Santa Cruz Megatower

When Santa Cruz released the Hightower LT a couple of years back, it was kinda known that the bike was a stop-gap for their EWS team to eke a bit more travel from their Hightowers but, it wasn’t the long travel 29er Santa Cruz really wanted to make. A long travel 29er with the new lower-link driven suspension system was always on the cards. And here it is, to make enduro great again, the Megatower. With 160mm travel (front and rear) a long reach and a sub-65-degree head angle, the Megatower is a truly modern long travel 29er. Also, for what it’s worth, even if ‘making enduro great again’ isn’t intentional, I dig the name – it’s reminiscent of a Japanese monster movie: Godzilla versus the Megatower!

In terms of this ride impression, Santa Cruz chose to launch the new Megatower in Nelson NZ (as well as a couple of other locations in South Africa and Spain) so I got to ride the bike for four intense days on tracks that I am at least partly familiar with (I broke my ankle on one of them last year, but let’s not talk about that). We rode at Wairoa Gorge then Nydia Bay then Wakamarina and lastly back to the Gorge’s challenging darkside tracks for the final day. That’s not enough to get a fully nuanced understanding of the bike but it was enough to get a good overall view of it on fast, rough and sometimes steep tracks, though it did leave me with a couple of questions to answer in terms of optimal set up, which hopefully can be addressed in a longer-term review.

Frame

The ‘CC’ carbon frame we rode featured Santa Cruz’s top-end carbon front and rear. It was adorned with all the usual Santa Cruz design-points: a threaded bottom bracket, internal cables with internal tubes, and a water bottle compatible front triangle. Like the V10, the new Nomad and the new Bronson, the lower link now drives the shock. While still being a VPP suspension design, the lower-link actuation provides consistent progression from the start to the end of the shock’s stroke. Anyone who found the older Santa Cruz’s to be a bit stiff off the top, followed by a quick fall through the middle and then a hard ramp up at the end, will immediately notice the very clear improvement the newer layout provides to the ride both uphill and downhill.

The lower link still has a grease port to keep the bearings full of grease instead of water. There is also a bearing on the lower eyelet of the shock for increased suppleness and durability. The older frame layout used a bushing that could develop play fairly quickly. Having said that, if you ride in the rain a lot, I recommend stuffing that shock eyelet bearing with more grease to keep water out. This is something I learned riding the Bronson in the rain a lot, which also has this eyelet bearing. There is a little flip-chip that drops 3mm off the bottom bracket height and .3 of a degree off the head angle. This does a couple of things: firstly, it allows riders to over-fork to 170mm up front and drop a degree off the head angle, while retaining the BB height. Secondly, and arguably more significantly, running it in the ‘low’ position increases the progression of the suspension. The recently introduced shuttle-rash guard is present on the downtube and there is a new chainstay protector featuring raised bits to dampen chain-slap noises (reminiscent of the design of another S-brand from California).

 NELSON, New Zealand - at the Wairoa Gorge MTB Park during the launch of the 2019 Santa Cruz Bicycles Megatower near Nelson, New Zealand. Photo by Gary Perkin

With that said, the biggest new addition to Santa Cruz’s frame design on the Megatower is the inclusion of adjustable length chainstays via a tidy little flip chip in the dropout, allowing the rider to set the bike up with either 435mm or 445 mm back end. It’s not something you’d do mid-ride (because a couple of different parts, including a different brake mount, are needed) but it is a great option for riders who prefer longer or shorter back ends, and it’s especially good for taller riders on the bigger sizes frames looking to balance out the longer front ends on those frames.

Nick Anderson, Santa Cruz’s engineering manager, attended the launch in Nelson, so I was able to ask him about why Santa Cruz’s carbon frames seem to survive real-world use more than some other carbon frames: “while they’re not heavy, our frames err on the side of strength. Enduro bikes run 1kg tyres so it doesn’t make sense to try to save too much weight in the frame. Some people might be surprised to know that adding 100 grams of carbon to a frame can make a big difference to strength, which we think is a worthwhile thing for the owner of the bike because when someone breaks a frame it’s a real pain for them. It’s better to make the frame strong enough to try to avoid that”. I think it’s fair to say that Santa Cruz ‘gets it’ when it comes to understanding what owning a bike is about for the rider.

 Santa Cruz Megatower

Parts

Our bikes came with top-end parts, and there wasn’t a single thing I’d want to change, except the WTB Silverado seat which is too narrow for my liking. That aside, the Fox 36 fork with Grip2 damper is a beautiful thing – much plusher than Fit4 versions off the top, with a supportive but not harsh mid and an adjustable ramp up (via tokens). SRAM X01 Eagle provided more than adequate gear range and shifted crisply under full power in both directions. It was also silent and never dropped a chain. SRAM’s Code RSC brakes with 200mm rotors had plenty of power and control to anchor onto Santa Cruz’s own Reserve carbon wheels, fitted with Maxxis Minions (we had Double Down fitted out back and an EXO plus up front, but they’ll be EXO plus front and rear in stock). In terms of rear shock, you’ll have the choice of a RocksShox Super Deluxe in either coil or air.

Geometry

The Megatower is new-skool. A 65-degree head angle mated to a 76-degree seat angle and a 343mm high bb (in high setting. Take .3 of a degree off of both angles and 3mm off the BB height in low setting). At 180cm I rode a large, with a roomy 470mm reach (paired with a 40mm stem). Chainstay length can be adjusted to 435 or 445mm and the wheelbase sits then at 1231 and 1241 respectively. It’s long, low (for a 160mm bike) and slack. And there is a short offset fork, which is of course de rigueur for big and slack enduro bikes now, with the intention of being able to provide a calming influence on the steering for more stability.

Ride

The overall ride of the Megatower headed downhill is superb in almost every way, so let’s start there. On tracks with moderate turns, like most of Nydia Bay, or tracks with rugged dropping corners, like the Wakamarina switchbacks, or the rocky tick-tacking back and forth corners on many of Wairoa’s rugged descents, the Megatower was incredibly intuitive at sticking to a line. Lean it in and it will hold to where you want to be over the roughest ground. Point it down an open diagonal bank of dusty roots (Pro Cut Line, Wairoa) and it will happily drift-grip to where you want to go. There’s no need to be shifting weight back and forth, looking for the sweet spot, just stand up and ride it from the middle. That supple top end to both the suspensions kept the wheels fluttering over the ground, and I think the lack of flex between front and back ends of the bike helps here too.

 NELSON, New Zealand -  Carl Patton at the Wairoa Gorge MTB Park during the launch of the 2019 Santa Cruz Bicycles Megatower in Nelson, New Zealand. Photo by Gary Perkin

But I must admit, my first few corners were not so smoothly completed. Dropping into the first trail of the first day, a trail with repeated bermed but tight switchback corners, the first thing I noticed is you need to ride like a modern rider to make the Megatower work. That means you need to steer with your hips, not the bars, and stay centred, not lean back. I’ve still got some bad habits from 90s XC racing and on my first run, on corners tighter than about 140 degrees, I made a bit of a mess. I’d come in, not set up that well, get ¾ of the way around the corner and realise the bike was understeering and that I wasn’t going to make it, so I’d turn the bar more. Nope. Fail. That doesn’t work. That just resulted in the bike standing up and me putting my outside foot down.

I mention this because while I know this stems from my sometimes less than textbook cornering, I can get away with it on some 29ers (with steeper head angles and higher offset forks). I can get away with it on the latest Santa Cruz Bronson too, but not on the Megatower. I felt the same and worse on the Yeti SB 150 at first, which has similar angles and lengths. My take is that the long front-centre and low-offset fork, combined with the increased momentum of the big wheels, come together to generate ‘something’ (that’s as far as I got with figuring it out…). Fortunately, I soon learned I need to set up with a more aggressive pre-corner and to get my hips out the side of the bike. Yeah, most people younger than 30 ride like this anyway, and it’s worth noting I witnessed other riders at the launch whip around those same corners without issue straight out of the shuttle bus - humph. Once I got this going better, and after four days of pretty intense riding, I stopped experiencing this initial trait, though I still needed to be conscious to take tight corners aggressively. The Megatower is a bike that says: “you tell me what to do, and I got this for you, promise.”  

After paying attention to corners, I next noticed that 160mm lower-link driven suspension is superb. Riders currently on 130-140mm travel 29ers might think 160mm sounds like a wallowy couch, but it’s not on the Megatower. I rode the RockShox Super Deluxe coil shock and it had incredible off-the-top suppleness, followed up with quite supportive mid stroke and just-right ramp up. Riders on Hightowers will be thrilled at the improved suspension performance. I asked Nick Anderson about why Santa Cruz specced a Fox fork up front and Rock Shox out back and he explained he and their test riders preferred the more supportive midstroke valving of the RockShox rear shock, over the plusher feeling Fox options. Interesting…

 NELSON, New Zealand -  Carl Patton at the Wairoa Gorge MTB Park during the launch of the 2019 Santa Cruz Bicycles Megatower near Nelson, New Zealand. Photo by Gary Perkin

While I found the balance between comfort and support to be bang-on and reveled in the wild abandon I could pilot the Megatower, some other testers I rode with thought it could do with a lighter shock tune to bring that supportive feeling down a touch and make for a comfier ride over repeated hits. Most of those comments came from riders at least 10kg lighter than me. So, if you’re lighter than my current 86kg ready to ride, weight, and you don’t regularly ride top-50 EWS pace, you might find the compression tune on the firm side. That’s a relatively simple fix (at a shock tuning centre) if that’s the case for you. By contrast, compared to the 140mm travel 29er I was riding previously (which had a VERY firm midstroke), I found the Megatower to be very plush indeed without being ever wallowy. On fast tracks with repeated root-hits, some of which you want the bike to absorb and some of which you want to pop off (so you can land in a messy nest of yet more roots, like on Nydia Bay), the Megatower’s speed and composure was incredible and I couldn’t fault its endless traction and impressive bump-erasing that importantly didn’t come at  the expense of pop when I wanted it. 

One other thing that relates to our relatively brief time on the bike, and also my intense satisfaction with the coil shock, is that I only rode the air shock for one day and I need more time with it to get it dialed. I started with the Santa Cruz recommended 190 psi (my body weight in pounds), rode a couple of tracks and wondered if that was a bit soft, so went up to 200 psi for a track or two, then dropped it back to 190 for another track. Predictably I then wished I’d left it at 200 (and also wondered if I needed another token inside the shock), then figured I should stop faffing and just focus on riding the goddam bike and especially on getting down the very rugged ‘darkside’ of Wairoa without eating shit. The bike-nerd struggle is real. Other testers at the launch seemed to have no such issues, so maybe the air volume in the Megatower’s stock air can volume wasn’t the perfect volume for me like it was on the Bronson, where I found perfect air pressure instantly? Or maybe my trailside air pressure faffing was imperfect? I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure I’d find the right pressure with a bit more time.

What if you don’t have a bunch of steep and rugged descending out your back door? One answer would be ‘the Megatower is not for you’. But, if you prefer having a bike suited to the tracks that are your favourite to ride, even if you don’t get to ride them all the time, then the Megatower will only occasionally be a hindrance on tamer local tracks. On not-very-steep descents, you’ll need to pay attention to weight the front end or run it in the long chainstay setting to add some weight to the front. The main point is, you might expect such a long bike with 160mm of travel to be a hindrance on lots of ‘normal’ tracks, but I didn’t come to that conclusion during the mellower parts of the riding I did during the launch. That’s not to say it’s the best bike for less rugged, less fast, less steep tracks, just that personally I would happily pay the small price for the big benefits when things get real.

 Santa Cruz Megatower

If you’re gonna race enduro on the Megatower, you’re gonna need to ride it to the top. Luckily, the Megatower climbs extremely well, with no caveats like “for such a big bike”. I am pretty familiar with the behavior of the new Bronson uphill and the Megatower is very similar, but it is easier to keep the front end down up steeper climbs. Like the Bronson, the suspension produces no pedal induced squat but there is still enough give in the back end to allow it to move over rooty or rough tracks. It’s not the most forgiving on rooty stally ups but, it is very good. I know this because I slogged my unfit self up the climb to Nydia saddle behind semi-retired EWS pro Jamie ‘I’m so unfit right now’ Nicol.  I was breathing hard and concentrating hard on getting up and over messes of roots for a good twenty minutes or more but not once did I look at the bike and think “wtf are you doing to me?!”, which is something I have done on lesser-climbing bikes. The steep seat angle meant I could keep my weight from falling off the back of the bike without blowing my arms to bits to stay over the front. I didn’t try the longer chainstay setting, but I can only assume it would be even better. It’s worth nothing that despite a pretty low BB, considering there is 160mm of travel to sag into, I didn’t smack my big flat pedals into things – no doubt partly due to the supportive suspension rate (and the 170mm cranks fitted).

Conclusion

Four days isn’t enough to get to know a bike inside out, but the Megatower shares a lot of DNA with a number of existing Santa Cruz models, including the Bronson. So, I can say with confidence that the stiff and strong frame is likely to survive some serious use. The bearings will survive repeated wet weather and the cables won’t develop rattles inside the frame (though there is a lifetime frame warranty and suspension bearing warranty if the unexpected happens). The Megatower’s ride is incredibly capable, without often feeling like ‘too much bike’. Except where bermed corners are really tight that is, in which case you had better make sure your technique is dialed. I’d also want more time to figure out the air shock set up. In terms of price, you can expect a model fitted out like the one I rode to cost in the order of $12,000, but of course more budget friendly builds and frame/shock only options are available too. It’s available in blacked out black or green, the latter of which is really quite something. Overall, the Megatower is the long travel, hyper-capable and dependable, rugged-track slaying 29er that many riders have been waiting for.


Words: Carl Patton
Photography: Gary Perkin & Sven Martin

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