First Impressions: Santa Cruz Hightower LT vs. Hightower
It was merely a matter of time before Santa Cruz introduced the Hightower LT.
When the original Hightower launched in 2016, it was billed as a replacement for the beloved but long-in-the-tooth Tallboy LT. Fittingly enough, it was presented as a trail bike with serious technical aptitude and an appetite for adventure. But in a scene that’s been mirrored throughout the industry, this gentleman’s trail bike was almost immediately pressed into duty by Santa Cruz’s Enduro World Series athletes. Under these demanding circumstances, the Hightower’s limitations became apparent, and Santa Cruz set out to address those limitations with the Hightower LT. The result is Enduro World Series-tested, while retaining a friendliness that makes it incredibly inviting for those needing a bit more margin for error than the original Hightower provides.
The story of the Hightower LT may well begin with Santa Cruz athlete and undisputed legend Cedric Gracia. Gracia was the first member of the Santa Cruz family to fully understand the Hightower’s potential, and almost immediately made it his primary steed for enduro racing. It didn’t take long for fellow Santa Cruz athletes Mark Scott, Iago Gary, and Josh Bryceland to follow suit. But while the Hightower’s 29-inch wheels and fairly neutral handling made it a compelling solution to the puzzle posed by a season of Enduro World Series racing, it was a bit short on travel when pushed at race pace. So starting with custom upper links, and moving on to a different rear triangle, Santa Cruz’s racers started testing and proving the bike that would become the Hightower LT.
The Hightower LT offers up a handful of noteworthy changes, but the obvious one is its 150mm travel figure, up from the Hightower’s 135mm. If we’re being honest, a 15mm difference isn’t exactly night-and-day, so you’d be forgiven for wondering if this change was worth the effort. The short version is yes, because in reality, the change is more than just an extra half-inch.
In addition to increasing wheel travel, Santa Cruz went back to the drawing board with the leverage curve. What they found was that, at race pace, the Hightower was bottoming out hard, and doing so too often. The obvious solution was to reduce the leverage ratio at the bottom of the stroke, significantly reducing the tendency to find hard bottom. Beyond that, the overall suspension feel remains remarkably consistent between the bikes, which means that the LT retains the Hightower’s liveliness. The upshot is that the LT is a step or two more capable, but it gives up effectively nothing to the Hightower on tamer trails.
The geometry numbers on the LT indicate a similar machine to the Hightower, and it’s not a coincidence. The Hightower and the LT both share the same front triangle, meaning that the overall feel at the cockpit is effectively identical. The extra 10mm of fork height relaxes the head angle to an extremely predictable 66.4 degrees, with the somewhat less desirable effect of kicking the seat tube angle out to a still very reasonable 73.7 degrees. This change also shortens the reach measurement slightly, which brings the size large LT to a 17.4 inch reach—identical to Yeti’s acclaimed SB5.5c. The changes to the rear triangle and rear linkage are minor, resulting in chainstays that measure 2mm longer, and a bottom bracket measurement that’s 1mm taller. Of course, by the time that you account for the extra sag a rider is likely to run on the LT, the actual ride height could well be even lower than the original Hightower. In short, the geometric differences are noticeable, but minor, and coming from a satisfied Hightower owner, that should be considered high praise.
Of course, for those considering the LT, the first question is likely to be “why should I buy this over the original Hightower?” There’s a massive amount of overlap between models, so it largely comes down to intended use. First off, if you want to run 27.5 Plus tires, the LT is out. Changes to the rear triangle required that the LT be 29-inch only, which fits its intended use just fine. For those already familiar with the Hightower, it’s worth honestly considering whether you find yourself pushing the bike outside of its comfort zone. For most riders, the answer is likely to be no, in which case the original is probably the better bet.
On the contrary, enduro racers who don’t consider 27.5 Plus compatibility to be desirable, or at least a deal breaker, will be better served by the extra travel and margin for error afforded by the LT. In terms of climbing efficiency, cornering agility, and jumping, to name a few areas where more travel isn’t always better, the LT is easily on par with the original Hightower. Truthfully, as a current Hightower owner, I frequently forgot that I was on the LT during testing, at least until the trail turned downward. When faced with braking, bumps, roots, and slippery cambers, the LT is simply more composed. It’s a subtle difference, mind you, but there’s no denying that the longer and rougher the descents get, the more the LT pulls away from the original Hightower.
Of its competitors, the Hightower LT is likely to be in the running with Evil’s Wreckoning, Yeti’s SB5.5c, Pivot’s Switchblade, and Niner’s RIP9. Starting on the aggressive end, the Hightower is more conservative than the Wreckoning, and although the Wreckoning bests it by only 10mm of travel, the disparity in feel is greater than one might assume. By comparison, the downhill-inspired Wreckoning reminds the rider that the Hightower LT is really a long-travel trail bike, but that could well be considered a good thing if your riding includes more than just the wildest trails on earth.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Hightower LT doesn’t feel quite as nimble as the RIP 9, but that translates into added stability as speeds exceed the 30mph mark. In terms of feel, frankly, the Hightower LT is extremely close to the SB5.5c, which makes sense given its nearly identical measurements. While the SB5.5c can tend to erase the trail, the Hightower LT provides a bit more feedback, without ever feeling harsh. Personally, I prefer the feel of the LT in this particular matchup, but that’s entirely subjective. And finally, the Switchblade’s roomier cockpit and more relaxed head angle give it more of a truly “new school” feel, but it’s not quite as smooth through chatter as the LT, owing perhaps to its shorter rear travel figure.
If you’re looking for the most extreme option in the long-travel 29-inch category, there are options that push particular parameters further. But despite the Hightower LT’s aggressive intent, it’s a machine that’s defined by its balance and restraint in the face of shifting trends. Sure, the original Hightower is plenty of bike for plenty of people, but there are some of us who need or want a bit more. Unsurprisingly, the Hightower LT is a perfect match for enduro racers. It’s also ideal for those who seek out the roughest, fastest trails in their area, but don’t want to be punished on less demanding terrain for riding an immensely capable machine. Consider the Hightower LT the most potent version of the proven Hightower formula. It’s a twist to the recipe that makes this big-wheeled enduro racer just about irresistible.
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