Those paying close attention to the Santa Cruz Bicycles website may have noticed that the Tallboy LT 29er quietly disappeared from its online line-up last summer. In fact, many did. Last July, the forums lit up with speculation about the future of the beloved long-travel wagon-wheeler, and how Santa Cruz must have been forced by its new owners to pare down the line.
But while the trolls were exchanging virtual blows over the merits of various long-travel 29ers, an engineer/designer/product manager team in Northern California was in the midst of toiling on a new version of the bike, which has been revealed today under its new moniker: Hightower (named after Santa Cruz Demo Team employee and tall guy Eric Highlander).
The changes reflect the geometry philosophy that Santa Cruz has already employed in last year's redesign of the Bronson and 5010: longer, slacker, lower and built around new VPP links and a 'boosted' front and rear end. Also, the Hightower is compatible with 29-inch wheels or 27.5+ with the addition of a flip chip that keeps the geometry consistent regardless of wheel size. Similar to the Nomad, the Hightower is one-by-specific–removing the front derailleur allowed designers to keep the chainstays short, while maintaining adequate chainring clearance and ample space for wide tires.
Although its DNA is linked to the Tallboy LT, Santa Cruz engineer Nick Anderson says that he didn't use the previous platform as a reference point when he began the Hightower project a year ago. Instead, he started from scratch, armed with what he learned from developing two iterations of the Bronson. He tested numerous mules, some with up to 150-millimeters of rear travel, to find the sweet spot between rear-end capability and playfulness. Coincidentally, he landed at 135 millimeters, the same travel as the original LT, but that's pretty much where the similarities between the two bikes end.
The Hightower's ride characteristics are most similar to the Bronson–Santa Cruz's popular 6-inch-travel trail bike–and it's designed to be equally as capable, says Josh Kissner, Santa Cruz product manager.
"There are two sides to that. Inherently, with less travel, it's going to be easier to bunny hop and throw around, all those things, but it's a mean machine. The Bronson is still going to feel smoother on a rocky trail," Kissner said.
In the 'Low' position, or 29er configuration with a 140-millimeter-travel fork, the Hightower sports a 67-degree headtube angle, 17.1-inch chainstays, a 74.3-degree seat tube angle and a 13.2-inch bottom-bracket height. In the 'High' position, or 27.5+ configuration with a 150-millimeter-travel fork, the bike's headtube angle shifts to 66.8 degrees and the seat tube angle to 74.1 degrees, the chainstay length shortens to 17.06 inches and the bottom-bracket height drops by a slight 2 millimeters. The Hightower also has the 148×12 rear spacing and 110×15 front spacing and internal cable routing also seen on the new Bronson and 5010 models.
Developing a plus-size bike wasn't initially at the top of Santa Cruz's priority list with the Hightower–and they figure that the 29er will be the more mainstream choice–but with curiosity about the fatter tires growing, they opted to incorporate small changes that wouldn't compromise ride quality. The flip chip in the upper link allows tire-size versatility without changing the bike's personality, Kissner said.
Last month, Santa Cruz gathered a group of media in a stealth location in the remote Patagonia region of southern Chile to ride the Hightower on the potential course for a new four-day stage race that Santa Cruz will sponsor next year. The Rally Aysén-Patagonia will be a point-to-point race next January organized by Montenbaik, which also runs the Andes Pacifico Enduro. Santa Cruz figured that the uncertain nature of the route, which included everything from rocky doubletrack climbs, freshly cut, loamy singletrack flowing for miles through dark forest, dry, dusty flat gravel roads and bumpy, primitive cow trails, would be adequate for testing the capabilities of a bike billed for its versatility.
The first day's ride began with a screaming scree-field descent that transitioned into a ribbon of fine-dirt that weaved through a dramatic forest of moss-covered trees, followed by ripping fast, loose 2,300-foot descent over 2 miles. I took it as a positive sign that I didn't actually think about the fact that the bike was a 29er a single time while I was riding. I've had a complicated relationship with 29ers in the past. While I appreciate and benefit from the superior rollover, I've often felt like they are too Cadillac-esque. Thus, I usually gravitate toward more-manueverable 27.5-inch-wheeled bikes. But the proliferation of snappier, longer-travel 29ers–arguably ushered in by Santa Cruz with the original Tallboy LT in 2012–has changed the landscape and the Hightower fits right in with the blossoming category of 29ers with enough travel to get rowdy, and the angles to keep the ride lively.
The Highertower's suspension is fairly progressive, so it can be ridden hard without bottoming out–we witnessed this firsthand when Cedric Gracia launched off a sizable rock face one morning and the shock, somewhat amazingly, did not blow its seals–and it helps keep a poppy feel that, along with the short chainstays, adds to the bike’s maneuverability.
I am not Cedric Gracia, though, so I was having trouble using all the travel in the Rockshox Monarch RT3 with sag set at 35 percent. Taking out two of the four stock spacers, however, made for a more linear ride. I rode much of the time with the shock fully open, switching to 'Pedal' mode only during tame gravel roads and the VPP platform pedaled quite well. This points to the revisions Santa Cruz has made to VPP, which now has a higher initial leverage ratio to improve traction and small-bump sensitivity.
On the final day's ride, I swapped the 29er wheels for the 27.5+ setup, which particularly shined on the day's steep, rocky doubletrack pitches. The 2.8-inch-wide tires monster trucked up and over traction-challenged sections when most riders were walking. Another section consisted of 'uphill free-foresting,' a term we coined for the climb/hike through the woods in which there was no actual trail to reach the final descent down Patagonia's Gloria Peak. The fat tires steamrolled over the abundant forest floor debris as we weaved a path through the trees, and the increased traction from the wider tires, particularly when cornering, compelled me to lay off the brakes on the descent and let gravity take the driver’s seat. The only time I lamented the excessive rubber is when I was pushing up unrideable sections, although this may have been psychological since the weight difference is nominal–the top-of-the-line CC build I was riding with Enve wheels weighs 26.9 pounds, compared to 27.2 for the 27.5+ version, according to Santa Cruz.
The Hightower comes Sriracha Red and Matte Carbon/Mint in M, L and XL frame sizes and it will not be released under the Juliana brand, nor will it be available in an aluminum frame. It comes in three build kits, ranging in price from $4,500 to $7,800 with a $2,000 Enve wheel upgrade available on the two top 29er versions. The high-end CC frameset with Rockshox Monarch RT3 runs $2,900.
Be sure to read the May issue of Bike for a full review of the Hightower. For now, check out the gallery below for more photos.