Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Salsa Cycles Demo: Quick Impressions

NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

Okay, I'm going to hit on some of the bikes I rode Monday at the Salsa Cycles demo held by Europa Cycle & Ski. These are merely impressions from short loops through flat, twisty, buff single track which George Wyth State Park is known for. I may also include comments overheard by others at the demo as well.

Overall: My first impression upon seeing the bikes was, "That's a LOT of carbon fiber!" Salsa Cycles, which had zero carbon fiber in its line up just four years ago now has a ton of it. What was once the "metal brand", with titanium, steel, and aluminum bikes, has become the "carbon fiber" brand, for better or worse. Yes- Salsa still has a few steel bikes, (Vaya, Marrakesh, and Fargo), but the titanium is all gone, and even the aluminum bikes are few in number compared to all the carbon fiber frames and forks the brand has now.

My other impression? "Holy cow! We've got a ton of wheel sizes to choose from now!" That needs no further elucidation.

NY Roll getting set up to test out a Pony Rustler. Yes, those are sandals. Damn Hippy!
 Pony Rustler: While this isn't a new rig for Salsa in 2017, it was by far the most pointed at when you asked "what was your favorite bike to ride today?" The PR has those fat 27.5+ wheels and the Split Pivot suspension. Many folks were amazed at how it wiped out all traces of bumps on the trail. I rode one and here are my thoughts:

The PR is a like a fish out of water here at George Wyth. It really needed rocks, ledges, drop ins, and some speedy down hills to bring out its personality. That said, the thing about full suspension bikes, and I get this from years of reviewing them at my former Twenty Nine Inches gig, is that you really need a couple of rides- good long rides- to really dial the thing in before you can say much about the platform with any gravity to your statements. I had my bike set up to spec by the capable Justin of Salsa Cycles, with proper sag, et cetera, but that was a set up for gnarly terrain. Not what George Wyth has. I felt the bike had potential, and probably would be a great rig, but in all seriousness, I just cannot say anything more than that.

Cutthroat: I was super fortunate that the only Cutthroat there was in my size. I set it up and took it for a fast paced spin of about 15-20 minutes. This bike uses the VRS Class 5 rear stay set up like the Warbird, only beefed up a bit. It is a bike meant to carry a load with frame bags and do off road touring, but it is finding its way into the gravel bike world as well. Note: Carbon Cutthroat is basically what the Ti Fargo was. I wouldn't ever expect Salsa Cycles would ever bring that model back, despite the adamant calls from Salsa that this isn't a "Carbon Fargo" and titanium has been hinted at as maybe coming back. I say no way. This is a Carbon Fargo which, for all intents and purposes is the replacement bike for the Ti Fargo. One ride told me that.
The Cutthroat I rode. A very nice, lightweight "Carbon Fargo".

It's very light, for sure. Especially if you were to spec nice wheels. It's a very responsive bike to pedal input, like a road carbon frame might feel like. And the rear end? Yes, there is a definite feeling of give at times, but as I say, this demo was over mostly buff dirt. A good gravel stomping may reveal other things. The geometry is great. I could use this bike here easily as my "everything bike". Single track, gravel, road commuting. Even the Firestarter fork felt somewhat compliant. I would take a serious look at this bike for long gravel racing or riding. I really, really liked this bike.

Nits: I got the rear end to steer a little differently than the front was going once. It was distinct, and felt like a very flexy wheel. I suspect it was induced by the Schwalbe Thunderburt climbing up a bit of "U" shaped rut in the back while I was trying to steer in the opposite direction. It reminded me of how full suspension 29"ers used to feel in the rear six or seven years ago. I likely wouldn't notice this after riding it more, but it jumped out at me on this test ride. Might be the wheel twisting a bit, or the frame flexing oddly, or.......likely both. Other than this, I really liked this bike with one major reservation- it is carbon fiber. Try riding it on an adventure in Tama County clay a few times, or in like situations at Odin's Revenge where I had so much mud stuck on the tires it ground the Fargo to a dead stop. Gritty mud grinding on carbon chain stays doesn't sound like my idea of "keeping the bike around a long time". Your mileage may vary. Maybe I'm being too cautious, but this is one argument for a titanium or steel bike that isn't going to go away easily. Other than that, this is the bike I would have come home with.

Ahh! More carbon fiber! The Woodsmoke in repose.

Woodsmoke: Probably the oddest bike Salsa has made since that tri-bike/time trial bike they had called the "El Go-Go" back 15 years ago or so. (Really. Check that out sometime)

This is the bike Salsa is making a big deal about, and the radical looking hard tail is definitely an eye catcher. does it ride? I wasn't sure I would be able to speak to this well, since there was no size large to demo, and only this XL was anywhere close to my size. I gave it a go anyway......

I'll tell you one thing, and this has been a perennial issue with Salsa Cycles hard tail mountain bikes and myself, but the sizing of their hard tails and me seem off somehow or another. I had little stand over on this rig, but the reach was dead nuts.  I cannot imagine riding a Large after riding this one with stock stem installed. I likely would need a longer stem on a large, and that kind of defeats the purpose of the "new geometry" for hard tails. Weird..... Even my similarly sized friend thought the same thing, so it isn't just me, I guess.

Out on the trail, the bike spun up far easier than I expected, but it wasn't that "snap", that instant power forward feeling that the Cutthroat had.  It kind of had a wind up to it. Like a flexible metal frame might have. Weird. Something was flexing.

Elevated chain stay bikes have a history going waaaaay back to the 1980's. If you research them, you will find that almost all of the designs, and there were many, had a similar characteristic- flexy bottom brackets. The Woodsmoke has a "half an elevated chain stay" design, and on powering down with the left leg, I could get the rear wheel to almost touch", but not quite, the left chain stay. So, there was the culprit for the "wind up" that I was feeling. No big deal, but it is there. My friend that rode it afterward saw the same thing, and another taller rider actually got the stay to scrape off some mud from the tire that was stuck to it. Is it a flexy wheel? Hmm..... Could be. Something was making the wheel go left though, and not right in the same manner. That's all I can say.

Other than that, the bike was a hoot to ride and easily the best 29+ experience I've had to date. I'm not a solid 29+ kind of guy, but I could ride this bike. It was not as fun as say, the Borealis Echo I rode with 29+ wheels, but it was close. Pops wheelies if you barely try, and is rather fun on twisty single track. BIG triangle for frame bags. Could be a cool bikepacking rig.

Stock image courtesy of Salsa Cycles of a Timberjack
Timberjack: I was super bummed but there was nothing I could ride in a Timberjack frame. My smaller sized friends there could though and they both gave the bike a big thumbs up saying things like it was really fun and a playful, easy to wheelie machine.

To my mind, this bike is the sleeper in the line up. It retails for $1500.00 in the 27.5+ set up and 1G in 29"er guise. It has modern trail geometry, and should be fun to ride for years. is aluminum. Big deal. I guess that doesn't bother me when you think about how this bike is to be used.

I like that it uses typical double diamond frame design. Elevated chain stays, even "half elevated chain stays", have not passed the test of time. Maybe I could take a chance, but Woodsmokes are very expensive to get in to, and they won't do anything "better" than this format, unless you are splitting hairs. 27.5+ wheels are faster to spin up, and unless you are Yeti sized, I think they make a smarter choice, especially for folks under 6 foot tall. That's why I was so hoping to try a Timberjack, but that will have to wait till later. Maybe I'll run across one later this Fall.......

Stock image for the Rival Carbon Warbird courtesy of Salsa Cycles
Carbon Warbird: I got to ride the Rival equipped Carbon Warbird around. It was maybe one size smaller than I should have, but it felt really close to "right". Anyway....

I have ridden the aluminum Warbird enough to know that the VRS Class 5 system works. The carbon version is supposed to be better. It probably is, but again, I couldn't really say with any authority based upon the trails we rode. It did have awesome snap and acceleration like the Cutthroat. I thought it felt really good and racy.

The deal with the Warbirds now is that the tire clearances are what they should have always been from the beginning, but they are not a super versatile rig. No rack mounts. no good way to single speed it in the field, and is carbon fiber. (See concerns I voiced above in the Cutthroat take.) But if I rode a lot of pavement and wanted a legit gravel road going capable bike, I would ride this bike all over. There really is nothing wanting in its intended design and purpose. Maybe if they could figure out a way to reduce front end vibrations a bit more, ala Trek's Domane, but other than that, this is a solid choice for fast or competitive gravel road riding.

Muluk Carbon, image courtesy of Salsa Cycles.
Mukluk Carbon X1: I rode the Matte Army Green Mukluk Carbon x1 at the demo and this was to test whether or not there was enough of a "gee-whiz" factor over my Blackborow DS to make me want to save my pennies for this new model. Thankfully for my meager bank account balance, it will be safe from having to sacrifice itself for this rig.

Not because it isn't great. It is. I just don't see any big benefits to going to a carbon frame set, at least not for me. I would much rather get into some fine, lighter weight wheels, and maybe those might have carbon rims. But the new carbon Mukluk feels much like the Blackborow.  I think the cavernous frame opening is a big deal for those who need the space. If it came down to that need, I would pop for this carbon version. I just don't need that much space.

Conclusions: The Woodsmoke has me unconvinced. The Timberjack is a question yet to be answered, and the Pony Rustler, while awesome, is not something I'd get a lot of use out of here. So, as I stated above, the Cutthroat would be the bike I would bring home. It has single track manners that are awesome. It is very fast. It is lightweight compared to any Fargo. It could be a gravel rider's dream. It can handle a massive frame bag. I like it a lot, but I could never take it anywhere I felt it would be messy and wet. Mentally I just cannot go there with carbon fiber because I have seen and heard about chain stays getting ground through and I just cannot abide by that.

But that's me. You maybe do not have those concerns. Otherwise, the Cutthroat is a great rig. I'd love to be able to have one for awhile.


JR. Z. said...

Something to consider with Carbon Fiber Re-enforced Plastics: You can get "Carbon Fiber patches" and colored bonding epoxy. With enough tire clearance, someone could bond some sacrificial patches to their frame and colored epoxy would let them know when the patch has worn through... A friend of mine said they used to use this method when he worked for an amphibious vehicle start-up. Seems like a lot of work to me (I'll stick with my Pugsley), but for the right person... Also, this makes CFRP the only 'truely' field reparable material currently available for bikes (pre-epoxied patches that will bond underwater, even, can be sourced for field repairs)!

Guitar Ted said...

@JR. Z.: That's cool. I've heard about the pre-preg patches before, but hadn't considered that as a way to utilize the patches as a gauge for wear. Still, to my mind it is another reason to stick with metal for uses like gravel/adventure where mud and grit are common place obstacles.

While I did not mention this, it also was another reason I had against the Carbon Mukluk as a replacement to my aluminum framed Blackborow as well.

scott said...

Regarding your concern about "gritty mud grinding on carbon chain stays". What if you put a 700x40 tire on the Cutthroat? Since it is designed for 29er tires, wouldn't a 700x40 tire have gobs of mub clearance? Wouldn't this setup be a huge advantage of over bikes like the warbird or tamland in a muddy gravel race?

Steve Fuller said...

Scott - I ran a similar setup (albeit on a Ti Fargo) for TIV10. 40c tires on the Fargo frame looked odd, but I had massive mud clearance for the B roads. I'm running 40c on my Cutthroat now, and there is still that massive mud clearance there as well. I will say that, even to my uneducated bike reviewer skills, that the Cutty with 40c feels different than it did with the stock 2.1" tires. It feels a little less sure footed to me, moreso than when I made a similar tire change on the Fargo. This will likely be the tire setup I run for Gravel Worlds this weekend, so some additional time on different surfaces will tell.