My Time Aboard the Hightower
Written by Sam Berglund October 23, 2020
Of all the perks of working in a bike shop, one of the coolest has to be getting to pick and ride a demo bike for the season. It can be whatever you want as long as you can sell it at the end of the season, and hopefully a couple more along the way. It’s a great way to experience the ride characteristics that we all read about online but rarely get to actually feel for ourselves.
Being a mountain bike guy at our shop, it’s only fitting that that’s what I ride. I was between two bikes, the Santa Cruz Hightower and Tallboy, and what ultimately made the decision for me was which bike was available at the beginning of the season. The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on many of our personal and professional lives, and the bike industry has been no different. Demand is through the roof, and our supply chains are struggling to keep up. This means a lot of bikes that are normally available to us at the peak of our riding season were months out to order. So, like a lot of our customers this season, availability dictated which bike I ended up riding.
Choosing the Bike
For those that aren’t familiar with the two bikes, the Tallboy is a 120/130mm travel 29er trail bike marketed as the “downhiller’s XC bike”. If that doesn’t paint a picture of “light & rowdy” in your mind I don’t know what does. The bike’s geometry is forward thinking, but designed around a light and efficient platform. The lower shock placement pays homage to Santa Cruz’s downhill bike, the V10, which has made its way over to almost every bike on Santa Cruz’s lineup now. It lowers the center of gravity, improves the feel and traction for the rear end, and offers more mid-stroke support meaning you won’t fly through the middle of your suspension travel too quickly and bottom out. All this has made the Tallboy our best selling Santa Cruz model this season and for good reason. It’s the perfect amount of suspension for our local trails, while also affording you the ability to get rowdy up north in Cuyuna or Duluth.
All this might leave you asking “That bike sounds perfect Sam, why wouldn’t that be the bike you’d ride?” And normally you’d be right, except that when I ride I like to do a lot of dumb stuff. I like to push the limits of what I’m capable of riding. So as a personal insurance policy I like to opt for a little more suspension on my mountain bike. Enter the Hightower.
The Santa Cruz Hightower is a 140/150mm 29er all-mountain bike, meaning if you were going to buy one bike to travel the country and attempt every trail along the way, this would be the bike for you. It’s burly, but not over the top, and when the trail points up it’s no slouch either. This bike has its limits at both ends of the XC/DH spectrum where it would be less than ideal, but it definitely covers the most ground in between. Normally this would land a bike in the “Jack of all trades, master of none” category, but I would say the Hightower provides a mastery of a slew of trails, and the best part is you don’t have to travel outside the state to find them.
The exact version of the Hightower that I rode was the C level carbon S-kit. Santa Cruz offers most of their bikes in aluminum, C level carbon, and their lighter, higher modulus CC level carbon, which shaves about half a pound from the C level frame. At each frame level you can choose from around two to four different “kits” that the bike is built with. I chose the S-kit since it’s the workhorse kit. It comes with a GX Eagle drivetrain, Rockshox SuperDeluxe Select+ rear shock and Lyric Select+ fork, Reverb dropper post, Code brakes, and alloy Raceface wheels. It’s a good upgrade from the base C R-kit and it doesn’t put me in the unobtanium price range of the CC level build kits. Because of this, it’s no surprise that the C S-kit is the most popular option for our customers.
I upgraded a few components to add a personal touch to my rig. A Santa Cruz carbon handlebar mounted to a 40mm Thomson stem was what it needed. Mountain bike geometry is getting longer and longer, so the shorter stem makes the reach a little more familiar while having the added benefit of making the handling a little more responsive. Add the 800mm wide handlebar for leverage and control and I was ready to rip. I was always in control of where the front wheel was pointed, for better or for worse. But enough about the build of the bike, you can get all that and more on Santa Cruz’s website. Let’s get to the riding.
My summer began with a ride at Battle Creek. I had heard great things about the work that the local trail boss and their volunteer crews had been doing there and wanted to see what all the hype was about. Let me say, the money that is being put into Battle Creek is going to turn that park into the best riding in the metro if it isn’t already. The crown jewel of the trail system has got to be the GOAT trail, and the trail builders have turned this classic trail up to eleven. All the jumps and drops have been rebuilt, rock gardens cleaned up, and the trail has been extended with some awesome features, plus the ability to wrap right around and climb up to session this awesome section of trail. The Hightower was built for this kind of riding; a rowdier trail that’s a step closer to downhill tech than you’re going to find anywhere else in the Twin Cities. It handles the jumps, especially when my first-ride-of-the-year jitters led me to case more jumps than I’d like to admit. It slices through rock gardens with reckless abandon, and turns around to get you to the top of the hill to do it all over again and again.
Now that’s all great and dandy, but how does it handle the other 98% of trails the metro area has to offer? Honestly, it’s a bit much for everything else, and this should come as no surprise. Any Minnesota mountain bike purist will bark and claim that you don’t need anything more than a hardtail to ride our trails, and technically they’re correct. But that’s technically correct for most trails around the world. Full-suspension allows you to ride over tech faster and with more comfort and traction, all of which I’ll gladly take. But pushing a 140/150mm travel bike at Carver is a bit more work than I’d like, especially since that trail only uses a fraction of my available suspension.
So, again, why do I love this bike so much? It’s not the perfect trail bike for our trails like the Tallboy, or other shorter travel trail bikes. It’s a bit on the heavier side, and in order to use all the suspension I have to epicly fail a rare jump or drop, or simply ram right into a rock with no regard for my bike or body. The reason I love this bike is because a little over two hours from the Twin Cities we have access to two of the best trail systems in the midwest, if not the country: Cuyuna and Duluth.
Every summer I make it a goal of mine to make the pilgrimage up to these mountain bike meccas at least once apiece. Not only is it some of the best riding you’re going to find, but they’re great places to push your riding abilities and find some more challenging trails, something the Hightower was bred to do.
My first trip was to Cuyuna at the end of July for three days of riding. The weather was absolutely perfect, and I was there during the week, so I was able to avoid the weekend influx of riders that Cuyuna gets throughout the year. Once again, trails like Galloping Goose or Drag Line aren’t what the Hightower was designed for. But Bobsled, Chute, or the newly built Winze trail were right up its alley. The Hightower begs to be pushed faster and faster every lap. While you could ride these trails in a controlled manner, what the Hightower really wants is for you to take your fingers off the brakes and lean into every corner and let the suspension do all the work.
The Hightower insatiable appetite for speed and gnar became even more apparent when I took it to Duluth for a day trip this fall. I made the most of the beautiful weather that I had that day, and was able to ride the Mission Creek, Brewer, and Piedmont trail systems all in one day. The only thing it left me wanting was more fitness so my legs could carry me further. For those of you that aren’t familiar with Mission Creek, it’s a gorgeous flow trail just outside of Jay Cooke State Park filled with undulating singletrack, spectacular views, and endless miles of trails to choose from. It’s not the style of trail you think you would need a full suspension bike for, but the trails are so well built that you can quickly build up enough momentum and speed to the point that you need the suspension just to keep your tires hooking up for traction.
After a delicious lunch from Corktown Deli, I made my way over to the Brewer and Piedmont trail systems. Let me be clear, these are my favorite trails in the world. They are rocky, technical, steep, challenging, and a stark contrast to the smooth, flowy singletrack at Mission Creek. It’s incredible that you can have two vastly different yet equally enjoyable trails in the same town. It’s one of many reasons why I love riding in Duluth.
Now, when I use the words rocky, technical, and steep, a lot of us probably think “nope!” and turn right around. But the Hightower would change that answer for even the most timid rider. The large, 29 inch wheels crawl over the cracked, jagged rock with ease, and the stable geometry keeps your center of gravity behind the bike when descending, never leaving you with that gut wrenching feeling you get when you feel your weight shifting forward over the bars. “Confidence inspiring” is a cliche, but there isn’t a better way of describing the Hightower in this situation. At the exit of every trail I was left smiling and cheering for having cleared the trail, and having done it without the worry of death-by-rock-wall anywhere in my mind. I love the Hightower.
The Hightower is the fifth mountain bike I’ve ever had, and the third Santa Cruz I’ve had the pleasure to ride. I’ve gone from XC hardtail, to XC full suspension, to 5010, to Bronson, to Hightower. Of all these bikes I can confidently say the Hightower has been my favorite. It’s not a landslide, the 5010 is a close second, but it’s definitely my favorite. The 29 inch wheels make a huge difference for me. This is my first 29er in four years, and it’s without a doubt faster, and makes the bike feel more proportionate to my body size as a 6’1” rider. I also enjoy the longer amount of suspension travel. Although the 5010 was preferable for our local trails, up north I was pushing that bike to its limit, a line I’d rather not be at the edge of crossing when I’m facing down a 45 degree rock garden.
Next season I’m planning to break my Santa Cruz streak for something new, the Norco Optic. This bike is fresh off being handed Pinkbike’s “Trail Bike of the Year” award, so Norco must have done more than a few things right. The Optic is a 125/140mm 29er trail bike with *even more* progressive geometry numbers than the Hightower. I’m curious to see how the geometry numbers affect the way the bike performs, and hopefully the slightly shorter travel makes this bike even more fun to ride locally.
I had a fantastic riding season filled with highlights throughout, and my only regret was not getting up north more often. Now my Hightower has gone to a new owner who I know is already pushing it to its limits and loving every minute of it. If this sounds like the bike for you give us a call or reach out to me personally, I’d love to tell you all about it.
Takeaways From the Season
- Hip packs are awesome. I’ve had backpack style hydration packs, and this year I tried an Osprey Seral hydration hip pack, and it was fantastic. My back stayed cool, my shoulders weren’t tired from holding the extra weight, and I was still able to carry all my tools and gear plus an extra 1.5 liters of water. 10/10 would recommend.
- I switched from flat pedals to Shimano XT trail clipless pedals before my trip to Duluth and really enjoyed being locked back into my bike. I had ridden flat pedals for the past two years and it has paid dividends on my technique and riding ability. Going back to clipping in was a huge confidence booster, and I felt much more in control of the rear end of the bike.
- I tried out some SIS nutrition towards the end of the season and will not be going back to GU or Skratch from here out. Their drink mix has a ton of carbs to keep you fueled for long rides, and the gu’s are a lot less viscous than the GU brand, meaning they go down a lot quicker and easier.
- While at Cuyuna I stayed in one of the yurts in the Yawkey unit. It was an awesome place to stay while visiting Cuyuna and I would highly recommend it, although you need to make reservations about a year in advance. It’s definitely worth it!