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2018 Santa Cruz Hightower LT Carbon CC XX1 Reserve (discontinued)

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Long Term Tested: 2018 Santa Cruz Hightower LT

If versatility is what you're after, this longer travel version of the popular Hightower is worth a good look.

Rating: Vital Review

Big wheels keep on turning, or at least that’s how the saying goes. Wagon-wheeled bikes have come into the limelight this year, and for good reason. When paired with capable suspension and well-thought-out geometry, they offer rock crushing roll-over and traction smaller-wheeled bikes simply can’t provide.

We’ve spent the better part of three months on the new Santa Cruz Hightower LT sussing out the finer details of the bike. Who is it for? How did it hold up? Where did it perform best? We set out to answer all of these questions and more. From downhill bike worthy gravity laps to high alpine adventures, cross-country races, and enduro events, we put the bike through its paces in a number of configurations and riding environments.

Santa Cruz Hightower LT Highlights

  • Made for enduro racing and aggressive trail riding
  • 150mm (5.9-inches) of front and rear wheel travel
  • VPP suspension design
  • 29-inch wheels only (no 27.5+)
  • Available in CC and C carbon
  • Double sealed bearings
  • Non-adjustable geometry (prior Hightower had two settings)
  • Tapered headtube
  • Internal cable routing
  • Water bottle mount
  • Threaded bottom bracket with ISCG05 tabs
  • Boost 148mm spacing with 12mm through axle
  • Lifetime warranty on frame and bearings
  • Colors: Gloss Wicklow Green, Gloss Slate and Grey
  • Sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL
  • Bike Weight: 28.3 to 29.3-pounds (12.8 to 13.3kg)
  • Frame/Shock Weight: 5.9-pounds (2.68 kg)
  • Available with Santa Cruz Reserve carbon rim upgrade (CC bikes only)
  • Available in seven builds from $3,949 to $9,299 USD

Before we continue, we encourage you to look at our First Look feature, below, as it gives a good comparison to the original Hightower as well as some of our early findings. Also, for clarity’s sake, as we indicated in our prior piece, we will call the Hightower LT the "LT" and the shorter travel Hightower the "Hightower."

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In summary, the LT was the result of the Santa Cruz Enduro World Series team asking for a longer travel 29-inch bike. Some links were made, then a different rear triangle followed with a whole bunch of internet speculation. With obvious demand in the marketplace, Santa Cruz launched the 150mm 29-inch only LT in early July 2017 to the collective "exhale" of the internet. For better or for worse, the longer travel aggressive 29-inch bike is quickly becoming the one-bike-quiver for many – the proverbial Swiss army knife on account of how many things it can do and do well.

As is the case with most all Santa Cruz frames, the finish and attention to detail is top notch. Every detail, from cable routing to bottle cage placement and downtube protectors, is executed to near perfection.

Geometry

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The bike's geometry also leaves little to be desired, with sizes ranging from S to XXL. Though reach measurements can be on the short end of the spectrum and the seat tube angle is a hair more relaxed than we’d like to see, Santa Cruz didn’t go crazy with the seat tube height which makes up-sizing possible. This also allows you to run longer 170mm travel dropper posts, which Santa Cruz specs on some sizes. At 6'2" tall, our tester fell into the recommended sizing for the size XL.

Santa Cruz ships the bike with a 150mm travel fork to match the 150mm rear end, and the numbers above reflect this. They do note that a 160mm fork is compatible, however, and their Pro racers often choose this option. This slackens the bike out and raises the bottom bracket slightly.

On The Trail

For those looking for a refresher of our First Ride findings, it goes like this: good, but not great. Though we found the geometry to encourage rally-car inspired riding, we had suspension issues and felt the bike’s rear end could be tweaked to work a bit better in rough terrain.

Though we found the geometry to encourage rally-car inspired riding, we had suspension issues and felt the bike’s rear end could be tweaked to work a bit better in rough terrain.

Looking at a suspension kinematics analysis, things look very similar to the Hightower with a hair more travel. This means the bike is regressive off the top, flat through the sag point progressive later in the travel. You’ll recognize the shape of this curve from just about every Santa Cruz trail bike prior to the new Nomad G4 (which has a V10-like leverage curve). To add, anti-squat is around 100%, suggesting good pedaling efficiency.

The numbers are confirmed on trail, and the LT is perhaps the most efficient 29-inch bike with upwards of 150mm of travel when it comes to pedaling efficiency and climbing prowess. The bike stays quiet, planted, and offers a ton of traction through technical bits of trail. To add, with the top end Santa Cruz build, our test bike tipped the scales at a svelte 28.3-pounds (12.8kg).

The numbers are confirmed on trail, and the LT is perhaps the most efficient 29-inch bike with upwards of 150mm of travel when it comes to pedaling efficiency and climbing prowess.

Though the seat tube can be a bit slack depending on height, there is little one could fault as to how the bike motors up a hill. It reminds us of a bike with a whole lot less travel, offering traction when needed but staying quiet even during extended out-of-saddle efforts. In fact, the LT’s pedaling efficiency is so good we have to wonder why anyone looking to run 29-inch wheels would go with the lower travel Hightower.

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As noted above, we’ve already given the bike a good thrashing in our initial look. We found the bike to stand out in a few ways, namely its chassis design paired with balanced feeling geometry.

Santa Cruz has been at the carbon fiber frame game longer than most and it shows. The bike is stiff in all the right places without being harsh. This allows for the bike to transmit energy very effectively – be it bump force being transmitted to the bike’s damper, a rider leaning the LT over in a corner, or the rider’s pedaling energy going to the rear wheel. This is the type of thing that is hard to quantify, but easy to feel the instant you throw a leg over the frame.

Settled and solid are the two words that come to mind. Point it where you want it to go and pick your head up. The limiting factor is likely the pilot, not the bike, when it comes to changing direction.

When this sort of frame engineering and design is combined with modern balanced geometry, it should be of little surprise that the bike is a weapon in twisty terrain. Settled and solid are the two words that come to mind. Point it where you want it to go and pick your head up. The limiting factor is likely the pilot, not the bike, when it comes to changing direction.

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Hightower LT Goes Hulk Mode

We decided to do a little bit of part swapping to see if more performance couldn’t be eeked out of the LT’s ability to eat bumps. Considering the bike’s enduro racing roots and the fact we had entered an enduro race at Targhee with a good bit of chunk, it seemed prime time to see how far we could push the bike’s bump eating capabilities.

  • First, we ditched the FOX DPX2 air shock in favor of a FOX DHX2 coil shock. Santa Cruz is careful to note the frame’s kinematics aren’t overly favorable to a coil, but if you are okay with a more linear suspension feel it's something you can run. Josh Bryceland also often runs his with a coil.
  • Second, we tried two additional forks: a 160mm travel RockShox Lyrik RCT3 and a 170mm travel SR Suntour Durolox R2C2.
  • Third, we installed a larger 2.5-inch Maxxis Minion DHF tire up front along with a Maxxis Aggressor rear tire with a Double Down casing.
  • Finally, we rounded off the package with some Cushcore tire inserts.

The result? As Kai the Hitchhiker says, "Smash SMASH SA-MASH." Between the longer travel fork, coil shock, bigger volume tires, and tire inserts, the bike’s top end really started to open up. Let's dive in...

The front end of the bike felt more at home running the 160mm fork, allowing us to more aggressively weight the front wheel with the additional benefit of more grip than the 150mm setup. However, as you begin to increase the travel of your fork (or put more spacers under your stem), you begin to lose a bit of reach. To address this, we went to a 60mm stem, which is something we suggest any rider who "up-forks" this bike to consider. Is a 160mm fork always appropriate? Considering the bike's intended usage and geometry, we struggle to think of someone who won’t like it. 

The front end of the bike felt more at home running the 160mm fork, allowing us to more aggressively weight the front wheel with the additional benefit of more grip than the 150mm setup.

Running a 170mm fork is doable, and for certain EWS-level races, bike parks, DH laps, or time in the Alps it certainly has its place. However, the SR Suntour fork is actually an additional 8mm taller than the competition, making for an uber tall front end (close to a 180mm Lyrik). That said, the numbers weren’t that far out of line. Though the reach shortened significantly, the bottom bracket was about 13.5-inches and head angle about 65-degrees, which is still very acceptable considering the bike’s intended use. Overall however, we found the bike was most balanced with the 160mm fork.

Turning to tire setup, Cushcore added to the bike’s point-and-smash feel by giving more confidence in corners and bits of technical terrain. This addition can be a mixed bag for your everyday rider, especially if your most frequented terrain is more XC in nature, but it's 100% worth it in an enduro race environment.

Josh Bryceland racing a coil-equipped Hightower LT.

Finally, the coil rear end offered more grip and more consistency, but as a whole this is an upgrade that seems best for your die-hard coil-shock-lover. As Santa Cruz suggests, the bike isn’t exactly engineered with a coil in mind. Though we only bottomed it harshly a handful of times, the bike wasn’t that much better when considering where this bike is most often in its element. If chasing the absolute best bump-eating performance is your thing, a coil is a worthwhile look, but it comes at a significant weight penalty and is a bit tricky to tune for the leverage curve. To add, it further mutes or deadens the rear end. Some may like this, while others may prefer the more playful ride an air shock provides.

If chasing the absolute best bump-eating performance is your thing, a coil is a worthwhile look, but it comes at a significant weight penalty and is a bit tricky to tune for the leverage curve. To add, it further mutes or deadens the rear end.

In the end, the bike never delivered the bump eating prowess found on the Nomad, which is perhaps an unfair comparison being the new Nomad has 20mm more travel and an entirely different shock configuration. Still, the new Nomad showed us what Santa Cruz is capable of in a pedal-friendly package, and no tuning or damper selection left us with the "shorter travel wagon-wheeled Nomad" we secretly hoped for.

After riding the bike in hulk mode for the better part of a month, we decided to swap back to the bike’s stock build. Though the bike lost a marginal amount of top end, it was more pleasurable to ride outside of uber-rough, brake bump laden race situations. Alas, it turns out Santa Cruz knows what they are doing when it comes to spec'ing a bike. The only thing we didn't really find drawbacks to was the 160mm fork (though 150mm gives a more sporty ride). Otherwise, the rest of our monkeying around came at some expense – be it weight, cost, or both.

Back in stock trim the bike proved incredibly efficient and versatile, more-so than any other 130mm travel and up 29er this tester has ridden. As a result, this left him grabbing the LT more times than not. To maximize suspension performance with the DPX2, we found that by maxing out the volume spacers, running over 30% sag, and running the rebound bit faster than we are accustomed to helped liven things up significantly. The only downside was a bit of a skittish feel when shock temps rose.

Build Kit

After countless miles and a quarter million vertical feet of descending, a component check is in order.

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To start, the SRAM XX1 Eagle 12-speed drivetrain worked awesome, only functioning poorly when the b-tension screw wasn’t perfectly to spec or when we knocked the derailleur out of alignment on some unknown trail debris. Our only gripe with respect to the drivetrain was the small-ish 30-tooth chainring. Considering Eagle's wide range and the bike's go fast intention, we’d suggest a 32 or 34-tooth ring.

The SRAM Guide Ultimate brakes were in line for the bike’s intended use, though the pad material may have been responsible for the audible squeal that developed after about a month of use. Swapping pads to the sintered version remedied this. For those that have experience the sticky piston problem, it does appear SRAM has remedied this. We found ourselves in steep terrain often and did our best to recreate all known Guide problems through temperature fluctuations and extended use. After hundreds of hours in the saddle, there were zero problems with any SRAM part on the bike.

A 170mm travel RockShox Reverb Stealth was an excellent touch in the XL size. Kudos to Santa Cruz for this often overlooked but beneficial upgrade. Also, unlike Reverbs of yesteryear, the seatpost functioned as it did on day one throughout the entire test, never missing a beat.  

All control parts were top rung, though we did swap for a 31.8mm diameter bar and stem setup merely for hand forgiveness. The stiffness of the 35mm diameter Santa Cruz components was a bit much for the tester’s hands, though we don’t expect most to find this as a negative. As noted above, we also went to a 60mm stem. This is obviously personal taste and will vary depending on bike size.

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Finally, the new Santa Cruz Reserve Carbon wheels were a standout product. Though we did knock them out of true, they kept turning day after day despite our best efforts at ruining them. Based on experience, most other rims would have blown up at some point considering line selection, pace, pressure, and terrain. To add, the wheelset was stiff without deflecting – the result of a well-thought-out rim design paired with good spoke gauge and hole count. We’ve been on too many carbon wheelsets that overly penalized being off line when paired with a stiff frame, and these had just enough give to be forgiving in these situations. 

I Own The Original Hightower, Should I Upgrade? 

Short answer: No. We put this in our First Look feature and stand by it. The original Hightower is a good bike and the changes to the LT are more modest than the spec sheet might suggest. Again, we’d suggest running a longer fork on your Hightower and some meatier tires if you want to increase its descending prowess without breaking the bank. 

Does this mean the LT isn’t worth it? Not so fast there either. Anyone buying a Santa Cruz Hightower who is certain they will go with 29-inch wheels (remember, the LT is 29-inch only) would be silly to not go with the LT. The bike is just as light and just as efficient as its shorter travel little brother, so why not?

Long Term Durability

The suspension concerns we noted in our First Look persisted. Namely, the replacement FOX 36 FIT 4 fork, though a stellar performer, continued to intermittently and audibly top out. This didn’t really affect the bike’s performance when it came to tracking terrain, but was a bit annoying when we went to loft the front end or manual through something.

Second, the replacement FOX DPX2 air shock had an audible squeak when it got hot. Though it became almost silent over time, especially after an air can service, it was still a bit annoying. Overall, the performance of the DPX2 was good but not great, feeling like a slightly more controlled Float X. We sometimes felt as though it lost some consistency on sustained 3,000+ foot descents.

Finally, the bike did develop an annoying creak. We’d routinely clean it, but nothing seemed to remedy the problem. It would come back within two hours of tearing the entire rear end apart.

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What's The Bottom Line?

So who is the Santa Cruz Hightower LT for? This is the million dollar question and perhaps the most important part of this review. If you are looking for the absolute best bump eating ability paired with wagon wheels, perhaps you’d be better served looking elsewhere. On the other hand, if you are looking for a longer travel 29er that delivers efficiency, good chassis design, and balanced geometry, the LT deserves your attention.

The Hightower LT’s strength lies in its ability to do everything with little compromise in any one spot. A 150mm bike that rides like it has less travel may sound like a bad thing, but for 95% of riders this will leave them smiling mile after mile and rarely make them wish they had a different bike. This is a bike we'd willingly do a 50+ mile ride on then turn around and race an enduro event the next week. The bike’s real strength is its versatility, and that isn’t something to be scoffed at for most riders, especially in this era of hyper-specialized mountain bikes. 

Visit www.santacruzbicycles.com for more details.

Vital MTB Long Term Rating

  • Climbing: 5 stars - Spectacular
  • Descending: 3.5 stars - Very Good
  • Fun Factor: 4 stars - Excellent
  • Value: 3 stars - Good
  • Overall Impression: 4 stars - Excellent

About The Reviewer

Jeff Brines - Age: 32 // Years Riding MTB: 18 // Height: 6'2" (1.88m) // Weight: 200-pounds (90.7kg)

Jeff didn't go on a real date until he was nearly 20 years old, largely as a result of his borderline unhealthy obsession with bicycles. Although his infatuation with two wheels may have lead to stuttering and sweatiness around the opposite sex, it did provide for an ideal environment to quickly progress through the ranks of both gravity and cross-country racing. These days, Jeff races enduro at the pro level, rides upward of 150 days a year while logging over 325k of human powered ascending/descending on his bike. Bred as a racer, Jeff is more likely to look for the fastest way through a section as opposed to the most playful. He lives in the shadow of the Tetons in Jackson, Wyoming.

Photos by Jeff Brines, Lynsey Dyer, Sven Martin and Jay Goodrich

Rate review:

35 comments newest first

Great, well thought out review, thanks.
Do you have any time on a '17 or '18 Spec Enduro 29? I am currently on a Large Yeti SB5.5c and it's been an excellent bike but after a week in Whistler on a '17 Norco C9.2 Range (29) that had 20mm more reach I've been wanting a longer bike. I'm 72.5" tall but have an arm span of 74.5. The '18 Enduro has the same reach as the Large Range I enjoyed and of a XL 5.5 @462mm. Any comments on sizing when arm span is greater then height. A XL Enduro has a reach of 483 and I've been considering up-sizing to that as well and using a 33mm stem. I might possible go to.shorter offset fork and maybe at 170mm which would both reduce reach as you commented about above as well. Appreciate any thoughts on sizing and or the Enduro 29. I have considered a Trek slash as well but the deal is better on a Enduro . Bike will be intended to be a enduro race bike in CO.

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Great review, as allways Jeff. I am in the market for an "one quiver" bike (general trail riding, some DH shuttle laps, enduro race or two, all day Alpine epics on tight terrain). Do you think this 29ers ( LT, 5.5c, Slash) are better for my use as something like a SC Nomad 4, Firebird, Reign... ?

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Depends on taste Supreme!

All of the bikes you mention could be well suited to the task at hand but all will behave a bit differently. Previous experience (what you rode before), height, riding style, what your strengths and weaknesses are as well as your bank account will best determine the bike for you.

Give me more information and I'll do my best to help.

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Currently I am on the 2016 Giant Reign, size L. The bike does most of the things fine for me, but most of the parts are worn out, and I woul like something a bit stiffer, just as long or longer and with better roll-over capabillity. I am 6 feeet tall. I like to ride fast and agresive, but am spending more and more time in the Alps above the tree line. This means a lot of tight trails, where you het hung-up a lot. In this sort of terrain in think my skills are lacking the most. Apart from that the bike will be ridden on regular trails on my own power, some shuttling DH, some enduro racing. Thanks for your answers Jeff.

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Hmmmm. Well, I think you'd enjoy checking out a longer travel 29er but remember, "there are no free lunches". Despite what the internet may say, the bigger wheels do lack some agility. You can adapt to this, and for a style like my own, this is totally worth it. I'd argue it requires more of an aggressive riding style to boot - at least when cornering, as you really have to trust the bike when tipping it over, and it requires more room to do so.

As I generally end up saying "demo!".

And when you demo, please make sure you get a bike with half way okay tires and suspension that is setup properly. I've been on demos before that were terrible!

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I hear you Jeff. I will demo an Enduro 29 2018 like I planned, lets just hope they put on some decent tires. Anyways I am leaning more towards the 27.5 bikes. So Nomad 4 or Firebird? Which one do you prefer? Thanks again for all your help.

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Hey Jeff. Great review. I'm debating on whether to get this bike. Reason i'm debating is that i'm only 5'6" tall with a shorter inseam but a long torso. I ride a medium 5010 and bronson and they feel perfect for sizing. I'm just worried that i'll be too short and the bike will feel like a unwieldy horse. I've never ridden a 29er before so i'm just guessing here. I don't have the chance to demo one either. What are you thoughts? Thanks, Matt.

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I'd be full of shit if I tried to answer this question. I'm 6'2" with a relatively long inseam. A 29er corners different, and in my experience asks the rider to be more committed than a 27.5" setup. More grip, for sure, but a different feeling all together.

I'd say you should do your best to throw a leg over *any* modern 130-160mm 29er. That'll help you figure out if the longer travel wagon wheeled thing is for you!

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I recently had an annoying creak in the rear end of my Yeti 5.5. Thought it was the SI system, one of the links, shock mount, etc. Turns out it was the rear axle on the quick release side where it clamps to the carbon.

Great review and thanks for the responses in the comments section.

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Bryceland has been running the coils on all his bikes lately but also runs a much firmer spring rate than most of us mere mortals would. I think if you’re gonna do that they coil makes sense to retain a little compliance off the top but otherwise on these bike it doesn’t seem to make much sense.
(Ffs hope this is in the right thread this time)

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~25-28% if memory serves. I wanted a little less sag with the coil to leave as much travel available for bumps. Its more linear, obviously, and this formula seemed to work well.

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That’s kinda what I was getting at - I think if you’re gonna run a coil on these a higher spring rate than what is normally accepted looks like a good formula.

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Excellent review objective assessment of strengths and weaknesses without leaving the reader to have to read between the lines

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Great review, thanks Jeff! I've been riding an LT C-S build since July, and have made the exact same observations. Planning to swap the rear shock, soon. Anyone looking at the cheaper LT builds (C-S or C-XE) --> I would definitely recommend spending the extra dollars on the XE. The DPS shock and Fox 36 'GRIP' fork feel overdamped, and volume spacers aren't available until December '17! I also upgraded to Code RSC brakes because the Guide R's are fading on long descents.

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Funny, I liked the GRIP damper (on a different bike). I was lucky to score some volume spacers - which helped. I too am rocking codes on a different bike, with excellent results. (watch for a review later).

Thanks for confirming my findings. Always good to hear!

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At risk of sounding a bit pretentious, my (our) findings at Vital have often been quite different than enduroMTB. Maybe it's our background, maybe it's how we test, but the same way a Top Gear look is often different than Motor Trend, Vital's take is often very different than outlets like you describe. Still, always fun to see what others have to say!

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Hey Sheamus. Not a ton of time on the Jeffsy but some. It was a sportier ride, borderline "harsh" at times. I think its a good fit for a coil shock (speculating here). It really is "poppy" (playful, easy to load) and fun however. The HTLT felt a whole lot more muted. More efficient in its own way.

On a $ for $ basis however, its really hard to argue with anything YT is offering. Question is, do you need the service of a LBS?

I'd probably base that decision off how comfortable you feel doing an internet deal, and less off performance, as both rides are extremely capable.

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That's kinda how i feel too. So really off topic here but I'm curious how the Nomad 4 compares to the Capra, although the Capra is due for an overhaul which I imagine we'll see in the earliest parts of 2018. I assume the Capra is going to get a bit longer lower and slacker, metric shock, and boost axles, and who knows what else? but one of those bikes will end up in my garage at some point.

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I have zero time on the capra, so I can't comment. One sleeper call for those on a budget, Nomad 4 in Alu just dropped a month ago and is still one hell of a bike at a good price point. Something to consider if $$$s are tighter...

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Thanks for the thorough review, I've been looking for a solid one like this for quite a bit. Do you have any comments towards how the bike handles compared to other brands offerings? For example, the Norco Range, RM Instinct BC edition, and Yeti SB5.5c all seem like close competition.

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Sweet, thanks boys. First of all, no matter which bike I'd get, I'm pretty committed to throwing a Float X2 on the rear, due to it's tune ability and consistency. Considering this, plus the threaded bottom bracket and a full size water bottle compatibility (the latter I greatly appreciate) on the HT LT vs the Yeti, would you still rank the Yeti ahead? Also, feel free to bring in other models in the same class of 29" mid-to-long travel steeds for comparisons sake, such as the YT as mentioned below, or an Intense Carbine.

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I guess that all depends what you want out of the bike. I'm loving my Trek Slash, but it has its own shortcomings in the way of a not-so-durable stock shock, knock block and some not-so-awesome Bontrager parts. But its a beast through and through. So incredibly capable when pointed downhill it is absolutely silly. It really does have a DH bike feel. I did go to a shorter offset fork, which helped make the bike feel more balanced fore-aft (I'm on an XL). If the Slash is too much bike, the Fuel is worth the look as well IMO.

The Transition Sentinel I have zero time on, but I am very intrigued by. I'd take a HARD look at that, and the new Smuggler, which I loved (I was on the old one however - new one should only be better).

Intense I felt was pretty similar to the HTLT in overall feel. I would let fit, price and your comfortableness with a particular shop sway you one way or another with respect to that bike.

The Evil offerings are excellent as well.

So many good bikes these days its intimidating.

I will say this. 10 years ago the difference between the "right bike" and the "maybe not right bike" was pretty big. These days, all the bikes are so good it often can just come down to making sure it fits, then adapting to whatever you don't love...

Oh, and as far as shock goes, that X2 is a hell of a shock.

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Not much time on the Norco, none on that particular Rocky Mountain. Lots on the Yeti.

I personally liked the Yeti a hair more than the LT (not fair to compare to the Norco as time was, again, limited). Reason I preferred the Yeti was the rear end was a bit more active. Geometry, fit, stiffness and frame finish very similar. If you want the most efficient ride, go LT. Active, go SB55c. My $0.02!

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Jeff - thanks for the update on the bike. Got to agree that the stock build kit on the XX1 is spec'd really well. Did you get a chance to try any other air shocks with the bike like an X2, Super Deluxe, or Topaz? Personally I'm not that happy with the small bump compliance. The rear travel does better than average with square edge impacts but the softer stuff seems to have little impact on the rear suspension. On a more positive note, for a larger rider (260), it really ramps up in the end stroke, even at 30% sag.

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Yo man!


Like yourself, I found the bike to be a bit lacking with respect to small bump performance. Put another way, it kind of felt as though the shock was overdamped off the top, a bit dead. This has more to do with the SC leverage ratio curve than any shock. That said, I will say it was this feeling that left the bike so efficient regardless of where the compression adjust on the shock was positioned or how chunky my pedaling was.

I did briefly ride the bike with a Float X2, but not enough to really comment on it in the review. The short amount of time I was on it, I really did like it. Better small bump than the DPX2, but more ramp up than the DHX2. I haven't spent much time on a Topaz. A SuperDeluxe would likley be awesome, but one won't fit.

Oh, and mine measured 170mm for sure. According to the SC spec sheet, it should be 170. Funny thing is I didn't know it was 170 until I went back to a 150 and felt like I kept slamming my junk into the seat - Ha!

My advice, open the rebound a bit on the DPX2, put some bigger tires on with a good insert system if you want the bike to take the edge off the chatter and make sure your fork is setup well. That'll best mitigate the problems you speak of while not breaking the bank...

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I've left the tires stock and have Cushcores installed, I don't race or anything but the Cushcores make me feel better about dropping the PSI, which really helps with little bumps and has eliminated tire burpage, even for a rider that weighs 16 metric tons.

I think you're right about the versatility of the bike, because it is. It shrugs off my shit pedaling form, and coming down it may not be the smoothest ride, but I feel like I'm always in control of the bike - most likely due to the significant change in geometry from my old bike. And with the rebound about a click or two from being fully open, the bike yearns to get airborne and pop over trail obsticles. All in all its a damn fun bike to ride.

And actually I edited my first post because I realized I do have a 170 dropper, just didn't realize it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Super Size Me: The 2018 Santa Cruz Hightower LT

Speculate no more! The LT version of the Hightower takes aim at long-travel 29ers with an extra 15mm of travel and an almost entirely new frame.

Longer travel 29-inch wheeled bikes seem all the rage these days. Santa Cruz has thrown their proverbial hat in the ring with their updated Hightower model dubbed the "Hightower LT." A bike developed specifically by Santa Cruz's Enduro World Series team, the new big-wheeled bike features a bump in travel, a small tweak to the frame geometry, and more capable suspension.

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Santa Cruz Hightower LT Highlights

  • Made for enduro racing and aggressive trail riding
  • 150mm (5.9-inches) of front and rear wheel travel
  • VPP suspension design
  • 29-inch wheels only (no 27.5+)
  • Available in CC and C carbon
  • Double sealed bearings
  • Non-adjustable geometry (original Hightower has two settings)
  • Tapered headtube
  • Internal cable routing
  • Water bottle mount
  • Threaded bottom bracket with ISCG05 tabs
  • Boost 148mm spacing with 12mm through axle
  • Lifetime warranty on frame and bearings
  • Colors: Gloss Wicklow Green, Gloss Slate and Grey
  • Sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL
  • Weight: 28.25 to 29.3-pounds (12.81 to 13.29kg) / Frame/shock-only: 5.9-pounds (2.68 kg)
  • Available with Santa Cruz Reserve carbon rim upgrade (CC bikes only)
  • Available in seven builds from $3,949 to $9,299 USD

For clarity in this review, we will be referring to the new Hightower LT as the "LT" and the non-LT as the "Hightower." Santa Cruz will continue to make the Hightower as it fills a slightly different niche, and remains as Santa Cruz's only 27.5+ compatible bike.

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The LT represents the evolution of the Santa Cruz trail bike lineup. Aesthetically, even the most seasoned bike nerd may miss the subtle differences between the Hightower and LT variants. Is it an entirely new bike? Well, almost. To gain the extra 15mm of rear travel over the standard Hightower, the only shared frame component between the two frames is the front triangle. The links, 200x57mm (7.875x2.25-inch) non-Metric shock size, and rear end are all new on the LT. For those wondering, Santa Cruz will not be offering "hop up" kits for your existing Hightower. When considering how many parts are required, it's more economical to simply purchase a new frame.

The LT represents the evolution of the Santa Cruz trail bike lineup. Aesthetically, even the most seasoned bike nerd may miss the subtle differences between the Hightower and LT variants. Is it an entirely new bike? Well, almost...

Just like the Hightower, Santa Cruz's attention to detail stands out on the LT. Individually, the integrated carbon headset cups, threaded bottom bracket, rattle-free internal routing, molded downtube and chainstay protectors, and well-placed water bottle mount may not carry much weight when considering what bike to buy, but collectively add up to a more positive (and quiet) on-trail experience.

Geometry - Hightower Versus Hightower LT

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When compared to the Hightower (as shown in the above chart), the LT sees only minor adjustments to the bike's geometry. These include a 0.6-degree slacker headtube angle, 3mm longer chainstay, and a 7mm shorter reach. Bottom bracket height, seat tube length, and standover remain unchanged. Also, though not geometry specific, there is no longer 27.5+ tire compatibility with the LT, nor is there any form of "flip chip" geometry adjustment.

Recommended Sizing

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We tested the new Hightower LT in a size XL which features a reach of 468mm (18.4-inches) – not exactly short, akin to some manufacturers Large (Trek or Transition, for instance). At 6'2" (1.88m) tall and a lover of long bikes, I wasn't exactly cramped but I certainly didn't go "Wow, this thing is long," especially when descending. Worth noting, Santa Cruz also offers this bike in size XXL featuring a reach even Reggie Miller can rejoice about.

Build Kits & Pricing

The LT is offered with more gravity-oriented parts than its shorter-travel brother. A stouter and longer travel fork, more adjustable piggyback shock, and slightly wider rims are the major differences.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons to spring for the LT over the Hightower, on paper anyway, is the longer travel FOX 36 fork, more adjustable FOX DPX2 shock, and wider, more gravity-friendly 30mm rims.

Like other Santa Cruz models, the Hightower LT is available in both CC and C carbon layups and are priced from $3,949 to $9,299 USD. We were again lucky to test the top rung model complete with a SRAM Eagle XX1 drivetrain, top-shelf FOX dampers, and the new Santa Cruz Reserve carbon wheelset. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons to spring for the LT over the Hightower, on paper anyway, is the longer travel FOX 36 fork, more adjustable FOX DPX2 shock, and wider, more gravity-friendly 30mm rims.

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View Hightower LT CC models | View Hightower LT C models

At $9,299 we expect a few readers will be turned off to this review. "OF COURSE it performed well, it had better at THAT price!" you might say. We hear you, however those with more realistic budgets would be pleased with the C S and C XE builds, priced at $4,899 and $5,699, respectively. Both bikes come with very capable suspension components, good tires, race-worthy drivetrains, and robust wear parts. Here at Vital we'd happily throw a leg over either and enter a race at any level with little reserve. Not to say the top end bike builds won't shave a second here or there, but the overall riding experience will be very similar between all but the most affordable build (which is still very trail worthy). Those looking to build up their own can purchase a frameset with a FOX Float DPX2 shock for $2,999.

Finally, when asked about coilover shock compatibility, Santa Cruz had the following to say:

"Coil shocks aren't as progressive as the air shocks the bike was designed around, but it could work for some people depending on terrain/riding style/preference. There will be decreased bottom-out resistance compared to an air shock, generally speaking. Of course you can keep increasing spring rate, but this will firm up the the whole stroke to get the bottom-out resistance that you're trying to achieve. This is where personal preference and riding style come into play. The great thing about air shocks is they can be fine tuned via air pressure and volume spacers to suit nearly any rider's preference."

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On The Trail

Per the usual, let's get the boring part out of the way. After all, you gotta get up if you wanna get down…

Santa Cruz bills their Hightower as having "the versatility to deal with whatever appears on the horizon." It appears the LT follows in these footsteps, showing us it is an incredibly efficient and capable climber. The bike's rear suspension was quiet with no bobbing or undue shock movement despite a less-than-perfect pedal stroke. Even out-of-saddle efforts yielded little movement, so much so I often reached down to see if the shock was in one of its firmer compression modes (it wasn't). The overall feel of the rear suspension is very similar to that of the Hightower with the bump in travel going relatively unnoticed on most ascents.

The overall feel of the rear suspension is very similar to that of the Hightower with the bump in travel going relatively unnoticed on most ascents.

Iago Garay boosts some style over a log on the Wicklow, Ireland Enduro World Series course. Garay and his teammate Mark Scott were instrumental in the bike’s development and have been riding prototypes of the bike for the past year. One of the bike’s color options—Wicklow Green—was named for the Irish town and it’s verdant green foliage.

This bike was brought to fruition as a result of Santa Cruz's EWS team's demands, so it should be of little surprise the bike is a highly capable descender. Four main things stood out immediately when pointed downhill:

Superb Chassis Design and Carbon Layup - Santa Cruz is producing some of the most refined and well-tuned carbon fiber chassis on the planet. The frame is incredibly stiff without being harsh. The bike inspires confidence when pushed hard, staying precise, muting high-frequency trail vibration, and efficiently transferring trail forces to the damper. "Solid" would be an excellent adjective for the frame.

The bike inspires confidence when pushed hard, staying precise, muting high-frequency trail vibration, and efficiently transferring trail forces to the damper. "Solid" would be an excellent adjective for the frame.

Excellent Cornering - Balanced geometry, good frame design, wide tires, and wide rims all make for a package that will change direction with the best of them.

Muted Suspension Feel - The bike's rear end sometimes felt over-damped, giving the bike a quieter, more muted feel. Be it the suspension's kinematics or the damper tune, this was very noticeable the second you sit on the bike. On one hand this can make for an efficient ride. On the other hand it can feel a bit dead at times, transferring more trail force to the rider and sometimes bordering on harsh for a bike with 150mm of travel. We will be tuning the bike's rear end more over the coming months and update our findings in a longer-winded full test later this summer.

The bike's rear end sometimes felt over-damped, giving the bike a quieter, more muted feel.

Stay Centered - This bike encourages a rider who stays between the two wheels, letting the bike work without excessive input to the bike. Working the bike (pumping, doubling, etc) is still very possible, but when doing so we sometimes felt as though the bike used more travel than other similar frames at a given sag point. We found it best to "let the bike do the work."

Early Durability Concerns

Unfortunately, we did have a few durability woes with the FOX product spec'd. Hardly Santa Cruz's fault, and something FOX has responded to quickly, but all three warrant disclosure. With respect to the rear shock, our first DPX2 suffered intermittent air loss, sometimes losing as much as 30psi over the course of a ride. Our replacement DPX2 proved to hold air just fine but developed an audible "squeak" when temperatures rose during a long and punishing descent. To add, the shock has also developed a "clunk" the rider can feel when initiating the shock's travel.

The FOX 36 fork, on the other hand, has developed an audible "clang" on top out. The replacement fork has been impeccable, however, and may be one of the best 29-inch long-travel forks we've ever thrown a leg over.

Second, we have gotten the bike to creak a bit, but then again this particular Vital tester has gotten every single bike he's ever ridden to creak. It's not super bad and a quick clean/grease would likely fix the issue, but it's worth noting this early in the test.

Outside of that, ten days is hardly enough time to really comment on durability. We'll be updating this with our longer term look.

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Compared To The Hightower

"I love my Hightower, should I upgrade?" We are anticipating this to be one of the biggest questions on a number of riders' minds. Though we need more time, our short answer is no. Putting a longer travel fork on the Hightower will yield a very similar feeling and riding bike to the LT. The new rig is a revision, not a revolutionarily new bike in the same way that the fourth generation Nomad is, for example.

Putting a longer travel fork on the Hightower will yield a very similar feeling and riding bike to the LT. The new rig is a revision, not a revolutionarily new bike...

On the other hand, if you are buying a new bike and don't care about plus-sized tires, we have a hard time finding any reason to not suggest the LT over the Hightower, especially considering how efficient both bikes are and our propensity toward more gravity-friendly builds. Again, we will update this in due time.

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What's The Bottom Line?

Though not a radical departure from the original Hightower, the Hightower LT is a solid performing longer travel 29-inch bike. While you aren't going to confuse this bike for your downhill rig, it is one of the most versatile long travel 29-inch steeds one could throw a leg over. If Metric compatibility is no big thing and you dig the feel of Santa Cruz's VPP suspension, give this wagon wheeler a hard look. We'll be updating these findings with a longer term test in the coming months, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, visit www.santacruzbicycles.com for more details and to read the development story.

Vital MTB First Ride Rating

  • Climbing: 4.5 stars - Outstanding
  • Descending: 3.5 stars - Very Good
  • Fun Factor: 3.5 stars - Very Good
  • Value: 3 stars - Good
  • Overall Impression: 3.5 stars - Very Good

About The Reviewer

Jeff Brines - Age: 32 // Years Riding MTB: 18 // Height: 6'2" (1.88m) // Weight: 200-pounds (90.7kg)

Jeff didn't go on a real date until he was nearly 20 years old, largely as a result of his borderline unhealthy obsession with bicycles. Although his infatuation with two wheels may have lead to stuttering and sweatiness around the opposite sex, it did provide for an ideal environment to quickly progress through the ranks of both gravity and cross-country racing. These days, Jeff races enduro at the pro level, rides upward of 150 days a year while logging over 325k of human powered ascending/descending on his bike. Bred as a racer, Jeff is more likely to look for the fastest way through a section as opposed to the most playful. He lives in the shadow of the Tetons in Jackson, Wyoming.

Photos by Jeff Brines, Jay Goodrich, and Sven Martin

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48 comments newest first

Jeff- any reason you can see a benifit going to a 44mm offset fork set up?

Also, after reading your review, which was spot on, I’m planning on reducing stack and running a longer stem. Currently on Enve dh riser bars, 35mm long stem and too many spacers under it. With a 160 up front and a large frame I think it really shortened the bike up. Rode the bike for 400miles with this setup but feeling a bit cramped like an xl would have been better, but at 6’-0” a large should be spot on!

Let me know your thoughts.

Thx!

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Hey Lowball, I can't comment on the offset fork but agree on your sizing experience, I think SC's sizing chart is on the short side. I'm 6'-1", feeling my XL is a little short with the stock 45mm stem. I demoed an XXL recently and found that would be the perfect fit for me with a 35mm stem! Felt slightly more stable at speed, without loosing too much agility. If there's a new HTLT next year I'll probably size up.

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Yeah my friend has the xxl but he’s @ least 6’-4”. He picked up a ‘19 but you’re talking about a 2020 model correct?

I’ll probably pick up a 50mm and see how that feels.

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Depending on your height and the terrain the longer stem might feel nice! :-) Personally I prefer long bikes with short stems... and yes, I'm hoping that SC will announce a redesigned HTLT next year. (Or a 29er Nomad.)

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Hey Jeff, I had a very minor bit of a creaking in my HTLT after beating the crap out of it at Mammoth Bike Park, I think the culprit for me was the rear axle and 99% of the incidence went away after I "put my back into" the tiny DT Swiss lever, tightened my cranks+chainring and soaked the drivetrain with King's lube. Very strange you ran into that so fast. Let me know if you find the cause on your bike!

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This is a very good and informative review - surpassing the usual high standard even. I feel like I have ridden the bike. Would I buy one? Maybe...

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Bryceland has been running the coils on all his bikes lately but also runs a much firmer spring rate than most of us mere mortals would. I think if you’re gonna do that they coil makes sense to retain a little compliance off the top but otherwise on these bike it doesn’t seem to make much sense.

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Thanks for this excellent review. It was so timely: I was really close to selling my fairly new HT and my whole Nomad 3 to upgrade to an LT with an X2 coil and maybe be left with change for a wheel upgrade or new lights. My thought process was to simplify the stable and have the "one" bike, a game changer. Based in what I have, my so called upgrade would be marginal at best from the sound of it. Thanks for helping me to settle this!

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Nice, I own a Hightower and being running it with a DVO Diamond Boost 160 mm fork, 29er. The bike felt great, even took it to Whistler and survived everything I threw at it. Now the question, is it really worth upgrading? Do you recommend staying with the fox rear shock or to buy another DVO Topaz?

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Jeff, Thanks for this great review! Will you have a long-term review on the Nomad4 in the foreseeable future?

Thanks!

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Doubtful but maybe? Especially with the snow ready to fall where I live, it wouldn't happen for awhile. There is one in my garage but its about 3 sizes too small. Lol. I am jealous everytime my girlfriend takes it on a worthy trail however. Such a fun bike!

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Hi, you mention a comparison of kinematics between HT and HTLT; is there a graph? I'm really wondering how long stroked HT compares to HTLT but that's probably outside the graph anyway.

BTW, X2 or CCDBair make a world of difference on this bike.

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I've generated some graphs, though Vital has not shared them. These were produced using linkage software. As you might guess, due to the fact its essentially a longer travel HT, the graph looks identical, just with 15mm more travel.

As you'll note in my long term review, I did ride the bike with the DHX2, and it was an improvement in small bump, but added to the dead feel. The Float X2 was awesome as well (very short test) but nothing left the bike feeling like it was the most active 150mm design. Anyone who has ridden SC's trailbike kinematics prior to the Gen4 Nomad can attest to this.

My speculation is a long stroked HT is going to behave and feel very similarly to the HTLT, just with a voided warranty of course wink

J

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Hey Jeff,

Can I ask what spring rates you tried on the DHX2? Im 180lb in riding gear and started out with the 550, moving more toward a 500 with some more HSC to keep the suppleness..

Cheers!

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Awesome review! After my first two weeks on a brand new LT, I totally agree on the rear shock feeling muted. I would be really interested how you tuned your shock! Right now the LT is great on DH trails, but is surprisingly hard to get airtime on jumplines (compared to my previous bike, a Trek Fuel Ex 9). Thanks and cheers!

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Just for the record, I found that going with a bit less than the recommended 30% sag, and a way faster rebound than I'm used to from other bikes (4 clicks instead of 7 clicks) made a big difference.

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Safe to say this has same regressive/progressive leverage curve as regular HT? Shame it's not truly progressive like the Nomad 4... They should have gone full monty on this and done a 29er version of the N4 with lower link driven shock.

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Great early write up Jeff, thanks for this and especially for tackling THE question lurking out there for existing HT owners who run a 160mm fork up front already. Looking forward to the longer term views as you get more time on the LT

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Great review!
The geometry has been evolving so fast these past 2years. Especially in 29ers.
I feel like most big bike mfg are just playing it safe and not really pushing the envelope much these days.
I like whatt Pole, Mondraker, transition, Nicolai with Mojo has been doing in this regard...
It makes sense to wait at least until the next year and see what comes next.
I have a cracked older SC frame and need to decide soon which frame to get as a warranty replacement. I already have a Nomad 3 and most likely will pick a regular HT or TB3. I prefer steep STA and run my saddle slammed all the way forward.
HT LT will not be my next bike for sure.
Or should I go with Nomad 4 and just replace my current ride?

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Exactly because of the slack STA and its short reach.
The short reach could be remedied by upsizing but it will make the ETT too long when seated even with a short stem...
I run the saddle all the way forward on my Nomad 3 and wish the ESA was even steeper.

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I can attest that the STA on the HT to feel a bit on the slack side, but they are all pretty close. Your Nomad has an effective STA of 74.2 degrees, the HT is 74.3 degrees, with the LT 0.6 deg slacker at 73.7.

I'd wager sliding your saddle all the way forward on any of these should put you plenty forward, at least to the point where I would make my buying decision based off intended use, not STA, as the HT and LT are going to feel worlds different than the Nomad G4.

The reach is a touch short on the LT, but again, one could always run a 5mm longer stem to basically compensate for it.

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I hear you.
The thing is I already wish for a steeper STA on my N3. I would like to see at least 75-76° ESA.
I am 5'8" on a large N3 with 32mm stem.
I would like longer reach as well, but than I wpuld be stretched put too much when seated... steeper ST would give me the same seated cockpit (saddle to handlebar distance) while providing a longer reach.
I believe companies like Pole and Nicolai are up to something with their approach.
Steep STA, Long Reach and slack HA.

Another reason why I won't get a longer travel 29er is stack height. They just get too tall for my liking and general trail riding.

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FYI, the TALLBOY is + compatible as well.
"Santa Cruz will continue to make the Hightower as it fills a slightly different niche, and remains as Santa Cruz's only 27.5+ compatible bike."

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Do you have any info on rear tire clearance vs Hightower? The original wouldn't fit a 29er Conti TK 2.4 without the links being chewed up. I'm hoping this version can?

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MK_

There is plenty of clearance to run a 2.4 DHR, being this is what the bike comes stock with. EDIT: SC officially says max tire clearance is 29x2.5" per Turman's post below.

Hope this helps

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Thanks. I suppose width isn't the big issue here. When I tried running the 2.4 TK in the original HT it ate a big chunk out of the back of the main link.

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Thanks for that! Looks pretty close to standard HT.
Cheers.

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Nice review Jeff! Always enjoy your approach and ability to point out all aspects in a balanced and informative manor.

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Jeff I am glad you had a chance the ride the LT, on paper it looks very similar to Yeti sb5.5 when using 160mm fork.
How would you compare the two? Climbing,descending and reach?
Cheers.

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Odin,

Great question. Without a doubt, both bikes are very capable. On one hand, I preferred the Yeti's suspension performance better when it comes to eating bumps. Perhaps with more time I can get the LT to perform more to my liking, but in current form, its a tad harsh for 150mm, so much so, the Yeti's 143mm (I think?) of travel feels like more and is certainly more lively.

Geometry is so similar, I can't say one is better than the other. Same with overall chassis stiffness. Both even run the same non-metric shock.

At this point, I'd probably demo either if I were in your shoes and make the call that way.

We will be updating this review in a month with more comprehensive findings, so please take this with a grain of salt. I always find a way to eek more out of a frame with due time. I don't see why this time would be any different...

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Props to jeff and his pup! amazing riding buddy you have there

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Specifications
Product 2018 Santa Cruz Hightower LT Carbon CC XX1 Reserve
Model Year 2018
Riding Type Enduro / All-Mountain
Rider Unisex
Sizes and Geometry S, M, L, XL, XXL View Geometry
Size S M L XL XXL
Top Tube Length 577mm 605mm 626mm 653mm 692mm
Head Tube Angle 66.4° 66.4° 66.4° 66.4° 66.4°
Head Tube Length 90mm 95mm 100mm 110mm 130mm
Seat Tube Angle 73.7° 73.7° 73.7° 73.7° 73.7°
Seat Tube Length 390mm 420mm 450mm 490mm 510mm
Bottom Bracket Height 338mm 338mm 338mm 338mm 338mm
Chainstay Length 438mm 438mm 438mm 438mm 438mm
Wheelbase 1144mm 1175mm 1193mm 1222mm 1260mm
Standover 710mm 710mm 713mm 720mm 727mm
Reach 398mm 398mm 443mm 468mm 498mm
Stack 609mm 614mm 618mm 628mm 646mm
Wheel Size 29"
Frame Material Carbon Fiber
Frame Material Details Carbon CC with internal cable routing, molded rubber swingarm protection, and downtube protector
Rear Travel 150mm
Rear Shock FOX Float Factory DPX Kashima
Fork FOX 36 F150 Factory Kashima
Fork Travel 150mm
Head Tube Diameter Tapered
Headset Cane Creek 110 IS integrated
Handlebar Santa Cruz AM Carbon, 35mm x 800mm
Stem Race Face Turbine R, 50mm
Grips Santa Cruz Palmdale (black)
Brakes SRAM Guide Ultimate with Avid Centerline 180mm rotors
Brake Levers SRAM Guide Ultimate
Drivetrain 1x
Shifters SRAM XX1 Eagle, 12-speed
Front Derailleur N/A
Rear Derailleur SRAM XX1 Eagle, 12-speed
ISCG Tabs ISCG 05
Chainguide N/A
Cranks SRAM XX1 Eagle: 170mm (S), 175mm (M-XXL)
Chainrings 30 tooth
Bottom Bracket 73mm threaded
Pedals N/A
Chain SRAM XX1 Eagle, 12-speed
Cassette SRAM XG1295 Eagle, 10-50 tooth
Rims Santa Cruz Reserve 30 Carbon, 28 hole
Hubs Industry Nine Torch Classic, 15x110mm, 28 hole front / 12x148mm, 28 hole, XD rear
Spokes DT Competition Race
Tires Maxxis Minion DHR 3C EXO TR, 29"x2.4"
Saddle WTB Silverado SLT
Seatpost RockShox Reverb Stealth: 125mm (S), 150mm (M-L), 170mm (XL-XXL)
Seatpost Diameter 31.6mm
Seatpost Clamp Standard single bolt
Rear Dropout / Hub Dimensions 12mm x 148mm
Max. Tire Size 29x2.5"
Bottle Cage Mounts Yes
Colors Gloss wicklow green, gloss slate and grey
Warranty Lifetime frame and bearings
Weight 28 lb 3.9 oz (12,810 g)
Miscellaneous VPP suspension
1X drivetrain specific design
Price includes Santa Cruz’s Reserve carbon rim upgrade
Price $9,299
More Info

www.santacruzbicycles.com

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