by Wil Barrett
November 24, 2016
Barney has been making some changes to his Santa Cruz Hightower test bike. Were they changes for the better? Here's his final longterm review.
Well, it’s come around rather fast – my last missive on the Hightower. Launched back in February this year, the Hightower is the latest long travel 29er full suspension bike from Santa Cruz, and takes over where the original Tallboy LT left off – a bike I was very familiar with, having owned one personally.
Previous instalments (including my First Ride article, and then the follow-up review here) have mentioned how much I like the bike (yup, I like it a lot) and some of the stuff I wanted to play around with. Not necessarily because I didn’t like the kit that came with the bike (it’s hard to find things to properly dislike on a bike that costs north of £5k, after all) but because there are always individual tweaks which perhaps fit ones riding style better than the choices that manufacturers have to perforce instil on customers.
Well, I’ve played around with it quite a lot – and, in some cases, I’ve made changes, ridden about a fair bit, and changed back. Let’s take a look:
First, the shock – I swapped out the Rockshox Monarch RT3 number that came with the bike for a Cane Creek Inline. While the Rockshox works pretty well for most applications, I am a chap who likes to fiddle, and the simple adjustments on the Monarch didn’t quite scratch that itch. The Monarch which came with the bike was ramping up too soon when I was happy with the sag. I removed a couple of the red spacers from the air canister which helped matters, but I wanted to dial in compression a little more than the simple ‘open/pedal/lock’ options on the RT3.
Cue the DBInline. I know there are plenty of people who have had issues with this shock in the past, but I have to hold up my hands here and say that despite my hamfisted adjustment efforts (and riding style) I’ve had no such problems with this one. Granted, you need to spend (quite a lot) time setting it up properly (well, duh – it’s supposed to be massively adjustable after all), but once I’d done that it performed very well indeed. I found I needed considerably more low speed compression than the previous bike it was bolted on to (a Tallboy LT) to prevent sagging into its travel, but once everything was set up, it was ace. Predictable, smooth travel all the way through the stroke, and a climb switch that actually feels like it does something. The Hightower will also fit the piggyback DB Air CS, so it’d be fun to see what the overt differences were, but that’s for another time.
Perhaps controversially in some quarters, I’ve kept the Hightower as a 29er (for the moment), although I’ve actually been using it as a 27.5+ bike a fair bit, with Alpkit’s excellent Love Mud Rumpus budget chubby wheel set. I have to say that I’m a fan, but not for any traction reasons particularly. The Scwalbe Nobby Nic on the front and the Vee Tyre Trax Fatty on the rear provide plenty of straight line grip, and some wonderfully predictable and controlled drifting in corners (this last is, I’ve found, common to practically all plus bikes – at least, the way I ride them) but when the weather turns a little gloppy as it now has, they can’t hold a candle to 29in wheels – the chubsters just skate over the top (so the Alpkit wheels’ name is somewhat ironic).
I’ve also experimented with some success with the (*so* enduro right now, dahlink) 29er up front/chubby on the back combo, which is quite a lot of fun. Basically you get the steering precision of the 29er, and the absorb-all-the-terrible-landings drifty cush of the chubby on the rear. It also, predictably, cuts out some of that drifty woo on corners, and gives the front wheel a welcome edge, so when the back end gets a bit squirrely on the leans it’s even easier to pull it back in – but again, when things get properly muddy, traction is compromised a little, so the 29er wheel went back on.Overall chubby wheels get a big qualified thumbs up from me, and I’ll stick them on again in the summer fo’ shizzle.
And while we’re on the subject of the rapidly declining trail conditions, I’ll give a big shout out to the Front Race Mudhugger. Although it causes some folk to run for the hills shrieking, I can totally cope with the looks, and it does a magnificent job of keeping unwarranted clart out of my grinning teeth.
The drivetrain I’ve kept as stock, with everything performing pretty much as advertised. I did need to change the chain though, after a freak chain-snapping incident which broke the chain in two places at once. I’ve still got no idea how that happened. But in so doing the chain managed to snap one of the teeth off the cassette, and bent that sprocket. Happily, a couple of minutes with a screwdriver and a hammer has restored complete functionality, to the point where it’s impossible to tell where the problem was unless you stare at the cassette for a while. No complaints here, although I’ll also need to change the RaceFace chainring pretty soon. Things do have a habit of wearing out around here.
Drivetrain may well be stock, but I have changed the brakes. Again, there was nothing wrong with the stock SRAM Guides, but I wanted to put a larger rotor on the front, and used the opportunity to bolt on Hope’s light-yet-insanely-powerful Race Evo E4 jobs.
I’ve had some minor issues on one other bike with these brakes howling using Hope’s own rotors, so I also wanted to experiment on that front. I left the SRAM 180mm brake rotor on the rear, and put a Shimano 203mm rotor on the front. Cue no howling at all, even in the wet. Just lots and lots of controllable stoppage, good lever feel and lots of modulation. It was a bit fiddly to trim the hoses, mind – but isn’t it always?
I swapped out the stock 150mm RockShox Reverb for one of the new 170mm jobs, solely because this thing has scads of standover and a relatively short seat tube, and I could. Even with such a long post, I’ve got plenty of the outer sticking out of the top of the frame – but it’s plenty long enough that there’s tons of post inside the frame too. It’s performed pretty well indeed, although I suspect it’s due a service pretty soon.
On top of that is SQLab’s excellent new 612 saddle, which, despite being a slightly unusual shape, is very comfy indeed, and the elastomer inserts which let you discreetly tailor the amount of cush do precisely what they say on the tin. No numbnethers for me, even on long twiddly saddlebound climbs.
And lastly, the bars. The supplied Santa Cruz carbon bars were a good width, at 780mm wide, but were totally flat, and I do like a smidge of rise with my wide, if you see what I mean. So I replaced them with Joystick’s excellent Analog Carbon number. These are a teensy bit wider at 800mm (yes, I can tell the difference, thankyouverymuch), with 30mm rise. They’re around 30 or 40 grams heavier than the bars they replaced, but it’s a sacrifice I’m very happy to make.
And lastly, I’ve stuck on a Topeka Modula Cage EX water bottle cage. It’s black, plastic, and it lets me use a water bottle instead of carrying around a big ol’ bladder on shorter rides. Granted, it’s getting less use as the mud quotient gets higher, but on short, dry, leckin’ about in’t woods rides, carrying less backpack weight – or even none at all – makes a lot of difference, and the extra weight on the bike is totally unnoticeable.
Actually, overall I’ve made the bike slightly heavier in loads of different ways; shock, bars, post. None of the bits and pieces I’ve chopped and changed with have done anything but add weight, but they’ve all incrementally improved my enjoyment of a very fine bike. The fact that the changes are so minimal is testament, I suppose, to how much I think Santa Cruz have gotten right about the bike as a whole.
Yes, I *know* it’s pretty durned expensive as it is, but you can spend thousands more if you really want to – I’m just not sure why you would. No, I don’t think it’s ever going to be a lightning fast climber. It’ll never be more than perfectly fine going up hills – at least, not under me – but the joy and satisfaction I get out of everything from flowing woodsy, flicky singletrack to the most buttock-clenching rocky tech-fests with this black monster makes it a hard machine to beat.
The Santa Cruz Hightower CC Specifications:
- Frame // CC level VPP3 carbon frame, 135mm travel
- Fork // RockShox Pike 29 RCT3, 140mm travel, 110x15mm Maxle
- Shock // Cane Creek DBInline
- 29in Wheels // Easton Arc 27 rims, DT Swiss 350 hubs, Maxxis Minion DHR2 EXO Tubeless Tyres
- 27.5in Wheels // Alpkit Love Mud Rumpus 27.5+ Boost wheels, Scwalbe Nobby Nic Front & Vee Tyre Trax Fatty Rear
- Chainset // Race Face Turbine 32t
- Front Mech // N/A
- Rear Mech // SRAM XO1
- Shifters // SRAM XO1 1×11
- Cassette // SRAM XG1180 10-42t
- Brakes // Hope Race E4, 200mm Shimano XT Rotor Front & 180mm SRAM Centreline Rotor Rear
- Stem // Race Face Turbine Basic
- Bar s// Joystick Analog Carbon, 800mm Wide, 30mm Rise
- Seatpost // RockShox Reverb Stealth 170mm
- Saddle // SQ Labs 612
- Size Tested // XL
- Sizes Available // S, M, L, XL
- Weight // 27.8lbs (in stock 29in setup)
- RRP: £2749 (frame only). Complete bikes start from £5099