Introducing the Santa Cruz MEGATOWER 29 - Ridden in NZ
The biggest complaint about Santa Cruz’s two most recent long travel bikes wasn’t about geometry, kinematics or even paint; the issue was wheel size. Now that wagon-wheelers have taken over almost every sphere of mountain biking, aside from slopestyle, dirt jumping and freeride, many discerning riders have lost interest in 27.5” wheels. Santa Cruz EWS riders Iago Garay and Mark Scott could have ridden the new Nomad or Bronson when they were released, two well-received and high-performing platforms, but instead they stuck with the Hightower LT, which is a bit of a frankenbike. They preferred the right wheel size on the wrong platform over the wrong wheel size on the right platform. Aaron Gwin, despite not having access to a big wheeler for much of last season. has conceded that 29” wheels are seconds faster on most downhill courses.
Downhill speed isn’t everything, but when you factor in climbing prowess, stability, and safety, the big hoops start to become pretty attractive for those of us who are Danny Hart-sized or taller. Many riders have been waiting for Santa Cruz to release this platform with big wheels, including this one.* To the chagrin of Luddites everywhere, the age of the 29er is upon us.
*The Bronson was an exception, keeping me perfectly happy on 27.5 wheels
Why did it take so long for Santa Cruz to release a V10-inspired, low-shocked 29er? I didn’t really get that answer. The HTLT apparently sold quite well, despite its limitations, and there are kinematic complications involved when 29er travel exceeds trail bike numbers. Why now is a question that may remain unanswered, but sometimes arriving late to the party has strategic advantages.
The name was well known within the industry long before any announcement and it was assumed this was a code name. Sometimes code names gather momentum and nothing better comes along to replace them, which seems to be the case here. After what many felt was lacklustre performance and compromised geometry ( particularly the slack seat angle) from the HTLT, this couldn’t have been the Hightower XL or some other close derivative and “Megatower” is a nice balance of irony and reality. I would have been disappointed if the name remained merely a placeholder. The name also suggests pushing things a little far, despite travel settling at a relatively modest 160mm front and rear.
I wondered if the new bike would be called the Bronson 29 or Nomad 29 but it seems the MT splits the difference between those models, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Santa Cruz shoehorn in a new bike with slightly less travel and less aggressive geo to replace the HTLT in the future and then another to replace the original Hightower. As Josh Kissner told me, “we just make as many bikes as we want.”
There aren’t any big surprises here with a nice steep effective seat tube angle and a properly modern slack head tube mated to a low BB, all bouncing on 160mm of travel at both ends. And there are a couple of flip chips to allow you to customize things further. You can push out the head angle - slightly - and lower the BB with the shock mount chip and stretch the wheelbase 10mm with chips at the rear wheel. We began in the shorter and steeper position and I decided to keep it that way after swapping to the coil shock on our final day of riding for the sake of consistency. I was surprised that Santa Cruz staff had the bikes set up with the flip chips in the high position. The difference is slight, with the low position sinking the bike by 3.5 mm and slackening out the head tube by 0.3º, but with changing to a coil on the final day I decided not to mess with anything else and while I wouldn't have objected to the front end pushing forward a little, 343mm is already among the lowest BB heights in the category. Considering the technical trails we spent most of our time on, the short position of the rear stays seemed right as well.
Originally the plan was to do a couple of days at Wairoa Gorge bookending two days riding the network above the town of Nelson, New Zealand. Recent fires and a complete absence of precip’ kept the forests closed so the Nelson portion was scratched. Fortunately we managed to get special permission to ride Wairoa. Days 2 and 3 were instead replaced by portions of Sven and Anka Martin’s NZ Enduro course, which was a rare and splendid experience.
On the trail
Day one on a fresh bike is rarely trouble-free as the shock and fork break in. Unfamiliar and challenging terrain makes matters worse. To truly screw things up put yourself on the wrong size. After finding my happy place on the 485mm reach of the XL Bronson and the XL YT Jeffsy’s 490mm, choosing the 490mm Megatower XL (in hi setting) seemed obvious. On the steep and tight switchbacks of Wairoa Gorge I found myself too stretched to weight the front wheel when the bar was turned sharply and I was struggling. Wairoa’s trails are incredibly well made and consistent, but the terrain is rough and rocky and the steep slopes mean exposure is a virtual constant. The Mega felt great on the little climbing we did on day one and on less abrupt curves but limos work great on the interstate. I was too often half a step behind and not having nearly enough fun. To top it off the further I am away from home the more trouble I have remembering how to ride. The ground at Wairoa is hard and the lack of rain made it marbly and I was riding like a codger crossing a Bangkok thoroughfare. Every time I got to the bottom without leaving a sample of flesh on the rocks I was relieved.
WAIROA GORGE and Voldemort
In an earlier version of this article I related how the Wairoa Gorge trails came to be and mentioned the name of the reclusive billionaire who funded the entire project as well as some information about his life and business. The Nelson Mountain Bike Club got in touch with Santa Cruz who got in touch with me to ask that I remove that information. I don't love this from a journalistic standpoint, and this information is available on the web, but I certainly don't want to do anything to jeopardize access to Wairoa so we'll consider the matter closed at this point.
I can say this gentleman is said to be a good boss for those who build his trails and, since many of his builders were Kiwis, riders told me his initiatives have been a boon for trail building in New Zealand because of the skills those builders have brought home.
Until recently, the only time to ride Wairoa was during the Dodzy Memorial Enduro but he who shall not be named decided not long ago to donate the property to the New Zealand Gov’t with the condition that the 2000 acres (810 ha) of land, and the native forests within, be preserved. The 70 km of trails will be maintained by the Nelson MTB club with fees from users who come to shuttle and ride the trails funding the venture. An insider told me the land likely cost NZ$20m with the trail building, roads and facilities adding another NZ$20m. The attention to detail of the trails, with heaps of optional lines and incredible alignment, and the scale of the building in some truly difficult circumstances speaks to the skill of the builders and the original owner's commitment to the project. Generally when I travel to ride I find that my trail difficulty scale needs to be adjusted, because a North Shore blue is often a black (and sometimes even double black) elsewhere. Not Wairoa. If the sign says black diamond you’d better buckle up, particularly on what the locals call the ‘dark side.’ The variety is solid but the one green trail we rode was not suitable for most beginners. My point is, Wairoa Gorge is one of those places to put on your list: it’s somewhere you should ride before you die.
On day 2, I was significantly happier on the 470mm reach of the large and I began to figure the bike out. The new plan, because of the fires, was to ride a portion of Sven and Anka Martin's NZ Enduro course. We shuttled to our first descent of the day with gear for overnight on our backs. This trail was also smoother, faster and less exposed. The dirt was solid and there were no marbles, further boosting my confidence. Where the handling felt a little slow and vague on the XL at Wairoa, it felt much more precise and responsive now that I’d found my size, despite the 15 lbs on my back. Next up was a long steady single track climb with an unbearably consistent grade. Actually the grade wasn’t bad, I just kept thinking it would relent occasionally but it just kept on pushing up at the same angle. It was hot and sweaty in the jungle and without knowing how far we had to go, I paced myself. Some sections were relatively smooth but often it was nasty rooty business with some tricky creek crossings thrown in. The bike did great on the climb, transferring power efficiently and digging in appropriately even when the grip was compromised. Any section I didn't make was entirely my fault,
After a quick lunch it was time for our final descent of the day into Nydia Bay for our overnight at the On The Track Lodge. Sven warned us that this section was slick and there were some slimy creek crossings and lots of rocky obstacles ahead. Iago Garay looked at me and said "let's go," suggesting with a wave that I follow him. My reply was, "You'll be gone after 15 seconds."
Not only is Iago blindingly fast, he's a veteran of the NZ Enduro so he knows the line ahead but he says "c'mon" and I reluctantly saddle up. Iago rides 'sponsor speed' so I can keep up and soon I find myself diving into a perilously slick rocky bowl strewn with obstacles - and then flowing out the other side. Watching Iago has me putting things together that I would have bobbled on my own. Section after section I manage to stay upright and perform moves I didn't realize I was capable of, before finally stumbling on a root leading into a creek. Part of me was relieved to have decoupled without serious injury, but he had worked his magic. Following Iago allowed me to ride above myself, but the Megatower was up to the task as well. The rest of the stage was faster and with fewer obstacles, and the bike continued to sing. Despite my fatigue and the pack on my back, I started looking for bonuses; little launches or chances to ride up the bank on my right. I was getting out of my own way and the Megatower was up for it.
Day three was to be the entire 3rd day of the NZ Enduro. We jumped in water taxis with our bikes and got ferried to a field where for another ride. A heli with bike racks for 4 pushed us up to Foster's Hut for the start of our first descent, which is what happens in Sven and Anka's race as well (if the weather cooperates). The first section of the descent felt like a fresh loamer and I later learned that it was in fact freshly built; the soil on the steep line was incredible providing just enough grip and a thick layer of duff to cover most hard obstacles.
The first line was perfection and the dense forest had me feeling right at home. The Megatower began to feel light under me without ever reaching that elusive point where it seems to disappear. It certainly wasn't slowing me down though and the incline was no match for the 65º head angle. The next section was the most technically challenging climb of our two-day enduro. The steep switchbacks made it clear that the size large MT was closer to my sweet spot than the XL Bronson. I didn't have to tuck in my knee when the bar was turned to the limit on the Mega like I did on the Bronson and the front end came around easily.
At the top we basked in the sun under a widely-spaced grove of native trees and ate some lunch. The conversation made it clear that this final descent was the jewel. I overheard Sven saying there were something like 95 switchbacks, many of them having seemingly legit optional inside lines that ramped the fun and the incline. Soon after we tipped it down my weight moved further forward so I could negotiate the tighter corners and unweight over obstacles and everything began to sing. This was shit-eating-grin riding and many fives were exchanged. After that the ride out was relatively anti-climactic aside from a cool suspension bridge.
Our last day of riding gave me a second swing at Wairoa Gorge and riding the trails I'd attempted on the XL confirmed that large was the optimal fit. To mix things up a little, Kyle from Santa Cruz helped me swap in a Rock Shox Super Deluxe coil shock with a 350 lb spring. We rode some jump lines and on the last run before lunch took a swing at the dark side. Exposure was heavy and rocks were ever-present but normally the gnarlier side of the mountain is wet, even in the summer. It was bone dry for us and still a formidable challenge. Long narrow sections traverse scree slopes and even waterfalls* where a tumble in the wrong direction could win you a helicopter ride. I was riding much better than 3 days earlier and enjoying the more challenging descents.
*The video below will give you an idea of what the Dark Side is like. Check out 5:09 and 9:55 for some of the more challenging bits.
The bike was proving up to various tasks and the technical terrain made it clear the frame has the same robust, confidence-inspiring feel as the Bronson. I often found myself putting too much weight forward after poorly negotiating a tight turn but the stiffness of the front end and the laid back head angle allowed me to push through unscathed. I was unquestionably more comfortable on my second visit to Wairoa but I hadn't yet become completely accustomed to the bike, which isn't surprising considering the circumstances.
This is no longer the wild west of bike testing and purchasing. I'm not going to pretend to see the future and tell you all the turmoil with standards and geometry shifts are over, but buying a bike in 2019 is much less of a crapshoot. Particularly in the Megatower's category, a lot of things have been figured out recently. On the way down, low bottom brackets and slack head angles help you push through obstacles and conquer both steeps and high speeds, and longer reach measurements give you room to move your weight around without calamity. On the way up that reach puts your hips in a strong position and allows you to stretch out while the steeper seat angle let's you push down with authority. I'm sold on bikes with modern geometries and the Megatower ticks all the boxes. There wasn't anything about the shape of the bike that I'd change, aside from maybe adding a few millimetres of reach to the large.
I didn't feel like I ever got the Rock Shox Super Deluxe RCT air shock to perform as I wanted. It wasn't as supple off the top as I'd like but, to be fair, I rarely pushed into full travel so I could have dropped the pressure some. As a result the traction wasn't always as firm as I'd like and more knob twisting would have been aimed at making the rear end more active. I also failed to find the sweet spot of the excellent Fox 36 Float Performance Elite - or perhaps the happy medium considering the trails we were riding. I got it where I wanted for larger impacts or repeated small bumps but it was still feeling harsh on some of the nastier rooty sections at Wairoa with square-edged inpacts coming in rapid succession. Having ridden the fork before I'm sure I just hadn't yet nailed the tune, which I rarely do quickly.
While the handling was certainly better on the large in most situations, I never got to the point where cornering or negotiating tight sections felt entirely intuitive. Some reflection makes me think I would have felt better with my bars a little lower and perhaps cut down a little more. These are all points of refinement however and in many situations the bike was stunning. It handled larger impacts and drops with incredible efficiency, tracked nicely in corners once I set the course correctly and climbed beautifully. It was also relatively nimble when I needed to lift it up or swap lines quickly.
Coil or Air
I'm sure I could make the Super Deluxe RCT better but on a bike like this I'd prefer the coil or a higher volume shock like the Fox X2, which I think would nicely match the progressive leverage curve of the MT. On my 4th day, riding the coil, we did a short climb up to the top of the dark side and my traction had improved noticeably. Repeated bumps were handled more effectively and the bike in general had more composure and felt more planted. Most riders find an air shock more poppy and fun but in this case the confidence the coil gave me allowed me to get off the ground more and explore the edges of the trail. I would happily accept the weight penalty of the coil, possibly reducing it some with an aftermarket spring.
As usual with Santa Cruz builds there is nothing here to complain about. The Reserves are proving to be some of the best carbon wheels available, and they are backed up with a lifetime warranty. The Maxxis Minion 2.4 DHR/2.5 DHF 3C combo and the XO1 Eagle drivetrain were flawless. It didn't feel like the bikes I rode had 170mm versions of the Reverb dropper* but I would have liked that extra room. And while I have had good luck with Reverbs and I like the improved lever, I'm beginning to really appreciate the simplicity of cable actuated cartridge posts - unless I can get my hands on an AXS post which is next level simplicity. This is an entirely sensible and solid build that will deliver top shelf performance, but there is nothing here that matches the boutique flair of the Megatower CC frame.
*according to spec. they did but I didn't measure the posts of the bikes I rode. Small will have 125mm drop, medium 150 and L through XXL will have 170mm
A Verdict of Sorts
I hate writing wishy washy reviews as much as you hate reading them but I have some gaps to fill. While I have a lot of confidence the Megatower will live up to the high standards of my favourite recent Santa Cruz bikes, the Tallboy and the Bronson,* I didn't manage to gather enough information to say that with complete confidence after four days riding on the other side of the world. At the same time there is nothing that gives me serious pause. I wonder a little about the performance of the rear end with the Super Deluxe air shock, but I know there was more work to be done, and with the coil the performance was impressive. I have confidence in the integrity of the frame and Santa Cruz's reputation for standing behind their products while the geometry, boosted by some adjustability, is faultless. This feels like a bike that can take a beating and be ridden hard for years to come. More aggressive riders might also be keen to try the bike with a 170mm fork. Putting the flip chip at the linkage in the low position would nicely accommodate an extra 10mm of travel and I believe this change can be easily made by replacing the $30 airshaft in the Fox 36. I'm looking forward to someone in our crew having the chance to get a Megatower dirty here in B.C. because it looks very promising.
*I haven't spent enough time on the new Nomad but I have yet to hear anything but praise from riders who have
Tester info for Cam McRae: Height - 183cm/6' Weight 72kg/160lbs. Home trails: Vancouver's North Shore. Preferred reach: 470-480mm. Usual bike size: Large but sometimes XL.
More on the Megatower? Have a look at our interview with Santa Cruz engineering manager Nick Anderson here...