2022.5 SANTA CRUZ HIGHTOWER FIRST TEST RIDE REVIEW
by Dario DiGiulio
Photos by Ian Stowe & Dario DiGiulio
I was lucky enough to be invited to my first press camp, hosted by Santa Cruz Bicycles in the misty hills of Oakridge, Oregon, to put the new Hightower through its paces, and have been riding the bike for the few weeks following the event to figure out whether or not they’ve hit their mark. For the 2022 model year, the Santa Cruz Hightower received a few refinements and tweaks, but its core character remains the same on paper. One update I was very happy to see is a more balanced geometry chart across sizes, thanks in part to the size-specific rear triangle that sees chainstay lengths grow to match the reach. The VPP linkage of the Santa Cruz MTB Hightower has been tweaked for the 3rd iteration of the frame, with a focus on pedaling dynamics, early-travel shock sensitivity, and consistent support. Without getting too caught up in the charts and math, they’re looking to maximize the all-around nature of this bike without biasing it too strongly in any direction – all good things. One odd tweak to the frame is the switch to smaller pivot hardware, which is now the same size as the Tallboy. I suspect this was done for weight savings, but those smaller pivot axles have been known to bend under extreme loads, so I’m curious to see how things shake out long term.
The fit and finish of the frame is classic Santa Cruz Hightower, with a simple and high quality look and feel. The Translucent Purple paint job on my frame is gorgeous – maybe my favorite in the game right now – and the alternative Matte Evergreen option ain’t too shabby either. I was privileged to ride the highest-end option, which carries a price tag that makes me a bit nervous when thinking about what sort of abuse I’ve been throwing at this bike.
I don’t know if there was much intent behind the decision, but the trails in and around the press camp trails in Oakridge, Oregon proved to be the perfect use case for the bike. With smooth and fast singletrack and lots of fun little side hits to keep things interesting, the new Santa Cruz Hightower proved to be fully in its element. The experience itself was amazing, and spending time getting to know the bike was icing on the cake. That was just a first taste, though, and I’ve been putting the V3 Hightower through its paces on my home trails here in Bellingham, Washington, where the flavor is distinctly spicier than Central Oregon’s offerings. Despite Santa Cruz referring to the Hightower strictly as a mountain bike, I’m willing to call it a modern trail bike, with a 50/50 split in its desire to go up and down.
On trail, the bike reminds you of that fact with a peppy climbing feel, thanks in part to the low weight of the high-end build kit, as well as the relatively high anti-squat the linkage delivers. I’ve found that anytime you’re ripping up a forest service road, the scenery goes by pretty quickly – the pedaling is smooth and putting down power is easy thanks to the upright body position of the geometry. When climbing looser, trickier singletrack sections, you still reap the benefits of that body position, though the sporty rear suspension feel can be a little short on traction compared to bikes with lower anti-squat. That supportive suspension makes for a back end that pumps better than any bike I’ve ridden recently; the Hightower can manufacture speed in rolly, pumptrack sections of trail remarkably well.
When the going gets rough, that support comes at a bit of a price, as the back-end can feel a bit chopped up when pushing in successive big hits. By no means is the bike a slouch in these conditions, you just won’t mistake it for a speed-focused plow bike in that context. In some ways, this is what I’ve really liked about riding the Hightower: it’s a bike that encourages you to pump more, hop root mats and rock gardens as opposed to pushing through them, and generally keeps riding fun and lively. On one-off hits – be it bigger drops or gaps – the support you get from the bike feels fantastic. It brushes off deep compressions very well and keeps you upright and ready to keep charging. This has made it a favorite companion on many of the smoother jump/flow trails we have access to in our trail systems.
It’s long-mission approved, as I was able to hammer out some pretty lengthy days on the bike, aided by the Glovebox, which is an ever-handy stash spot to lighten your pack load. Worth noting is the size of the hatch door, as it’s noticeably smaller than the SWAT found on Specialized frames, and can’t fit a 100cc OneUp pump, which is my go-to companion for trailside fixes. That being said, the Tool Wallet and Tube Purse that come in the frame are excellent little totes, and keep your stuff organized and quiet from rattling around, which Specialized’s SWAT bag does not.
At nearly eleven grand, there better not be many upgrades to make right off the bat, and luckily in the case of this top-tier spec, there aren’t. There’s really only one thing I’d change right away, and that’s the tire choice to suit my local trails. EXO casing DHRIIs front and rear is a little bold on a bike meant to go fast on varied terrain. Even though you may be able to get away with it, it’s nice to have the reassurance and sidewall support of a meatier tire, or perhaps a light insert like Tannus or Rimpact. On just one of our laps at the press camp in Oakridge, there were five flats among the group, which speaks volumes of the bike’s ability vs. that of the light casing tires. That being said, the DHRII is a killer front tire: lean hard and dig in. Otherwise, things are pretty bang-on. I think the 180 rotors might ruffle some feathers, but this isn’t an enduro bike, and even after sustained steep burner descents I was getting a good bite out of the Code RSCs. You can always go bigger, but the nature of the bike is definitely more oriented towards descents where you aren’t on the brakes constantly.
I only had one problem with the main components on the bike, and it was an immediately puzzling feeling in the Fox 36 Factory fork. Right off the bat, it felt harsh and a little unpredictable, which struck me as odd given how well I’ve had them perform in the past. After a lot of futzing around, I realized it was a problem with the air spring, where it was clear that whoever assembled the fork had shoved about 10x the amount of grease required. This was causing the transfer port and pistons to pack up, and when I cleaned things up the 36 was back to acting as it should. I’ve seen this problem with a good number of Fox forks recently, no matter if it’s OEM or aftermarket, so hopefully someone there can keep watch on the grease tub to keep things in check.
Though I’ve only ridden it on this bike so far, I’m impressed by the new RockShox Super Deluxe. The clicks are few, but significant, and the build quality is top notch. It’s been extremely consistent over many miles of riding so far, and compliments this bike well. I’m looking forward to putting more miles on the Hightower in the long term and hoping to get a similar unit on my personal bike to see how it is back-to-back with the competition, but so far so good. The top-spec bike tested rolls on Reserve 30 HD wheels, and I’m a huge fan. So far they’ve held up to abuse remarkably well, and the ride quality is very good considering their focus on reliability over all else. I look forward to seeing how they hold up over the long term, as initial impressions are great.
The Wolf’s First Impression
After the extended first ride period, it’s clear that Santa Cruz has done a great job of modernizing the quintessential mountain bike. It’s not laser-focused on any one discipline, it’s not a trail-numbing rally truck, but it’s just a good bike for mountain biking. I’ve certainly enjoyed my time on it thus far, and I’m excited to get more miles on it to see how things hold up. I’m not rolling it out of the garage for the heaviest terrain around, but when I’m heading out for a pedal in the woods, it’s proving to be a good companion, so if that’s your jam, give this bike a check
For more information, visit Santacruzbicycles.com or keep scrolling for the press release.