Santa Cruz isn't one to rest on its laurels. The Hightower is just over a year old and the brand quickly realized that as capable as that bike is, the thought of a Herculean Hightower began to whet the appetite of its enduro racers and legion of owners. The advantages afforded by larger wheels couldn't be denied as more and more riders put saddle time in on the Hightower. However, something with just a touch more travel, slacker angles, and a slightly rangier wheelbase could allow just a little more margin of error whilst mobbing through the timed sections and high-speed hardpack alike. Introducing the Santa Cruz Hightower LT, an outright enduro and trail assassin. FOX Performance suspension and a Shimano XT kit situates the XE Carbon C model as the journeyman's build and offers tremendous value, punching well above its weight relative to other bikes in its category. We are just a few rides in and already prepared to add the Hightower LT to the pantheon of great enduro and trail bikes we've ridden.
Santa Cruz's affection for the 29-inch wheel has certainly reached an apex. The love affair began with the Tallboy in 2009, which was arguably the first full-suspension 29er to receive industry acclaim. Big wheels coupled with Santa Cruz's excellent VPP suspension design found a recipe for instant success and riders everywhere headed to the trails to test the capabilities of the Tallboy. Many riders that threw a leg over the original Tallboy wondered if adding a few more ingredients to the mix could spice things up since quality suspension and wagon wheels instilled new-found confidence and speed on sketchy trails. Santa Cruz answered with the Tallboy LT, a bike that enjoyed a cult-like following. Fast forwarding to 2016, Santa Cruz releases the Hightower, a fitting successor to the LT. Loaded with accoutrements befitting a modern trail bike, the frame featured boost spacing, longer, lower, and slacker geometry, and a slight revision to the proven VPP design. The Hightower was a mountain biker's dream-come-true, a worthy trail ally that was happy tackling 60-mile out-of-bounds epics and chasing pesky Strava KOM's. We considered if the gurus at Santa Cruz could or would tweak the Hightower and satisfy the same rider's needs of a faster and more capable machine in the same fashion that the Tallboy LT raised the bar of the Tallboy?
Santa Cruz's enduro athletes appreciate the 29er Hightower's ability to lessen the angle of attack through rock gardens and over roots. Bigger wheels lessen the propensity for the tires to deflect off trail furniture and maintain speed through the rough stuff while also adding rolling efficiency while linking up enduro stages. Racing improves the breed, and while testing the bike to its full-potential on the Enduro World Series stage, a few of the Hightower's shortcomings came to surface under the fastest, rowdiest pilots. It was clear that these racers needed a Highertower. Test mules were deployed under Santa Cruz athletes for development and racing which led to perhaps one of the worst kept new bike launches. Photos quickly arose of frames appearing to have a Hightower front triangle with a little something extra going on in the rear. A quick search of bike forums also revealed Hightower owners tinkering with custom linkages and bolting on over-stroked shocks in an attempt to eke out a little more travel from their beloved steeds. Thankfully for Santa Cruz enduro racers and those not wanting to void their frame's warranty, the Hightower LT was born.
Santa Cruz began the LT project, and carried on into the production build, with the original Hightower's front triangle. This is great since features like the ability to carry a full-sized water bottle (perfect for doing hot-laps and not having to wear a pack) and the mechanic's choice, a creak-free threaded bottom bracket interface is also appreciated on the LT version. Prototypes of the LT featured custom machined linkages in an attempt to achieve the longer travel sought after by racers. Santa Cruz learned that in order to find a balance of spring rate, travel, and shock compatibility, a new swingarm was necessary to preserve the VPP characteristics that we have come to know and love. The new chainstays add a mere 2mm to the silhouette of the stubby 435mm stays found on the Hightower preserving the ability to rally up techy, ledge-filled climbs and buff singletrack alike. The new design also allows for a little more progression towards the end of the stroke preventing the rear shock from blowing through all of the travel while ripping high-speed chunder or hucking to flat. Bottom bracket height rises 1mm, but once seated, the increased sag afforded from the longer stroke shock allows the bike's center-of-gravity to sit a little lower to the ground and be on the ready for berm roosting.
We noticed another interesting design element when the first photos of the rumored Hightower LT came to surface: a post-mount caliper design. Along with the new Nomad, this is the first time we've seen post-mount from Santa Cruz on a mountain bike. We expect this to become the standard on future Santa Cruz bikes as the interface provides better support of braking loads and leads to a cleaner overall design. The new Nomad's launch right around the same time as the Hightower LT, allowed the engineers at Santa Cruz to focus on positioning it from the enduro/all-mountain bike we have come to know in its last generation and back to the freeride/mini-DH Nomad of old. Perhaps this is the loudest statement Santa Cruz can make on what wheelsize it feels is most appropriate for a given discipline. When high speeds and stopping the clock the fastest are what matters most, big wheels are gaining recognition among the sport's fastest riders. We are already seeing the Syndicate team winning World Cup DH races aboard prototype V10's with 29in wheels.
The Hightower LT forgoes the flip-chip found on the Tallboy and Hightower. While this does eliminate the ability to swap between 27.5+ and 29in wheels, it's a compromise we're willing to accept. Current plus wheels and tires lack the durability needed to smash through demanding terrain at warp speed and have not yet taken a stronghold on the rough-and-tumble enduro circuit. Santa Cruz does spec the bike with the maximum tire width of 2.5 inches, which on a 29in wheel is still putting down some pretty serious meat on the trail.
Matching the 6 inches of rut taming travel from the all new FOX DPX rear shock is the revised FOX Float 36 fork. FOX updated the fork with a larger volume negative-air spring allowing it to be more supple off the top of the stroke while still offering great midrange support. We didn't think there was any way possible for the 36 to get any more plush but FOX proves us wrong. We also feel that the 36 behooves the demeanor of the new LT and the stiffness from its robust chassis will quickly be appreciated on fast corners, under heavy braking, and bombing down sketchy chutes. The extra 10mm of fork travel, relative to the standard Hightower, slackens the head tube angle to 66.4 degrees. We always find it interesting to see how a number on a geometry chart correlates to how a bike performs on the trail. In our experience with the new LT, that number encourages a conviction to stay off the brakes on steep, rough descents while still having the poise to prevent a floundering front wheel when it's time to head back up a precipitous climb and attack a choice ridgeline.
The frame's carbon construction methods follow suit with the rest of Santa Cruz's line-up and deliver on what we have come to expect of their superior knowledge of carbon manufacturing. One-piece lay-up and curing lets Santa Cruz reduce the amount of overlapped joints that have to be wrapped or bonded, thus saving weight. Continuous fibers around tube junctions allows the frame to distribute loads and absorb impacts more effectively. One of our favorite features is the full carbon tubes that allow for super easy install of dropper post and rear derailleur housing, minimizing build and maintenance time. Where the C carbon frame differs from the CC carbon is in the use of a slightly lower modulus carbon. Durability and ride quality will be on par between the two materials but the C carbon does come with a slight weight penalty. We say "bring it on" as the cash saved there can go a long way towards race entries and post-ride tacos and beer. Providing additional bang-for-your-buck is Shimano's excellent XT M8000 group. The shifting accuracy, durability, and stopping performance is so damn good, we sometimes question the need for a higher-tier group. As always, Santa Cruz's carbon expertise allows it to confidently back up the frame with a lifetime warranty.
- Santa Cruz takes enduro to 11 with 29in wheels
- 6in VPP suspension is a godsend up and down the mountain
- Slacker angles and longer wheelbase aid in attacking the gnar
- Carbon C frame construction offers exceptional value
- FOX's updated suspension never second guesses a line choice
- Shimano XT build is the de facto trail group
- Clearance for 2.5in tires balance traction and speed
- Big wheels carry more velocity over challenging terrain