Tom says:

    My take away from this is that there continues to be no better endurance racer than a 100 mm 29er — though the Turner Czar is my weapon of choice! :-)

  • sharon says:

    Great way to test a bunch of bikes! This is the ideal test but yes the rider fatigue would be an issue. A better way might be to just go for a ‘ride’ and try to maintain a good pace for each bike to see exactly how much faster each bike is.

    But as a multi lap race at this level even with fatigue Clint seemed to and should be able to maintain the pace!

    It would have been interesting to through a Nomad into this mix. Compare the three wheel sizes of the same ‘style’ of bike. Such as the more All Mountain bikes etc.

    Interesting read regardless!

  • Sean says:

    Hi Clint, great write up, just wondering I noticed you were on an XL Bronson? How tall are you?

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