First Impressions: Santa Cruz Hightower
More than simply a fan favorite, Santa Cruz’s Hightower has become a reference point in the mid travel, 29 inch wheeled trail bike space. Introduced in 2016, the Hightower quickly gained a following for its versatility, and it was instrumental in proving how far 29’ers had come in just a few short years. But in 2019, the trusted reference has started to feel dated as trends and tastes have progressed. An updated version has arrived to take its place, and not a moment too soon.
The 2019 Hightower aims to pick up where the previous model left off, yet on paper it appears to be a radical departure from its predecessor. The first obvious difference is not merely aesthetic— it’s the transition to a lower link driven VPP suspension design. Santa Cruz followers will be keenly aware that this platform was developed on the World Cup proven V10 downhill bike, and has started to bleed into the trail bike lineup, first with the Nomad 4 in 2017, then the Bronson in 2018, and most recently, the Megatower earlier this year.
The transition to lower link VPP was driven by a desire to achieve a more linear shock rate curve, where upper link VPP bikes have an inherent “hammock” or soft spot at the sag point, which presents certain challenges in suspension tuning, especially for more aggressive riders. The upshot is that the lower link driven VPP design offers more mid stroke support, which is a boon in particular for riders who pump their bike to generate speed.
The other dramatic departure from the previous Hightower becomes apparent when looking at the geometry chart. The new bike is several degrees slacker at the head tube, paired with a shorter offset fork for a thoroughly modern steering feel. The seat tube angle has also been steepened several degrees. In concert with the impressive pedaling efficiency of the lower link VPP suspension, the steeper seat tube angle is one of the essential factors that makes the new Hightower a decisively better climber than the previous model, and by a significant margin.
The geometry changes add up, as the new bike is roughly two inches longer in wheelbase per size. You might think that makes the new bike a sled, but that’s really not true. The updated rider position means that less body English is required to make the new Hightower do one’s bidding, and has the effect of making the new bike feel equally responsive, while being much more forgiving of rider error when braking late, charging into rough terrain, or diving into prolonged steeps.
Although the new version has undeniably benefitted from its complete overhaul, it retains the original Hightower’s most endearing traits, namely the balanced feel and intuitive handling that were the cornerstones of its well deserved reputation.
Although certain bikes in its class have pushed geometry further, the Hightower represents what we would consider to be an emerging geometric “sweet spot”, which will give it a familiar feel to anyone who’s spent time on the current generation of mountain bikes.
On the trail, the new Hightower almost disappears under the rider. It feels effortless to ride, responding deftly to rider input. It offers just enough chassis feedback for excellent tire feel, without being so stiff as to feel wooden or tinny. The linear shock curve translates into a very predictable suspension feel that offers enough overall progression to resist bottoming on square edged holes and hard G outs. In mellower terrain, the suspension feels lively and energetic, much more so than the previous Hightower, which helps to offset the added stability afforded by the new bike’s longer wheelbase.
As mentioned previously, the new Hightower has the blend of efficiency and rider position to make it a genuinely inspiring climber. That translates into very fast rolling speed on flatter trails, and keeps the Hightower from feeling as one dimensional as some of its peers.
The Hightower finds itself in one of the most competitive spaces in mountain biking at the moment, namely mid-travel 29 inch trail bikes. In particular, it begs comparison to Yeti’s SB130, which feels a bit more “serious” in its overall demeanor, largely due to its ground hugging suspension feel. The Ibis Ripmo is another likely contender, which despite having slightly more travel is built to cover essentially the same range of terrain. Having previously owned a Ripmo, the noticeable differences are that the Hightower’s head tube angle feels slacker and the suspension more progressive, which makes it feel overall more aggressive despite the similarities on paper. Evil’s Offering and Niner’s RIP 9 RDO are both likely contenders, but with only a quick spin aboard each bike, a more thorough comparison will have to wait.
When comparing the Hightower, one needs to address the elephant in the room. That elephant is named Megatower, and it seems likely that many riders will find themselves on the fence between these two Santa Cruz flagships.
As the current owner of a Megatower, the difference between the bikes is immediately noticeable, even if their intentions overlap considerably. The Megatower’s extra weight and taller fork have the combined effect of making it feel like a noticeably bigger bike. It’s surprisingly manageable on mellower terrain and is a strong climber in its class, but it doesn’t feel as quick in those situations. Those who have logged lots of hours on downhill bikes and are looking for that feel in a trail bike will find the Megatower to be a revelation. However, riders coming from a trail or cross country background will be shocked at the Hightower’s eagerness to lap the bike park and take on the hardest trails. The smaller bike does give up a bit of composure when faced with successive square edge hits, and the difference will be more obvious over full length of a blown out enduro stage. However, it also feels quicker and livelier everywhere else, and one suspects that in the right hands, the Hightower might be the faster race bike for all but the gnarliest north American enduros.
The Hightower has always been a bike that works incredibly well for just about anyone, and the new version looks set to continue that tradition. This is a machine with plenty of capability, but the real beauty is how easily you forget on mellow rides that you’re riding such an aggressive bike. As a long travel second bike for a cross country focused rider, the Hightower will be an exceptional choice. As a “quiver of one”, the Hightower finds itself in an elite group. For those needing such a machine, overlooking the new Hightower would be a serious mistake.