Adaptable to suit both 29er and 27.5in wheels, the 29er Hightower stole the limelight under Santa Cruz’ top racers – but we think the plus-sized version is a real cracker.
Both the front and rear frame sections are carbon. This model uses the coarser, ‘C’ layup, which weighs a little more than the pricier ‘CC’ option, but is claimed to be just as stiff and strong. The rear end moves on a pair of alloy links, which define the VPP (virtual pivot point) suspension system. It’s a nice colour too.
SRAM hubs and Easton AR 40 rims make for a competitively light wheelset. They use a torque-cap front hub, which boosts the torsional stiffness of the formidable Rockshox Pike RC fork. Maxxis provides exceptionally fast-rolling 2.8in rubber. Shimano SLX brakes, SRAM GX drivetrain and RaceFace finishing kit all perform well too.
Accurate and responsive character
The Hightower blows out of the water the notion that plus bikes are lazy, boring or vague. The 2.8in rubber shod on 40mm rims minimizes carcass-roll, creating a relatively accurate, trail-connected feel. The full-carbon frame is stiff and precise in the bends too, and when pedalling out the other side the VPP suspension is responsive and efficient, popping you out of turns with verve.
The light wheels and low overall weight doesn’t hurt here either – and it helps on the climbs too. If you like to pedal stood-up, the Hightower is hugely resistant to bob, and we never felt much need for the shock’s climb switch. Sitting down though, the 73-degree effective seat angle was a little laidback for this tester's tastes when tackling steep climbs.
Without wanting to get too technical, the VPP suspension serves-up plenty of bob-stopping anti-squat around the sag point, which drops off towards the end of the stroke – where you don’t need it. This means pedalling is super-efficient, but you don’t get too much of the pedal-kickback which usually goes hand in hand with pedal-efficient designs.
It’s not the most sensitive at the start of the stroke, though (due to a fairly low initial leverage rate) and this is where the system on Mondraker's Crafty RR+, which we tested alongside the Hightower, has the edge.
Combined with the low-profile tread at the rear, it means rear-end traction is pretty limited in certain situations. In the loose dust of Sanremo, Italy, we dropped the rear to 35% sag to help boost sensitivity, with a full six volume spacers in the shock to prevent it bottoming out.
Confidence when the going gets rocky
This worked pretty well alongside the Pike RC fork, which set up with three volume spacers coped extremely well with the rocky terrain. An updated Charger damper offers great support and sensitivity, while the torque-cap equipped front wheel boosts steering precision.
With its low BB and a supple fork at an aggressive 66.5-degree head angle, the Hightower could be fired through rough, rocky sections with real confidence. We experimented with the lower (29er) setting to make it even slacker, but the BB height became too low and the seat angle far too slack.
The 2.8in tyres feel a little more accurate than full 3in items, but they don’t offer quite as much terrain-gobbling traction. There’s clearance for up to 3in rubber, and the low BB means fattening things up won’t upset the handling.
While the super fast Ikon rear tyre was slippery in loose or muddy ground, particularly under braking, the Rekon up front was outstanding. Fast-rolling, with a soft compound and proper cornering bite, we’d happily keep it on until it wore out, or put it out back when Maxxis releases even grippier rubber for the business end.
One negative worth mentioning is that our bike’s pivot bolts came loose after a day or so of hammering in Sanremo – so keep a close eye on those pivots. For this 6ft 3in / 190cm tester, the Hightower also felt a little cramped and over-stemmed when swapping from the Mondraker.
Having said that, the stumpy seat and head tubes allow testers as short as 5ft 8in / 173cm to ride our XL rig at a push, meaning you could size-up to allow a shorter stem. If you do that, you’ll be flying!