A massive cloud of dust rises from the dirt road, churned up by the tires of the rider in front of me, and in seconds the brown smokescreen obscures the hot summer sun. I blink and squint in the futile hope that somehow I'll be able to see through the gritty haze, but nothing seems to help. I'm riding blind, careening down a dirt road in the Aysén region of Patagonia aboard the Hightower, Santa Cruz's latest carbon creation.
The Hightower fills the void left by the departure of the Tallboy LT from Santa Cruz's lineup, stepping up to the plate with 135mm of rear travel and the ability to run either 29” or 27.5+ wheels. It wouldn't be a stretch to call it a big wheeled Bronson, and it shares many of the same frame design features as its sibling, including a low slung top tube, a 150mm dropper post, 12 x 148mm rear spacing, and a VPP suspension layout.
Meet the Hightower
Where does the name 'Hightower' come from? Well, Santa Cruz wanted to make sure that the new bike had its own identity – the Tallboy LT name no longer seemed appropriate given how drastically the bike had changed, so they used Eric Highlander (aka Hightower), Santa Cruz's demo tour coordinator, and one very tall human, for inspiration. The Hightower is only available in three sizes (M, L, XL) due to the fact that Santa Cruz's designers felt that smaller riders would be better suited to a bike with 27.5" wheels, like the 5010 or Juliana Furtado.
With a 450mm reach for a size large, a 67° head angle, and 435mm chainstays, the Hightower's geometry numbers are thoroughly modern, and make it clear that the Hightower is meant to be capable of taking on just about anything a rider can toss its way.
• Travel: 135mm
• 29" or 27.5+ wheels
• Carbon frame
• 67° head angle
• 433mm chainstays
• 12 x 148mm rear spacing
• Threaded bottom bracket
• Sizes M, L, XL
• Weight as shown: 26.9 pounds. Frame only: 5.88 pounds.
• Colors: Sriracha red, matte carbon & mint
• Price: $4599 - $7799 USD (ENVE wheel upgrade available)
The Hightower's VPP suspension configuration is nearly identical to the Bronson's, with the lower link tucked neatly up into the frame.
Santa Cruz's VPP suspension design handles of the bike's 135mm of rear travel, and uses the same layout found on the Bronson, with the lower link tucked up and out of harm's way between the swingarm and the bottom bracket. As we've come to expect from Santa Cruz, expanding collet hardware and angular contact bearings are used at the pivot locations to keep everything locked securely in place.
In order to get the Hightower's chainstays as short as possible, Santa Cruz chose to do away with the ability to run a front derailleur, an inreasingly common design decision that's been made possible by the advent of 1x11 drivetrains. The rear dropout spacing is 12 x 148mm, and 15 x 110 spacing is found up front, numbers that allow the bike to accommodate both 29” and 27.5+ wheels without running into any frame clearance issues.
To further facilitate switching wheel sizes, a chip is located on the link that drives the rear shock. Switching the orientation of this chip helps keep the geometry numbers consistent between the 29” and 27.5+ configurations. Switching from 29” to 27.5+ wheels without using the chip or increasing the amount of fork travel would result in a bike with a less-than-ideal bottom bracket height and head angle, which is why Santa Cruz worked to ensure that the handling between the two options was as close as possible, and the reason that a 150mm fork is spec'd on the 27.5+ version of the Hightower, while the 29er gets one with 140mm of travel.
The rear brake line is routed externally, and all other housing runs internally through carbon tubes that are molded into the frame. A flip chip allows the Hightower's geometry to be altered in for either 29" or 27.5+ wheels.
Complete bikes will be offered with 29” or 27.5+ wheels, and pricing starts at $4,599 for the Hightower C S model, which comes with a RockShox Pike RC fork, Monarch RT shock, and a SRAM GX 1x11 drivetrain. The top of the line model is the Hightower CC XX1, spec'd with an XX1 drivetrain, RockShox Pike RCT3 fork, and a Race Face Next SL crankset for $7,799 USD. The Hightower frame alone will be available for $2,899.
The Hightower in 27.5+ mode, complete with a 150mm fork.
On the trail, the Hightower feels battle-ready, with a solidity that leaves no doubt about its ability to mow through anything in its path. I'd love to get it into even more technical terrain than what was on hand in Coyhaique to really test its capabilities, but on the instances where the dirt roads were replaced with twisty downhill singletrack the Hightower didn't disappoint. The faster you go the more it comes alive, urging you to let off the brakes and see just how hard you can push the rear wheel into a turn. 135mm may not seem like much travel, but don't be fooled – this is a lot of bike, and that travel combined with the big wheels goes a long way towards taking the edge off big hits and forgiving line choice mistakes.
With the Monarch RT3 shock set at 30% sag the Hightower's rear suspension feel was on the sportier side of things – it's not quite as supple as Trek's Remedy 29, but the benefit is that the bike responds very quickly when you stomp down on the pedals. There's minimal undue suspension movement during out of the saddle pedaling, one of the hallmarks of Santa Cruz's VPP suspension design. The bike's longish reach (450mm on the size large) did occasionally make the front end feel a little light on steeper climbs, but there's enough room that it's easy to perform a slight weight shift to balance everything out, and that length is welcome on the descents where it provides loads of stability.
What about 27.5+?
I was able to spend a full day with the Hightower set up in the 27.5+ configuration, which, in addition to trading out wheels, entailed swapping the 140mm RockShox Pike for one with 150mm of travel, and changing the position of the flip chip.
Climbing through grassy cow pastures on a bike with 2.8” tires seems like it would be a painfully slow experience, but luckily the Maxxis Recon and Icon tires didn't feel sluggish in the slightest, despite what their oversized appearance would make you think. If anything, the larger footprint and the low pressures that can be run allow them to better match the contours of the ground, creating a smoother ride than the 29” wheels. It doesn't take much time to adapt to the handling characteristics of the wider tires, and the slight steering differences that are required quickly became second nature. There was plenty of cornering traction, even with the fairly minimal tread pattern, and even when I pushed them hard enough to set them adrift, with a little bit of countersteering I could comfortably slide around dusty corners to my heart's content while still feeling completely in control. Getting airborne wasn't a struggle either, and it didn't feel any harder to bunnyhop over the numerous downed logs that littered the trails.
Personally, if I was going to purchase a Hightower I'd set it up as a 29er with a 150mm fork. I still prefer the feeling of side knobs digging into the trail during hard cornering, as opposed to the more vague feeling of the 27.5+ wheels. I do see the appeal, though, and riders that are looking for even more stability and extra traction, particularly in sandy, loose terrain will find it in spades with the 27.5+ wheels.
Riding in Coyhaique, Chile
The location for the unveiling of the Hightower wasn't chosen randomly out of a hat; it's the site of next year's Rally of Aysén, a brand new, multi-day race with several times stages each day. Rather than timing only the downhill portions, as in an enduro, some of the uphill portions of the course will also be timed.
As stunning as the photos of riding in Patagonia look, I wouldn't rush out to purchase plane tickets just yet, at least not with the expectation that you'll be welcomed with miles and miles of epic singletrack. Mountain biking in Coyhaique is still in its infancy – several of the trails we rode were less than two weeks old, and currently most of the riding takes place on dirt roads and doubletrack, with countless barbed wire fences to climb over, and plenty of speed-sapping, grassy pastures to cross.
It's currently more about the spectacular views and the feeling of adventure that comes with riding on unfamiliar terrain, rather than slashing berms and hitting manmade features. There's certainly loads of potential, and given the enthusiasm and work ethic shown by the locals, I wouldn't be surprised to see the mountain bike scene grow exponentially in the next few years.