The Santa Cruz Hightower appears to be a real all-rounder. Not only is the Californian twenty-niner very popular amongst trail riders, but it’s also regularly spotted on the race tracks around the world. ENDURO chief-editor Christoph spent a whole year punishing his custom Hightower on a variety of trails. Could the performance of the Hightower manage to impress him?

ENDURO chief-editor Christoph’s long-term test bike: the Santa Cruz Hightower.

The frame of the Santa Cruz Hightower in detail

The starting point for our long-term test wasn’t a stock build but a Hightower CC frame which I specced with a variety of components throughout the year. During this time I swapped and over quite a number of bits. With 135 mm rear-travel and the option of running both 29′′ and 27.5+ wheels, the Hightower is the perfect platform for all sorts of trail adventures.

Straight away Christoph was fascinated by the lush frame of the Santa Cruz Hightower CC.

The first huge grin appeared on my face when I assembled the bike for the first time. Hardly any other bike was this easy to build. The internal cable routing runs smoothly while the externally-routed brake line saves you the annoying post-routing bleed. Thanks to a threaded bottom bracket and a simple headset insertion process, no cup-press tool is necessary. Brilliant! The only slightly frustrating bit was installing the rubber plugs into the cable insertion-points.

Cable routing is stress-free and easy… And there is even room for a water bottle.
The threaded bottom bracket is installed in no time and is easy to replace when required.
Tight: very little tire clearance in the rear end.

Spec of the Santa Cruz Hightower long-term test bike

I changed the spec of my Hightower several times over the testing period. The SRAM X01 Eagle drivetrain and the Specialized Roval carbon wheels are the only parts which remained on the bike throughout the test. My last setup included a RockShox Lyrik and a set of new SRAM Code brakes. It was only when I opted for big 200 mm rotors that these finally delivered a consistent and good braking power on long and tortuous descents. A OneUp Components EDC tool sits inside the steerer tube. This allows me to carry a mini tool even on quick after-work laps.

A true endurance runner on Christoph’s Hightower: the SRAM X01 Eagle drivetrain.
The RockShox Reverb 1x-Remote improves the ergonomics of this popular dropper.
Extremely practical: the OneUp Components EDC-Tool hides inside the steerer tube.
SRAM Code brakes offer good progression and superb ergonomics. We recommend 200 mm rotors for maximum power.

The chassis of the Santa Cruz Hightower

Throughout the year I changed components and suspension setups several times. I started off with the standard RockShox Monarch shock which I was already very happy with. When I changed to a FOX FLOAT X2 I gained a little more feedback, extra stability in the mid-stroke and additional adjustment possibilities. I ran the X2 shock with a fairly open compression setting in order to achieve the most sensitive responsiveness possible. Towards the end of the test I swapped the Float X2 for a custom RockShox Monarch Plus with tuned rebound damping. This offered the most sensitive beginning stroke of all three shocks and also gave me the feeling of having more travel than the previous options. Unfortunately we don’t really know what sort of magic RockShox worked here.
The choice of different shocks never affected the basic characteristics of the bike’s rear end and the Hightower felt fast and powerful in all setups. All shock-setups provided for great feedback and a good pop.

A tuned RockShox Monarch Plus finally unlocked the full potential of the Hightower’s rear end.

For my fork I opted for a RockShox Lyrik with 150 mm travel. This is usually only available as a standard option for the Plus versions, Santa Cruz delivers the 29er with 140 mm forks. The bike felt very well balanced despite the additional one cm of travel.

Christoph ran his 150 mm RockShox Lyrik with 2 tokens and 3-4 clicks of lowspeed- compression.

The Santa Cruz Hightower on the trail

In these ten months Christoph rode his Santa Cruz Hightower on a variety of trails, everything from steep and techy to flat and flowy. Sometimes the rides involved tough 1,000m leg-powered ascents, sometimes easy and relaxed uplifts. The riding position feels very balanced and really suits long distance rides. Combining these characteristics with a 50 mm stem and a pushed-forward saddle, we got enough weight over the front wheel without the unpleasant feeling of sitting too far back over the rear wheel. The Hightower masters difficult and technical climbs with ease. Having said that the seat angle could be slightly steeper; in this case a 140 mm fork would be a better choice. Even in the open position the VPP link feels very efficient without sitting in the sag on climbs. Since I personally prefer lots of traction over a locked-out rear end, I rode with the shock in the open position 98 % of the time. If there was anything slowing this bike down, it would be heavy-rolling tires. If I had to chose the perfect all-rounder tire-combo, I would go for a MAXXIS Shorty 2.5 WT in the front and a Minion DHR II 2.4 WT in the rear. Most of the time I rode my Hightower with 29” wheels.

The Santa Cruz Hightower feels at home on flowy and twisty trails.

The handling of the Hightower feels awesomely balanced. If you’re looking for a rowdy bike to hammer rock-gardens the Hightower may not be what you’re looking for and the Nomad would be a better option in your case. But if you’re looking for a bike with awesome handling which can still inspire confidence whilst feeling agile despite the huge 29er wheels, you are likely to fall in love with the Hightower. Its geometry is well-balanced and the weight distribution on the bike is superb. Even though I was riding other bikes on a regular basis during this time, I always felt very much at home when returning to the Hightower. It requires only little re-adjusting in corners, reacts swiftly to direction changes and follows the lines with
surgical precision. And throwing in a manual is fun and easy.

The weight distribution on the Hightower is superb. Drifting feels easy and controlled.

Despite the mere 135 mm of travel the rear suspension works efficiently, only lacking a tad of sensitivity in the beginning of the stroke. I noticed this with the sort of fast to medium hits you would typically get in root sections. Nevertheless, the suspension provides great feedback and good support. Clearing steep drops? No problem with the Hightower. Building up speed? Easy. Towards the end of the travel a noticeable amount of progression prevents the shock from bottoming out.

The Hightower defends itself on technical descents but struggles to keep up with bikes with more travel.

What sort of problems arose during our long-term test?

In this one-year test the Hightower didn’t give us any major headaches. After a few rides the bike started creaking but a fresh load of grease in the rear-end got rid of the ugly noise – and the bike remained silent for the rest of the year. Also, not one single bolt came loose. Tire clearance in the rear end is tight with big 29” wagon wheels. As the scratches on the lower rocker reveal, wide rims combined with huge Schwalbe Magic Marys tires don’t leave much room. On the other hand, the paintjob was still in pretty good nick after a year of abuse and once we disassembled the bike the bearings were still running smooth. They certainly didn’t look like new but the wear was totally within reason. And even if they wore out after a year, a bearing lifetime-warranty will take care of it without the stress of expensive maintenance costs.

Scratches on the lower rocker are clearly visible. Unfortunately there is not much room.
The additional clamp on the pivot axles proved very practical. There was not a single loose screw throughout the year. Something you shouldn’t take for granted!
The frame bearings aren’t exactly new, but still in pretty good nick and ready for another season.
Still looking great! The paintjob and the treads.
After one year of testing neither the paint nor the chainstay protection showed excessive wear.
The face of satisfaction: during our one year long-term test Christoph didn’t encounter any significant problems.

Conclusions for the Santa Cruz Hightower

Not once have I regretted choosing the Santa Cruz Hightower. Even after a year I still very much love riding this bike. The balanced and predictable handling is superb, acceleration and riding position are great for long tours. If I could change one thing it would be a more sensitive and potent rear end. And that’s exactly what Santa Cruz delivers with their new Hightower LT. If you are looking for a bike for all situations you will love the Hightower!

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