Words by: Max Morgan
As mountain bikes are being continuously refined, bike brands are pushing the envelope for what these bikes are capable of. There are a lot of different mountain bikes out there that are all very good, and for the most part, one bike isn't necessarily better than another. They all behave differently and that is what we are here to highlight. If you take a mini van to a race track, it will certainly be hard to lay down a track record. At the same time, if you take a Formula 1 car camping, it might be tough fitting all your camping gear in the trunk. The same goes for bicycles. They all have their strengths and weaknesses and today we are going to be riding and analyzing the 2020 Santa Cruz Hightower.
The second generation Hightower is what Santa Cruz is calling their greatest hits compiled in to one bike. This is their attempt at the "do it all" bike ready to get you up the biggest climbs and down the biggest descents. The Hightower is offered in 5 different sizes in carbon fiber and 4 sizes in aluminum. The Hightower is intended for the aggressive trail category, utilizes either 29 or 27.5+ inch wheels, and is paired with 140mm of VPP rear wheel travel. For this particular review, we have Max Morgan riding a size large Hightower CC with a custom top of the line component spec. Check out the full build specifications below.
|Frame||Santa Cruz Hightower - Size Large - Highland Blue and Desert|
|Wheelset||Industry Nine Enduro 305 29" - 32 Hole|
|Fork||Fox 36 Factory Series Grip2 - 160mm Travel, 44mm Offset|
|Rear Shock||Fox DPX2 Factory Series 3 Pos Adjust - 210mm x 52.5mm|
|Brakes||2011 SRAM Code|
|Brake Rotors and Pads||Galfer 203mm Front and Rear - 2.0mm Thickness / Galfer Advanced Metallic Pads|
|Headset||Cane Creek 110 Series|
|Stem||Deity Copperhead 35 - 50mm Length|
|Handlebars||Deity Skywire Carbon - 25mm Rise|
|Bottom Bracket||Sram DUB English Threaded 68-73mm|
|Rear Shifter||Sram Eagle XX1 AXS|
|Rear Derailleur||Sram Eagle XX1 AXS|
|Cassette||Sram Eagle XX1 AXS|
|Chain||Sram Eagle XX1 AXS|
|Crankset||Sram Eagle XX1 AXS|
|Seatpost/Dropper||Fox Transfer Factory Series 31.6mm - 150mm Travel|
|Dropper Lever||Wolf Tooth Light Action Remote|
|Saddle||Deity Speedtrap Ti|
|Front Tire||Maxxis Minion DHR II, 29 x 2.4 WT, EXO+, 3C MaxxTerra|
|Rear Tire||Maxxis Minion DHR II, 29 x 2.4 WT, EXO+, 3C MaxxTerra|
|Chainguide||E*Thirteen LG1r Carbon|
When a new bike launches, it's easy to jump to immediately look at the numbers and make an assumption about how that bike might perform. We do want to look at the numbers but also want to remember that these number won't tell you everything. This second generation Hightower uses the same suspension layout that we now see on all of their latest bikes, the Megatower and Tallboy in particular. The shock is now driven by the lower link of the frame, a design originally only seen on the V10, Santa Cruz's pure bread downhill bike.
The 2020 model year Hightower does follow most of the Modern Bike Geometry Trends. On the size large frame in the low setting, you will find a reach of 470mm, a head tube angle of 65.5 degrees, and a seat tube angle of 76.5 degrees all paired with a 44mm offset Fox 36 fork. In short, the longer reach when paired with a slacker head angle, a steeper seat tube angle, and a short fork offset is designed to give you a bike that descends with confidence without sacrificing much efficiency climbing. On paper, the Hightower looks good, so let's see how it performs out on the trail.
Max is based out of western North Carolina and does most of his trail riding in both Pisgah National Forest and Dupont State Forest. Whether it's on Pisgah's infamous Bennett Gap trail or the freshly reworked Avery Creek trail, western North Carolina has no shortage of big mountains, miles and miles of trail networks, long sustained climbs, rugged and rough descents, and purpose built mountain bike trails.
Just like all bikes from Santa Cruz, quality is top notch. From the carbon fiber construction, to the thoughtful cable routing, no stone was left unturned here. The Hightower uses carbon fiber tubes inside the frame that make installing internally routed cables a piece of cake. When you are installing cables, make sure you start from the back of the bike and work your way to the frame.
All of the hardware on the frame seem high quality and well thought out. Even down to the chainstay protector, we are starting to see more and more of these ribbed designs, and Santa Cruz has taken their stab at it here. Compared to other bikes on the market, Santa Cruz continues to set the bar for quality, fit, and finish.
One of the drawbacks I've found with the Hightower is that its frame design keeps you slightly limited on shock options. Santa Cruz advertises that the Hightower won't fit the Fox Float X2, Cane Creek Double Barrel Air CS, and all coil shocks. The Fox DPX2 is a high quality, high quality shock, but in a perfect world, I might have preferred the Fox Float X2. On Santa Cruz's complete bikes, they offer the Fox Float DPS and RockShox Super Deluxe shocks on the Hightower.
I certainly wouldn't call the Hightower a mountain goat, but it's also no slouch. For being such a capable descending bike with 160mm of travel up front, it was amazing at just how efficient the Hightower climbed. When you are a long sustained climb, let's say on a fire road, the Hightower didn't pedal bob much at all and the bikes geometry had me in a very comfortable position to put out consistent power. When things got more tight, twisty, and technical, the Hightower didn't really skip a beat. Sure, the bike doesn't climb as well as the Santa Cruz Blur or the Tallboy, but for me that's something I can live with.
The best way to describe the Hightower's climbing characteristics is efficient. The Fox DPX2 rear shock uses a 3 position compression adjust that helps provide a strong pedaling platform. The bike's geometry puts you right in the optimal climbing position that makes it easy to put out power on steep and technical terrain without having the front end wanting to wonder.
Once you get to the top of that big climb, the Hightower is ready to reward you on the way down. I was really impressed with how the bike handled while descending, regardless of the terrain. The bikes 1232mm wheelbase and long front center gave the bike a very stable feel without making it feel difficult to maneuver.
The VPP suspension system came alive once the trail started to get rough. I was impressed with how supportive the bike feels once you go more than 50% through the travel. There weren't any surprises with the bike's suspension platform and that is something I have come to enjoy. The bike is very predictable and that allows me to put the bike exactly where I want it to go out on the trail. After riding the bike for over a month now, I would be interested to try a lighter compression tune on the DPX2. Keep in mind that this isn't the shock spec'd on the bike from Santa Cruz.
The Santa Cruz Hightower is a great bike all around bike that finds the sweet spot between handling burly terrain and keeping the flow trails exciting. This second generation Hightower is an efficient climber that will reward you descending. A lot of bikes in the aggressive trail category seem to favor either climbing or descending more than the other, but the Hightower I think finds it way right in that middle. For me personally, I really enjoy these "mid travel" 29 inch wheeled trail bikes because I can hop on the bike without even knowing what kind of trails I'm riding and still have a blast. The Hightower is no exception there!
This article was written / authored by Max Morgan. Max has been a professional downhill mountain bike racer for the last 10 years, competing in the UCI World Cup downhill series and U.S. Pro GRT series. Having ridden all different kinds of bikes on trails all over the world, Max's experiences being out on the circuit give him a unique perspective on what makes for a quality cycling component. Max also has degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Physics, and so if you don't see out on the trail, chances are he is probably in the garage tinkering on the next project.