Now There is Only One

Introducing the 2020 Santa Cruz Hightower

Words Cam McRae
Photos AJ Barlas and Deniz Merdano
Date Jul 5, 2019

In the early days of the wagon wheeler many thought 29 inch wheels were only suitable for short travel applications. This was the era of the Santa Cruz Tallboy, the best selling model in the line at the time by a large margin. As designers explored the limits and sorted out issues, travel stretched to the trail range and the original Hightower was born.


It's possible my wheels are off the ground here. When that has happened I've been pretty confident on the HT. Photo - Deniz Merdano

In the beginning the one and only Hightower was sold in two forms; 29 and 27 Plus. The frame allowed for 135mm of rear travel but the 29er came with a 140mm fork while the plus version's fork pushed up to 150mm. As imaginary travel barriers began to fall an LT version came along with 150mm on both ends and endurobros everywhere rejoiced.

I missed the boat on the original Hightower. Pete Roggeman tested it and liked it and later on I slotted in to evaluate the second incarnation. The Hightower LT filled a hole in the lineup for Santa Cruz when longer travel 29ers were coming on strong and the development schedule for a brand new model to fill that void was too long. The product team hatched a plan to mate the existing Hightower front end with a new swingarm to stretch the travel and tip back the geo some.

As you can imagine there were some tradeoffs. The bike sold well and many riders were happy with it, but some of the pickier (spoiled?) mofos weren't entirely happy with it. The head angle was more suitable for rowdier terrain but the seat angle, which wasn't very steep to begin with, suffered and compromised pedalling efficiency. And the rear suspension action, which I eventually got working quite well with some help, wasn't optimal.


The lower link-driven bikes derived from the V10 all look great. The trouble is they all look virtually the same. That made it easy to ride for 3 weeks without getting busted though. Photo - AJ Barlas

I kept hearing people talk about how great the original version was. I was told it was classic welterweight; light on its feet and agile but able to take a punch. And yet it was scrappy enough to step in as a light heavyweight. It was one of those bikes that industry insiders spoke highly of, particularly when the conversation started with the somewhat lacklustre HTLT.


Don't worry about crappy OE tires on a Hightower. All models get Maxxis DHRII 2.4 3C EXO casing - right down to the 2995 USD price.


The tester I've been on - The HIGHTOWER CC • X01 29 RSV - is equipped with Santa Cruz's excellent Reserve Carbon wheels. Photos - AJ Barlas

And then lady luck put me on the non-LT version. Pete and I were on our way to Sea Otter and were invited to come and ride the new Megatower. Those bikes were in short supply, and I had already ridden the bike in New Zealand, so I jumped on an original Hightower. Perfect!


We got lucky on our shoot day and it was one of the only Junuary days we had this year. It was cool and misty and perfect. This shot was taken on Pre-Reaper on Cypress. Photo - Deniz Merdano

There were some closures in the UCSC zone so we decided to ride Wilder Ranch right next door. This was mostly XC but there were a few rougher and steeper lines and some twisty bits. And I knew what the fuss was about right away. This bike was easy to get along with; nicely balanced and willing to get into its travel. I never pushed it into the ring with Mayweather but the confidence it inspired made me think it could go the distance.


The Rockshox Super Deluxe Ultimate was easy to set up and to adjust, with each click making a noticeable difference.


Photos - AJ Barlas

Seb Kemp delivered the bike for me and we went for a rip of Fromme flow with Ross Measures along. Like the original it felt instantly comfortable, but this is clearly a more solid machine. I rarely notice frame stiffness these days but this platform felt precise and robust and I even noticed increased efficiency as my downward force was transferred into forward momentum. And balanced again, like the original, but more planted and aggressive. After ride one I went on my normal rides with the bike which are generally less flow and more rock faces with steeper more challenging lines. The sort of trails you'd expect to see bikes with 150mm of travel or more; Megatower terrain.


2020 Santa Cruz Hightower Geometry

GEOMETRY S (Low / High) M (Low / High) L (Low / High) XL (Low / High) XXL (Low / High)
A Reach 425/428mm 450/453mm 470/473mm 490/493mm 515/518mm
B Stack 603/601mm 612/610mm 621/619mm 639/637mm 662/660mm
C Head Tube Angle 65.2/65.5° 65.2/65.5° 65.2/65.5° 65.2/65.5° 65.2/65.5°
D Seat Tube Length 380mm 405mm 430mm 460mm 500mm
E Front Center 745mm 774mm 798mm 827mm 862mm
F BB Height 340/344mm 340/344mm 340/344mm 340/344mm 340/344mm
G BB Drop 33/29mm 33/29mm 33/29mm 33/29mm 33/29mm
H Wheelbase 1179mm 1208mm 1232mm 1261mm 1296/1301mm
I Chainstay Length 434mm 434mm 434mm 434mm 440mm
J Head Tube Length 90mm 100mm 110mm 130mm 155mm
K Top Tube Length 567mm 596mm 619mm 646mm 680mm
L Seat Tube Angle 76.7/77.1° 76.6/77° 76.5/76.8° 76.3/76.6° 76/76 .3°
M Standover 699/704mm 713/718mm °713/717mm 713/718mm 704/709mm

Thus far I have no complaints about the numbers – at least in the low position which is the only one I have used. The seat angle feels good, even with lots of post showing. The wheelbase of the large is longer than the XL HTLT (1222) but not quite as stretched as the XL Bronson (1252). It doesn't ride long climbing switchbacks or turning corners but it's likely responsible for the planted feel. CORRECTION: Santa Cruz has made one size of swingarm for sizes Small to XL but the XXL has 440mm chain stays vs 434 for the rest. I generally don't struggle or smash my cranks with low bikes but I seem to have been smacking into even less than usual on the Hightower for some reason despite the 340mm BB height.


Decorated with loam from Antagonizer on Cypress. Photo - Deniz Merdano

loam-shelf copy.jpg

Loam shelves well stocked. Photo - Cam McRae

In Bellingham we rode two trails that were among the steepest I'd ridden recently, and I felt like I was riding above myself, unable to imagine being more comfortable or aggressive on another bike. The third trail was lower angle, fast and choppy at speed. Pete was ahead of me and on a tear. I could stay with him but only just and my damping settings were likely a little slow, but I was again able to ride above myself on the bike and push it a little harder.


Loam for days. Photo - Deniz Merdano

Cornering is a strength of this new Hightower and holding inside lines and swapping lean left to right will put a smile on your face. This bike is a carver that wants you to get low and explore traction limits and sometimes go over your head. More than once I eyeballed a challenging section of trail with the Hightower, either a gap, steep combo move or rock face, expecting to walk away. Instead I tipped in and executed some of these moves successfully, some I'd never seen before and two I'd never had the nerve to attempt previously.


Sometimes you jump on a bike and the usual inputs produce unexpected results. On my early Hightower rides I often found myself unexpectedly carving inside lines because the bike is so responsive. Photo - Deniz Merdano

I'm starting to wonder if there is much point talking about climbing ability now that the big brains at firms like Santa Cruz are doing such a good job of isolating pedaling efficiency and downhill performance. But this is an example that it continues to improve and the HT positively boogies up climbs rough and smooth. It also responds well to spirited out of the saddle efforts, partially thanks to the stiff bottom bracket area.


Brief out of the saddle efforts and long firewood grinds are rewarded on the new Hightower. Photo - Deniz Merdano

Not surprisingly, the bike this rides closest to is the most recent Bronson, which you could describe as the 27" Hightower. I think the XL Bronson was a little closer to my perfect size with its 485mm reach (low position) than the large HT (470mm – low position) and it has a slightly more aggressive low slung feel, likely due to both the smaller wheels and longer travel (150 rear, 160 front). The head tube angles are very similar but the kinematics differ somewhat.


The Bronson (pictured here at Vedder Mtn.) and the Hightower - at least the most recent lower link-driven versions - are closely related but have some distinct characteristics. Photo - Dave Smith

The Bronson had a very noticeable platform* which made it easy to put power down, kept it high in its travel and helped with big hit performance, where the bike was incredible. There is much less noticeable platform on the HT and while adept at absorbing Tyson-sized hits, it's not the superstar the Bronson is. At speed and on rough and steep terrain I was probably a little more at home on the Bronson, particularly with the mid-fat 27 x 2.6 setup, but the Hightower is a better climber, more nimble in tight and twisty terrain and more adept arcing corners. And it's the Bronson's equal on the steeps that aren't too bony.

*I believe Santa Cruz reduced the platform feel somewhat after the early production runs.


No complaints at all about the Rockshox Lyrik Ultimate (44 offset). Buttery comes to mind.


The colour matching strikes a nice balance and the front end spices things up appropriately. Photos - AJ Barlas

It's possible moving up to the XL would change that list some, and trying out a 27+ set up (in the works) might also, but I'm pretty happy with the Hightower's performance inventory. It's another bike with the travel of a long-legged trail bike that is absolutely up for anything.


She's a looker in the woods. Photo - Deniz Merdano

The componentry on this spec level of Bronson held few surprises. The only product I hadn't spent much time on is the Lyrik Ultimate, which has been very good and thus far feels comparable in performance to a Fox Factory 36. In some situations I find the feel a little more buttery. It's nice and stiff and willing to get into its travel, and nailing down settings was relatively easy with each click making a noticeable difference.

Build kits start at an incredible 2,995 USD for a solid machine and rise to 10,499 USD for an AXS build with Reserve wheels

Chasing Trevor Hansen down Antagonizer. Being in the woods on mystical days like this is one of the best things about living in B.C. Photo - Deniz Merdano

You may have noticed that I already have warm feelings for this bike. There is more to explore and tweak but things have gone very well indeed so far. I'll step on a scale in the morning for the weenies among you and add my shock settings as well.

For more info check out this just-launched eye candy on Santa Cruz Bikes...

Cam McRae

Age - 55

Height - 6'/183cm (mostly legs)

Weight - 165lbs/74.5kg

Ape Index - 0.986

Inseam - 34"/86cm

Trail I've been stoked on lately - Fifth Horseman

Bar Width - 760mm

Preferred Reach - 485-500mm (longer with 27.5 wheels than 29)

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+1 Dan
rndholesqpeg  - July 2, 2019, 6:20 a.m.

Will a Fox X2 fit on this bike or is it too tight like the Bronson? 

Not that I am likely to buy a complete bike, but the lack of Fox/Shimano build kits is disappointing. They don’t list a frame only option on the site, do you know if that is just for the short term?


Tadpoledancer  - July 2, 2019, 6:51 a.m.

According to the pinkbike review, the X2 and similarily girthy shocks won't fit.


Cam McRae  - July 2, 2019, 7:16 a.m.

I would expect there will be a frame only choice but I’ll do some digging and let you know.


Allen Lloyd  - July 2, 2019, 7:19 a.m.

Aluminum frame only option would be amazing.


+1 Allen Lloyd
Vincent Edwards  - July 2, 2019, 4:41 p.m.

I’m pretty sure they will offer CC frameonly at $3,299 and alloy frame only at $1,999 but typically ship completes for a few weeks to a month before making those available.


Marcel Almeida  - July 2, 2019, 8:35 p.m.

ETA for frame only is 07/15 according to my dealer 3299 for CC


+1 Cam McRae
Allen Lloyd  - July 2, 2019, 7:19 a.m.

29er with the low suspension and aluminum? This is a no brainer and I can't wait to ride one.  I love my current Hightower, but this checks all the boxes for me.  One ride on a Bronson told me a 29 version would be perfect.  Being able to get it in aluminum so I don't have to worry about the carbon getting scratched is worth any weight penalty.


mike  - July 2, 2019, 9:45 p.m.

They list an aluminum model on the site. Interesting they don,t offer the MegaTower in an aluminum option.


Timer  - July 2, 2019, 8:06 a.m.

Another review mentioned fairly tight tire clearance at the lower link with the relatively small DHR 2.4. Did you have any issues there with mud? And you think the frame will fit other polular tires like Muddy Marys 2.35, Michelin Wild Enduros 2.4 or Specialized 2.6s which are taller than the DHR?


+1 Timer
Cam McRae  - July 2, 2019, 9:25 a.m.

The one wet riding day we had wasn’t muddy, but to my eyes there is ample clearance. I can’t see it being an issue unless you have very sticky clay-based soil.


+1 Pete Roggeman
mike  - July 2, 2019, 11:08 a.m.

WHat are the steep trail you rode in Bellingham ???


+2 grambo Dan
Pete Roggeman  - July 2, 2019, 1:42 p.m.

Not ones we can discuss other than to say that, like the rest of the riding in Bellingham, they were awesome.


mats  - July 2, 2019, 11:13 a.m.

Which trails did you ride in Bellingham?


+1 Dan
Pete Roggeman  - July 2, 2019, 1:41 p.m.

Steep ones ;)

(can't say anything more than that)


+4 Timer Nouseforaname IslandLife grambo
OldManBike  - July 2, 2019, 11:18 a.m.

Dear Santa Cruz, I still love you but, in the year our lord 2019, selling a mountain bike for $4300 with a rigid seatpost is embarrassing.


Cam McRae  - July 5, 2019, 2:12 p.m.

Would you rather have crappy OE tires and a mediocre post or top notch rubber and you add a dropper later? Trade offs are tough but this bike will ride great out of the box and you can pick up a used dropper for $100 pretty easily.


IslandLife  - July 2, 2019, 3:51 p.m.

Little off subject... but any reviews of those EXO+ tires in the works?


+1 Dan
Geof Harries  - July 2, 2019, 4:30 p.m.

Does the XXL come in an aluminum frame? Many of Santa Cruz's bikes only offer the XXL in carbon.


+1 Pete Roggeman
Dan  - July 3, 2019, 9:43 a.m.

Quite a treat to see this new chassis out in the wild last week. It rallied everything that was thrown at it - though I can't say that I was *too* surprised. Choice spec, smart geo, and a skilled rider all combined to make for a lot of big smiles and high fives. 

This new silhouette is really growing on me. I predict it will be a big hit given its versatility. As for the tan color, I thought it looked super sharp in person - more like tapioca than desert sand, but that's just me. The orange decals on the fork legs and the MarshGuard were smart esthetic touches, as well. 

If I had any nits to pick from the details that SC shared, it'd be the seemingly short list of rear shocks that will fit, and the lack of size-specific rear triangles. Lastly, it's a bit of a head-scratcher to me that they offer a size small with these big wheels. If I was the product manager, that column would simply say "See Bronson".


+2 Dan Tjaard Breeuwer
AndrewR  - July 3, 2019, 4 p.m.

Still making L - XL with a medium rear triangle! #tallpeopledeservebalancedbikestoo


tanadog  - July 4, 2019, 4:53 p.m.

yip, even the G.O.A.T. needs this! Given the XXL has longer rear end, would've liked to see the same offered on XL


transmission  - July 8, 2019, 7:39 a.m.

@cammcrae You mention you prefer the reach of the XL Bronson (how tall are you?). If you were inbetween sizes, would you size up or down?


+1 Dan
Cam McRae  - April 29, 2020, 8:56 p.m.

Apologies for missing this. I'm 6'0" and mostly legs. If I was between I think I'd go up. I haven't tried an XL HT but I think I'd like it.


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