Review: Santa Cruz Bikes

The Bronson vs. the Hightower LT. 

If there's one truth in this world, it's that mountain bikes are pricey. Mid-range models cost between $3,000 and $5,000, and high-end bikes can be over $8,000. Unfortunately, mountain biking is also a really good time and riding Montana's singletrack is a highlight of the summer. This is the mountain biker's dilemma.

For dedicated bikers, folks that ride 4-5 times a week from the moment trails are dry in the spring until settled snow blankets trails in the fall, committing to a mid-range model feels about right. There are several reasons the investment is a good one, from having a bike that matches your skillset to cutting back on maintenance costs associated with a lower-end bike. Think about it in terms of skiing: if you bought a pair of skis from a shop's rental fleet, you'd most likely destroy them early in the season. You'd have to replace them, and that would be more money out of your pocket.

While committing to an expense of this size can be daunting, there are ways to hedge the bet in your favor. One way to guarantee you're getting your money's worth? Demo first. Most shops in town have demo fleets of their higher-end bikes, and for a reasonable daily fee, you can test-ride before buying. If you do decide to make a purchase, the demo cost comes off the price of the bike. If you aren't ready to buy, this is still a good way to get out on some super fun bikes.

A few weeks back, I undertook such a demo day. For about five years, I've been riding a Diamondback Mission 2, a perfectly fine bike that has been with me from Targhee's downhill trails to bikepacking trips across the Gallatins. It's the bike I have so it's the bike I use, but its not necessarily the bike I want. To narrow down my search for the bike I want, I stopped by Owenhouse and checked out their Santa Cruz line. I wanted to compare and contrast two obviously different bike categories, so I demoed a Hightower LT and a Bronson—here's how they stacked up.

Santa Cruz Bronson
This is the bike for the biker I wish I was. We all have an image in our heads of the mountain biker we want to be. For me, I want to go fast but be completely in control. I want to be a powerful climber that cleans every technical section on the first try, and I want to descend effortlessly with a bit of style. I don't need to send big gaps or set cross-country records. I like riding trails and I want it to be fun and exhausting without getting too rad or struggling too mightily. In reality, I'm a strong climber but slow and definitely rely too heavily on my brakes coming downhill. The Bronson helps with all that. For a bike with this much travel (160mm in the front, 150mm in the rear), it climbs like a mountain goat. For this test, I rode at Lewis & Clark Caverns. The trails there are dry and I'd ridden there on my Diamondback the week before. I rode the same loop (Cave Gulch to Middle View to Eastside clockwise) and tried to keep everything else the same as well. The Bronson blew the Diamondback out of the water. On the climbs, the 27.5-inch wheels provided more than enough roll-over for the few techy spots and handled tight switchbacks with ease, maintaining traction and power. While I was impressed enough after the climb alone, the descent is where I really considered busting out the credit card. The Bronson disappeared below me, feeling more like a hang glider than a mountain bike. It chewed up the Eastside trail's shelfy drops and made quick work of the rocky sections. It galloped downhill, but I never felt out of control, as the bike is super responsive and agile. Later the same day, I rode the Bronson again at Copper City, lapping High Ore to Mother Lode. Again, the bike performed head and shoulders above my current ride, from the supple suspension platform to the effortless climbing.

Exactly how I ride it:

Santa Cruz Hightower LT
After demoing the Bronson, I figured my decision had been made. Getting on the Hightower LT was just going through the motions. But then I complicated things. With 29-inch wheels, the Hightower is an antelope—or maybe more of a moose. While it covers ground quickly and chews up climbs, the 29-inch wheels are a bit unwieldy. If you haven't rideen a 29er before, they take some getting used to. Once you find the bike's sweet spot, it's just as responsive and impressive as the Bronson, but there is an adjustment period. On High Ore to Mother Lode, it gobbled up loose rock and powered up steep switchback corners. It's definitely a little less playful, but that could be due to my size. I'm 5'8", and the Hightower LT felt bigger under me than the Bronson. Again, the Bronson seemed to evaporate beneath me, in a good way, whereas the Hightower LT took a little more focus to negotiate. Once I figured out the body positioning that made the most sense, the bike's true colors came through. The larger wheels make for fast climbing and descending, and the 150mm front and rear travel mean you aren't sacrificing performance for speed. In fact, once I was more comfortable on the 29-inch wheels, the Hightower LT had me forgetting about the Bronson and wondering if this was the bike for me. Like I mentioned earlier, my idea of myself as a rider versus how I actually ride aren't exactly the same. Once I figured out how to negotiate tight corners on climbs and technical sections on descents, I was more uncertain of my choice than before I'd started.

Santa Cruz Hightower LT, Copper City, Owenhouse Cycling, Bozeman, Montana

After demoing the Bronson and the Hightower LT side by side, one thing is clear—Santa Cruz makes some impressive bikes, and you can't go wrong with either model. Based on the majority of the riding I do, I think I'd chose the Hightower LT, which was a surprise. The Bronson is an absolute ripper, and if I had a little more style, I might opt for one. But at the end of the day, the Hightower LT's climbing prowess and capability in technical terrain won me over. While neither Copper City (at least the trails I rode) nor Lewis & Clark are overly technical, both have enough to convince me that the Hightower LT would only further impress on beefier trails, like Hyalite Creek or sections of the Bangtail Divide.

Bottom line: ride before you buy. A new bike is a big investment, and one that will only lose money over time. If Santa Cruz is on your list, hit up Owenhouse. They have these models and several others ready to demo, and they have a few other brands for further comparison.

Owenhouse Cycling, Santa Cruz, Bozeman, Montana