2017 Santa Cruz Hightower
Size Tested: Medium
- Drivetrain: Sram X01 Eagle
- Brakes: SRAM Guide RSC
- Fork: Rockshox Pike RCT3
- Rear Shock: Rockshox Monarch RT3
- Wheels: DT Swiss 350 / Raceface ARC 27
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
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.