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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.