Tester: Eric McKeegan
Age: 42 Height: 5’11”, Weight: 160 lbs., Inseam: 32”
Price: $2,899 frame; complete bikes from $4,599; $6,499 (tested)
Sizes: M, L (tested), XL
More info: Santa Cruz Bicycles
Photos: Gary Perkin
Santa Cruz was very late to the 29er ballgame, but came out swinging with the Tallboy. That was soon followed by the Tallboy LT, a longer travel 29er aimed at the growing big wheel trail bike market. The LT was well-liked but quickly became dated as 29er trail bike geometry evolved and was quietly discontinued by Santa Cruz.
The Hightower is the entirely new replacement for the retired LT, and as such, deserved a new name. Hightower refers not to the guy from the “Police Academy” movies, but to the Santa Cruz demo guy Eric Highlander. Honestly, either one would have worked for me.
Other than sharing the same rear travel, 135 mm, the Hightower is entirely new. Taking a page from the Nomad, Bronson and 5010, the Hightower is a thoroughly modern trail bike. There are huge changes from the LT with geometry, starting with a head angle almost 3 degrees slacker, a seat tube angle 1.5 degrees steeper, reach growing 1.5 inches, and chainstays three-quarters of an inch shorter. Even the bottom bracket drops a quarter inch.
What makes it even more modern is a frame design that allows enough clearance for 29 or 27plus wheels. To keep geometry mostly consistent (two-tenths of a degree) between the wheel sizes, Santa Cruz provides a small flip-chip and a 10 mm longer travel fork to change the geometry when swapping in the slightly shorter 27plus wheels.
Unfortunately, one of the stock Rock-Shox Pike’s few shortcomings is the need to swap air spring shafts to adjust travel, so the only easy way to make the swap are a pair of forks in 140 mm for 29 and 150 mm for 27plus. Easy for a spoiled magazine guy, but a serious expense when added to the cost of a second set of wheels/tires/rotors/cassette.
Much like the Nomad, there are no plans for a aluminum frame, but there are two levels of carbon frame, the CC which is about 230 grams lighter than the cheaper C version. Stiffness is equal between the two, but only the CC is available as a frame only.
Also like the Nomad, you can forget the front derailleur. With the recent release of even wider range single-ring drivetrains this is less of a problem. I spent my time on a 1×11 with a 30 tooth ring and 10-42 cassette and just once in a while dreamed of those new 50 tooth cogs.
My first rides on this bike were in Chile for a dry run of the Rally of Aysen Patagonia. Santa Cruz invited a group of international bike media-types to see what was up with the Rally and to launch the Hightower.
We covered a lot of varied riding, in fact, probably the most diverse terrain and conditions I’ve ever experienced during a media event. From steep and loose natural trails to long grinds on the dirt roads so prevalent in southern Chile, the Hightower showed itself to be immensely capable. The third generation VPP mini-link suspension is nothing short of refined. Seated pedalling is without a hint of bob, and it was only on the smoothest of trails or under the most spazmatic of pedaling efforts that I wanted to dial in any platform on the rear shock.
On the other end of things, the 135 mm of travel has the magical combination of bottomless travel and wallow-free feel. Compared to some of its direct competitors like the Trek Remedy 29 or Specialized Stumpy 29, the Hightower isn’t quite as plush feeling, but that is a trade-off I’m more than willing to make for suspension that rarely needs a platform and communicates the trail so well to the rider without feeling harsh.
The up-to-date geometry only felt out of place in the slowest and tightest of terrain, where the front wheel could take some effort to keep it pointed where I wanted. Anything above walking speed isn’t an issue.
I experimented with the 29er wheels with the bike in the 27plus setting, and found the higher BB and slightly steeper angles to be very usable on local trails, and maybe even more fun. It also reduced pedal strikes, which happen with some regularity with the bottom bracket at standard height. In fact, in every single other situation, the Hightower felt very much in control and on top of things. Think James Bond with wheels and a carbon frame, and you might be getting close the personality of this bike.
While I think wheel size choice is going to come down to a combination of rider skill/style and local terrain, I preferred this bike as a 29er. It was awesome as a plus bike, but I was very much into the way this bike ate up miles as a 29er, rolling along like a cross-country race bike (with 850 gram aggressive tires), but attacking descents like a Nomad’s older and more mature brother. Interestingly enough, the 27plus configuration is slightly lighter than the 29er with similar parts, and there is no price difference between the 29er and 27plus options.
This bike is going to make a lot of riders happy. As is often the case with high performance bikes, that performance doesn’t come cheap. I have to give a lot of credit to Santa Cruz for parts spec; even on the “entry-level” bike, all the parts are shreddable right out of the box. Really, the build kits on all the Hightowers are stellar, from the 150 mm Reverb to the single chainring SRAM drivetrains and tubeless tires, this stuff just works with little fanfare and no complaint. There is an ENVE wheel upgrade for $2,000. Personally, I’d save that cash, buy the 27plus bike with the 150 mm fork and a set of 29er wheels.
I wouldn’t be afraid of taking this bike anywhere. B.C. Bike Race with some extra days afterwards to ride more trails in Squamish and Whistler? Yes! Fart around on the local trails with your crew? YES!
A day at the bike park? YES!
Pisgah? All day, every day, YES!
To put it simply, this is one of the best mountain bikes I’ve ever ridden. It just does it all, does it well, and keeps doing it with a minimum of fuss. Santa Cruz has a whole stable of very good trail bikes, but the Hightower might be the one horse for almost any course.
- Reach: 17.6/17.7”
- Stack: 24.2/24.1”
- Top Tube: 24.2/24.1”
- Head Tube: 66.8/67°
- Seat Tube: 74.1/74.3°
- BB Height: 13.2/13.3”
- Chainstays: 17.1/17.1”
- Weight: 27.3 lbs. (with 29” wheels) w/o pedals (specs based on size tested)
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