Test: Santa Cruz Hightower Mountain Bike

Have a Tallboy? Want a Tallboy? This is the Tallboy for modern times, complete with ability to run two wheel sizes.


Today, Santa Cruz unveiled a new model, the Hightower, and though the company is billing the bike as a big-wheeled version of its popular Bronson all-mountain model, let’s call it what it really is: a completely up-to-date re-boot of the Tallboy LT. Interested in a bike that can both gobble miles and roll through the chunder without flinching? This might be your next bike.

Santa Cruz pulled out all the stops, retooling the original Tallboy LT geometry with an eye toward making the new bike both a better descender and a snappier handler on tight singletrack. That, right there, is usually as good as it gets when you relaunch a popular model, but Santa Cruz had another trick up its sleeve: The Hightower is capable of running both 29er wheels and the newer plus-size (27+) wheels. Not at the same time, of course.

So…one frame, your choice of either wheel size.

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THE BACON-FLAVORED HISTORY
Santa Cruz was not an early adopter of larger wheels. In fact, it was way late to the party, refusing to release a model until 2009, when it rolled out the Tallboy, which immediately became the gold standard for how 29ers should ride. Prior to the Tallboy’s entrance, most 29ers suffered from overly long wheelbases, funky amounts of trail, and overly steep head angles that sought to reduce that trail.

Or to put it less wonkishly-most early 29ers handled like the offspring of a shopping cart and an old Cadillac.

The Tallboy, though, was a blast when it came to threading the needle, and the bike converted even the most hardened of 29er haters. It was the bacon of the mountain biking world-universally loved. Immediately, riders began clamoring for a longer-travel version. Santa Cruz responded in 2012 with the Tallboy LT, one of the first truly aggressive “all-mountain” style 29ers. The Tallboy LT and LTc (the carbon-framed version) quickly gained a cult following. No, a mass following. Actually, a cult-like mass following.

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SO, WHY THIS NEW BIKE?
Four years is an eternity in the evolutionary world of mountain bikes, and though the Tallboy LT is still a grand bike, its geometry is falling behind. The chainstays are longish, the head angle steepish. The top tube is a bit far off the ground. But the Hightower, well, it dials all those frame metrics right where they’re supposed to be.

QUICK AND DIRTY LIST ‘O CHANGES
– New version of Santa Cruz’s Virtual Pivot Point suspension design
– Improved standover clearance
– Longer top tube
– Shorter rear end (chainstays shortened by .6 inches/15 millimeters)
– Head angle slackened 2.5 degrees (to 67 degrees)
– Seat angle steepened 1.7 degrees (to 74.3 degrees)
– 1X only-no front derailleur
– Integrated headset
– Painless internal cable routing in the front triangle
– Clearance for 27.5 x 2.8-inch tires (some 3.0s will squeeze in there, too)
– Boost 148 rear end, whch improves rear end stiffness while adding mud/tire clearance
– And, of course, the ability to run 29er wheels and tires or 27+ wheels and tires

HighTower3

RIDING THE THING
I spent three years riding the Tallboy LTc and can say without reservation that the Hightower is a better mountain bike. It doesn’t bring earth-shattering change, but the Hightower feels better balanced and is easier to wend through turns than its predecessor. The shorter rear end gets a lot of credit here, but so does the much improved standover clearance, which makes shifting your body weight aboard the bike much easier during dicey descents.

I also prefer this third iteration of Santa Cruz’s longstanding Virtual Pivot Point suspension system. Santa Cruz already grafted the new system onto its latest Nomad, Bronson, and 5010 models, and it’s nice to find it here on the Hightower. It’s hard to say whether the improved traction on rocky climbs is all down to the new suspension kinematics, the new rear shock tune, or a combination of both (probably the latter). All I know is that climbing tricky bits of trail is easier.

Santa Cruz reconfigured their VPP linkage, beginning with the reboot of the Nomad. The new lower link sits above the bottom bracket. It rides well, but does catch a hell of a lot of gunk.

Santa Cruz reconfigured their VPP linkage, beginning with the reboot of the Nomad. The new lower link sits above the bottom bracket. It rides well, but does catch a hell of a lot of gunk.

The Hightower still pedals efficiently, but traction is improved. People who ran the Tallboy LT in Open mode while climbing might opt to switch the RockShox Monarch RT3 rear shock into its firmer suspension setting, but that’s standard protocol on 90 percent of today’s bikes. The High Tower also rocks a significantly steeper seat tube than its predecessor, which lets you scale hard sections of trail while employing less body English than was required on the Tallboy LT.

Some people won’t like the lack of a front derailleur mount, but you can get a low enough granny gear on a single-ring drivetrain today to climb most anything. You won’t need that front derailleur anymore. Trust me.

Santa Cruz's High Tower gives you the option to run either 29er or 27+ wheels and tires. Similar sizes, distinctly different ride qualities.

Santa Cruz’s High Tower gives you the option to run either 29er or 27+ wheels and tires. Similar sizes, distinctly different ride qualities.

BUT WHICH WHEEL SIZE?
This is the million-dollar question: 29 or 27-plus?

Most of the time, the plus-size wheel topic gets reduced to this: It’s good for people who aren’t particularly skilled riders. There’s reasons why that’s sorta true. And reasons why that’s sorta bullshit. Having ridden this bike with both wheel sizes bolted to the frame, here’s my two cents.

The plus-sized tires made bombing down rooty and rocky sections of trail easier-the large-volume Maxxis rubber adds a degree of suspension to the ride that is immediately noticeable. Or, to put it more succinctly-you stop noticing the little stuff that normally pings you about. Those monstrous tires, set at low pressures, just gobble up the rough stuff. You can bomb through small rock and root sections with ease.

This is why plus-size bikes are earning a rap as the right tool for less-skilled riders: They let you get away with plowing through rock gardens like a goon. Is that necessarily a “beginner” thing? I think it’s more of a matter of riding style and rider preference. You know what kind of rider you are, you decide for yourself. Finally, it’s also worth noting that uphill, straight-line traction is outstanding with these very fat tires.

I'm a bigger fan of the "traditional" 29x2.3 tire option, but both tire sizes have their merits.

I’m a bigger fan of the “traditional” 29 x 2.3 tire option, but both tire sizes have their merits.

Having said all of the above, I still prefer the Hightower when shod with the 29 x 2.3 wheel and tire combination. I find the cornering bite to be better with the 29er tires and the Hightower simply feels more nimble, more ready to dance and get loose in its traditional 29er configuration.

Bottom line, this wheel size thing is subjective. The difference isn’t as great as between 29 and 26 or 27.5 (650b) wheels. The way those wheels feel on the trail vary greatly because their outer diameters are significantly different. In the case, 27+ and 29er set-ups, however, the wheelsets have the same effective outer diameter. In a way, this is really more like a battle between two different flavors of 29.

Prices for complete bikes range from $4,600 to $7,800 (price and component spec for 29 and 27+ models are identical). The frame alone sells for $2900 with a RockShox Monarch RT3 shock.

Prices for complete bikes range from $4,600 to $7,800 (price and component spec for 29 and 27-plus models are identical). The frame alone sells for $2,900 with a RockShox Monarch RT3 shock.

OPTIONS, OPTIONS, OPTIONS…AND PRICES
Does that help? No? Well, again, the good news is that the Hightower plays nice with both wheel sizes. Santa Cruz outfitted the new model with a flip chip, which helps keep the bike’s geometry constant, regardless of which wheel size you opt to run.

What happens if you choose one wheel size and want to swap to the other? Going back and forth between wheel sizes requires swapping wheels (obviously), adding the correct length fork, and swapping the flip-chip setting.

If you bristle at the thought of coughing up the cash for a new fork (I hear you), Santa Cruz suggests going with the 27.5+/150mm fork configuration, since running 29er wheels works better with a longer fork than the other way around. The company also notes that you could switch out the Pike’s air shaft to a longer or shorter air spring as needed. In short, you have options, which in this day and age of constantly changing standards, is a very good thing.

Santa Cruz offers the Hightower as both a frameset ($2,900) and a complete bike. Santa Cruz offers three different build kids (S, X01 and XX1). Complete bikes range in price from $4,600 to $7,800. The base level model features a slightly (about a half pound) heavier frame, as it’s made from Santa Cruz’s less expensive “Carbon C” composite. Frame strength and stiffness, however, are said to be on par with the pricier carbon frame. It’s a very good way to go.

As for frame colors, the Hightower is available in what you see here–Sriracha Red and Matte Carbon & Mint.

There are a lot of good bikes lining up in this niche-the Evil Following, Specialized Stumpjumper 29er, Ibis Ripley LS…. With the Hightower, Santa Cruz is right there in the hunt with a bike that brings an extra bit of versatility to the mix.

Vernon Felton is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. He lives in Bellingham, Washington.
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Showing 7 comments
  • Marcus Williams
    Reply

    These are pretty nice sets of wheels. Been looking to invest in a new mountain bike and with all the options available I’m just lost! Would you recommend I get the CC XX1 even thought I’m just starting out?

    • Vernon Felton
      Reply

      If you have the cash for the CC XX1 version, it’s certainly a nice bit of kit. That said, you honestly get a whole lot of the same performance X01 kit–shifting is nearly identical, suspension is the same and the wheelset is on par–DT350 hubs offer a bit less bling than Industry Nine, but on the trail they’re on a par. For that matter, the “base level” Hightowr C kit is an outrageously good deal–you’d be hard pressed to feel the difference in the carbon frame and the SRAM GX drivetrain is quite good. And again, you’re getting the same basic fork and rear shock (minus some of the adjustability). So, in short, by all means go whole hog, but Santa Cruz has is delivering the goods throughout the price range on the Hightowers…That’s a very cool thing for consumers. Cheers.

  • Dan Dickinson
    Reply

    Any bike that comes in Sriracha has my vote!

  • Vincent
    Reply

    On paper this bike looks very long- it has a 46.75″ WB for the large (which at 5ft 10″ would be my size)
    How does it handle the tight and twisty? Did this extra length ever feel like a drawback?

    Also, how did it fare on really steep climbs? Did it climb as well as, say, a 5010? Did the slack head angle make it feel floppy compared to the Tallboy LT?

    Background- I’m coming from a competitor’s 5in travel 29er – looking to get either this bike or a 5010 this year.
    It’s a very tough choice! I’ll have a good chance to spend time on a 5010 soon- but the Hightower- not so much.

    Thanks for the review.

  • Jason Van Horn
    Reply

    Definitely not excited about the addition of the integrated headset. This is probably the first piece that even mentions it- guess that trip to Patagonia was pretty sweet!

    Santa Cruz tends to carry any design updates and apply them to the rest of the line- they have a killer warranty department but this seems to be a mis-step.

    • Vernon Felton
      Reply

      Hey, Jason. I was surprised about that myself and spoke with Santa Cruz staff about the headset; they noted that while they’d been leery of incorporating integrated headsets in the past, they’d tested the concept out extensively on their Highball model and were convinced it was a sound choice for the Hightower. It is definitely a departure for the brand, but they are pretty OCD over there about longevity. I’m guessing they did their homework on this one. On the upside, it does help keep front-end height reasonable, which can be a challenge on longer travel 29ers.

  • Jon
    Reply

    Hey Vernon,

    I was about to pull the trigger on a Ripley LS but this bike looks very similar. Which one would you choose?

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