Shoot first, ask questions later: The Hightower is here

The new Hightower 29er. All photos by Gary Perkin.

SANTA CRUZ RELEASE A NEW 29ER. OR IS IT?

Once again Santa Cruz have stepped up to the plate and smashed the ball out of the park revamping the Tallboy LT into a completely new machine and they did it last week with style in the deep south of Chile in the Patagonia region. The plan…Sneak in 15 newly minted bikes and 15 journalists to ride them.Bring along a couple of pro riders Anka Martin and Cedric Gracia, a couple of pro photographers Gary Perkin and Sven Martin . Employ Montenbaik Chile to formulate a 4-day rally with three overnight camps in the wilderness .Bring in lots of beer, whiskey, pisco (a wine distillate, tastes like a mild whiskey) char grilled meat , more meat, eggs and the best quinoa salads ever. Throw it all together with a few tents, lakes, forests ,farmland, mountains and miles of trails and The Santa Cruz Rally Aysen Patagonia was born.We were to be guinea pigs for the real rally same time next year which will be an A to B ride with timed stages thrown in and designed to be an endurance race for those who like a bit of pain and racing thrown in to a four day holiday with amazing scenery , great people and fast bikes. I could spout on for pages about the trip but I’ll save that for an in depth story in Spoke Magazines’ next issue. Let's talk bikes. Specifically, the all new Santa Cruz Hightower.

Following the Nomad and Bronson,The Hightower gets the raised lower link and top tube swing link. This is the Sriracha Red. Price is in US dollars

I know you’re all desperate to hear about the bike, or is it bikes? That’s right…we have two bikes to show you. I’m going to concentrate on the 29er for now. Tallboy LT riders can rejoice in the fact that they haven’t been forgotten. The new Santa Cruz Hightower replaces the LT but gets a new moniker, why? I’ll get to that later when I show you the other bike.

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The Hightower (named after the very tall Santa Cruz Demo team member Eric Highlander) is a Nomad with 29er wheels. Or is it a Bronson 29er? Santa Cruz have put it in the Bronson camp, and fair enough too, it will suit the same trail conditions. But have a look at it up close and you will see it shares the forward shock mount position and double bridged rear end of the Nomad. This isn’t to get it riding like the Nomad, but more about stiffening the rear end up to accommodate the bigger hoops and gaining the  optimum shock mounting for the different angles on a 29er front end .

There are 3 models, XX1, XO1 (both CC frames) and a CS (GX1 11 speed and a C frame) and of course you can buy just the frame ( CC only). If you don't know already, CC is the normal high end carbon frame and the C is a slightly heavier but more cost effective carbon frame.They both ride the same, look the same and that's all that matters.Two colourways, red on red (Sriracha red)and a matte black with teal green and orange (Matte carbon and mint). Three sizes, M, L and XL .Like the new Nomad and Bronson, the Hightower is longer, lower and lazier. Like the Bronson, it has a 148mm Boost rear axle but moving forward the forks are now 110mm boost also. We also see the shorter seat tube trend, with the XL around the 19" mark. Super tall riders will be looked after by the new range of extra long dropper posts hitting the market any day now, but for the rest of us it means we can choose a bike on the length we prefer and still be able to get a leg over.

The first stage race. I have no idea why everyone is smiling...it was all uphill. Here's the Black Hightower in race mode.

Comparing it to the Tallboy LT the large has a reach of 448mm (3mm longer than the Bronson and a whopping 34mm longer than the LT) a 17.7” seattube that is nearly 2 degrees steeper at 74.3 and a 67 degree head angle which is pretty darn slack for a 29er. BB has dropped about 4mm and Chainstay length has shrunk to just over 17 ” . Rear travel is 135mm . Gone is the front mech mount which means one-by is the only way to go forward in the Santa Cruz camp from here on in. If this is an issue for you, then you need to google up a gear ratio chart and see how easy it is to mimic your 2-by or 3-by set-up. I love that they have ditched the mount and now I’m thinking how bad would it be If I hacksawed it off my Bronson (pretty bad I know).

Patagonia is a lot like NZ. Sometimes it was tricky to keep an eye on the trail when there were so many mountains, lakes, towering cliffs and grassy plains. There was no trail off the top of this big hill so it was a free for all down the shale into the bush line where the virginal singletrack began.

The shock is a Monarch RCT3 for XX1 and XO1 models and an RT for the CS. Cranks are Raceface Next sl on the XX1, Turbines for XO1 and Aeffect for CS

Brakes are Guide Ultimates for the XX1, Guide RSC for XO1 and Shimano SLX for the CS. All bikes get a 150mm Reverb Stealth dropper.

Wheels are hooped by the new Easton ARC 27 rim ( 27mm internal bead width ). Industry Nine hubs in the XX1, DT350 for XO1 and Sram MTH for CS. For an extra $US2000 you can have the Enve M60 upgrade if that’s your thing. Tyres are Maxxis Minion DHR2 EXO 3C TR 2.3" front and rear 

All prices in $US dollars for now.

How does it ride? Well funnily enough, as soon as I swung my leg over and hit the trails I felt instantly at home and soon forgot I was on a 29er. It has very similar ride qualities to the Bronson but felt stiffer, more dynamic and playful. What? Surely I jest? No, really. The front end isn’t quite as chunky but it has 15mm less travel with 7mm less shock stroke and a beefed up rear triangle, and I’m sure the super stiff Enve M60s’ play a part in this too.

The most spectacular stage we raced. A very narrow singletrack with big drops into the lake below, right alongside the Argentinian border.

I managed to bag the top specced model with XX1, Next SL cranks and Enve hoops . The bike was flawless. If I’m really going to compare it to the Bronson, then I would say that it is faster up, across and down the trails. It has a sportier feel, sexier profile and feels just as stable in the air and hitting the landings. Does this mean that the Bronson is dead? Hell no! Where it doesn’t best the Bronson is in super techy tight descending and in high speed chatter, you know…tree roots and fast choppy terrain. I’m not sure if this has as much to do with the Monarch RT3 or more likely the shorter stroke and less travel . It is a lot of bike and wasn't ideally suited to the long miles we had to put into the Rally, but I never really struggled, and was quite happy to put the power down on many occasions and whether it was seated spinning , out of the saddle stomping, or any of the multiple trail types of descending then the Hightower 29er rode like a trooper and I quickly took a shine to the versatility of this sled. this latest offering of VPP suspension is very active and I am a bit of a stair climber not a spinner, so I used the  shock compression switch quite a bit. Lock out mode allowed me to really get the wheels spinning and the bike was a very good climber helped by the low stack and flat bars. The middle pedal setting offered a good balance of firm compression but plenty of trail absoption.

I really went to bat for all you guys out there who run your rear brake on the left and want a brake hose tab on the right hand side of your Santa Cruz bicycle. I hassled the hell out of Nick, Josh, and Will (chief engineer, product manager and global marketing guru) so much that they wouldn't let me ride with them until I promised to shut up.

The only bad news is they still haven't added a brake hose tab for us moto-style, brake on the wrong side, Kiwi/Oz/Brits yet. But I did a reasonable job (no alcohol this time) of convincing the design team that we have a voice and will be heard, so fingers crossed , the next model release will have that extra tab on the righthand side somewhere.

The interesting news is that they have ditched the external lower headset cup which gives the bike a much cleaner look. It also allows more space to fit in a long travel 29er fork and keep the handlebars lower. I got the impression this may follow through to future models.

The great news is that , like the new Bronson and Nomad, the shock rate is so malleable that you can set the sag anywhere from 20-40%. So you can have a crisp powerful spring for attacking or a plush yet still bottomless ride for cruising or rough terrain. 

We woke to blue skies and the promise of 28+ degrees each day. Everything was laid on, we each had our own sleeping  tent with camp bed, and a massive shower tent with hot water. We ate pretty well and didn't have to lift a finger, this is how you get a non biased review on a bike, no really.

If you’re worried about the room available for a drink bottle, fear not. A 500ml bottle fits in all sizes with room to spare. If you play about with your cage and bottle designs then you can go bigger if necessary. Who’s going to buy this bike? Anyone who loves the big wheel and wants a super aggressive all rounder and/or someone who wants the option of 275Plus.

The forested singletrack we rode was amazing. Most of it had been cut in just days previously, ready for us to get the first rubber down. 

Woah… Back the truck up! Plus? What the hell am I talking about? I’m talking about the biggest thing to hit off road cycling since Fanny packs. Yes, coming to you so soon after the Hightower 29er is the Hightower 275 Plus. If you have the eyes of a hawk and cheated by scrolling ahead you may have already sussed that it’s the same frame. Josh Kissner and Nick Anderson (Santa Cruz product manager and chief engineer ) have quite a few brain cells between them and designed the Hightower with the addition of a flippable chip at the rear shock mount so they could slap the slightly smaller diameter of a 275Plus tyre into the frame and put the bottom bracket height back where it should be.This of course steepens the angles so whats needed is to extend the 140mm 29er fork to 150mm. Ok, this would be easy if a fork had this feature already, but due to the success of the Pike Solo Air, they wanted to spec it on the bike so if you’re going to change the 29er over to 275Plus then you need to purchase a 150mm air rod (about $NZ70) and get it installed (about 40 minutes work by a competent mechanic) and then buy yourself a wide rimmed 275 wheelset. Pretty easy huh?

Here is the little shock chip that you simply undo and flip it around and do it back up. Takes about 30 seconds. This is in 29er mode. If you imagine the bolt in the forward position then you can see it will push the link back and the rear wheel down. That is why you need to extend the fork to balance the angles back again.

But wait , there’s more. You can actually buy this bike already set up as a 275Plus. It comes with exactly the same build kits but with the wider ARC 40 rims (40mm internal bead width ) Maxxis Recon and Ikon 2.8" tyres and a 150mm Pike fork.

The two Hightowers (Twintowers?). 275Plus on the left and 29er to the right. BB height needs to be raised about 6mm to accommodate the slightly smaller Plus wheels. 

So really the deal is that you buy the bike you want and be happy with it. If you think you want the option to change it over at some point then you would be a smart person to buy the 275 model . Why? This way you won’t necessarily have to change the fork travel. Swapping to 29er mode, the fork will just have a 10mm higher ride height which you could drop it back a bit by running more sag and adding a bottomless token to prevent bottom out.

In 29 or 275 the geometry is virtually identical thanks to the addition of the  shock chip.

Both bikes end up with very similar geometry and ride pretty much the same, but the 29er rolls faster and has snappier handling and the 275 has way more grip and is a lot more fun to ride.

Spoke Magazine's good friend Seb Kemp, now the Santa Cruz Canadian Brand Manager, pretty much spent all his spare time preparing all 15 bikes for the following day which included swapping the four 275Plus set-ups (forks included) to the next four journos bikes . I pretty much spent all my spare time trying to load Spokes' Instagrams on limited data coverage without giving away any of the bikes details prematurely.

Do I need to remind you that a 275 plus bike is really a 29er with slightly smaller wheels but much bigger tyres? Not any more huh!

You may need reminding that wider rims and fatter tyres mean much less air pressure needed, so grip , comfort and confidence are unparalleled with surprisingly negligible loss in speed and rolling resistance.

Who’s going to buy this plus bike? Anyone who rides for fun and wants the confidence that gobs of grip in any conditions (except loose gravel and mud ,just skims across instead of biting through). Another buyer category is anyone who gets to ride a Hightower 275Plus and has the means to go out and buy it asap. Yes, you can tell I'm a convert can't you? 

I think I must have covered Gary Perkin in my dust here (very intentional sorry Gary). Over that fence yonder is Argentina. I didn't have my passport so I was a little nervous when I realised we came out of this trail in no mans land between Chile and Argentina and we had to re-enter Chile through a guard post. "Don't you know who I am" didn't appear to work too well here.

How does it ride in plus mode. Well, I missed out on the plus conversion in Patagonia,there weren't enough to go round so I insisted the global marketing genius Will Ockleton at Santa Cruz had to give me a bike to bring home for a real test in real NZ conditions. I was so enamoured with the 29er version that I convinced him to let me take it as is, knowing that I could beg/steal/borrow a Plus wheelset out of Wheelworks in Wellington. So after a quick 150mm air rod conversion  I’m now hitting the trails here in Wellington on a lovely set of Flight wheels with Derby carbon rims. They are 5mm narrower than the Easton ARC 40 so I need to run 1 psi more, but I am still just amazed at how much fun all this added grip can be. I can just point and shoot from corner to corner in a straight line and just mow everything down whilst giggling and whooping  and pissing myself that I now need a more accurate air gauge as the difference from 12-16 psi is just phenomenal. That's right, 12 psi and I weigh 87 kgs out of the shower. No squirm or bottom out with only 12- 16 psi depending on trail type and pies consumed.You can just imagine the grip with this can't you?I thought I could but I still got the shock of my life.

The trees all had this Lichen furry stuff on them which was a little spooky at first. The trails were so dry that all the berms were about a foot deep in talcum powder, hence the look of fright on my face as I tried to rail this corner after a super fast straightline descent.

I've had two very different rides back here at home with the bike in Plus mode . First ride was a very steep 4WD climb followed by a super fast descent in Pine forested singletack with berms, roots, off camber, loam and jumps. I really didn't notice any more rolling resistance on the climb but the added grip was noticeable. Descending was so much fun and I'm sure I was going  much faster than usual. I thought the fat tyres would float across the loose pine needles in the corners but the 14/15 psi front/rear was perfect for this hardpacked trail and I found no unwanted squirm or slippage what so ever. My second ride was another 4wd climb then into my local trails in the Akatarawa forest. Tight steep technical root infested jungle riding where the plus tyres are in their element. This sort of trail riding is a revelation on the Hightower. I felt like a better rider immediately. So smooth and unbelievable grip. I dropped the tyre pressure to 12/13.5 psi front/rear (thankfully I had Wheelworks' new air gauge that reads in 0.5 psi increments) for the remainder of  the ride and while I had a few light rim bottom-outs on lumpy tree roots at speed there was still no squirm  and with the Derby rims being hookless with a bead lock and running tubeless I had no concerns at all about blow outs or tyre roll with this low pressure. Heading back down the gravelly 4WD descent I tried riding at my normal speed, and found that the added rubber width did let go a little earlier and maintain its drifting for longer than with  my 2.3 tyres which was a little unsettling, but how often am I pinning it down gravel fire roads?  I pretty much thought 275Plus wasn't going to be as quick as a regular bike but I am seriously beginning to doubt that concept.

I've been raving a bit lately about 275Plus and have been copping some flak as per usual, pretty much from the same guys who gave me flak when I espoused 650b (that's what 275 was called back then...seems so long ago). I think 275plus is going to surprise a few non believers and Santa Cruz  have done a pretty good job building a machine that will help prove my point.

Everytime I took a look at the course profiles I broke into a nervous sweat. Luckily the heat was intense and the great people at Montenbaik who set up the event took pity on us and we ended up with a few uplifts to get us further along the route.

In Patagonia we rode for many hours a day from gravel roads to fast double track to steep grinds, mountain shale and steeper technical singletrack, up and down , loam and hardpack. The Hightower shone in all conditions  and apart from all the super fine dust causing a few creaking issues, the now expected Santa Cruz reliability really was a bonus. I’ve had a few days back in NZ on as many different trail types as I can find and the bike laps it all up, 29er and 275Plus. Am I ready to trade in my new Bronson? I’m on the fence there, I love the plusher ride of the 150mm Bronson but the bikes are so similar and having the option to have 2 bikes in one with the Hightower is a huge draw card so I’m going to think long and hard about that one. Plus is so much fun and opens up so much more terrain with all that added grip. Then being able to create a super fast aggressive 29er with just a wheelset and optional fork mod will be a dream come true for many riders out there .

I'm taking the Hightower to the Dodzy Memorial Enduro and will race it in Plus mode, I have that much confidence in it, even with the small knobbed XC Ikon on the rear ( the 29er wheels will be in the van if necessary).

Cedric Gracia was on point the whole trip.It's easy to see why the guy is a living legend. Forget about his amazing bike skills, the guy is the life of the party. Even when he wrapped a fence wire around his hand as he was passing through a gate at speed and sliced his thumb pretty deep, he was laughing and joking and making sure everyone else was ok while the mobile doctor stitched him back up on the trail. Me and Cedric are bff now. (actually he still doesn't know my name or who I am..). 

If you like the idea of a Trans Provence style week in Chile, but with the emphasis on endurance and distance then you should have a look at the Santa Cruz Rally Aysen Patagonia.You'll get really well looked after with a really professional bunch of support people. All you need to do is get to Chile with your bike and then ride it. Tents, food, support, stunning scenery and some of the happiest and carefree people in the world await you there.

A huge thanks to everyone involved who put in the hard yards to make my trip a reality, bloody marvelous. 

Here's the Hightower back at Spoke HQ in 275Plus mode. I have extended the forks to 150mm and Wheelworks handed over a set of their bulletproof Flite wheels with carbon 40mm Derby rims.

That's a 2.8" Maxxis Recon 3C EXO TR with heaps of room to spare.

A 2.8" Maxxis Ikon on the back. I may be a little nervous about that tread for the DME this weekend but the grip I have experienced this week is balancing out that fear.

I still love the speed and agility that this aggressive 29er hands out. Here the fork is at 150mm and I'll just leave it there forever. I'll just run more sag if I find it's too lazy. It probably takes it to 66.5 degrees, I'm pretty excited about that number on a 29er.