Santa Cruz has been on the forefront of 29er design since it had its 26 4lyfe tattoos removed and made the Tallboy. The LT version followed in 2012 with a then-impressive 135 millimeters of travel. When what turned out to be the Hightower launched last year, many of use were surprised that it wasn’t a new Tallboy LT. But you can’t exactly call a 135-millimeter 29er “long-travel” anymore. Even calling this 150-millimeter version of the Hightower “long travel” is starting to seem like a stretch. This is the age of the 29er DH bike, after all.
So can the longer-travel Santa Cruz Hightower LT hang tough with the Bulleit-swilling, hammerschlagen-playing Slashes and Wreckonings of the 29er world, or is it more of an in-betweener, like Yeti’s SB5.5?
Santa Cruz Hightower LT Technical Details
Most Santa Cruz bikes have basically the same silhouette, but the similarities run deeper than the traditional VPP linkage in the case of the Hightower LT, which uses the same carbon front triangle as the regular Hightower.
That means it also boasts rider-friendly features like a threaded bottom bracket, space for a standard 22-ounce water bottle inside the front triangle and an externally routed rear-brake line. The rear shift cable and dropper post line run through the front triangle inside internal carbon tubes. Santa Cruz says the Hightower LT is 29er-only, despite Boost spacing at both ends. The frame has ISCG-05 tabs and is not front-derailleur compatible.
The links and the rear triangle, which gets a 180 post-mount brake, are new and designed specifically for the Hightower LT. Testing with the brand’s EWS riders started out with custom links, but Santa Cruz says that a new rear end was necessary to achieve the performance they wanted.
Before we talk about how it rides, a few words on sizing.
I’m always suspicious of bikes built around re-purposed frames: Something is usually jury-rigged or sacrificed in order to make room for a different wheel size or travel quantity. In the case of this half-frankenbike, the sacrifice is 7 millimeters of reach on all sizes. That puts the large at a not-quite-enduro-approved 443 millimeters, and is likely the reason behind the 50-millimeter stems specced across the board.
Reach dimensions aside, at 6-foot-1 I felt at home on the large, and my 34-inch inseam left 2 inches of usable seatpost inside the frame. I could have ridden an extra large, and therein lies the beauty of Santa Cruz’s sizing scheme.
The combination of low seatpost heights, longer-travel droppers and room to downsize on stem length allows most riders to comfortably fit two frame sizes. This might make the purchasing process confusing, but savvy buyers will make their sizing choice based on how they want the bike to handle. Opt for the larger size if you want stability, or the smaller one if you prefer quicker handling.
Santa Cruz Hightower LT Ride Impressions
As I just hinted, how the Hightower LT handles is partially based on what size you choose. I rode the smaller of the two sizes that fit me. As such, the Hightower LT feels a lot like the original, just juiced up with 150 millimeters of travel at both ends. It’s more hopped-up trail bike than high-speed enduro machine.
Outright pedaling efficiency is traditionally one of VPP’s strong suits, but standing efforts felt like a waste of wattage compared to the system’s stillness while seated. Did I feel any of that infamous pedal kickback some testers complain about? Not really. At 30-percent sag, the LT exhibited a balance of traction-maintaining suppleness and pedaling composure on rough climbs.
The front end’s 66.4-degree head angle is slack, but not so slack that you can’t control it while perched atop the 73.7-degree seat tube. This is where I’d be complaining about wheelbase length if I’d ridden the XL with its 1,222-millimeter axle-to-axle, but the large’s 1,193-millimeter wingspan feels downright flickable for a 150-mil 29er.
Santa Cruz makes it clear that this longer-travel Hightower is meant for enduro racing and aggressive trails. It certainly feels that way, though I’d size up if I were looking for a race rig. The size large feels like a compromise between a 29er trail bike and all-mountain wagon wheeler, combining some of the nimbleness of the former with some of the plushness and confidence of the latter.
The stiff frame tracks predictably through chunk, corners and even chunky corners. I pushed the shock to the end of its stroke on several occasions without any uncomfortable bottom-out sounds or feelings. The DPX2’s low-speed compression adjust allows riders to fine-tune the shock’s feel in Open and Medium modes, and I didn’t have any issues finding a setting that provided the support I was looking for.
Flat or bermed, the LT carves corners with the grace of a hockey player on freshly sharpened blades. It’s surprisingly willing to turn in and hold a line. Should I chalk this up to the tractable 438-millimeter rear center? Or perhaps the 32-millimeter bottom bracket drop? Or was it the short reach and 50-millimeter stem helping me maintain traction over the front? Yes, yes and yes.
We had our Hightower LT CC X01 29 Reserve build set up and ready to ride by the time we finished saying its name. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find much not to like about our $8,000 test mule. Santa Cruz’s Reserve 30 wheels strike a balance of stiffness and comfort while providing ample support for the 2.4 WT Minion DHR tires, and so far the rear rim has shrugged off at least one hard bottom out.
Both suspension components leave little to be desired on the trail, though the shock makes a somewhat annoying sucking noise. Also, actual enduro racers would benefit from the more adjustable FIT HSC/LSC version of the 36 fork. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option, even on the top-end XX1 build.
Build pricing ranges from $3,950 for the C R 29 build, which comes with a Fox DPS shock, RockShox Revelation fork and SRAM NX drivetrain up to $9,300 for an XX1 build complete with Fox Factory suspension and carbon Santa Cruz Reserve wheels.
My pick of the litter would be the $4,900 LT C S 29 build. That money buys you a less expensive and basically identical lower-end carbon frame that comes draped with a Fox Float Performance DPS shock, 36 Performance fork and SRAM Eagle GX drivetrain, among other smartly specced bits.
So, where does it fit in?
I’m lucky to have ridden several of the most coveted long-legged 29ers currently available, including the Evil Wreckoning, Trek’s Slash and Yeti’s SB5.5. I’d place both the Wreckoning and the Slash a notch above the Hightower LT in terms of descending prowess: In my book, both of those models are closer to DH rigs than trail bikes. That leaves the SB5.5, which happens to have nearly identical geometry to the Hightower LT.
Comparing the two is no short order, especially since it’s been a year since I rode the 5.5. In fact, I’m not going to try. Both bikes rip, and climb impressively given how capable they are. That being said, the Hightower LT has a threaded bottom bracket and space for a water bottle inside the front triangle. Just sayin’.
The Hightower LT is in stores now.