Burlier than a Tallboy, but less travel than a Megatower, is the 2020 Santa Cruz Hightower the ultimate all-mountain bike? Ben has spent 6 months finding out.
While Pete has been rolling around the Highlands on his Tallboy, Ben has been seeing what the Santa Cruz Hightower makes of his home stretch.
Photos by Dave Price.
- RockShox Lyrik Ultimate 150mm fork
- RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate shock
- SRAM XO1 Eagle 12-speed drive
- SRAM Code RSC brakes
- Santa Cruz Reserve 30 rims on DT Swiss 350 hubs
- Rockshox Reverb Stealth dropper
- £7,799.99 RRP
Frame and Build
The Hightower cuts a now familiar silhouette, with its steeply sloping downtube, angular rear triangle and low shock mount, it shares the same layout as pretty much the whole 2020 Santa Cruz stable of bikes. This is the more expensive, lighter weight carbon frame, denoted by the “CC” on the spec sheet but it also comes in a slightly heavier “C” version as well as aluminium. Whilst this is an £8k super build you can step onto the Hightower ladder for just £3099 with the “D Aluminum” model.
The little details are taken care of perfectly on the Santa Cruz. From cable routing to the ribbed chain stay protection and paint finish, everything was beautifully executed with a fine eye for detail. Out of the box this bike is silent as a mouse. Everything is squared away, and at eight grand, it needs to be.
The geometry really defines this bike and what it’s capable of. Although it is only a 140mm frame, it basically reads the same as its 160mm big brother, the Megatower give or take a few mm here and there. With a 65 degree head angle and 434mm chainstay in low setting and a healthy 470mm reach on size large it is bang on trend for a modern trail/enduro bike.
The build kit is brimming with quality products that lead to a sublime on-trail experience and a low weight. The SRAM X01 groupset was silent and slick from day one, never missing a shift, even in the depths of the crappest winter in memory. The shifter feel is light and tactile and a noticeable improvement over the GX groupsets that I usually end up riding on test bikes.
SRAM also provide the brakes with my current favourite, the Code RSC running on 180mm rotors. I have ridden the Code RSC on a few bikes now and apart from their absolute power it is their total reliability that I have come to respect. There are still too many unpredictable brakes out there that occasionally pull to the bar or pump up and this is something I have never had a hint of with the top of the line brake from SRAM.
The Hightower was the first bike that I have ridden with the new Rock Shox Reverb lever fitted and it felt great. It is easy to find and use, even in the roughest terrain, with a light lever action that has been impervious to the British winter. The controls are all mounted to Santa Cruz’s own 35mm clamp, 800mm wide (cut to 770mm) carbon bar which felt great.
Whilst some may think that speccing a 50mm stem is too long, I actually prefer a 45-50mm stem on my bikes as I find it easier to weight the front tyre on longer, modern bikes. That meant I was instantly at home on the Hightower, although some may want to go for a 35mm length and more direct feel.
Suspension was taken care of by Rockshox with their top of the line Lyrik Ultimate 150mm fork and Super Deluxe Ultimate rear shock complete with piggyback reservoir. I always find the Lyrik to be a very easy fork to get set up quickly, and on this bike was no different. The factory tunes at both ends suited my riding style and I didn’t have to add or remove any volume spacers.
The only let down in the build kit was (as usual) the light casing Maxxis EXO casing tyres. With the new EXO+ casing tyres being so good and only a few grams heavier this seems crazy on such a capable bike. If you are going to a shop to spend this much cash on a bike then I expect they would change these out at the point of sale for free, so you may get lucky here.
Santa Cruz Reserve Carbon Wheels
Wheels normally get slung in with the rest of the test, but when they are this good and this expensive, they really deserve their own section. Speccing the Reserve 30 Carbon rims onto the Hightower CC X01 build adds an extra £1200 to the price and buying a set aftermarket will cost you from £1599 depending on your hub choice. The 29” pair tested here weigh in at just 1831 grams with 28 spokes front and rear.
I have been a long term sceptic of expensive carbon wheels, having seen so many irreparably destroyed at races and at the trails over the past 5 years. The Santa Cruz Reserves have totally changed my mind and I think they are probably the best wheels I have ever ridden. I literally can’t fault them…
They have been brutalised at Bike Park Wales without a scratch or ding.
They have railed hundreds of turns without a single turn of a spoke key in 6 months.
They have taken rim strikes on rocks with no ill effects.
They are light, direct and energetic without being overly stiff, and never harsh.
They have tenaciously held onto my tyres without rolling or burping even at sub-20 psi.
These wheels are the real deal. They are expensive, but their performance lives up to the hype and Santa Cruz back themselves with a full lifetime warranty which is hard to argue with. They are so good that I am doing my best to hang onto this pair to put them on a new 29” enduro bike that has just landed for testing.
This is probably the lightest modern bike that I have ridden, which combined with the 76.5 degree seat angle and direct drive from the wheels make it a tenacious climber. The Virtual Pivot Point suspension holds you high in the travel and whilst it stays active over bumps, it never bobs under power. It feels very efficient and encourages you to work hard on the pedals, pushing yourself to climb harder and faster.
It scampers up steeper, techier climbs with real tenacity, rewarding you when you attack and stand on the pedals. You never feel like you are wasting energy on climbs with the Hightower.
Let’s just get this out of the way now, the Hightower is fucking awesome and I loved every ride on it. Seriously, it is that good. The VPP suspension feels different to any bike I have ever ridden in over 5 years of reviewing bikes. At first you think there is not much going on below you and you think, “Is it working?” But then you realise that you are hauling ass through gnarly trails and that it feels easy.
The way the rear of the bike doles out its travel is almost a little stingy. It gives you just enough to get the job done and stay in control. Not so much that you would ever call this bike plush and not so little that you would ever call it harsh or over damped. At first it felt weird to me, and I was fiddling with shock pressures and settings for a ride or two, but I soon realised that this was just how the Hightower rolls and I soon grew to love its purposeful attitude.
In 6 months testing I tackled every type of trail you could imagine on the desert tan Santa Cruz. On chilled out trail centre laps and Bikepark Wales’ flowier tracks the speed the Hightower carries and generates is really noticeable, especially with the energy that stores up in the Reserve Carbon wheels ready to spring out of berms and rollers. Its balanced geometry lets you sit calmly in the bike through high speed berms and the Lyrik Ultimate remained as composed as ever.
On rough, chunky terrain you might think that you would want more than 140mm of rear travel, but as it the Hightower uses it so efficiently, it always seemed to have a bit more to give when you really needed it. Whilst I did bottom this bike out quite a few times, they were never harsh and never seemed unjustified. I can see some riders wanting to increase fork travel to 160mm for enduro racing or trips to the mountains, but in 150mm stock form I found that it could take most things in its stride.
Having come through the wettest winter ever, most rides were a constant battle to find grip between wet roots and rock. These are the conditions where stiff carbon wheels and frames tend to come unstuck, deflecting off of things when you really want compliance. This was not the case with the Hightower, partly assisted by a change of winter tyres to a Michelin Wild Enduro up front and Specialized Eliminator at the rear.
These let me run lower pressures than the Maxxis Minion DHRII tyres in EXO casing, improving grip and ride feel. Whilst the wheels were direct and tracked well, I never felt the harshness that usually leads you to loosing grip and sliding off the high line. The high end CC frame mutes the trails just enough to aid you in both the grip and comfort departments making it a winter trail destroyer.
When things get steep, the sorted geometry and solid Lyrik Ultimate fork really come into their own, giving you the confidence to commit to turns and carry speed through to the exit. If you push through the pedals then you can also get a free pump out of the back of the bike that propels you into the next section. You can hit all of this in total confidence that the SRAM Code RSC have you covered if you pick up too much momentum.
Whether it is flat or steep, mountain biking is all about corners, an area where the Hightower excels. The riding position and supportive suspension platform really help you to set up for turns properly. You feel composed under braking on the entry and this seems to give you more time to execute good technique (at least by my standards) no matter what the turn is doing. You can really lean the Hightower in on its side knobs, confident that the suspension and riding position will keep you safe if you push too hard.
Not a single bolt or pivot loosened or developed any play during a solid 6 months of hard testing and minimal maintenance. No issues at all.
What do we think?
If you ride a variety of trails, from mellow to gnarly and only want 1 bike then the Hightower should be top of the list if you can afford it. This dream build has been so much fun and so easy to live with for the last 6 months and it filled me with confidence every time I rode it.
Despite being lucky enough to test some other great bikes in the same period, it was always a struggle to not just reach for the Santa Cruz each time I rode. I’ll be sorry to see this bike go, but it has whetted my appetite to try out more VPP bikes in the future.
- Reserve 30 Carbon wheels
- Poise and composure
- Light weight, energetic feel.
Could Do Better:
- Nearly £8000 price tag
- Thin Maxxis tyres