Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Salsa Cycles Introduces The Big Mama!

Salsa Cycles has been working on this new full suspension platform for quite some time and now……here it is!

The new model!

The Big Mama is a four inch travel suspension platform with several important features which I’ll get into a bit later. First off, I was able to get a chance to ride this bike on Sunday at the local Murphy-Hanrahan trail system. It is a great buff, fast, tight and twisty single track loop. I was able to put in 16 miles on the new rig and I will say, it was a very satisfying ride.

My observations of 29 inch wheeled full suspension bikes is that most of them are compromises of what I like in a 29″er. They seem to be good at some things, but have lost certain handling characteristics, aesthetic characteristics, or structural characteristics in the translation from hard tail to full suspension. There are few that seem to have it dialed and look good doing it. Is the Big Mama in that rarefied air? Let’s take a look.

I have ridden a lot of full suspension bikes and the first thing one should determine is “what type” of full suspension are we talking about. Salsa head honch, Jason Boucher, says this is first and foremost an “all day trail bike”. Taking that into consideration as I rode it, I could then discern if it fit into my expectations for such a bike. I would say that such a bike should be maneuverable, respond to pedaling input in a positive way, (read “like a hard tail”), be stiff laterally, and have overall handling that is easy to navigate when the rider is tired. It should also do what the best trail bike full suspension should do, that is, keep the rider fresh and keep the wheels in contact with the ground. Finally, it should be fun and look cool. (Hey! I like my rigs to look good!)

The heart of the Big Mama is it’s detailed suspension and frame fittings. Things like the one piece forged link, (pictured above) help keep things tracking correctly. The hidden part here is the Enduro brand bearings used at all pivot points. The drive side of the swing arm is even fitted with two bearings, while the non-drive side has the traditional single bearing, which helps keep the swing arm pivot stiff and resist twisting forces from the pedaling input of a rider. Did it work? Well, all I can say is that I never once felt anything close to flex in the bottom bracket area. The huge bottom bracket forging, which includes the swing arm pivot, no doubt helps in this area. In fact, that swing arm felt pretty stout too. The reason why was evident.............

……Notice something missing? Yep! No pivot. Salsa Cycles designed the suspension with no rear drop out pivot, not because they think the rear pivot idea wasn’t any good, it just rode better than the designs that had rear pivots in their testing. So, to get around the pivot and have it ride well, Salsa designers went to the toolbox and pulled out their experiences with the Dos Niner. The soft tail classic has chain stays designed to flex up to an inch and survive trail abuse over the long haul. The flattened Scandium enhanced structure makes a return here on the Big Mama in the seat stays and only has to flex a whopping 5mm throughout the stroke of the shock. Salsa claims it helps reduce starting shock pressures needed and with the custom tuned Fox RP2, it helps achieve full travel from the damper. Did it work? Well, with the shock set to the open position on my test ride the Big Mama rode with small bump sensitivity and didn’t feel like it ramped up or stiffened in any way towards the end of it’s travel. It just reacted to bumps with no drama and made me forget all about suspension. That’s what a good suspension design should do, become invisible.

Salsa Cycles tried to maximize the weld areas on the bike and to reduce the places that required welding on the Big Mama. To do this they utilized special forged frame fittings, like the drop outs and the bottom bracket area. They also shaped the Scandium tubes, which were all specially designed by Salsa, to help combat flex where riders don’t want it. Check out that down tube/ bottom bracket junction, pictured above, or that down tube/ head tube weld area. There is some serious manipulation of tubes going on with the Big Mama. Did it work? Well, one of my biggest pet peeves about 29″ers is that many of them exhibit a torsional twist in the front triangle which leads to a vague steering feel and in bad cases a total disconnect between tracking of the rear and front wheels. I can say that I felt the Big Mama tracking a good straight line and that it didn’t feel like it had any significant torsional flex in the front end. yeah, I’d say all that tube shaping and weld area work was worth it.

<====Tube selection, design, and manipulation all work together here! It's one stiff front triangle.

Of course, this being an all day trail bike sort of rig, it would only make sense that you would be able to run big meats and still have some clearance around the tire for mud and trail debris. Salsa engineers made sure that you will be able to mount up a 2.5″ wide tire on a 35mm wide rim and have that clearance. I’ll have to take their word on that, as the samples I rode and saw all had Nevegals on them, but to my eye, it looks like a sure fit. That swing arm forging also helps solidify things laterally too. Nicely done!

Salsa’s design goals for this project were to have reliability, durability, and attention to detail. In that vein, they chose to fit the Big Mama with post mount type fittings for the rear disc brake. This is in keeping with the move by fork makers who have gone to post mounts and should give the Big Mama better braking performance given that the brake caliper is now mounted to a sturdy forged bit directly welded to the frame.

A few notes on my ride that I have not mentioned: The Big Mama was easy to wheelie, and was nimble feeling with a slight nod to the stable side of the handling spectrum. When I rode the production prototype, I had no idea about the “numbers”, since they were kept from me. I found out only later that the head angle is 71 degrees and that the Fox fork has 46mm of off set here. With this combination, I felt the Big Mama felt calm and collected on hairy fast descents through the tight single track. Climbing didn’t require any extra attention to the front end other than that I had to weight the front a bit more or I could wheelie at will. Something that could be cured if I wanted to with positioning tweaks, but frankly, I liked it this way. The bike cornered really well and what impressed me most was its ability to carve around a really tight corner with stability. This rig should help you clean switchbacks that have given you fits on other big wheelers.

The Big Mama will also be available as I got to ride it with Fox suspension, Race Face stem and seat post, and a good helping of Shimano XT parts including the brakes, hubs, and drive train. Salsa bits round out the package which will be topped off with a WTB saddle. Frame sets will include the Fox RP2 and a Salsa Flip-Lock seat collar. Look for the frame sets to become available in September with a suggested MSRP of $1435-$1500. The complete Big Mama bikes will come in January of ‘09 and will be MSRP at about $3800-$4000. (One note, the bike pictured here has the black Fox shock, which is the color for the ‘09 120mm travel F-29. The complete bike will actually be spec’ed with the 100mm travel fork and was white in our hand outs) Go to Salsa Cycles and check out the specs and information on the Big Mama. I also should mention that the very similar 26″er model, the El Kaboing, will also be available and was presented at the press release as well.

In conclusion, I felt that Salsa Cycles has done their homework and applied solutions with elegance and effectiveness to the problem of making a great 29″er trail bike. Have they come up with something that fits my definition of a 29″er trail bike? If the 16 miles I got to ride it is any indication, I would say that the Big Mama is well on it’s way to filling that rare place in my mind. Will it work for you? I know that there will be those who won’t like it, but my guess is that the Big Mama will be a very popular rig with a lot of 29″er freaks. If the design fulfills the goals that Salsa Cycles set for it, and it gives every indication that it will, I would go as far as to say that this will be its best selling 29″er rig. Time will tell on that, but for now, this bike is high on my list of full suspension 29″ers.

Edit 6-22-08: Salsa Cycles Jason Boucher has informed me that the Fox F-29 will indeed be black as shown on the pics above. He especially spec'ed a black fork. It is still the 100mm travel fork. Sorry for the confusion this may have caused.

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