A super-modern carbon frame, updated suspension, and all the new tricks make the all-new Hightower an attractive option for aggressive 29er riders
This summer, Santa Cruz bicycles introduced the all-new Hightower, thus effectively replacing and discontinuing the popular Tallboy LT (Long Travel) model. The praise the Tallboy LT garnered around the world was also reflected in excellent sales. However, launched in early 2012, it increasingly became outdated when compared with the ultra-modern models the competitors continuously churned out. The LT finally disappeared from the company’s website last year, leaving a vacuum that left customers curiously speculating as to what will come next. Nowadays, Santa Cruz has a total of two full-suspension 29-inch bikes: The new Tallboy, with 110 mm of travel and a cross-country- and marathon-oriented geometry; and the brand new Hightower, with 135 mm of travel and a frame geared towards aggressive riding. It’s the latter of the two that’s been testing in recent months.
Highlights and features
– Carbon fiber frame with 29-inch wheels or 27.5-Plus wheels with Boost standard
– Third generation VPP suspension with 135 mm of rear travel
– SRAM GX1drivetrain
– Rockshox Pike RC 140mm
– Rockshox Monarch RT rear shock
– Race Face rims on Novatec AR27 hubs
– Rockshox Reverb dropper post with 150mm-travel and internal cable wiring
– Race Face 35mm-diameter stem and handlebars
– Shimano XT hydraulic brakes
Frame: it is not a software update – it’s a whole new program
The last four years have seen impressive technological developments in bike design, alongside new fashions that require manufacturers to comply with customer demand. The Hightower does not miss a single innovation or trend, and as this is a completely new bike, rather than a new generation of an old model, it also got a new name. Front and rear, we find the modern Boost standard for wheels and crankset width. A designated carbon tube has also been inserted into the frame’s bottom tube to allow effortless sorting of internal cables.
In contrast with the Tallboy, which had both carbon and aluminum frame versions, the Hightower is carbon-fiber only, which comes in two levels: Carbon C – simple, cheap, and heavier, and the prestigious and lighter Carbon CC Hightower. The C-level carbon frame weighs 6.39 Lbs , whereas the CC model weighs 5.88 Lbs , saving 0.5 Lbs (in comparison, the Tallyboy carbon LT weighed 5.29 Lbs ). Despite this weight difference, both offer similar levels of stiffness and durability.
As with the Nomad, you cannot run a front derailleur on the Hightower. It also shares a similar link position and a symmetrical rear triangle, which is stronger and stiffer than the Tallboy or Bronson’s, which both lack a supporting vertical tube on the drive side. Moving the suspension link anchor to the top tube opened up the option of installing a bottle cage in the middle of the front triangle.
The seat tube is no less than 300mm shorter than the Tallboy’s, and allows installing a dropper post with 150mm of travel for low riders, too. The bottom suspension link is tucked deep within the frame and rear triangle, and nothing protrudes underneath the bottom bracket. Last but not least is the best feature to hit the field: the Hightower is compatible with both 29-inch and 27.5-Plus wheels (up to 2.8 inches wide), similar to how companies like Trek and Niner design their trail and Enduro bikes.
Geometry – Newest School
Here, too, everything is brand new and as up-to-date as possible. Today’s trend dictates Long & Slack, so Santa Cruz extended the top tube by 15 mm, and it now stands at 601 mm on a size Medium frame. The head tube angle has been slackened by a whopping 2.4 degrees(!) to 67 degrees, and the seat tube angle is 74.3 degrees, almost two degrees steeper than the Tallboy’s. Furthermore, the chainstays have been chopped down by 15 mm to a current 435 mm. The bottom bracket was lowered by 5mm and currently stands at 33.7cm high.
All these changes are far from being small nuances and token changes; indeed, they are very significant and noticeable. A whole new bike, have I already mentioned? But it comes with a catch: whereas the Tallboy came in four sizes to choose from, the Hightower has only three, of which the size Medium we tested is the smallest. This may prove to be problematic for some riders who fall in-between sizes.
Third-generation VPP suspension
It’s no wonder that the Hightower’s rear suspension works flawlessly; Santa Cruz pioneered the double-link suspension revolution, which it patented as VPP (Virtual Pivot Point) as far back as 1999. The company has been producing full-suspension bikes with this technology since 2000, and so has 16 years of accumulated knowledge and experience, and the Hightower gets to enjoy the third generation of these designs.
The suspension links are short and stiff and glide over large bearings. As a result, the VPP no longer suffers from side flex and does not develop unwanted play after prolonged use. The current version of the suspension is very progressive, meaning that it stiffens quite rapidly when diving into its travel. The more-affordable C series version comes with a Rockshox Monarch RT shock which has two modes: fully open and locked, and together with the VPP they produce 135mm of rear wheel.
On the trail
At first glance, the Hightower is a whole lot of bicycle. The frame is very massive, with a square bottom tube sporting a big cross-section. The bottom bracket sits in a massive box of carbon which also houses the lower suspension link. Even the head tube junction is built generously in a similar fashion. The longer wheelbase – the result of a slacker head tube angle sending the front wheel way forward – coupled with the long suspension, creates the impression of a really big bike. But saddling up, you feel immediately at home, to a surprising level. The long top tube meets a really short stem (40 mm), and Race Face’s excellent 780mm-wide handlebar fit my hands perfectly. Both have the latest extra-large 35mm diameter, and felt great. In general, if anything stood out particularly for me during this test, it was the near-perfect rider position which fit my dimensions fantastically, resulting in a natural steering and control while airborne.
Aside from the deep impression left by the carbon “boxes” in both aforementioned locations, the Hightower’s is a very simple and clean design, with the suspension links quite out of sight, internal cable routing, and round, thick and beautiful tubes. I installed a bottle cage, a must-have accessory for a bike with Enduro-racing pretensions (water in the hydration pack, isotonic fluid in the bottle), and XTR Trail pedals (the cage version). Hitting the scales, the Hightower weighed 31 Lbs ready for battle.
The Tallboy LT felt like a long-travel cross-country bike, and indeed folks succeeded in slashing them down 28 Lbs or even 26.5 Lbs . The Hightower, in contrast, feels like an Enduro bike, and it would be wrong to build it too light. The frame’s stiffness is the result not only of different tubes and technological advances in carbon-fiber assembly. The Boost standard, which also stiffens the frame and the wheels, also contributes, as well as the stiff symmetrical rear triangle.
I got the Hightower for the test just as I decided to return to ride aggressive, fast, and technical. To make a long story short, this bike opened chakras which were blocked for a long time. Every pair with similar travel and angles would allow me to increase speed, to jump, land, try challenging lines and so on – but only a really good rig could do all of these on the very first date, without forcing the rider to make an extra effort or take the risk, all the while delivering loads of fun along the way.
The increase in confidence on steep, technical descents is felt immediately. The slack head angle allows the rider to attack obstacles and run over them even on steep slopes. The 140mm-travel Pike RC does the job well even in the simpler version that comes with the cheaper Hightower C. The fork devours terrain and shields the rider from bad landings that come as a result of terribly-executed drops (ahem…) I set it up to 55 psi, about 15 lower than the manufacturer’s recommendations as they appear on the fork leg. The Pike bottomed out more than once, but swallowed trail chatter with ease. Anyway, folks claim that bottoming out is supposed to happen several times in every aggressive ride, otherwise it means the fork is tuned too stiff and the rider does not take advantage of its full travel.
The long wheelbase also contributes to the impressive stability, but the short chainstays together with the wide handlebar and short stem allow the Hightower to turn with no special effort. This is definitely a 29er that hides its wheel size in the best way possible, and feels very close in steering and agility to 27.5-inch bikes.
To this day, I have owned six Santa Cruz bikes, two of them with VPP suspension, and two additional Intense rigs with the same suspension design. What I’m trying to say is that I know the company and the suspension well, but from a while back. In its modern form, the VPP is less plush than I had remembered, but provides excellent trail feedback and does not have the exaggerated sag in the middle of the travel. The progressive suspension compression curve produces a more stable suspension (swings and sinks less), combine it with the vpp design that always had good pedaling efficiency using the chain tension, and you have a winner. This slightly detracts from the ability to swallow up choppy terrain, but this is a good compromise and a right one in my opinion, as that bike still isolates the rider from the obstacles very well. Some bikes eliminate trail chatter more impressively, but nearly all will pedal like a semi-trailer when compared to the Santa Cruz. Compared to the DW suspension design used by the competition, the Hightower’s VPP pedals slightly less efficiently when the suspension is in the open position, but tracks better in choppy terrain.
Turns of any kind are where the bike excels – I did not encounter a tight turn or switchback which put me at a disadvantage. With 29-inch wheels, short chainstays, and sometimes, if you break with the hip, in the middle of a tight technical turn, the rear wheel jumps with you without being asked to – cool! In contrast, in high-speed turns – on gravel or singletack – the bike just clung to the terrain, even when I tailed fast riders who knew the path better than me. If you have the tenacity of a rabid hunting dog, and will not let the rider in front of you out of your sights –this bike will bring you into new territories.
The bottom bracket is very low and provides a low center of gravity, allowing in turn for some very low turning. Add to that a 150mm-travel dropper post, which allows the rider to lower himself, and tires bordering on overkill in my opinion (both Maxxis Minion R 2.3-inch wide and weighing 850 grams each) with phenomenal grip. Together with the spot-on geometry, Santa Cruz designed a bike with fantastic steering, and with the excellent rider position on the handlebars you will simply dominate the turns. Incidentally, said extra-low bottom bracket will also ensure that you will bang your pedals on the boulders during technical climbs, or will just have to remain wary all the time.
In the airborne department, I have only superlatives and praise for Hightower. After avoiding jumps and drops for over a year, I took the Hightower to collect some air miles and was impressed by the natural feel it provides the rider, and the confidence the bicycle is capable of inspiring. Here the progressive suspension works great. You do not feel any “bottomless travel” or some other marketing B.S., but you definitely experience a progressive stiffening of the suspension without bottoming out.
Finally, there are also climbs. On a technical singletrack climb, the suspension is very good but not great. It tracks the terrain well and maintains high traction (not very hard with the sticky Minion R), but it requires a big effort on the part of the rider (not quite pedal-efficient), and sags back a little while attempting to traverse high rock steps. True, you can lock out the rear shock, but the simple Monarch is an On/Off shock that lacks the middle mode that the more expensive RLT3 version boasts. On long dirt road climbs, I locked the shock and rode with ease. After all, on these climbs what determines the pace or efficiency are only the rider’s legs, not compression curves or suspension design.
The bike comes with a single 30-teeth Race Face chainring and a 10-42 SRAM cassette. With this combination, I never encountered a climb that I could not overtake during the entire test. The 30-teeth setup feels just right for a bike of this weight and sporting these angles. The chain never fell off during the test, so I cannot find a place to recommend the installation of a chainguide, although the frame can take one.
Are there any drawbacks?
The original wheels, while reliable and robust, are not very light weight and they seem like the compromise point for Santa Cruz’s product managers in order to produce a complete package at an attractive price. To truly unleash the full potential of the bike, I installed the excellent Boost-standard DT Swiss XM 1501 wheelset.
Furthermore and as aforementioned, the original Maxxis Minion R tires are very aggressive and, while they provide excellent traction, roll slowly, making the bike relatively lazy. Super-aggressive riders can take advantage of these properties, as well as beginners who can benefit from the added confidence that they inspire. However, if you do not belong to one of these groups, I recommend swapping them for to something lighter and faster, even if less durable. I chucked the rear Minion tire in favor of a 2.2-inch wide Maxxis Ardent Race – technical, fast, and weight-saving – and installed a High Roller 2.3 up front, which, although at the same weight as the Minion R, rolls much faster.
The swap shed no less than 400 grams off the Hightower’s original weight. In other words, a more precise selection of tires can easily save a very significant half kilo of rotating mass. The DT wheels were stiff and faster and with an immediate engagement which upgraded the riding experience. Santa Cruz’s website offers only one wheel upgrade option – the carbon Enve for an additional 2,000 dollars – but you can find a much cheaper wheelset yourself which will still upgrade the package and the riding experience.
The VPP suspension feels exactly like its stated 135mm. It’s great, but there are suspension designs that feel longer than their declared travel, and better impress in their ability to eliminate trail chatter and soak up the bigger hits. The best on the market do so without compromising pedaling efficiency. The Hightower scores a very high grade in shock absorption, but only a medium-plus grade for pedaling efficiency with an open shock, primarily because in attempts to sprint out of a downhill turn it failed to impress, and swallowed up part of the rider’s energy.
What’s with this fashion of 27.5-plus/29-inch wheels?
I did not get to test the Hightower in the plump wheel configuration, and so cannot assess how realistic the option of holding both ends of the stick is – swapping between them periodically, according to the riders wishes. The conversion to 27.5-plus requires flipping the Flip Chip in the upper suspension link (two minutes’ work with an Allen key), and a set of wheels and tires. This then necessitates a re-tuning of the brakes, and changing the fork’s travel (140 for the 29-inch, 150 mm for the 27.5-Plus). This conversion requires replacing parts inside the fork, and can only be done by a certified fork mechanic. In other words, it takes time and money, and in general is not something a privateer does at his home garage.
Conclusion: a worthy successor to the LT
The new Santa Cruz Hightower is an excellent bike, primarily because of its near-perfect geometry, but also because of the impressive suspension performance and precise selection of components. Everything worked well and harmoniously because of the not-so-long but quite respectable experience of the Santa Cruz company. It has been building carbon-fiber frames for years, particularly for aggressive purposes. They fully understand the kinematics of the double link suspension design, perhaps better than any other company in the world. They possess one of the strongest, most experienced downhill teams in the world, and their superstars (Steve Peat, Greg Minnar, Josh Bryceland, and of course Danny Macaskill) offer priceless input to the company’s engineers during the design and test phases of its products. All that given, and we haven’t even touched upon Santa Cruz’s high “Coolness factor”. Each of these ingredients lends towards the impressive riding experience we had with its bikes.
The Hightower will be a trusty mate for a fairly aggressive rider who nevertheless doesn’t want to go all the way (i.e., a bike with 150mm rear travel 150-160mm up front), since he or she sadly does not live near Whistler bike park… On every trying trail, the bike will stand out favorably among the dozens of aggressive pairs out there, and will greatly help the rider: on a desert ride, a local Enduro race, or an annual holiday in a European bike park. Nevertheless, on the none-aggressive sections, you will not feel that you are lugging around any unnecessary extra weight. For this rider, the Hightower is perfect. Ultimately, Santa Cruz now have an aggressive 29er, which can certainly bring back to this tremendous brand the glamour it rightfully deserves.
|Geometry (for size Medium):|
|Head tube angle||67 degrees|
|Effective seat tube angle||74.3 degrees|
|Chainstay length||435 mm|
|Weight (including pedals original wheels and tires)||31 Lbs|
|Weight (including pedals DT Swiss 1501 wheels and alternative tires)||30 Lbs|