PINKBIKE FIELD TEST
Santa Cruz Hightower
Words by Mike Levy; photography by Tom Richards
Santa Cruz has had a Hightower in their catalog for ages now, and while we got a wholesale change to lower-link VPP suspension layout nearly four years ago, the latest version for 2023 is all about subtle refinements to a platform that was already pretty damn good. That might mean it's not the most interesting of the bunch, sure, but it all comes together to make for an extremely fun and competent trail bike.
What hasn't changed is the 145mm of travel paired with a 150mm fork or the 29" wheels, and Santa Cruz describes it by saying, "It's a mountain bike. The mid-length travel and confidence-inspiring geometry mean anywhere tires will roll, then so will this bike. No fussing, no nonsense, no silly category names."
Hightower C GX AXS Reserve Details
• Travel: 145mm rear, 150mm front
• New frame w/ downtube storage, updated geo, kinematics
• 29" wheels
• 64.5° head-tube angle
• 76.4° seat-tube angle
• Reach: 472mm (lrg)
• Weight: 32.4 lb / 14.7 kg
• MSRP: $9,799 USD
• More info: www.santacruzbicycles.com
The Hightower R is the least expensive of the bunch, and it gets a RockShox Lyrik Base, an NX Eagle 12-speed drivetrain, and SRAM G2 R brakes for its $5,499 USD price tag. Our GX AXS Reserve test bike comes as described, including a wireless drivetrain and those carbon wheels, for $9,799 USD. There are six complete bikes in total spread over two frames - the C version and the lighter CC frame made with fancier carbon - and you can get the latter on its own for $4,099 USD.
So, what's new with this Hightower? While the lower link-driven VPP suspension layout sure looks like the old one, small changes in pivot locations have made for some slight but notable differences to the kinematics. There's a small drop in the lower anti-squat values for the first part of the travel to allow the suspension to be more active, but Santa Cruz says that it's still around 135-percent at sag before lowering later on in the travel. There's also a touch more leverage at the start and a bit more bottom-out resistance from the same size 210 x 55mm shock that the previous bike used, so it's refinement at both ends of the Hightower's travel.
Much more obvious than invisible leverage ratios is the large hole, er, Glovebox, in the Hightower's downtube. It comes with some padded sleeves for your whatever, and the latch is easy to use. That's not the only hole we need to talk about, however, as there's also a new one on the non-drive-side shock tunnel so you can see your shock's o-ring easier. That means you're running out of excuses for not having your sag properly. And unlike some of the other new bikes at this work party, a coil-sprung shock (or Float X2) won't fit on the Hightower; adding clearance would have meant losing about 0.4" of seat post insertion depth.
There are some small changes in the geometry department as well, including a slightly slacker front-end that now sits at 64.5-degrees and 438mm size-specific chainstays on our large test bike. It also gets a 472mm reach and 76.4-degree seat angle, which are basically the same as on the previous bike, and you'll still find a flip-chip at the lower shock mount as well. That little guy will apply just 0.3-degrees and 4mm of change at the bottom bracket, though. Climbing
Santa Cruz does a pretty good job of making bikes ride well without needing to push the limits of geometry or manufacturing, and I mean that as a compliment rather than a critique. You know where things go wrong? At the front of the pack. It's sometimes best to leave that for the smaller brands and instead design something that you know will just work, period. That seems to be what Santa Cruz has done with the third-generation Hightower.
As Kazimer described in the review video above, the bike's pedaling position feels quite neutral and easy to live with compared to bikes with steeper seat angles, the Genius ST being a prime example. There are longer and slacker trail bikes that do benefit from a more upright seat tube, especially if it's really steep, and it would have been easy for Santa Cruz to follow the same path. That can work, but it's probably not going to work as well everywhere; sometimes, it can feel like a bit too much. But the Hightower is more comfortable over a long day, and it's more manageable in the twisties to boot.
The Hightower's VPP suspension is said to have a bit less anti-squat than the previous version, and while I'd have to ride the new and old bikes back-to-back to give you an apples-to-apples comparison, I will say that this bike nails that not too firm, not too soft middle ground. The rear-end tracks as well as it would ever need to, and there's enough grip to put the onus on you rather than the bike when you fall over before you can unclip. At the same time, it seems to have less bob than the shorter-travel Norco Fluid and enough efficiency that I'd never bother reaching for the pedal-assist switch.
How does it stack up against the new Yeti? That's a much closer comparison, but the Yeti might squeak ahead on traction and low-speed handling. So while there's nothing between the two bikes if your climbs don't require much thinking, the SB140 is able to get around tight switchbacks and through awkward stuff with a bit less effort.
I would have thought all of these bikes were impossibly good climbers if I'd ridden any of them as recently as three or four years ago. They'd all be great for your rootiest or smoothest climbs, sure, but Hightower is more agile than the Scott and it pedals better than the Yeti, but maybe a smidge behind the Trek. Descending
When Kazimer put my name down to ride the Hightower while we were planning this Field Test, I'm pretty sure I said, "Sure," then forgot two minutes later and moved on with my day. When we got to Whistler, the Hightower was the last bike I took out for testing and, up until that point, the least interesting to me. Aside from that amazing paint job, obviously.
Then I rode it and realized Santa Cruz have come up with one hell of a sleeper. On paper, the Hightower looks pretty normal, but it comes alive on the trail, and it only took three or four corners for me to quickly gain a bunch of misplaced confidence in my skills. It usually takes twice as long. That's exactly what you want from your bike, and while I can't quite pinpoint why, the Hightower was especially good at carrying speed through corners. I'd describe it by saying that it felt like I was nearly always in the right position between the wheels without having to consciously think about my movements, and I needed to make fewer mid-corner corrections than when I was on the same trail but riding a different test bike.
There's one descent, in particular, that is pretty much just loose, dusty switchback after loose, dusty switchback, giving you about a hundred opportunities to mess things up but also to redeem yourself. All of the bikes could get down it well, but I began to see patterns in performance when doing lap after lap on them. The longer, slacker Genius was great here as well, but I was by far the most consistent and quickest on the Hightower, especially when at my limits. Inevitably, I'd bobble a slippery turn or ricochet off a polished root strangely on the other bikes, but all my laps on the Santa Cruz were about as smooth as I could ever hope for.
All of these trail bikes are fun to ride almost anywhere, but the Hightower also took to the flow quite well. The Norco and Yeti could feel a touch muted when the ground was smooth and flat, whereas the Santa Cruz was happier to reward you for your pumping. At the other end of the spectrum, when things got really rough and pointy, the Scott Genius ST uses its extra length and travel to put a bit of time on the other bikes. If you pressed me to fault the Santa Cruz, I'd probably say that sort of situation, at the outer extreme use cases for this category of bike, is where I could begin to fault the Hightower. It pedals well, but it's not a rocket ship; it descends well, but it's not trying to be a light-duty enduro bike.
In other words, there are other bikes that are better at certain things, but few that are this good at as many things as the Hightower.
Our Hightower's build kit includes some fancy bits like carbon wheels and a wireless derailleur, but it wasn't trouble-free. The GX Eagle AXS derailleur's clutch was soft enough to cause noticeably more chain slap than on the other bikes, and the chain even fell off a couple of times as well. On top of that, one of the parallelogram's pivot pins started to work its way out after losing the c-clip that holds it in at the opposite end. This could have been from a rock strike, but there were no scars to give me that impression. Speaking to SRAM, it sounds like this would be a warranty issue that a local shop could help with, or a rider could visit SRAM's rider support page
for more information.
The Hightower isn't the light and speedy trail bike you'd want to do the odd cross-country race on, and it's also not a burly one that you'd take to a bunch of rowdy enduro races. But it's most certainly a damn good trail bike that's easy to get along with everywhere... even on a nightmare climb or when you rolled into a descent that you had no business riding. That makes it a great choice for anyone who'd check the 'All of the above' box on their singletrack lunch menu.
*I know the value in the comments is the entertainment*
There’s a point to where that many words looks like you’re trying to justify your job.
While SC prices are getting more ridiculous every year, I have no doubt they will continue to sell easily in NZ for example, as we are severely limited when it comes to availability of anything but the most mainstream brands. I don't imagine we are the only ones.
I’ve been having the dealers build more and more as I’ve gotten older. When you buy complete your buying time to spend riding over a day putting a bike together.
Because that's exactly the bullshit numbers execs would love to see.
Thumbs down! Not negative props for your comment, just general disapproval of the layoffs.
Exactly why everyone thinks we are clowns cos no one bothers with RCA anymore!
In most cases if these bikes were to excel in one. It would most likely be to the detriment of the other. Not always the case but more than likely.
I think if I was in the market for a do everything trailbike. a jack of all trades master of none would be precisely what to look for.
Hopefully, people will continue to realize a bike doesn't need to look new to ride new. An original Turner Burner, for example, doesn't look that different from some modern bikes, but geometry, kinematics, pivot design, and frame features have changed considerably. A modern VPP, Horst, etc. can all have nearly the same ride feel, while ancient VPP, Horst, etc. ride very differently from their modern counterparts.
Ride characteristics aren't defined by how the bike looks or even the suspension linkage configuration, it's all about subtle placement of the links that produces the kinematics, the geometry, strength & stiffness, wheel & tire set-up, dropper stroke, spring & damper, etc. - many of which are visually inconspicuous.
And to your point you can't even get the Ultimate shock until you spend two levels up!
I've had extended 3 day demos on the Hightower and Megatower and they did not offer anything performance-wise that was better than most others. I actually preferred a number of other bikes. I really don't get why anyone who did their homework would buy one of these.
I'd suspect you could easily build a nicer bike from the frame up. If the frame-only is valued at $4,100, that leaves you $6,650.00 to get your build kit put together. I'm fairly confident you could buy all the parts individually for less than $6,650.00.
Years ago, you definitely got a modest "discount" on your parts kit for buying a complete bike. It's utter B.S. that bike companies will overcharge you to deliver a complete bike.
How much is SC saving with NX shifter and derailleur over GX, $100-$200?
SRAM drivetrain and brakes are on sale right now 25-40% off.
OneUp just had 20% off everything.
Cane Creek just had 40% off everything.
Various tires have been on sale 25%-50% off.
Ibis had wheel sets 35% off.
Spesh and Ibis had frames 25% off.
Of course you can also find new or like-new components and frames on PB Buy/Sale for much less than retail.
In 2020 I bought brand new 2019 Tallboy CC V3 frame on 45% discount, and then spend few enjoyable months hunting for best deals - and now I have my dream bike with full XT, nice DT swiss 1500 wheelsets, bike yoke dropper, thomson stem and handlebars.
(And 2019 Tallboy v3 matches my riding style better then newer versions!)
Plus this Occam new is only $6,400…
@rarerider: Or get your bike on cycle to work and pay 30% less than retail Then you can happily switch out some parts and keep others.
and they sponsor enduro race teams, so their products are out there competing with the best in the industry.
for that reason , I 'M OUT
These high end bikes have some cool looking linkages with special sounding names...but they still can't compare to a tried and true horst link lol.
Sister company Cervelo is also expensive and (to their credit) their frames have gotten pretty durable and the warranty service is also good. Cervelo's "entry level" bikes are ready to ride/race out of the box. If one Pon "boutique" brand can do it, so can Santa Cruz. Start spec'ing better parts SC, and I'll start saving my pennies (so many pennies!!!) to buy one of your bikes.
I have owned the Hightower LT (V1), V2, and now the V3. The V2 when Santa Cruz switched to the lower link arrangement was a huuuuuge improvement over the LT. With the V3 the differences between the V2 are more subtle but they are there. As Kaz (I think) said it's a much sportier ride than before.
The bike rides higher in the travel, some of which probably has to do with the new generation of RockShox suspension on the bike (Lyrik Ultimate, Super Deluxe Ultimate). There are a lot of punchy climbs on my neighborhood trails and it's much easier to scoot up them on the new bike. The V2 climbs just fine, but it's mushier when really on the pedals.
Frame quality/fit and finish is excellent, however, I did have a rattle that took a few rides to chase down. The noise was coming from the door covering the frame storage. A couple tiny pieces of foam tape helped the door squeeze tighter when latched and stopped the rattle. It sucks that the drivetrain was banging around for their review bike as my V3 is even quieter than my V2, mainly due to the new suspension.
On the topic of frame storage, it's really nice to have but the space is a little smaller than expected. For instance, I can't quite get a large OneUp pump inside there which is a bummer since it works great. Seeing the inside of the frame is really cool; again, very well made bikes. There's really only room for a pump, tool, and tube. It's nice to have that stuff stashed away, but you can't also fit a jacket and some snacks in there.
I'm still getting used to the V3 but after going back and riding my V2 this weekend, the differences were more obvious, and I like the V3 better. That said, I do feel like it's at the limit of what I want for an all purpose trail bike. The V3 is a degree slacker and 14mm longer than my old bike which is noticeable on the tight stuff around town I often ride.
I personally like the reach better on the V3 (~475mm) because my wingspan is 10cm more than my height, but I don't want any longer reach or wheelbase for a do-it-all bike.
I wonder how many of the SC bikes we see out on the trails are shop employees, friends of shop employees, and second-hand buyers, 'cause the rest are almost certainly dentists/doctors/lawyers. Think my SC is one of the few at the trailhead hanging off the back of a ratty 10+ yo Subaru (Proud, long-time member of the bike is worth more than car club.) and not a shiny new Sprinter van, or some "overlander" 4x4 with 0 scratches and and an extra $10g worth of doo-dads bolted to the bed rack.
These dentist/lawyer jokes are starting to get a bit out of hand. If someone makes a decent salary, these bikes aren't out of reach tbh. I can understand the frustration with these prices for people making $75k USD and below. But bikes like SC and yeti are the BMW and Mercedes of the bike world. Gotta pay a premium for them new.
The LBS has been having to warrantee GX AXS mech's, they are having issues with build quality, it seems this somewhat of a trend, Fox shocks as well.
And the point about the versatility of this bike is great. It’s a solid foundation for a light trail ripper or shred sled depending on what you want. You pay for details with SC too.
I take personal offense to all the economists who flood the comments and can’t get past the price so we can maybe discuss that actual bike.
I hear eggs are getting crazy expensive though.
Yeti does it as a small company, Cervelo does race ready spec across the board. With Pon’s buying power, the lousy spec is a decision made by an inept spec manager. And that IS an issue.
No one here thinks SC is teeming with value. Not sure why people insist on re-writing several other people have already re-wrote across several articles.
I was looking to purchase a SC HT V3 C S build, $6799 MSRP. After pricing all the S build components at MSRP, the remaining balance for the frame and shock alone came out to $4,260 USD. That’s about $160 more than SC quotes the HT CC frame and shock, $4099 USD. My math was likely off a bit here and there, so please don’t kills me. It appears that frame only builds are the way to go with this model. However, SC currently does not have an ETA on frames, and dealers have also been left in the dark. I received the following note from SC when inquiring about a frame only purchase, “ …So no we do not sell the bike as a frame only. It is potentially possible but not guaranteed that your local dealer can add it to their order from us and then sell it to you…”.
I’ve tried about 6 dealers, they have all told me that they cannot order the frame alone from SC, and there is no ETA on the frame.
I’ll likely keep trying to source this frame. I’ve had amazing service with SC on other bikes, and really enjoy the HT platform. If I can find a frame, I’ll be able to say that the bike is worth 5 times the value of my 2004 Lexus ES 330 with 188K on it. Priorities.
It’s nearly impossible to buy a frame only from them right now and since this is the only way to get the good carbon frame Santa Cruz is taking the opportunity to pad their margins by a few more points.
Did you get that number from them? Either way, that's one of the stupidest things I've seen/heard. I know everyone wants* max dropper; but greatly limiting shock choices to gain ~10mm of seat post insertion? So dumb!
*(even if they don't need it: at my height, much more than the 180 I have currently and my legs would be toasted just from standing up over and over after slamming it. And if my bike happened to have 10mm less insertion, I'd just shim the post shorter, because 170 is also plenty, and because buying a post that can't be adjusted down is just silly.)
I know they say this isn't an issue but its not something I find a nice trait in a bike of this type.
My Question is -how would you compare this to the WeAreOne Arrival 152 (WAOA) to the SC$$? The frames are the same price BUT you have the option on converting the WAOA to a 170 by swapping links/shock and fork for the bike park. The in frame storage is nice but you know it is bad when a boutique Canadian manufacturer is beating you on price and spec.
I don't think I would ride an Arrival, just because I'm a big dude and I know smaller guys who are running heavy coils already, but if I was in the market for a $10k bike, I'd run an WAO or Forbidden over any bike in this test just because they are better value. Which is crazy, considering they are small, boutique, Canandian companies.
1) size specific chainstays
2) tall stacks (people don't typically need to size up anymore to get a proper reach, please give taller riders a reasonable stack height)
3) frame storage
These specs are exactly what I'd be looking at while shopping for a bike in 2022. Most everybody has the reach/head angle/seat angle figured out and it's hard to find a bike that pedals terribly.
It also sounds like they've boosted the midstroke support in the rear end at the cost of a magic carpet ride, which makes sense with the increasing number of machined trails.
Just a smart design overall.
Is there a discernable difference between GX, X01, and XX1? Functionally they are the same, quantitively they are the same, qualitatively they are virtually the same. XX1 mechanical has a significant weight saving that can perhaps justify the price difference, but AXS is pretty much the same across GX, X01, and XX1.
Same goes for "waaah it's a Select + or peformance elite fork, that' BS". Select+ forks are the same as Ultimate, minus the buttercups, and PE is the same as Factory without kashima. You do lose some rear shock adjustments at the Select+ level (should have gone PE Float X), but it will be fine for most people.
Yes, this bike is very expensive, and yes, there are cheaper bikes with similar spec out there. Santa Cruz has always been about well thought out frames that are easy to maintain, and post-sales care. In a time where ALL bikes ride very very well, this is where the price and value comes from.
This was my exact thoughts on mine, albeit aluminum and the generation previous. It's just a fun bike that inspires confidence and likes to go hard. Up that fork to 160 and go
But he won’t….
He knows it’s better to buy a Hightower frameset and throw some parts from supasales and get a slapper within the sub 6k range.
Now we have 3k extra cash to get our Satan-Crewz hightowered for the season or just buy a extra NORCO
On that note; taller, potentially heavier XL and XXL riders would have probably appreciated a (size specific) larger tunnel adding the option for a coil. Who cares about if a dropper can be fully inserted in an XS 29er kinda frame or not.
I mean you can do a DT Swiss wheel combo w/ solid hubs (or say Atlas), use a deore/slx build w/ 4 pot brakes, and decent suspension combo (fox 34 elite/Pike and DPX2 or super deluxe) and a transx dropper?
May weigh in a couple lbs more, but will overall experience be different with a similar geo and a VPP/ABS/Maestro/DW split pivot type of design?
Love and have always loved SC bikes. Started out as a project for a friend who dreamed of purchasing the HT 2023 but did'nt have the cash, so it all started.
New CC Frame, complete Shimano XT Drivetrain / Brakes with Burgtec contact points.Fox Factory suspension(yes Kashima).Maxxis and Dt Swiss wheels round off the build. In my opinion this is a dream no holds barred build that made him really happy. All in all it cost my friend appox. 8000 Swiss Francs...and this with all the parts from a second hand but never used market. From the test bike to ordering the frame -and building the bike the SC bikes just work...sure they're expensive and not everyone can afford them, but hey at the end of the day we all dig riding bikes. I just wanted to state that with the availabilty of parts online nowadays..there's really no need to spend that much cash..build it yourself and make it your own. Happy trails.
The SC fanboys always quote quality and lifetime warranty. Sure, the paint is nice. I've seen that red in person. It looks great. Ibis build quality is just as good though. Lifetime warranty is nice but most people who state that, never even keep it beyond 3-5 years anyways.
As far as the sizing on the Hightower goes, I'm right between XL and XXL. Where my fellow 6'1" guys at? We need more bikes with 500-510mm reach!
For me, we ride alot of trails that are pretty rough, rocky, rooty, etc. but there isn't necessarily long steep slogs. I might literally have a nasty rock garden i'm riding through for 5-10 mins and it has 25ft of elevation change. For that, a steep STA could be a negative. I often drop my post 1-2" in situations like that.
Yup, VPP in a nutshell.
I think you actually mean "shorter", as in shorter chainstays. Slacker STA with shorter CS equals more/easier front-wheel lift and risk of loop-out, but lots of traction. A longer-front center and reach actually could help mitigate this by moving some weight forward (both the bike, and the rider via long reach). Steeper STA with short CS helps balance that traction to wheel-lift ratio, while steeper STA with long CS helps glue the front wheel to the ground at the cost of traction.
And what does slackness of HTA have anything to do with climbing and STA? Your seat position relative to the front wheel just doesn't matter for climbing steep stuff. Partly because you probably should be out of the saddle if it's "really steep", partly because the rear wheel is doing the important work and that's the relation that matters. Shit, a longer and slacker bike would be easier to lift the front wheel over things during the climb because it takes a smaller movement around the rear axle (and thus at the BB where the weight is concentrated) to move the front wheel further.
(Much better then 2-3 of presenters sitting in weird looking room, cramped behind the table - giving some bizarre hostage vibes. )
You've got some awesome shred shots here
*not defending crazy prices, I'm just a bit of a nerd for bike paint jobs haha. Could get yourself an amazing bike, custom paint job from a top painter, and a vacation to go show it off w/ money left over for the price of this thing.
Join Pinkbike Login