2017 Santa Cruz Hightower

2017 Santa Cruz Hightower

Size Tested: Medium

Geometry: (Here)

Build Overview:

  • Drivetrain: Sram X01 Eagle
  • Brakes: SRAM Guide RSC
  • Fork: Rockshox Pike RCT3
  • Rear Shock: Rockshox Monarch RT3
  • Wheels: DT Swiss 350 / Raceface ARC 27

Wheels: 29′′

Travel: 140 mm rear / 140 mm front

Blister’s Measured Weight: 28.2 lbs (12.79 kg) without pedals

Reviewer: 5’9”, 155 lbs

Test Location: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, British Columbia

Duration of Test: ~3.5 months

MSRP: $6,799.00

Noah Bodman reviews the Santa Cruz Hightower for Blister Review
Santa Cruz Hightower


Santa Cruz released the Hightower about a year ago, and nobody bought one. Just kidding, everybody bought one.

So why all the fuss?

The Hightower entered the lineup in a spot previously occupied by the Blur LT. And recently, Santa Cruz upped the ante with an even longer-travel Hightower LT that has 150 mm rear travel. But the Hightower remains as Santa Cruz’s mid-travel 29er, and it can also be configured with 27.5+ tires.

So I’ve spent the last few months — and the better part of 1000 miles — riding the Hightower both as a 29er and with 27.5+ tires mounted up, and I’ve also tried a few other tweaks to the suspension to see how they played out.

And the most obvious conclusion I’ve come to is that there’s a reason this bike is so popular, and a big part of it is its versatility.

The Frame

The Hightower is only available in carbon, but there are two carbon layups to choose from — the “C” and the higher-end “CC.” The CC build (which is what I rode) weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 270 grams (0.6 lbs) less than the C, and costs more.

As with all Santa Cruz full-suspension bikes, the Hightower is built around the venerable VPP suspension design. Essentially, a solid rear triangle pivots around two short links, thus creating a “Virtual Pivot Point” that the rear axle pivots around.

Like many of the Santa Cruz bikes, the suspension’s leverage ratio features an inflection right around where the suspension sits when sagged. Without getting into a long diatribe on suspension designs, this helps the Hightower pedal quite efficiently. But it also means suspension setup can be a bit tricky, which I’ll talk more about below.

Noah Bodman reviews the Santa Cruz Hightower for Blister Review
Noah Bodman on the Santa Cruz Hightower, Pikes Peak, CO. (photo by Winn Jewett)

In terms of frame details, the Hightower has a few nice touches. The first one, and definitely the one I’m most excited about, is the threaded bottom bracket. It doesn’t creak, and I haven’t had to mess with it, which is awesome.

Cable routing is clean and internal in the front triangle, with rubber gaskets at the entrance and exit holes to keep water out. The cables don’t re-enter the frame on the rear triangle, which I’m fine with, since that’d just make replacing cables more of a hassle.

Rubber guards are incorporated into the frame in the usual spots — the stays around the chain, and the underside of the downtube. I’d prefer the downtube guard to be a bit bigger, though; I’ve caught quite a few flying rocks on the frame that missed the rubber pad.

The rear axle is a standard DT Swiss number, which works well. It came loose on me once on a particularly rough trail, but overall, it hasn’t been a problem.

The Hightower does have a water bottle mount inside the front triangle, but at least on my Medium frame, there’s only enough room to fit a small (20 oz) bottle. There is, however, enough room to fit a piggyback shock on the Hightower, which is a nod to the versatility of the bike.

The Build

The Hightower comes in a variety of build kits, with the less expensive kits coming on the “C” series frames, and the more expensive kits hung on the “CC” frames. And for each build kit, there are 29er and 27.5+ options, with the only differences being the wheels, tires, and front fork (the 27.5+ bikes are spec’d with a 150 mm fork, vs. the 140 mm fork on the 29ers). The frame is the same for each wheel size, and geometry adjustments are made via a flip chip at the rearward shock mount.

The Hightower I rode came spec’d with the CC frame and the X01 Eagle build kit set up with 29” wheels. I’ve said this before in other Santa Cruz reviews I’ve written, but Santa Cruz is one of those companies that, at least for my personal preferences, nails their build kits.

And really, it’s some of the smaller things that stand out. Maxxis tires (a 2.3” DHF in the front, and a 2.3” DHRII in the rear) are spot on for a bike like this, and those are probably the tires I’d put on this bike if I were building it from scratch. The same goes for a WTB Silverado saddle, that’s attached to a 150mm Rockshox Reverb seatpost. Plenty of companies spec shorter dropper posts on Medium sized frames, but I have long legs, so I appreciate the longer post. And in the cockpit, a 780 mm wide flat (!) bar is perfect — it keeps the front end from feeling too tall on steeper climbs, and it’s wide enough that I don’t have to put my usual “I can cut wide bars but I can’t expand narrow bars” line into this review.

But aside from the little details that I’m excited about, the build is tough to argue with. The X01 Eagle drivetrain is fantastic — tons of range, which means I can clean the steepest climbs and still not spin out on faster descents. My only gripe here (and one of my only gripes about the build in general) is the 30-tooth chainring that comes stock; with the dinner plate rear cog on the Eagle cassette, a 30t ring is unnecessarily small.

Noah Bodman reviews the Santa Cruz Hightower for Blister Review
Noah Bodman on the Santa Cruz Hightower, Victor, ID. (photo by Cy Whitling)

While Santa Cruz has switched to Fox suspension on the 2018 Hightowers, mine came equipped with a Rockshox Pike in the front and a Monarch out back. Both of those are solid performers, although the Pike is now about due for a rebuild. I did have to fuss around with the Monarch to get it riding like I wanted, which I’ll get into below.

My Hightower is rolling on some DT Swiss 350 hubs laced to Raceface ARC 27 rims, which I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, the DT Swiss hubs are bomber, and in another stroke of awesomeness, Santa Cruz specs the hubs with the 36 point star ratchet upgrade, which is fantastic. And for a bike like this, I think the 27 mm wide rims are perfect — I can happily run anything from a 2.1” up to a 2.5” tire on these rims. The downside is that I’m not a huge fan of the ARC 27 rims in other respects — they’re pretty soft (I’ve dented them up quite a bit), and they’re not all that stiff. I’ve had to re-true them a couple times during my time on them, which is a little unusual since I’m not usually the guy that frequently destroys wheels.

Fit and Geometry

In terms of geometry, the Hightower falls into the “modern, but not overboard” category. With a 430 mm reach and 601 mm effective top tube length on the Medium I rode, the Hightower is not as stretched out as some of the other bikes on the market that are pushing the limits of front-end length. But on the other hand, the Hightower is a bit longer than similar bikes from Trek and Specialized.

Similarly, the Hightower isn’t the lowest or slackest bike in this class, nor is it the tallest and steepest. With a 67° head tube angle and a 337 mm bottom bracket height, the Hightower is again fairly middle-of-the-road.

A 74.3° seat tube angle is relatively steep, which can help with keeping the rider’s weight forward. But as is often the case on modern full suspension bikes, the actual seat tube angle is a bit slacker, and for those like me with long legs, that means the saddle still ends up relatively rearward at full height. I didn’t find the Hightower to be too bad in this regard, but I’d be ok with an even steeper seat angle.

Out back, 435 mm chainstays are also fairly average — some bikes are a bit longer, some are a bit shorter, but the Hightower isn’t pushing the boundaries here.

In terms of sizing and fit, Santa Cruz recommends the Medium to people that are 5’5” to 5’9.” I’m right at the tall end of that range, and I was pretty happy with the Medium. I’m sure I could have comfortably ridden a Large, but I think it would have given up a good bit of maneuverability and playfulness (but likely would have gained some stability at speed).

It’s worth noting that the Hightower has a huge spread between the sizes, and I think Santa Cruz deserves some credit for this. At one end, the small has a 405 mm reach, which should work great for shorter riders. But at the other end, the XXL has a 505 mm reach, which is massive. Not many manufacturers are covering that kind of spread with their sizing.

Suspension Setup

VPP bikes are somewhat notorious for the suspension being a little fussy to set up, and I found that to be the case with the Hightower. I started with 30% sag in the rear, which offered great pedaling efficiency but I was left wanting a bit more small bump sensitivity. I ended up letting a bit of air out and increasing the sag to about 33%, but then I was bottoming out the shock too easily. In stock form, the Monarch came with four volume-reducing bottomless rings installed, and I added two more for the maximum of six rings in the rear shock. This gave me decent small bump sensitivity and took care of the bottoming out issue.

But I also think the stock tune on the Monarch left a bit to be desired — it was extraordinarily efficient and hardly bobbed at all while pedaling, but it didn’t do a great job of maintaining traction in corners. I thought it was just about perfect when run with 27.5+ tires, where small bump sensitivity is less important (since the tires handle most of that), so this is mostly just an issue when the bike is set up as a 29er.

I also ended up swapping out the rear shock for a Fox DPX2 (review forthcoming), and that made a pretty huge difference in how the bike rode. I still needed a volume reducer to keep the bike from bottoming out, but since the DPX2 has adjustable low-speed compression, I was able to play around with that. And this more or less confirmed my conclusions with respect to the Monarch; dialing up the low-speed compression on the DPX2 made it ride more like the Monarch — very efficient, but rough over small bumps. Dialing back the compression adjustment greatly improved sensitivity and traction in corners, and the Hightower’s suspension design is efficient enough that the pedaling efficiency was still entirely acceptable. For anyone contemplating a DPX2 upgrade for their Hightower, I think it’s fantastic.

At the front end of the bike, I set the Pike up with about 5 psi more pressure than recommended by Rockshox, and I was running two bottomless tokens (which is what it came with stock). I bumped the fork up to 150 mm travel when I tried the bike with the 27.5+ wheels, which is how the fork comes stock when the bike is purchased with Plus wheels, and I ended up preferring the 150 mm travel setting even when I switched back to the 29” wheels. So for the latter half of my time on the bike, I was riding it with a 150 mm fork.

The Ride

Right out of the gate, I was entirely impressed at how efficient the Hightower pedals. I’d go so far as to say, in stock form, the Hightower is right near the top of the most efficient pedaling bikes I’ve ridden in this travel class. On smooth fire road climbs, a quick glance down reveals barely any movement out of the rear shock. And that’s with the climb switch in open / descend mode — the Hightower is efficient enough that I very rarely flipped the switch on the shock.

On more technical and loose climbs, the Hightower still does well, but it does lose out a bit to bikes that have a more active rear end. I usually think of this as a spectrum — the bikes that perform best on techier, looser climbs tend to be less efficient on smoother climbs, and the best bikes on smoother climbs tend to give up a little ground in technical climbing situations. I’d put the Hightower at the “more efficient on smoother climbs” end of that spectrum. Which certainly isn’t to say it’s terrible on difficult, complicated climbs, but there are other bikes that are better (of the bikes I’ve ridden recently, the Devinci Troy and Trek Remedy come to mind).

When the trail points back downhill and it’s time to descend, the Hightower becomes a trickier one to categorize. Some 29ers really feel designed for high speeds in a straight line; they’re all about getting from point A to point B as fast as possible, and they don’t feel overly maneuverable. Other 29ers feel like glorified XC race bikes, and mostly rely on sprinting out of corners to make things happen. And other 29ers feel much more relaxed about their intentions, and work better when you’re looking to pop and jump every little trail feature, even if it’s not the fastest way down.

The Hightower has a bit of all of that, and I have a hard time pigeonholing it into a specific category. While it doesn’t feel like the kind of bike that only works correctly when it’s at race pace, it still does well when pushed. And while it’s not the poppiest, most playful 29er I’ve ridden, it does pretty well in that regard too. So what it does best is really occupying a fairly useful spot in the middle.

I would say, however, that the Hightower works better when ridden actively — it’s not a plow bike, and it doesn’t do as well if you try to just sit back and run into things. Particularly on repeated, hard hits, the rear suspension can feel a bit less composed. The Hightower prefers to hop over large hits and pump the backside rather than motor straight through them.

Noah Bodman reviews the Santa Cruz Hightower for Blister Review
Noah Bodman on the Santa Cruz Hightower, Victor, ID. (photo by Cy Whitling)

In terms of stiffness, I’d call the Hightower “stiff enough.” It’s not one of those brick shithouse frames that feels super overbuilt. But it’s not flexy either, and more to the point, I didn’t notice any flex out of the frame that was problematic. Pressing hard into corners, it never gave that characteristic wiggle of a frame that’s just a bit too light.

But while the frame is reasonably stiff, the wheels were a bit of a letdown. Having 28 spokes (as opposed to 32) doesn’t help the situation, but it’s the Raceface ARC 27 rims that seem to be the main problem. They’re the right width and work perfectly with the 2.3” and 2.4” tires I’ve been running, but they’re definitely a bit lacking in the stoutness and durability departments. Like I mentioned previously, they’ve gone out of true and I’ve dented them more easily than I expected. But in terms of ride quality, I just wish they were a bit laterally stiffer.

Stiffness aside, the Hightower doesn’t feel too boat-ish in corners. Some 29ers, particularly longer travel ones, can feel like a real handful in tighter situations. The Hightower isn’t too bad in this regard — on tighter switchbacks and other abrupt corners that sometimes catch me off guard, the Hightower got around them without too much struggle. I wouldn’t call it “small and whippy,” but it’s not a two-wheeled land yacht like some 29ers.

The thing with the Hightower being a solid middle ground kind of offering is that, with a few minor tweaks here and there, it can be set up to competently service quite a few different purposes. An example: I did some big backcountry rides mid-summer, and for those I kept the bike in more or less stock form. The Hightower is efficient enough for long days in the saddle while still being comfortable enough that it doesn’t beat me up on rough descents. But a little later in the summer, I did our local downhill race on the Hightower. So I bumped the travel in the fork up to 150 mm, added some volume reducers in the rear shock, and swapped tires for something meatier in the front, and a heavier casing on both.

And in both situations, the Hightower did really well; it’s well-rounded enough to be competent in a wide range of situations. And that’s not even getting into the option to run the Hightower with Plus tires, which brings us to…

29 vs 27.5+

The Hightower can be purchased as either a 29er or a 27.5+, but the frame itself is the same in either iteration. The 27.5+ version comes with a 150 mm fork (as opposed to the 140 mm fork on the 29er), and there’s a flip chip in the suspension that raises the bike a bit. Between the flip chip and the longer travel fork, the Hightower’s geometry remains very similar between the 29” and 27.5+ versions.

My bike came set up as a 29er, but I wanted to give the Hightower a try in the 27.5+ configuration, so I bumped the fork up to 150 mm travel, flipped the chip in the suspension, and mounted up some 27.5+ wheels and tires. For the record, the wheels and tires I used weren’t the stock ones that come on the Hightower — they were Ibis 742 wheels mounted with Terrene Chunk 3.0 tires. The 29” wheels and tires were stock issue — 2.3” Maxxis DHF and DHRII tires on Raceface Arc 27 rims.

The Terrene Chunks, which measure an honest 3” wide at their widest point, cleared the frame but did rub the chainstays slightly on hard corners. Not enough to be a huge problem, but enough so that it wasn’t 100% ideal.

And like I mentioned in the suspension section, with the stock Monarch, the Hightower rode really well with the Plus Tires. It’s still every bit as efficient while pedaling, but it maintains traction better in pretty much all situations.

Which leads to a somewhat contradictory conclusion: I personally like the Hightower better with 29” wheels. But it rides better with 27.5+ wheels.

Noah Bodman reviews the Santa Cruz Hightower for Blister Review
Noah Bodman on the Santa Cruz Hightower, Whitefish, MT. (photo by Erin Bodman)

So what the hell does that mean? It means, while I fully get why people like Plus tires, they’re not for me. The upsides are that they smooth out the trail really nicely, and in lots of situations, they offer up a ton of traction.

The downsides? They feel imprecise through rocky terrain, and while they can mask mistakes by absorbing rocks that I intended to miss, they also make it harder to put the wheels exactly where I want them. Ultimately, the big tires are undamped springs, and at higher speeds and in technical terrain, that can become a liability. In corners, I find that the tires roll sideways, which makes it harder to really press the bike through a turn at speed. I can add a bit more pressure to combat that, but more pressure makes the tires even less precise because they bounce around more. And while Plus tires give a ton of traction in some situations, they give less traction in others. Namely, at higher speeds where I want to press the side knobs into a corner, the bigger contact patch means there’s effectively less pressure on each knob, and thus less cornering traction available because the knobs aren’t dug in as hard.

So for all of those reasons, I prefer the narrower tires of the 29” setup. But the Plus tires mated to the Hightower’s suspension work really well together — it’s all the upsides of the Hightower’s suspension, with many of the downsides minimized. Which is why I think the Hightower works best when set up Plus tires (even if that setup isn’t my personal cup of tea).

But that’s all a bit subjective, and I wanted some empirical evidence. So I did a 29” vs. 27.5+ comparison to see which one was faster. In this test, the bike was set up identically except the wheels and tires (obviously), and the flip chip on the suspension (high mode for 27.5+, low mode for 29”). Prior to the test, I’d spent a bunch of time on the Hightower set up with both wheelsets so as to try to eliminate the impacts of getting on a new and different setup. That time on the bike also gave me the chance to dial in both setups how I liked them with respect to tire pressures, etc.

I rode a handful of local trails that I know like the back of my hand (probably better, since I don’t stare at the back of my hand that much). Some of these rides were done on the same day, back to back. Others were done in the same week, in similar conditions (which was dry and dusty throughout). All of the timing was done with Strava, which certainly shouldn’t be taken as the pinnacle of accuracy.

While I did some climbing during these tests, I’m hesitant to draw any conclusions there simply because those results are contingent on how hard I was trying, how I was feeling that day, how tired I was, etc. So the only thing I can say with respect to climbing is that neither 29” nor 27.5+ were clearly superior, although I tended to be slightly faster on the 29” wheels.

But I think the conclusions on the descents are clearer — I was faster on the 29” wheels pretty much everywhere, but not by as much as I expected. Over all of the segments I rode, I was, on average, about 3% faster on the 29” wheels. The most interesting segment was a flowy trail that can be ridden without pedaling. So I rode it on both wheel sizes, back to back, and didn’t pedal at all on either lap. On that 3 minute segment of trail, I ended up 3 seconds faster on the 29” wheels.

Noah Bodman reviews the Santa Cruz Hightower for Blister Review
Noah Bodman on the Santa Cruz Hightower, Whitefish MT. (photo by Marc O’Brien)

A few interesting notes on this test: while I was faster on the 29” wheels in almost every situation, the gap was closer on smoother, flowier trails. Like I mentioned above, one of my complaints about Plus tires is they feel less accurate, so this would make sense since precise tire placement tends to be less necessary on flow trails.

And while this gets a bit more subjective, I felt like my “normal” riding pace was closer to the limit on the Plus tires. Throughout this test, I was trying to stick to my normal trail pace, since going race pace introduces the variable of how much I’m exerting myself. In other words, I wasn’t slamming into every corner as fast as I could, and I wasn’t sprinting out of every corner exit. And with the 29er setup, I feel like I still could have easily turned it up a notch or two in a race situation, but with the Plus tires, I felt like going much faster would get considerably sketchier — I was already rolling tires in the corners, and through techy bits I was starting to struggle a little bit to keep the tires planted on the line I wanted.

This test is far from scientifically rigorous, and there are all kinds of variables that I could have changed that might have affected the outcome, tire choice being the biggest and most obvious one. So, while this shouldn’t be taken as any kind of definitive conclusion as to the 27.5+ vs 29er debate, it’s food for thought if you’re on the fence about it.

Durability and Maintenance

I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 miles on the Hightower (and counting), which should be enough to suss out significant durability issues. And so far, I’m happy to say that I don’t have much to report. The biggest issue, as I’ve already mentioned, is the wheels. The hubs are running smooth and problem free, but the rims are a bit worse for wear. I’ve trued them a few times, and there’s a bunch of dents in them, although none of the dents are big enough to be problematic when setting the tires up tubeless.

Aside from that, I bent the rear derailleur on a rock, bent it back a bit, kept riding, and then picked up a stick that finished the derailleur off. This isn’t really a durability issue, although the Eagle derailleurs are slightly more prone to this sort of thing since they stick out from the bike a lot, and the cage is extra long (and thus better at grabbing sticks). But really, the events that bent my derailleur likely would have cashed out any other derailleur too; it was just bad luck.

The Rockshox Pike has also started to make weird sounds on big hits, so I think it’s about due for a rebuild. This is a bit earlier than I’d expect that fork to need service, but it’s not hugely abnormal.

Bearings throughout the bike are still running smoothly and silently, and on the whole the bike is pretty quiet. The only noise I have is a bit of mystery junk that’s trapped inside the chainstay, and rattles around on bumpy descents. It’s been there since the bike was brand new, and there isn’t any way to get it out without drilling holes in the frame. Arguably, this could be considered a warranty issue, but I haven’t pursued that.

Aside from that, all I’ve done to the bike is basic maintenance.


Yeti SB5.5c – The Yeti feels like a bigger, longer bike. The Yeti’s suspension is a lot more linear, which means (among other things) that it’s a lot less fussy to set up. But the Hightower pedals noticeably more efficiently and is maybe slightly better over small bumps. I found both bikes to be better with a volume reducer in the rear shock to help with bottom outs. Overall, the Yeti feels more like an enduro race bike that does pretty well on trails too, whereas the Hightower feels more like a trail bike that can be souped up into an enduro machine with some tweaks. In stock form, the Hightower is much happier on mellower trails at a mellower pace where the SB5.5 feels like overkill.

Devinci Django – The Hightower feels like more bike than the Django; it’s longer and slacker, and it feels like it. While the Django pedals quite well, I’d actually say the Hightower is a little better, although I think the Django is easier to manage on steep, techy climbs. But on descents, once the speed picks up, the geometry and extra suspension on the Hightower become more apparent, and it pulls away.

Evil Following – The Evil doesn’t pedal nearly as well as the Hightower, but it’s poppier, and the suspension is more progressive (although there’s a bit less of it). Like the Django, the Following feels like a smaller bike, and it’s easier to whip around on twisty trails. In low mode, the Following is a bit slacker than the Hightower, but the Hightower still feels a little more planted at speed.

Rocky Mountain Instinct – Rocky Mountain just released a new version of the Instinct that I haven’t ridden yet, so I’m comparing the pre-2018 version here. The Instinct is a great climber; it rivals (and probably beats) the Hightower on smoother climbs. The Hightower does a bit better on loose, techy climbs, but that’s not the forte of either bike. On the descents, the Hightower is clearly more comfortable at speed. In tighter, techier situations the Instinct does alright, but in pretty much every descending situation the Hightower makes better use of its suspension.

YT Jeffsy 29 – The Jeffsy’s suspension is more consistently progressive than the Hightower, which makes the suspension easier to set up. It doesn’t pedal as efficiently as the Hightower, but it handles big hits a bit more gracefully. Once the suspension is dialed, I’d give the nod to the Hightower in terms of small bump sensitivity. I’d say the two bikes are in the same ballpark when it comes to stability at speed vs. slow speed maneuverability. Similarly, I’d say they’re pretty similar in terms of poppiness as well; not the most poppy bikes out there, but they’re happy to leave the ground when you tell them to.

Bottom Line

There’s a pretty clear reason why the Hightower is a popular bike. It’s efficient enough to satisfy those who want to crush miles and put in serious pedaling efforts. It’s competent at speed and stable enough that it can serve reasonably well as a competitive Enduro bike. But it’s not so race-oriented that the average rider who doesn’t really care about being the fastest or best won’t still have a great time on it on pretty much any trail.

And to add to all of that, it can be set up with 29” wheels or 27.5+ wheels. You can run a longer-travel fork or a shorter-travel fork. It has enough room to fit a piggyback shock, and plenty of people are running DH-oriented coils on it. You get the point — this bike is versatile.

So who would I recommend the Hightower to? A lot of people, mostly because of the bike’s versatility. But if I’m going to describe the ideal Hightower owner, it’d be someone who needs something that will efficiently get them to the top, but then will still hold its own on the descent. And it’d also be ideal for someone who’s mostly set on 29” wheels, but kinda curious as to what Plus tires are all about (or vice versa, if you’re already on the Plus bandwagon). And it would also be ideal for anyone who really likes the idea of a one-bike quiver, and they err to the slightly longer-travel end of the one-bike quiver spectrum.

So if any of those sound familiar, by all means, give the Hightower a very serious look.

30 comments on “2017 Santa Cruz Hightower”

  1. Great review, well written, nice testing.
    fwiw, my back to back testing is that I’m 3-5% slower on my plus bike too. 15 to 20% easier on my body though at 14-16lbs…
    I like the idea of this bike because I can race it as a 29er if I ride something like downieville, but ride it plus for lower impact..

    down to this or trek fuel ex for those reasons.


  2. Love the 29 vs. 27.5 Plus test, but very disappointed you didn’t use the stock Plus tires and wheels, since that would be what we (the Readers) would be buying – I’m sure the results would be similar, but I expect you would get a little more speed and precision with the stock Maxxis 2.8 Recons and stock wheels, and that might have made up those 3 seconds….

    Also wondering how the Hightower compares with the new Tallboy, which is also 29 / 27.5 Plus compatible…

    All in all, Good review!


    • Hey Ralph,

      Agreed about the tires – that’s something that I’d like to play with in the future. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Rekons on other bikes. Generally, my sentiments about Plus tires are the same for the Rekons as they are for the Chunks. But in terms of this particular test, I’d guess that the Rekons would roll a bit faster than the Chunks that I rode, but they don’t corner quite as hard.

      As for the Tallboy, unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to swing a leg over one, but I’ll update the review if I do!


    • RE: Tires. The 2.8s in general are a bit less squishy than a 3.0. The Maxxis Minion DFR 2.8 in particular, has amazing grip. I have an Ibis HD3, and went from minion 2.5 (around 24 PSI) to the minion 2.8 (17 ft, 19 rr) and honestly don’t feel a big subjective difference. Basically, the plus tires don’t feel “weird” at all. Strava times are generally the same on my regular trails, but I definitely notice the extra grip on rough climbs (think Moab, GJ, Fruita). Tire choice and air pressure make a huge difference on these Plus tires.

    • Hi Eric,

      I’d say the Bronson feels a bit more enduro-ish, whereas the Hightower feels a bit more at home as a trail bike. In terms of stability at speed, the two bikes aren’t too far apart, but when it comes to really smashing into rough terrain, the Bronson’s suspension does a better job. That said, at least for some situations where there’s lots of little bumps, the Hightower probably carries a bit more speed purely by virtue of the bigger wheels.

      Both bikes are pretty well rounded, but (putting the obvious wheel size debate aside for the moment), if I was looking for a bike that was a bit better for long backcountry rides, but that can also kill it on the descents, I’d go Hightower. Whereas if I wanted a bike that’s better at killing it on descents, but can also manage big backcountry rides, I’d go Bronson. Hopefully that makes sense(?).


  3. using a fox shock (dps light tune) instead of the monarch on my HT was the most important thing I did. To be honest, the bike isnt great on the monarch. What a difference. I get why 2018 bikes are on fox. I dont think monarch offered the light tune that is needed.

    Also, I find the YT climbs better than the HT. More balanced (the HT is slightly more rearwards balance wise) in particular, and pedal bob is not a problem when you equip all your bikes with a remote.. ;-)

    Finally, while you said SantaCruz always nails the kit – you then complained about a lot of it. And I agree with these complains. SantaCruz *generally* nails the kit, but that was NOT the case on the first HT (2017). The ARC wheels sucks and the monarch sux (on that bike). Period.

  4. Wow did you shuttle Pikes Peak on the Hightower?? That’s pretty cool. I bet it was very hard to ride at the top.

    Have you gotten to try the Hightower LT? Sounds like the Hightower wasn’t your cup of tea due to the whole jack of all trades thing and maybe the LT would have been a bit nicer to increase the capabilities a tad bit more. Doesn’t seem too different geometry wise except a slacker seat angle would not be your cup of tea.

    • Hey Phil,

      Yeah! We shuttled Pikes Peak – many years ago when I lived in Colorado, we’d do that ride a couple times a summer. It was pretty fun getting back up there to ride it again! It’s something like 8,000 feet of descending, and the trail ranges from brutally technical (basically unrideable for the first 1/4 mile) to pretty buff and flowy down lower. Gotta watch out for hikers though – definitely not a ride to do on a weekend.

      I haven’t had a chance to swing a leg over the LT yet, but that’s definitely on the short list of bikes I’d like to try. And I wouldn’t say I disliked the Hightower – I think the issue is more that it’s such a versatile bike, my instinct is to keep pushing it farther and farther outside of the areas that it’s really designed for. And the Hightower handles that kind of foolishness better than most, but it obviously starts to falter a bit when taken far outside of what it does best. So as a trail bike, the Hightower is truly fantastic. But when I start overforking it and treating it more like an enduro bike, that’s where I’d love to try the LT. The Hightower handles that abuse quite well, but sometimes you just need a bit more travel…

  5. Spot on review, I think you do some of the best. Your 29er trail bike comparison was what led me to buy my 2017 Hightower a little over a month ago so interesting the full review comes out now. I ended up with a 27.5+ as it as a crazy deal and they had no 29″ left in size and spec I needed. Found a set of new take-off 29″ stock wheels on pinkbike and have been swapping back and fourth. I thought 27.5+ was simply another trend for the bike companies to sell more bikes to wealthy old people who don’t really ride hard.

    But, I actually found I dig both wheel sets just for different things. Living in New England and being an avid Woods Dirtbiker I’ve actually found the 27.5+ to open up a lot of riding on stuff that is just not possible on regular tires, specifically, sandy or chunky or wet or soft dirtbike trails as well as more raw hiking trails. But like you said, even with the stock + tires once speeds pickup they get a bit dicey, perfect for softer under 13 mph type stuff though. I tried them at a bike park and they were ok but speed limiting and the forgiveness goes away pretty quick once you pump them up enough to stop some of the rolling over.

    This is the most fun do it all bike I’ve owned. I’ve already put about 40 hours of riding on it. The only big let down so far has been the Guide R brakes, those things fade horribly when pushing the bike down hill. The suspension I’m still fiddling with but I do think a new shock will help it out like you mentioned.

    • Hey Paul,

      That makes a ton of sense. It’s been years since I rode in New England, but I have (fond) memories of lots of slower speed chunkiness. And that’s a situation where I think the Plus tires would make a ton of sense. Less issues with the inaccuracies that come with speed, and the low psi would make for some good rock-crawling fun.


  6. Yup Noah, you nailed it: both on plus tires, & Santa Cruz’s baffling insistence on speccing 28-spoke wheels on their bikes. The 28h WTB Asym rims that came on my first SC suffered exactly the same fate as the RF ARC you tested: they simply wouldn’t stay straight, but they did stay bent once you knocked them out of true. Low spoke count / higher tension is a formula that works on road wheels, but has no place on MTBs: when you start cycling 28-spoke wheels repeatedly through rock gardens, the whole system goes to hell.
    Those 4 extra spokes would have also helped w/ the lateral stability you found lacking in the wheel. Santa Cruz does such a great job on their overall component spec, it’s hard to grasp why they keep failing so abjectly on the wheel builds.

  7. Noah,

    I don’t understand your statements about geometry, you wrote: “With a 430 mm reach and 601 mm effective top tube length on the Medium I rode, But on the other hand, the Hightower is a bit longer than similar bikes from Trek and Specialized.”
    Trek Fuel EX is 428 reach in 17.5″ size and 445mm in the 18.5″ size. Both of which could be called a M.

    Then you wrote: “it’s worth noting that the Hightower has a huge spread between the sizes, and I think Santa Cruz deserves some credit for this. At one end, the small has a 405 mm reach, which should work great for shorter riders. But at the other end, the XXL has a 505 mm reach, which is massive. Not many manufacturers are covering that kind of spread with their sizing.”

    I agree, that’s a very commendable thing, but hardly unique. Again just to pick a Fuel EX as an example, it goes from 394mm to 502mm, an even slightly bigger spread.

    • The reach on the Fuel EX is similar to the Hightower (because like you said, either the 17.5″ or 18.5″ could probably be called a medium), but the effective top tube is quite a bit shorter on the Fuel EX – 578 mm on the 17.5″, and 595 mm on the 18.5″. So overall, I’d say the Hightower feels a bit longer – similar reach and a longer effective top tube length.

      And you’re right, the Fuel EX is also available in a large range of sizes, but I disagree that it’s not unique. Using the Fuel EX as an example, even with that bike, the largest size (23″) is only available in an aluminum frame – I don’t believe Trek makes a carbon frame in that size. And while I haven’t looked at every geo chart for every bike out there, I can’t recall a single other bike that covers that kind of spread. Quickly, I glanced at the charts for a Stumpjumper 29, an Enduro 29, a Process 111, an SB5.5, a Trance, a Smuggler, a Ripley LS, a Spark, and a Carbine. None of those bikes covers the sizing spread of the Hightower (or the aluminum Fuel EX). A Pivot Switchblade comes close, but doesn’t quite have the same spread. So like I said, Santa Cruz deserves credit for the wide spread on sizes because not many manufacturers are offering that kind of sizing range. Trek does, but not on their higher end models. Maybe there’s some other brand that’s offering a similar sizing spread that I haven’t looked at, but I think my point stands – it’s rare.

  8. Hey Noah,

    Thanks for the reply. I tried to look at the Stumpy yesterday, but the site was down. I looked today and you are right, it is both shorter and the range is smaller from 389-477. As a tall guy I wish Specialized would join the trend for longer bikes.

    Santa Cruz, doesn’t offer their XXL size in alloy(in bikes like the Tallboy that come in alloy), so they are no better than Trek in that regards. You lament the lack of high end XXL options from Trek, others the lack of alloy XXL options from Santa Cruz. Either way, outlier sizes are always limited.

    I agree that in that case, if it’s only Santa Cruz, Trek and maybe Pivot offering such range, then that deserves to be called out.

  9. Hi Noah,

    Thanks for another great review.

    I would be very interested in your views on how the Hightower (in 27.5+ guise) compares to the Scott Spark 700 Plus Tuned you reviewed earlier this year. From your previous review, it seemed that you were very impressed with the Spark as a plus bike – is it still your favourite now that you have spent some more time on the Hightower?

    • I’m wondering about that same comparison, Tim.

      I’ve had a couple of plus bikes recently and at almost 50, I found the comfort and playfulness at moderate speeds great!
      I say they are 3-5% slower, but 15 to 20% happier and easier on the body.
      That said, with a race year coming up (I race downieville and a couple others every 10 years 98,08,18), I was thinking about something I can run as a 29er as I do know I’m faster on it.

      Hightower vs. Spark for tahoe riding and downieville for an old used to be fast XC guy?


    • Hey Tim (and Wade),

      The Spark feels like a slightly smaller bike than the Hightower +, so I think it’s a bit more fun on windier trails and at lower speeds. I don’t so much mean it feels way smaller in the physical, geometry sense – more just that it’s easier to move the bike around under you. The Hightower is more comfortable at higher speeds and when pushing hard, but that’s the kind of situation where Plus tires start to not work as well. So for the kind of terrain and riding that Plus tires do really well in (i.e. slower speeds, and tricky, chunky trails), the Spark wins out. For pedaling efficiency, they’re in the same ballpark. The Hightower feels a bit more efficient, but it also has a little more travel, so in terms of pedal bob it’s probably a wash. In terms of overall climbing prowess, I’d give the nod to the Spark, but not by a huge margin.

      But like Wade mentioned, the Hightower has the bonus of working well with 29″ wheels too, so in a racing situation, that makes for a compelling option. There’s a possibility you could convert a Spark Plus to 29″ wheels too, but it doesn’t have any option to adjust the geometry for the new wheel size, so I don’t think it’d work as well.

      So if I wasn’t too concerned with going race pace and I just wanted a fun bike that had the extra cush of Plus tires, I’d probably go with the Spark. But if I wanted something that I could occasionally push hard, but I also appreciated the comfort of Plus tires, I’d probably go Hightower and have two wheelsets for it.


      • Thank you, Noah. That is very helpful. I think the Spark is a better bet for me (still building mtb confidence after a road-based bike career so far, so more fun at lower speeds sounds good), but it’s hard to give up on the versatility of the Hightower and its choice of wheel sizes.

        The decision may also come to down to sizing – at 6′ 1/2″ with very long legs/arms I seem to be between sizes on the Hightower (though I have only been able to demo the Hightower on roads / parking lots, so it’s hard to get a sense), but I’m probably more of a solid large on the Spark, which is slightly longer in most measurements (but I haven’t sat on one). Decisions decisions. Thanks again for the help.

      • Thx Noah,
        Great reviews by the way, just read the pivot 5.5 which is also on my list…

        Taking these 2 bikes, HT vs 5.5, for trail riding for a 49yr old XC guy, preferences?

        More background, I like 2.6 tires, I was running a Breakout 2.5 and dhr 2.6 on my giant trance this summer, and really liked that size in the high teens.

        Any thoughts on those two bikes that may not be in the same review notes?


        • Hi Noah,
          Tossing 1 more into the mix, I’m now leaning toward the Remedy, building it light and putting a 150 fork on it, and 2.6front, 2.4 rear tire combo.

          Key is comfort and fun over speed, as I want to keep riding, and winning races isn’t top priority as it once was…

          Thoughts on Remedy vs hightower vs Mach 5.5?

          PS, once again, love your thoughtful reviews.


          • Hey Wade.

            That gets a bit tricky, since comfort and fun are slightly subjective. If I’m going to rank those bikes on a scale from “bump sucking monster” to “super efficient trail bike,” it’d go Remedy, Mach 5.5, Hightower.

            So if your idea of comfort is something that makes you suffer less on the climbs, and your idea of fun is something that pumps and pops a bit better, and feels less doggish on smoother trails, I’d go Hightower.

            But if your idea of fun is blasting down super rough trails and having the suspension and stability to make that (relatively) comfortable, I’d go Remedy. But that comes at the cost of poppiness – the Remedy is more of a “stick to the ground and lay waste to everything” kind of bike.

            The Mach 5.5 falls somewhere in the middle. It’s not quite as efficient as the Hightower, and it feels like a bigger bike (read: overkill on smoother trails). But it’s a bit cushier in the rough stuff, albeit not quite to the extent of the Remedy.

            Hope that helps!

  10. Good info, once again, Thx!

    Seems remedy is probably too much bike then. maybe even mach 5.5

    My issue w/ the hightower is my last 2 bikes have been bikes I can run 2.4 to 2.8, 27.5 tires on, and a wtb breakout 2.5rear and maxxis dhf 2.6 front have been my favorite tire combo. On the hightower (and other either/or bikes plus/29er), seems you need to run 2.8-3.0 to get the geo close, while dedicated 27.5 bikes ride lower and 2.5/2.6 is great.

    Any bikes I’m missing that would fit in that forgiving trail bike that is efficient range and 2.5/2.6 works well that you know of? My last bike was pretty good for that, Giant trance adv 1, but I had the Med and it was a bit small so I sold it after summer season. with it’s seat tube angle, the Large would be right size, but seated climbing suffers a lot (I had the seat slammed all the way forward on a med even to get pedal position right).

    Maybe Evil calling, or… cannondale habit.

    For background, I am skilled, but a relatively conservative 49yr old xc guy. Competitive expert back in the 90’s, expert podiums at downieville All Mtn race, but like rocky slow speed stuff more then smooth stuff w/ big air. I am planning to race downieville again this year, as I mentioned earlier, it’s been a decade (98,08 and now 18…)

    Anyway, thx for your expertise. Someone w/ your skills that rides lots of bikes and isn’t pushing 1 brand is rare…


  11. Hey Noah, Great review. I really like your writing style and insight. I have put about 1000 miles on my 2016 SC 5010 2.0 and I absolutely love the bike. It feels like it is an extension of me. I love it’s playfulness and overall responsiveness but I’m 29er and plus curious. I’m concerned I’m going to have to sacrifice the agility I love to make the switch to plus or 29er wheels. Am I right? Is there a bike that can have bigger wheels and be really agile? I am a one bike quiver rider and can’t swing multiple bikes. I’m 6’2″ and 190lbs and my 5010 is an XL. Is the hightower “that” bike? Any bikes you would recommend? Thanks

    • Hey Chris,

      The 5010 is an awesome bike, and like you said, it’s super playful and agile. Compared to the 5010, the Hightower will definitely feel less responsive. Some of that is due to the wheelsize, some of it’s due to having more travel, and some of it is simply by virtue of the Hightower being a bigger bike (in a given size, it’s wheelbase is quite a bit longer than the 5010).

      To some extent, I think it’s just what you’re used to. If you hopped on a Hightower immediately after riding the 5010, I think it’d feel “bigger” and less agile. But particularly since you’re fairly tall, I don’t think you’d have any problem making a bike like the Hightower do what you wanted it to. At the end of the day, it’s just a series of trade-offs – if there’s a succession of tight, back and forth corners, the 5010 will probably be quicker and more fun. But if there’s a longer, higher speed sweeping corner, the Hightower will probably feel more in control and less twitchy. And of course, most trails have some combination of those two scenarios, so it really just comes down to where you want the bike to shine.

      All that said, if you wanted a bike that retained a bit more slow speed playfulness but had 29″ wheels, I’d make sure the list included the Salsa Horsethief, Devinci Django, and Ibis Ripley LS. I also would’ve included the Transition Smuggler, but they just changed it to make it a bit more stable (the changes are good for stability, but bad for low speed agility). Check out our 29er Comparison for more discussion on those bikes: http://blistergearreview.com/gear-reviews/29er-trail-bikes-a-guide-comparisons

  12. Hi Noah,
    Been enjoying reading through your articles and reviews and checked out the podcast. I’m shopping for a new trail bike and have it narrowed down between a 18’ SC Hightower and the new Evil Following MB both 29er. I’ll be keeping my 6 inch travel 27.5 bike for more bike park DH type riding. I live in north Atlanta. The bike will be for my after work XC’ish rides and weekend trips up to north Georgia, Pisgah National Forest, DuPont. I’ve test ridden a tallboy 3 and Bronson and I really like the VPP pedaling. Demoing a HT soon. Unfortunately I won’t have a chance to ride an Following. How would you compare the two bikes for my intended use? The bike would also see time on some dirt jumps and pump track. I like an agile and fun bike but one that still hauls ass on the downs. Might have bought the tallboy if it was a little more aggressive! So I’m thinking I’ll love the Hightower, but the Following seems more in the travel range I thought I wanted. Plus the reviews on the Following are all so good! Well I’d love to hear your thoughts comparing the two bikes, thanks

  13. not sure if your around 6 years later…but do think it is worth an upgrade to either a tallboy or v 3 hightower the cost that goes with it high-end over 10k or am I being persuaded by the hype marketing

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