PINKBIKE FIELD TRIP
SANTA CRUZ HIGHTOWER D
Words by Mike Levy, Photography by Anthony Smith
You're looking at Santa Cruz's least expensive Hightower, the aluminum 'D' model that sells for $2,899 USD, or around $400 less than the carbon Hightower frame on its own. Despite the price difference, the aluminum version gets the same lower-link VPP suspension that delivers 140mm of travel. There's also a 150mm RockShox 35 Gold fork, a 12-speed SX drivetrain from SRAM, and it's also worth pointing out the four-piston Guide T brakes with 180mm rotors, especially as it's mostly two-piston stoppers in this price and travel bracket.
This is a size-large for my 5’10” height, with a 473mm reach, 65.5-head angle, 76.8-seat tube angle, and 433mm chainstays. The geo is adjustable, too, just like on the fancier Hightowers, letting you relax the head angle to 65.2-degrees and drop 4mm of bottom bracket height.
Hightower Alloy D Details
Fork travel: 150mm
Wheel size: 29"
Frame construction: Aluminum
Head angle: 65.5-degrees
Chainstay length: 433mm
Reach: 473mm (lrg)
Sizes: sm, med, lrg (tested), xl, xxl
Price: $2,899 USD
More info: www.santacruzbicycles.com
Those are subtle changes if you ask me, but it alters the suspension's ramp-up as well. At 35.2lb, the Fat-tower is the heaviest bike in our Field Trip group test by nearly a full pound.
There are some frame details worth mentioning as well, including well thought out cable routing, loads of room for a large bottle inside the front triangle, and a very effective chainstay protector. Another point for Santa Cruz - a lifetime warranty on all of the pivot bearings. That means that if they start to feel nasty, you’ll get new ones for free if you’re the original owner, even after countless years of your usual abuse and neglect.
I’m also going to mention the Hightower's tires as that's a spot where we see some brands saving pennies by speccing rubber with hard compounds or that might not be tubeless-friendly. Not the case here, though: There’s a set of Maxxis’ 2.4” wide DHR 2 tires in 3C compound and EXO casing. One more thing you won’t have to upgrade. Climbing
The Hightower weighing a pound more than the rest of its Field Trip frenemies has little to zero effect on its climbing performance - the extra heft is in the frame, not its wheels and tires. That said, it did have the biggest on-trail presence of the bunch. On tight, low-speed climbs, it handled like the longest (it isn't) and slackest (it is) full-suspension bike in the group, making it feel more a little more like an enduro sled than a trail bike when it got really slow and tricky. It's not unmanageable, mind you, but the Jeffsy and Vitus both offer more of that classic trail bike handling in those situations. The Hightower might not be my pick if most of my descents were accessed via challenging singletrack ascents.
But if your climbing is done on doubletrack and gravel roads then I guess it doesn't really matter at all, just so long as the Hightower is reasonably efficient. On that front, Kazimer often preferred to flip the shock's pedal-assist to the firmer trail-mode, but I thought the chunky Santa Cruz pedaled quite well without any assistance.
While I didn't gel with the Hightower on technical climbs, the counterpoint to my complaints is that it all comes down to something called the work-to-fun ratio. Santa Cruz skews the Hightower more towards the latter, prioritizing descending over all-around-ing in both the geometry and spec departments. And rightfully so. Descending
With the big Maxxis rubber that we all know so well, four-piston Guide T brakes, and the slackest, longest geo of the six full-suspension bikes on test, the Hightower was set up to be great when it matters most. And, for the most part, that's how it played out.
While the Vitus and Jeffsy feel closer to the edge at high-consequence speeds, the hippie-colored Santa Cruz delivers a calmer ride; in the heat of the moment, it literally seems like you have more time to think before you act. That comes from the longer, more relaxed geometry, as well as the sticky tires and powerful brakes, that see the Hightower less fazed about that sketchy line or the fact that you might just be hanging on for dear life.
Much like the Commencal Meta TR, the Hightower has that invincible personality to it that more traditional trail bikes usually lack. Of course, that means it can feel like a lazy hippie when the terrain isn't there, but when it is...
The Hightower likely could have stood shoulder to shoulder with the solid-feeling Meta, but the Santa Cruz's 150mm-travel RockShox Recon 35 fork had other plans. The damper seemed to have a mind of its own, with inconsistent rebound speeds that could see the front-end dipping off one jump and going sky-high off the next. Not good for the confidence. Unfortunately, time constraints meant we weren't able to dig in deeper to diagnose the issue, but it's worth a mention.
At the other end of the bike, the back of the Hightower seemed less fussed about the rocky terrain than you might think 140mm should. It's not the super-plush, forgiving ride that an extra 20mm would deliver, but the Santa Cruz does offer a lot of forgiveness for a trail bike. It works well at 25 to 30-percent sag, although Kazimer did sometimes resort to trail-mode on smoother, rolling terrain for a little extra support and pop.
Hightower versus the rest: Who am I picking? The split is between more agile trail bikes like the YT, Vitus, Giant, and the Calibre, while the Commencal, Santa Cruz, and the Norco Torrent hardtail are bigger feeling rigs that offer more stability and calmness. Assuming the Hightower's fork was sorted, it should be a match for the Meta, and either of those bikes would be my choice if my trail rides included the kind of lines that make most riders think thrice. More into covering ground than sessioning questionable moves? Then choose the YT or Vitus.
Very capable for a trail bike +
Deep feeling rear suspension +
Four piston brakes, great tires
Heaviest of the bunch, if you care-
35 Gold fork had issues -
Not ideal on smooth, boring trails
Photos: Anthony Smith
Additional footage: Lear Miller