The Hightower has launched in a blaze of publicity, and Barney was one of the lucky journo’s who played with one before anybody else, in the wilds of Patagonia. Here’s what he had to say:
The Aysen Rally in Patagonia was a chance for SantaCruz to try a new format of race, combining the best bits of Enduro with a more epic, backcountry feel. So a multi-day route, with a couple of timed stages – both up and downhill – each day. Each day finished in a campsite, with catering and full support, by the good people who run the Andes-Pacifico bike race.
An unfortunately delayed trip to our starting point, a town called Coyhaique, meant a hurried transfer to the end of the first stage with our new bikes. I would perhaps have been more disappointed had this first stage not been a long climb, but as it was, I surveyed the scree, shale and slate-covered hilltop with a mixture of delight and trepidation, from the cockpit of the new Hightower, running 29in wheels.
At this point I must admit to some bias. My own bike is a SantaCruz Tallboy LT, which I love very much. It’s not perfect, but set up with an angleset running the forks a couple of degrees slacker than it’s supposed to be, I think it’s a lot of fun. And the new Hightower promises much. Would my expectations be met? Let’s find out:
Our first task was to get to the top of the next stage, which was pretty hopeless from a bike-review point of view – it was a scree-slope slither. But that first stage? Much more like it – a very dusty, loamy singletrack descent. Initial sensations were strange. Although it was rumoured as a Tallboy LT replacement (which if I’m honest I was expecting) it didn’t ride at all like one. In common with other more recent bikes, the Hightower necessitates a more aggressive front-weighted riding style, so it took me a little while to adapt.
Not that I’m ever going to trouble the front of whichever group of riders I happen to be with you understand, but as soon as I started using more Body English, I felt a lot more at home on the bike. I just needed to change the way I rode it compared to my Tallboy back home. And the glorious sunshine in January helped a bit, too.
So the first trial was pointing steeply down. The bike felt very stable at speed, and the long front end and relatively short stays combo kept my weight proportionally rearwards. Load the front end, hoik on the bars and the Hightower obligingly pinged round. The extent of the dust caused some concern, but at this rider’s level rather that of the bike. After a brief push/carry, the second stage, too, was a more rocky descent, and I really felt I was getting the hang of the bike. It needs plenty of muscle, but it seems massively capable downhill, at least in these conditions.
The second day presented some opportunities for climbing as well as descending, and my Hightower was kitted out with 27.5+ wheels and tyres for the task. I’ve ridden chubbies before, but this was my first chance to plug them into a bouncy bike for a BIG day on the mountain. And in general I was very impressed with the Maxxis Rekon and Ikon combo. A very hot day it was, with loads and loads of uphill, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t struggle, but the bike took it all in its stride.
Honestly I can’t say I thought the chubby tyres detracted much if at all on the climbs (I wasn’t troubling the fast boys in any case), and I loved the way they dealt with the extremely dry descents. Drop the front end in, shift your weight forward and the back end would drift round beautifully predictably. I tried to replicate this with the Minion DHR IIs on the 29er wheels, with lesser success; there was more of a shoulder, which made drifting harder. It’s possible of course this was the tyres per se, rather than the volume of them, but it was interesting (and fun) to try to compare. But I was hard pressed to say whether I liked them more than 29er tyres – which is a pretty high compliment.
One way in which the bike did perform as expected was in the suspension. I’ve always liked SantaCruz’s solutions to bump absorption (well, I bought one, didn’t I?), and it was reliably invisible for the most part. There are some strange sensations occasionally using it in the granny ring on the older bikes; the 1x-only setup of the Hightower conveniently removes this sensation from the equation. As the bike was set up, I had to run the rear shock with a touch more sag than I’d have liked to achieve full travel – I suspect removing one of the (4 supplied, I believe) spacers would easily sort this out – and happily the Monarch RP3 is very easily tuneable.
As the days went on, ridiculously scenic ride melded into ridiculously scenic trail, with a couple of chewy dusty linking stages, I grew to like the bike more and more. It’s very stable, it’s very predictable and in the conditions it worked superbly.
I need to spend more time on the bike, on trails I know, and in frankly less exquisite environments – the new pivot arrangement generates what might be a mud-collecting shelf, although the design of the rear triangle might well ameliorate this to a greater or lesser extent; I’ll have to see. I was lucky enough to bring a Hightower back to the office for further testing, so look out for a review in the near future…