Long term Staff Bike Review: Matthews Custom Hightower

Matthew riding his V3 Santa Cruz Hightower at Glentress

A well known long term Tweed Valley fixture, Matthew has been riding and occasionally racing bikes for decades. During that time he’s seen them evolve throughout the years from the somewhat experimental suspension designs and steep geometry of the early noughties all the way to the super refined machines we’re lucky enough to ride now. 

Matthew with his V3 Hightower in the Tweed Valley

That wealth of experience both riding and working in the bike industry means that Matthew understands the differences between bikes, and what the trade offs are as well as anyone out there. Having ridden a massive range of designs over the years, he’s most recently spent the last 16 months aboard a custom built Santa Cruz Hightower as his longer travel mountain bike. 

The Build

A simple and clean custom build, Matthews bike is assembled around an XL Hightower V3 CC frame, personalised with some custom decals. SRAM parts feature heavily, with their Ultimate tier suspension used for both shock and fork, along with an XO AXS drivetrain and Code RSC brakes. Burgtec parts make up the cockpit, as well supplying chainring and saddle. Wheels are the lighter weight Reserve SL. Notably, Matthew's Lyrik is 10mm longer than stock at 160mm to add a little more cushioning out front for the steep local terrain.

Custom build XL Santa Cruz Hightower V3

Over to Matthew now to tell us about his bike 

What was the goal for the bike?

We’ve a huge variety of riding here in the Tweed Valley and in Scotland generally and I enjoy riding all of it, so I’m always chasing that perfect bike that I can take everywhere rather than anything too specialised. I’ve ridden plenty of big enduro bikes and they’re great fun on the right trails but for me they’re not a ‘one size fits all’ solution, as they give up too much on mellower descents and XC ground to cover everything I want to ride. 

Matthew riding Glentress on his V3 Hightower

Before this bike, I had a Santa Cruz Tallboy. It was a brilliant trail centre and hill path bike, eating up  distance almost like an XC bike while still having the right angles to feel like a proper trail bike descending. In the right place it could easily be my only bike, but with the traffic the Tweed Valley sees, the classic off piste trails have become increasingly rough over the years. The Tallboy could still get down all of them just fine, but I was getting beaten up riding them at pace among longer travel bikes.The goal with the Hightower was to add some extra capability and comfort for regular technical riding at home and the odd bike park day, while trying to keep a truly multipurpose bike that didn’t feel like too much for longer cross county rides, hike a bike sections, or the faster man made flow trails. 

Riding the V3 Hightower

Coming from the V4 Tallboy, one of the biggest surprises was that this bike climbs even better than the Tallboy did, it’s an exceptionally comfortable and efficient climber on any angle or type of climb. The steeper seat angle, longer, size specific chainstays on the XL and refined VVP link combine to produce something pretty special. Keeping the front wheel planted on steep sections is as easy as it's been on any bike, yet it’s also a comfortable position to pedal through flat ground with. Considering it’s not even a short travel bike there’s just no wasted effort. It’s really impressive and as for the lock out on the shock, it may as well not be there, the suspension design is so well balanced that I never use it. 

Matthew riding Smells like Tweed Spirit at Glentress on the Santa Cruz Hightower

Descending the Hightower has proved to be very well rounded, exactly as hoped. For a bike with ‘only’ 146mm of travel it handles rough stuff super well and will happily go toe to toe with the bigger enduro bikes on all our local Tweed Valley trails. It’s comfortable and smooth, with plenty of bottom out resistance from the Super Deluxe and has a good amount of support for pumping or jumping the bike. Geometry is an ideal balance for me, giving enough stability to feel confident when riding the steepest and most technical trails without being too sluggish when the angles or speeds reduce. Another area that’s improved is stack height. It used to be that XL bikes would always feel awfully low at the front but the Hightower is a ‘proper’ XL with the 145mm head tube and 30mm Burgtec bar giving a great ride height for a taller rider. That combined with the size specific chainstays out back gives a great overall balance and helps keep weight off the arms and on the feet. I’m super happy with the 160mm fork I added for alpine and bike park riding but I don’t think it would make all that much difference riding the bike with 10mm less. It’s an easy thing to change if anyone does want to, needing no more than a fresh air shaft in the Fox 36 to make the switch. 

 Matthew riding the Masterplan trails on his V3 Santa Cruz Hightower

Honestly, bikes like this are proper game changers; in years gone by it wasn’t possible to have just one bike that would do everything but the Hightower really is that ultimate all rounder that can just do it all without ever feeling too compromised. You could take one of these and ride everything from big mountain days to an enduro race without being at a disadvantage anywhere so for a rider who likes to do a little bit of everything, it’s almost perfect.

Bike Highlights

The Frame

Like all the Santa Cruz bikes I’ve owned, the Hightower has been absolutely no hassle to live with. Bearing life has been excellent, it’s easy to work on and after all its use it still pretty much looks like new. The new Glovebox storage system has also proved to be super useful. The compartment is massive on the XL, so much so that even with trail tools, tube and a jacket in there there is still room to spare.

V3 Santa Cruz Hightower Head tube badge 

Reserve SL Wheelset. 

At under 1750 grams, these are incredibly light for a tough set of trail wheels. A light wheelset really makes a noticeable difference to the handling of a bike helping with acceleration, direction changes and also keeps the overall bike and rotational weight down for longer climbs and rides. 

 Reserve SL wheel with Maxxis tire

An aluminium set at this weight might not have held up, but after 18 months of use these have barely needed touching and still spin as true as when they were new. They’re stiff without being harsh (the SL wheels are even more compliant than the tougher HD model) and of course, the lifetime rim warranty is a big plus, meaning that even if the worst happens you’ll be looked after. 

Maxxis Tires

The Exo+ Maxxis tires (Assegai front and DHRII rear) have been absolutely perfect, every time one wears out it gets replaced with another just the same. The casing is light enough to roll well and keep that all round feel, but tough enough that I haven’t had a single puncture on them yet. Grip is as good as it gets and tubeless setup is easy. If there is a better all round tire mix out there I don’t know what it is. 

 One Up Dropper

As a taller rider (Matthew is 6,1’), I didn’t fully know what I was missing out on until I had a 210mm dropper installed. That extra little bit of room makes a lot of difference, it’s a massive upgrade for anyone with slightly longer legs and well worth trying if you never have.

210mmm One Up V2 dropper post in Santa Cruz Hightower

Burgtec Cockpit

The Ride Wide alloy bar is a great shape and the Super Soft grips have been especially good. They wear pretty well considering and add noticeable cushioning and grip, I’d suggest anyone who’s never tried them gives them a shot. Stems and chainrings are harder to review but they’re well made, add to the overall look of the bike and simply work, so no complaints. 

Burgtec cockpit in Rhodium Silver on Santa Cruz Hightower

Sum up your bike then?

It's exactly what I hoped it would be, an incredibly well rounded machine that can handle pretty much any kind of riding. A near perfect bike for trail riding it might get beaten uphill by the XC race machines and down some descents by the big Enduro race bikes, but for a one bike to do it all solution, it’s amazing and I can’t think of many others that can cover such a wide range of trails this well. 

Matthew riding Castle Black trail on the V3 Santa Cruz Hightower

The frame has been faultless as ever from Santa Cruz, so you know you’re getting something for the long haul with one of their bikes and the whole build kit has held up really well. 

I’d happily recommend one to anyone looking for a proper bike that will never limit your choice of descents and yet can still pedal and climb. In this age where there are a million categories the Hightower is both impossible and easy to define, it’s simply a mountain bike.

Keen for a Hightower? Check out the GX AXS models currently on sale at a huge 40% off.


 01896 831429


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