Review – Santa Cruz Hightower LT

Long-travel 29ers have been making a major comeback in the last year, with modern advancements in geometry and suspension making these machines better than ever. The Hightower was originally introduced in 2016 as a 135mm-travel trail bike, and while it was capable and fast-rolling, there were some riders looking for more. After some testing and feedback from its enduro athletes, Santa Cruz developed the Hightower LT with a little extra “boom” broadcasting from the suspension. We have ridden some seriously fast and capable long-travel 29ers in the last year and were eager to see how the Hightower LT compared to the rest.

WHO IS IT MADE FOR?

The Hightower LT was designed primarily for enduro riders, but whether you’re racing enduro or looking for a capable machine for your weekend rides, the Hightower LT checks a lot of boxes. All 29er-loving riders who prefer to plow over technical sections of trail and ride with no brakes will find the LT to be more than enough bike to handle all the use and abuse.

WHAT IS IT MADE FROM?

To withstand the rigors of enduro racing and all-mountain riding, the bike needs a frame that can handle abuse. Santa Cruz designed the Hightower LT with a threaded bottom bracket and internal cable routing with rubber grommets to keep out grit and moisture. On the lowest part of the downtube is a rubber guard to protect against rock strikes and trail debris that could compromise the carbon. The LT is available in two different carbon iterations—Carbon C and Carbon CC. The CC version tested is slightly lighter and stiffer than the C, but both should be strong enough to survive several seasons of riding. Similar to the longer-travel Nomad that we tested in 2017, the Hightower LT has a very burly frame design that is stiff and built to handle plenty of hard riding. At the heart of the Hightower LT is the Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) suspension that Santa Cruz has been using since its start in 1994. Over the years VPP has been proven to provide an efficient pedaling platform and stability when the trail gets rowdy. Compared to the Hightower, the LT has 150mm of rear travel with a 150mm fork in the front. The Hightower LT has a specific tune with a comfortable amount of ramp that isn’t harsh during bottom-out but provides a comfortable pedaling platform.

WHICH COMPONENTS STAND OUT?

There are several build kits available on the Hightower LT, with the C version starting as low as $3950 with a mix of Fox and RockShox suspension with a SRAM NX build kit. Our test bike is near the top of the line with a SRAM Eagle X01 drivetrain and performance-level Fox suspension. Riders have the option to take the stock E*thirteen TRS+ wheels or upgrade to the carbon fiber Reserve 30. We opted for Santa Cruz’s newer Reserve 30 wheels to see how they compared to the 27.5 versions we tested on the Nomad in late 2017.

HOW DOES IT PERFORM?

Suspension setup: Santa Cruz offers sag guidelines on its website to help riders get started with their bikes. For the Fox DPX shock, Santa Cruz recommended 16–19mm of sag. We began our testing with the sag set at 25 percent, which equated to 18mm. In the Fox 36 fork, we installed two volume reducers for a little more ramp at the end of the stroke and set the sag at 20 percent. Most of our test riders preferred running the low-speed-compression in about eight clicks for a little extra support when charging out of the saddle.

Moving out: The cockpit setup is fairly aggressive, with 800mm-wide carbon fiber bars and a 50mm-long stem. We dropped the stack height down with a 5mm spacer under the stem for a more aggressive and forward position. Our test bike came with a WTB Silverado saddle that agreed with most of our test riders.

Cornering: The Hightower LT is comfortable, and our test riders felt right at home when they hit the first high-speed corner. The front Maxxis Minion DHR tire hooked up confidently and didn’t flex or feel unpredictable mounted to the 30mm Reserve rim. Our test riders were able to comfortably lean the bike and had plenty of leverage with the 800mm-wide bars. At lower speeds, the Hightower didn’t feel overbuilt or too long to maneuver through tight corners or switchbacks.

Climbing: We were surprised at just how well the Hightower motored up climbs. The suspension kinematics and stiff frame made for a very responsive and efficient climber. We left the shock in the open setting on more technical climbs, but on long grinds we used the climb setting for a little more support. Out of the saddle the Reserve wheels and stiff carbon frame didn’t flex and accelerated quickly. The geometry was comfortable enough for longer grinds but allowed us to balance our weight when powering up technical sections of trail.

Descending: This bike comes alive on the descents, with the 150mm of travel and 29-inch wheels working in harmony to conquer anything in the bike’s path. While other bikes in this wheel and suspension category can feel like monster trucks, the Hightower LT is very lively and responds to any feedback from the pilot. Whether seeking out bonus lines or plowing over rubble, the Hightower will do it confidently. The Fox DPX was responsive and had enough mid-stroke support to allow our test riders to push harder on technical sections of trail. On larger hits, the rear suspension had just the right amount of ramp to resist bottom-out. The tire spec on our test bike felt spot-on, giving us plenty of traction at high speeds and over roots and rocks.

TRICKS, TIPS OR UPGRADES

Our test bike felt dialed from top to bottom. From the suspension performance right down to the tire choice, the Hightower LT is ready to rip. The 800mm-wide bars may be a touch wide for some riders, but they can be trimmed down to your desired length. Up front the stock 30-tooth front chainring didn’t give some of our test riders quite as much gearing on the bottom end as they would have liked. Going up to 32 teeth will give rippers that extra bit of speed they want.

BUYING ADVICE

The Hightower LT surprised and impressed our test riders with a seriously fast and fun testing period. We have ridden our fair share of long-travel 29ers over the years, especially in 2017, and the Hightower LT was a major standout. If you are looking for a seriously capable trail machine that can handle just about anything you encounter and not punish you on the climbs, the Hightower LT is well worth a look.

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