Santa Cruz Hightower Bike Check

Posted by Joel Smith on

I've been riding mountain bikes since I was a teenager, a little over 40 years. I am actually not writing this because I am proud of it- it makes me feel older than I pretend to be- but it certainly puts a few things in perspective. For starters, I don't like crashing or doing anything risky that could potentially make me crash. Being injured or recovering from injury is something I truly hate. 2nd, the older I get, the more particular I get about my bike set up. Whereas I once could jump on a bike and just start getting after it, now, unless everything on my bike is just so, I struggle to ride with any confidence or fluidity.

As a result, I spend quite a bit of time puzzling with my bike, trying to find that perfect set up. And I've come to a pretty unique place with my bike, doing a few things that are interesting or different from other riders out there. With that, my Santa Cruz Hightower bike check.

The Frame

My Hightower started as an all white engineering prototype that I rattle-canned gray, but I got tired of people asking me what it was and me trying to hide it. Prior to this, I had been riding the earlier version Hightower and found it was my go-to bike for Santa Cruz-area riding: pedaled well, not bad on weight, plenty capable for rough stuff, great overall balance for the type of riding I do. The newer version is better in a few ways: First, the suspension seems more supportive in the mid-stroke, a touch more reactive for small bumps, and I noticed a bit less pedal kick-back when I am climbing in the rough. The head tube angle is also slightly slacker than previous and the BB is a bit lower. Re, that last one: I love the lower BB, but do notice myself hitting my pedals more than the last version.

Nothing to be seen inside here.

This version of the frame has the Glovebox in the down tube, which I typically only use to stash my jacket in the winter months. I am old school and carry a fanny pack for tools, tubes and food. From a mechanical perspective, like the rest of the Santa Cruz bikes I have had, this version Hightower is SUPER easy to work on, with easily accessed bolts and zerk fittings on the bearings, and the internal cable guides on the seat stays definitely eased my build futzing. 

Suspension

I spent the majority of my bicycle career working in suspension, so it's always the thing I start with first. Fox has really been outdoing themselves the last 5 years and I am proud to run their suspension and call myself a fan. Its forks offer an excellent balance between weight and stiffness, and I have really come to appreciate Fox's tendency towards lively and comfortable suspension action (brands like Ohlins offer amazing performance, but for me, aren't very comfortable to ride).

On my Hightower, I have a Fox 36 up front with a Float X in the rear. I am very lucky to have known Fox's Jordi Cortes for quite a few years and during his offseason from World Cup racing last year, I called in a serious favor and he built both the fork and shock  by hand. He even whispered the words, "this is the new, new" when he passed the fork and shock off to me. I don't know what this means, but I can tell you, my suspension is DIALED.

Brakes

Let me start by saying I struggle with every brake on the market. There is always some positives and some negatives from each brake brand and model, so I end up piecing my brakes together. For me, the perfect combo is to take the Shimano XTR non-Servowave brake levers and mate them with the XT 4-piston calipers. This provides the power (calipers) with the consistency (lever without the Servowave power linkage ) that I truly desire. Supposedly, the smaller master cylinder of the XTR lever has the potential for overheating brakes, but I have never experienced it. Lastly, I heard Minnaar rode one metal and one resin pad with his Shimano brakes, so I am doing it too, but to what end or benefit, I am sadly not a good enough rider to say.

Tires

I've actually been riding Vittoria tires for a little over a year, which is quite surprising to me because before that I had never ridden a Vittoria mountain bike tire. Compared to the Maxxis, I would say they offer a bit more feel without having to go super low in pressure (which I feel like the Maxxis require). I recently switched back to the old faithful Maxxis tires, EXO+ DHR 2.4 rear and Assegai 2.5 front, mainly because the rocks are starting to expose themselves around Santa Cruz and the Vittoria are a bit prone to tire cuts. On the Maxxis tires, I run 21 up front and 23 in the rear.

And, of course, I am running Fillmore valves. I know Fillmore valves can be a target for criticism because they are $50 a set, but the function is so far superior from any similar product on the market, the value proposition for me is SUPER high. I am (hopefully) not just drinking my own Kool-Aid, but I believe them to be one of the products I can not live without.

Wheels

I have a lot of options for wheels for obvious reasons, but I typically find myself riding the 30|SLs. Even though I am a bigger rider at 190 pounds without gear, these wheels are plenty laterally stiff, but offer an extra bit of vertical compliance versus the 30|HD. It's also a seasonal choice: in the winter when the dirt is better and the trails a little less clapped out, the 30|HD are my go to. When it gets rough and torn up from everyone's summer riding, the 30|SL provides a bit of extra comfort. I've also occasionally run the 30|SL front with the 30|HD rear, which is maybe a luxury only someone in my position at Reserve could possible pull off.

Bars/Stem/Grips

I will just start by telling you, when 35mm carbon handlebars were initially introduced, I absolutely hated them. They were far too stiff and harsh for me, so I immediately switched back to the 28.6mm bars. In fact, until I rode the OneUp 35 bar, I had completely sworn off the bar size entirely. The OneUp is the first bar that I have ridden that offers stiffness when you need it and compliance when you don't. The graphics are also subtle and they match well with the 50mm stem. I've tried some shorter stems on my Hightower, but on the XL size bike at 6 foot 2 inches tall, anything shorter and I feel like my weight is too far rearward.

The final and most important cockpit item is the grips. I absolutely love the DMR Deathgrip thick grips. They have a single locking mechanism on the open end with a flanged closed end to keep them from rotating, and offer the perfect shape for gripping: short waffle underneath, conformable vertical pattern near at the thumb and a textured surface everywhere else. The material is also soft enough to provide comfort and grip without making you feel like you are holding on to a wet sock.

Dropper

In the past, dropper posts in general have proven to be very finicky for me, which is pretty weird when you think about it, because they only need to do one thing: go up and down. Which is exactly what the OneUp 210mm dropper post does so well and so consistently. I put it on about 8 months ago, tied to OneUp's I-Spec compatible lever and haven't touched it. It compresses smoothly, rebounds fast and doesn't require me to do anything special to keep it going. With the clamp design, it's also shorter for the amount of travel it provides, which is what allowed me to get 210mms of drop in there without the saddle being too high.

Gearing

I know everyone these days is in the mode of the more gear range the better, but I still choose the close range Shimano 10-45 cassette with either a 32 or 34 tooth front chainring. It's really not for the reason most people think, that I don't want the big jumps between gears. It's actually because Santa Cruz doesn't have a lot of steep climbs and I was never using that 51 tooth cog. 

There is for sure more to my bike than this but these are the most important things. Dialed suspension, good brakes, fresh tires with the right pressures and a lubed chain...with that, I am nearly 90% to my goal on achieving that perfect set up.

I will leave you with one final piece of advice. Keep playing with your set up. I know it's easier to just do the initial set up and not touch it for many months, but I find making small adjustments to my bike as the seasons change makes a big difference in my ability to ride fast. And ask around to your friends as to what they are doing with their bike set up. Some of the best advice I have received have been from the least likely sources.

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