Santa Cruz Hightower LT - First Ride
Santa Cruz released the Hightower early in 2016, a versatile trail bike with 135mm of rear travel that could be configured to run either 29” or 27.5+ wheels. It was well received in its stock configuration, but it wasn't long before someone figured out that it was possible to eke out even more travel from the rear end by running a different length rear shock, and images began appearing of riders who'd modified their Hightowers to turn them into even more formidable machines. Of course, this wasn't a practice endorsed by Santa Cruz, but it did show that there was a demand for a longer travel Hightower, one that would be better suited for enduro races and more aggressive riding.
Santa Cruz Hightower LT Details
• Intended use: all-mountain / enduro
• Wheel size: 29"
• Rear wheel travel: 150mm
• 66.4º head angle
• Full carbon frame, C or CC options
• Boost hub spacing
• Size: S, M, L, XL, XXL
• Colors: Wicklow green, slate and grey
• MSRP: $3949 - $9249 USD (shown)
• Weight: 29 lb / 13.15kg (size large)
That demand has been answered, and the result is the new Hightower LT. Designed specifically for 29” wheels, the Hightower LT has 150mm of rear travel and a burlier build kit than the original version. The front triangle remains the same, but the swingarm and upper shock link are new, created to accommodate the additional 15mm of rear travel.
The base model Hightower LT C R retails for $3,949 USD, a price that gets you a SRAM NX 11-speed drivetrain, a 150mm RockShox Revelation, and a Fox Float DPS shock. At the other end of the scale sits the Hightower LT CC XX1 Reserve featured here, which receives a 150mm Fox Float 36 Factory, a DPX2 shock, a 12-speed SRAM XX1 Eagle drivetrain, and Santa Cruz's new carbon wheels, a high end build that will lighten your wallet by $9,299 USD.
If you're familiar at all with the original Hightower, the LT version will look nearly identical, and for good reason – the front triangle is the same, and the basic design of the VPP suspension layout remains unchanged. What's different is that the shock link now only has one position, rather than the high and low settings found on the original, and the swingarm now uses a post mount design for the brake caliper, rather than previous IS mount configuration.
Other than those changes, the Hightower LT has all of the well-thought out details that Santa Cruz has come to be known for – a threaded bottom bracket, clean cable routing, ISCG mountain tabs, and frame protection on the chainstays and downtube. There's also room to run a standard sized water bottle inside the front triangle, even with the reservoir-style DPX2 shock. It's a tight fit, but it works.
More than anything it's the addition of a 150mm fork that changed the Hightower LT's geometry when compared to the original set up with a 140mm fork. That spec change slackens the head angle by .6° to 66.4°, and puts the seat angle at 73.7°. The chainstay length has also grown ever-so-slightly, up to 338mm from 335mm.
Adding more travel to an existing bike model doesn't necessarily make it better, but in the case of the Hightower LT, I haven't been able to find any downsides to that extra 15 millimeters of squish. The LT feels just as quick out of the gate as its shorter travel sibling, but when gravity takes over the slightly more relaxed geometry and extra travel makes it even easier to maintain speed through really rough sections of trail.
While the original Hightower was close, the LT version truly is a big-wheeled version of the Bronson, with the same impressive capabilities out on the trail. It's an extremely easy bike to get along with — from the moment I swung a leg over it I felt at home, thanks to the very balanced, neutral handling. There are longer, slacker, and even stiffer bikes out there, but part of what makes the Hightower LT so fun is that it's not a demanding bike to ride. Sure, it feels best at higher speeds, but that doesn't mean you need to have pro-level skills to enjoy the Hightower's performance.
When it comes time to climb, the Fox DPX2's three position lever is easy to reach, although I only really used the first two settings — the Hightower LT's suspension design is efficient enough that even on smooth logging roads the middle compression setting offers plenty of support. Out of the saddle pedaling does little to alter the bike's composure, and there's no unwanted suspension bob, only crisp acceleration. I do think that the seat angle could stand to be a bit steeper, although I was able to find a comfortable climbing position by scooting the seat forward. The Hightower LT's reach numbers aren't wildly long, which makes a steep seat angle a little less of a necessity.
The aforementioned Fox DPX2 felt extremely well matched to the Hightower LT, providing a more supple ride than the RockShox Monarch RT3 did on the original Hightower. This helps to create a bike with trail manners that are both energetic and composed, traits that make it possible to plow right down the fall line, but also pop up and over obstacles in the blink of an eye. Big hits are met with a well-controlled ramp up, and there aren't any harsh surprises even when all of the travel is used.
Who is the Hightower LT for?
We're starting to see a split emerge when it comes to longer travel 29ers, one that's due more to geometry numbers rather than outright suspension travel. On one side you have slacker, more steep-terrain-specific bikes like the Trek Slash, and on the other side sit bikes that are a little more well-rounded, ones that won't make you regret your decision if you decide to embark on a long mission with plenty of climbing and descending – Yeti's SB 5.5 comes to mind.
Where does the Hightower LT fall? I'd place it smack dab in the middle of the rugged all-rounder category – this is a bike that doesn't necessarily need to be fed a steady diet of steep, rowdy terrain to remain happy, although when the time comes to dive into the rough stuff it doesn't miss a beat. It's less of a specialist and more of a jack-of-all-trades, a versatile, extremely competent companion for just about every kind of riding, whether that's racing the Downieville Classic, on the EWS circuit, or just cruising around on your local singletrack. It has all of the ingredients that made the Hightower so popular in the first place, but with a little bit more awesomeness baked in, a recipe that makes for an even more enjoyable time out on the trails.