The original Santa Cruz Hightower converted a lot of riders to 29ers, does the new version have the same significance?
Editor’s Choice 2020
There’s an obvious theme running through the nomenclature of Santa Cruz’s 29er range. A tall boy is a chest for drawers, a 14oz beer can or literally a tall boy. Hightower is a native american name that means tall person and the definition of a mega tower is a very tall tower. The ever increasing reference to height, directly related to travel – the 140mm Hightower splitting the difference between the 120mm Tall Boy and the 165mm Megatower.
Billed squarely as a Trail/Enduro bike, it’s easy to see why the Hightower is the preferred race weapon for many riders that Santa Cruz supports. At 13.25kg (29.2lb) with alloy wheels, it’s a fair bit lighter than your typical enduro rig, making it easier to maneuver in tight, technical terrain while simultaneously saving your legs on long liaisons.
In the low geometry setting, the HighTower’s slack 64.6º head angle gives you the confidence to lean into turns at MotoGP angles. And while it’s not super long by modern trail bike standards it’s perfectly balanced, where the 150mm travel fork is alway in step with the VPP rear suspension. And the shift to the lower link-driven VPP arrangement first seen on the Santa Cruz V10 downhill bike, didn’t just offer a more consistent leverage rate and extra mid-stroke support, it also provided a much bigger set up window making it much easier to tweak the dynamic geometry.
So the Santa Cruz HighTower is easy to ride, easy to set up and easy on the eye. In fact, the only thing it’s not easy on is your wallet. Still, if you’re lucky enough to have 6.5K to drop on a new rig, the exceptional ride quality of the HighTower will definitely soften the blow. And given that it’s so versatile, you could probably convince yourself, or your partner, that you’re getting two bikes for the price of one.
Santa Cruz Hightower CC review
Before the version 2 came out earlier this year, the Hightower used a similar design to the Intense Primer, with the shock driven by a short swinglink beneath the top tube. That’s all changed now, with almost the entire Santa Cruz range adopting a lower link-driven VPP arrangement first seen on the Santa Cruz V10 downhill bike. Simply put, by using the lower link to drive the shock, the leverage rate remains more consistent throughout the stroke, so it’s easier to tune the shock and set-up the suspension.
To accommodate the shock, the frame uses a pierced seat tube design, where the RockShox Super Deluxe passes through a moulded tunnel and anchors to the base of the down tube. There’s enough room for a bottle cage within the main triangle, but the compression threshold lever is much harder to reach when climbing, and it’s more difficult to see the red O-ring when setting up the sag.
Getting the 150mm travel RockShox Lyrik Ultimate fork set up is simple. We ran around 10 per cent more air pressure than recommended by the chart printed on the left leg, with the rebound almost wide open and added a couple of clicks of low speed compression damping.
It’s the same story with the shock; we found our recommended pressure on the Santa Cruz website, set the sag and the damping and didn’t touch it again for the duration of the test.
Like Intense, Santa Cruz uses a flip chip at the rear shock mount to let you tune the geometry and suspension feel. This one only has around half as much effect though, and it is fiddly to access. To stop the chip falling into the gap between the swingarm and the frame, we’d recommend holding it in place with a tyre lever when you remove the shock bolt.
The full SRAM spec on the Hightower CC X01 might seem run-of-the-mill, but it works. The Code brakes have a little less initial bite and a firmer spring than the XT models fitted to the Intense, but they stop just as well without any consistency issues. Shifting was precise and the dinky 30T chainring eased the strain on grinder climbs.
Scattered around the bike are a selection of details that show how much thought has gone into the Hightower. There’s a small mudguard to protect the shock from dirt, there are bearings in the rear shock eyelet to reduce friction, the Palmdale grips and Maxxis Minion DHRII Wide Trail 3C tyres are excellent, and oversize Torque Caps fitted to the DT front hub maximize steering stiffness.
The Hightower is one of those bikes that just gets on with the task in hand and delivers results without any fuss or fanfare. It manages to entice and excite at every turn, and the more we rode it, the more we appreciated its abilities.
First the climbs. Although the actual seat angle is slacker than the Intense, the effective seat angle at our max saddle height is 2° steeper, so you sit further forward over the bottom bracket. Allied to the supportive suspension means it’s more efficient when pedalling. There’s more stability too, so unless you want to mash away out of the saddle, there’s no need to stretch down for the compression lever.
Tip in to a descent, no matter what gradient, and the Hightower instantly feels predictable and engaging. You can lean it in at MotoGP angles and load up both tyres for carving turns, or push into the travel to generate speed or pop to clear obstacles. Wherever you are in the stroke, it feels consistent, so you never have to second-guess what the suspension in doing. That leaves you headroom to concentrate on pushing harder, braking later or hitting more challenging lines. And there’s more leg room too, because that saddle drops completely out of the way, so you can be much more dynamic than on the Intense without getting tangled up. So much so that we could easily move up a size to the XL frame and still run a 170mm dropper with plenty of standover clearance.
What’s new for 2021?
Santa Cruz has switched out the Lyrik Ultimate for a new Fox 36 Factory fork. Given that both forks have 150mm travel and are excellent performers, it could be considered a sideways move if it weren’t for the Fox fork being more expensive. Other small changes see a Burgtec stem replace the RaceFace Aeffect, while the 170mm RockShox Reverb gets swapped for a 175mm KS Lev on the size L. All subtle changes that should make the stellar ride of the HighTower shine even brighter in 2021.
The original Santa Cruz Hightower converted a lot of riders to 29ers, does the new version have the same significance, or will it languish in the shadow of the Megatower?
The new Hightower is alert, rewarding, inspiring and refined – all the things that you'd hope for at this price – and it's almost impossible to find a chink in its armour, whatever kind of terrain you put in front of it. Previous complaints, such as the US-biased cable routing, have finally been fixed on this latest model, and Santa Cruz has even made the chainstays longer on the XXL frame so that taller riders won't get left hanging off the back of the bike. It feels right from the very first pedal stroke, and encapsulates the versatility that defines every great trail bike.