Sunday, June 16, 2013

Salsa Vaya: (Very) Full Review

I've owned a Salsa Vaya for over two years now, but just realized this month that, despite the many posts here crowing about the bike and the places it's allowed me to see, I've never done a full review. I've put this rig through its paces in many different roles: commuter, wanna-be-29-inch mountain bike, and, most rewarding of all, dirt road rambler. I have lots to say about it, so settle in.

Gravel and Dirt Roads

In Western Mass, we have a bounty of beautiful scenery to be devoured, and the best of it is often down a road that makes pseudo-racers on their $3,000 carbon razor blades shudder with fear.

Back when all I owned was a skinny-tired racing bike, I couldn't resist exploring these byways, and frequently spun out my back wheel standing on the pedals on pebbly 20% ramps. I decided to find something better suited to the terrain. When the owner of my LBS decided to sell his first-gen Vaya, I gave it a test ride on some local dirt, and it was love at first bite.

With 35 mm Kenda Small Block Eights for rubber, the Vaya wasn't too responsive on tarmac, but once I hit the gravel, it was like someone lopped an invisible five pounds off the bike. It just felt right. This is, in fact, the surface the bike was designed for; a few years ago, when gravel endurance events (see partial lists here and here) were in their infancy, the Vaya was one of the go-to rigs for those races. (Now there are purpose built gravel racing bikes, of course. Inventing an miniscule, elitist niche and then exploiting the dickens out of it is the American way.)

The Vaya sings on dirt and gravel roads. If this is your main reason for considering buying one, don't hesitate.


I had never ridden single-track before the Vaya, but my lack of skills didn't stop me from trying. And trying. I found a lot of different ways to fall off a bicycle out in the woods of Western Mass, and a variety of ways to sleep upright on a sofa, crying out in the middle of the night because of torn rib muscles or bruised bones.

Before adult responsibilities demanded I quit, I had a blast out there. It's indescribably exciting to use a traditional drop-bar road bike to thoroughly clean a section of mountain bike trail, with a few log-hops and brook clearings thrown in for good measure.

Don't buy the Vaya expecting MTB performance. But if, like me, you can't resist areasonably smooth trail leading into the woods off of your boring old road route, this bike will serve you admirably.

 Paved Roads

I've ridden the Vaya countless hours on paved roads; if you're not going far, it can be a very rewarding ride. This can include stretches of tarmac which hook up your favorite gravel routes (especially if, like me, many of your dirt roads don't extend beyond five miles).

It also -- perhaps especially -- includes commuting.Adding to the Small Blocks a slim rack, full fenders, a powerful rechargeable light and blinkie, and a good pannier, handsomely prepared the Vaya  rides to work in snow, freezing cold, rain, and yes, even the occasional nice New England day. Though I'm not a bike tourist, this set-up approaches a touring config, and the bike handles well under load.

The bike feels ready to handle all kinds of weather, handles very predictably, just generally feels safe in traffic and on the pot-holed roads that going to work often involves in the Northeast. With the bike in commuter mode, I find myself inventing reasons to ride -- a quick trip to the library, or volunteering to pick up that quart of milk.

Touring is another of the purposes for which the Vaya was created, but Salsa might as well have added commuting in their list. It makes a rock-solid commuting road bike.

Handling and Geometry

The Vaya handles well on dirt, but also suprised me on the road. It tracks ruler-straight; you can fully load a pannier on one side and check constantly over your shoulder for traffic, and when you turn to the front again, you're exactly the same distance from the shoulder. Unloaded, however, the bike is pleasingly responsive for such a workhorse bike. Bars sit high and the reach to them is short, so shoulder fatigue simply never happens.

With just a little speed while on the road, I can use both hands to zip a jacket or open an energy bar. Sometimes I add my heavyish handlebar bag when I'm commuting; if I keep the front load reasonable, steering remains enjoyable.

Now, I've read reports of people riding the Vaya in zippy group rides, day-long road expeditions, and even multi-day tours. While the bike's comfort is prodigious, and I've ridden up to eight hours with none of the typical soreness such length involves, I find the Vaya's solid build and fatter tires -- which make it so wonderful on moderate gravel rides --  make it ponderous for anything longer than 20 miles or so on hilly paved roads.

Disc brakes

My Vaya came with Avid BB5 disc brakes, but more recent iterations upgraded to the highly-touted BB7s. As I was a disc novice, I can't offer comparisons, but I can say that the BB5s were a revelation to someone used to braking on the wheel rim. I find the Avids especially useful on dirt, where smooth, rapid modulation of speed can be a matter of life and limb. And when I want to stop on the road, I stop -- period. It's as if mud and water simply don't exist.

If you have a Marco Polo in you, begging for a true all-rounder bike that will take you wherever you want to go, test-ride the Vaya.  I traded it in once for a fancier bike, and was back at the shop wearing a sheepish expression a week later. Fortunately, the manager took pity on me and traded it back.

I just can't imagine swinging a leg over a better bike when I'm up for adventure.

The Vaya at large in its natural habitat


Amazer from souther NH said...

I bought my Vaya about 3 months ago and have been having a blast on it. I've ridden it on some dirt paths and roads here in NH, but mostly on paved roads, tho many of these roads are in rough shape. Although its on the heavy side and wears 41mm Conti's, it's not as sluggish as one might imagine.

True, it accelerates more slowly than my old alu Roubaix, but I find it much more comfortable to ride. Not sure if that's due to the geometry and handlebars (which are about an inch higher than my saddle), the Brooks saddle, or the fatter tires... But the total package is very comfy.

I only wish the gearing was lower. I have a 48/34 Apex chainring, which gives me something like 29.5 gear inches as a granny. I'd happily give up some top-end speed for one or two lower gears. But I love my Vaya and generally prefer the simplicity of two chainrings.

Enjoyed your review!

Velosopher said...

Amazed, great to hear from a local Vaya fan!

Do you have a 36-tooth cog for your lowest gear in back? I have 34, and once that cassette is done I'm def. moving to 36. Carrying loads on a heavier bike up loose gravel ramps is hard enough!

So glad you agree about the bike. It's the perfect go anywhere package. 41 mm Contis sound right in the sweet spot. Just purchased some 40 mm rubber for mine this week; watch this space for a review!

Amazer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andrew Mazer said...

Actually, my biggest cog is only 32 teeth. I have the stock 2012 orange vaya 2. I wish I had a 36 in back, but I doubt the SRAM derailleur could handle that. Better yet, it would be nice to have had something like a 44/30 up front, but no one makes that except White Industries (who let you choose almost whatever chainring sizes you want) to my knowledge. I guess Salsa's other option would be to use MTB chainrings, but that might have precluded them from putting brifters on the handlebars.

Not that I'm sweating about this... I like the vaya a lot! Btw, I ride with MTB shoes and cleats. Road bike SPD just doesn't seem right for this bike.

Velosopher said...

I've been thinking about a mountain double up front, or switching to a triple. I can't seem to make myself spring for all the moulah until something current is worn out. In the meantime, I stand up on the steeps -- and lose a little traction in back on marbly gravel...

I tend toward MTB shoes on the Vaya, too, though in commuter mode, it's set up with some nice platforms which I keep on for short gravel/singletrack jaunts.

djbeighle said...

What type of shifters are you using? I am looking at buying a used 2011 Vaya and it has bar end shifters. The brakes are Avid BB5's.

djbeighle said...

What type of shifters are you using? I am looking at buying a 2011 Vaya and it has bar end shifters and Avid BB5 brakes.


Velosopher said...

djbeighle, those are Shimano 105 brifters, which have been working fine with the BB5s on my Vaya.

Christopher Riley said...

I have a 2013 Vaya 2, and am planning to take it through Patagonia. I have stock equipment apart from a modified crankset, and am concerned that the rims may not hold up on the rough roads down there. DT Swiss X470 rims are standard, and I have not been able to find reviews for them. Any experience with these rims or with stock Vaya rims in rough terrain would be very helpful.

Velosopher said...

Christopher, chapeau to you for taking on Patagonia. How I would love to!

My rims are the Delgado Cross, which were made by Salsa and came stock with my bike (I think; can't be sure because I didn't buy it new). Though Massachusetts is pretty different from Patagonia, it may give you some indication of the durability of the rims that I've had to true them maybe twice in 2.5 years of road, gravel, and trail use. They're bombproof.

I'm sure you've thought of this, but tire choice will also affect rim duration. Fatter tires=less wear on rims. I had 35 mm's for the first couple years and now have 40 mm's, but remember -- that's mostly unloaded (or very lightly loaded).

Buen viaje!

Mark said...

Hi - Mark from England here. I have a 2011 Orange Vaya, and think it is perhaps the most versatile machine out there (I have an S-Works Roubaix also which is great to ride but not as much fun.)

Anyway, it's interesting to hear comments about bigger cassettes. I have a 32 rear on a compact setup, but am changing to a triple Tiagra set-up as I think it will be a much better option for the roads and steep hills near me, especially if I do some laden touring.

In the spring, I am considering switching to 28mm Gatorskin tyres (currently using Schwalbe 35mm) as I quite fancy doing some long days in the saddle on teh road - with this set-up, I reckon the Vaya will be more than capable of covering big road miles, especially with its comfy frame. Then I'll switch back to 35mm for the winter. What do you reckon? Salsa's are the best!

Velosopher said...

Mark, welcome. I think 28s on the Vaya could be a real treat, though I think it was designed for something a little wider -- maybe 32s or so at a minimum. I've been riding some light 28s recently on my road bike (see the Roll-y Pol-y review elsewhere on this blog) and really love them.

Would sure like to know how you fare with them. I often wish I had a dedicated commuter, so I could strip the fenders, rack and heavy tires off the Vaya and go au naturale!

Anonymous said...

I have the 2012 vaya 3 triple with bar end shifters and never at a loss fot gears. Recently switched to 32mm road tires and gained speed but not so good on gravel.

Velosopher said...

I would love to know what gears you have on that triple -- I've long dreamed of swapping in a triple on my first-edition Vaya. To get those lower gears, I recently switched to a 10-speed, 36t rear cassette -- the largest made. It looks like a dinner plate, but affords me a bit more spin up the crazy ramps on trails in New England. It might also allow me to take a few more hilly detours on the way home from work, while loaded with a heavy pannier.

Anonymous said...

I fitted a 22 tooth third ring on my Vaya 3 which gives me a nice low range of gears for touring carrying a 16kg load. Off road unloaded it copes well with gravel tracks etc. The Vaya is a very comfortable ride, excellent short cockpit, great shock and vibration absorption. A fun bike on and off road and a decent tourer too.


Velosopher said...

Al, did you change out your cranks when you added the third ring? Sure sounds like fun!

Anonymous said...

No, it was a Vaya 3 so it had a triple. The smallest ring was 30 I think, but the 22 ring and the 32 sprocket did it for me. I can grind my way up hills up to 1 in 5. I didn't need to change the cranks. I have a MTB and I like to ride natural bridleways [trails]. The Vaya, fitted with Schwalbe Landcruisers is ok for gravel tracks but no good on those.

Velosopher said...

Yeah, 22x32 is a NICE gear for the who-knows-what of adventure riding! Nice set-up, man. Enjoy it!!

jbf518 said...

Bought used vaya 3 about month ago. Changed out shifters to sram force 10 speed rear 34/48 up front have studed snow tires on now. Live in Pa. Snows ever week here. Bought to ride gravel event ( dirty kanza) and others. Been riding on the road slower then friends road bikes but not to bad, get on gravel and drop them straight away. Love the disk brakes and the supple ride. Can't what for the snow to melt off canal paths and gravel roads. Have abou 500 miles on it great all a rounder. Going to work on making it lighter.

Velosopher said...

Thanks for keeping us up to date, JBF. Have to agree that it sings on gravel, just takes off.

There's a reason this post has more comments than any other on my blog: a well-built, unique bike.

JonnyKF said...

I just picked up a 2014 Vaya 3 for my son last weekend and he is really digging it. I was hooked when he let ride it so much that I bought a once ridden '13 frameset for myself which I will receive shortly. Looking forward to building it up with my special selection of parts. Got a spare Luxy bar, some BB7 Roads, a Stan's/White Industries wheel set I built up for a Rawland Drakkar I had a couple of years ago. Will probably run XT with bar ends to keep things simple and light.

I ride a drop barred Singular Gryphon, when I want to get funky on some singletrack, the Vaya is going to be for long comfort rides on gravel and asphalt.

JonnyKF said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Velosopher said...

Thanks for checking in, Jonny. Love to see pics of that Gryphon, a lovely ride for sure.

It's interesting that this has become the most visited page on my Web site. I think the Vaya should have an ownership club.

Anonymous said...

Hi Thanks for the revue,it echoes my feelings on it too.I have a Bronze coloured 2011 one I built up from a frameset,Hope h/set,Stronglight Impact triple c/set,Shimano Deore mechs,custom 14-32 8sp cassette,downtube shifters mounted on Kelly Take offs.FSA stem & compact drops,BB7 road,wheelset I built with XT M756 hubs DRC St19 rims.I run 700x37c Vittoria Randonneur Hyper tyres,these tyres are awesome very quick on tarmac,incredible on dirt/gravel and very comfortable which adds to an already well sorted and comfy bike.
I've been so impressed with it,a couple of months back I bought another,2014 frameset,same build,except the headset is an FSA Orbit XL2 in light blue:0).
So now I have two I'm twice as happy.I also have a spare wheelset shod with 35c Schwalbe LandCruisers for when the going is a little muddier.
I had a road/audax machine that I found I was no longer riding so sold it to fund the second Vaya,I considered a Fargo but to be honest the Vaya's been such an ideal 5star bike and wheelset are interchangable it was a no brainer
Thanks again
PS,If you ride a lot of tarmac/pavement and less gravel I can't stress just how good the Vittoria Hypers are.

Aleks said...

Hey All,
Everybody on here seems to have owned their Vayas for a while and might be able to help me out?
Im looking at getting a new commuter and i am undecided as to go the salsa vaya or a more racier soma double cross. I commute about 14 km one way, carry at least one pannier everyday (though only 5 kg or so) and lower down about 3 gutters. Some days i choose to go up the gutters too.
Occasionally, once or twice a year i might do a 2-4 day cycle tour. Ill also use the bike around town a fair bit: going to the pub, dinner, friends, etc.
Ive never ridden a 700c or 29" bike, always been on 26", or with drops.
In everyone's opinion:
* are you upright enough on the vaya, either on the hoods or drops, to look through traffic and be quick enough to respond to hazards?
* with the wood chipper bars, is it easy to lift the front end?
* I currently ride an old mountain bike (full rigid) with marathon plus'. This is contradictory to my first question, do you think you get much more aerodynamics on this than on a mountain bike?


Velosopher said...

Aleks, I've never ridden a Double Cross, but they seem a very solid choice. I'm guessing it's a tad lighter than the Vaya, which was, after all, built for "all-road touring."

Assuming you can fit the Double Cross with racks front and back (which you can the Vaya) I'm not sure it would be as steady under a heavy load. If your tours are short and you're just using panniers, or a large under-saddle bag, this difference might disappear.

The Vaya is built to sit you more upright than most other drop-bar road bikes. If you use the drops on your bars, you'll be about as aerodynamic as one can be on a pure touring bike. I assume you are sitting slightly higher than on a 26" bike, though.

If you can ride both bikes, do so. If not, good luck! They're both probably great in different ways.

Jon R said...

Hey, great review from an MA native, thanks.

I just road my first D2R2(160k) on a 19 year old MTB frame, and I loved the ride, disliked the bike after about 50 miles. Bike and Saddle issues due to how I sit on that bike, which is a fairly aggressive aluminum frame.

As I mature I want to do lots more of this type of riding (North Central MA Dweller). I am a big framed rider, a good 10 lbs into the Clydesdale Class and now looking at a gravel/touring machine thats easy enough for me to pedal up larger hills.

The Vaya keeps popping up as a good alternative in this space and I am looking for new. They changed from the triple front to a 48/32 with a SRAM X9(Mtn) 11-36 rear. I am hoping this will be easy enough to get up those hills. Also, any other gravel bikes you think I should be comparing this to?

Thanks for the review

Velosopher said...

Jon, you won't go wrong with the Vaya. It's billed as a "dirt road touring bike," and, while I've never used it as such, that does mean that it's built like a tank for tons of abuse. Along with the Salsa Delgado rims mine came with, I've put it through lots of singletrack, dirt road riding and commuting -- two years' worth since this review was published -- and all it needs right now are new brake pads and a new chain. Just the other day, I stripped off the fenders and rack and put it back in "ramble mode," and fell in love with it all over again. From what you way you want, I think it will satisfy and then some. And the frame is beefy, real solid.Yet a total of only 26 lbs. in a medium with dead-heavy rims and 40 mm tires.

Good luck! Let me know if you buy one!

Mike said...

I'm curious why you said it's not good for longer paved rides. As a light touring bike it sounds perfect for extended all day rides that that touring cyclists do on much heavier expedition touring bikes. It seems purpose built for long days. I just picked up a used frame and will see.

Harry said...

Mike, I haven't re-read this review in quite a while, but here goes anyway: I would be fine on my Vaya on an all-day paved ride. But I'd be more likely to take my Jamis Quest, a lighter, more responsive bike that, being steel, is still very comfortable. In the past, I've tended to shoe the Vaya with treaded tires like the X'Plor MSO, which are leaden on pavement. The Quest has Panaracer Paselas, much more fleet.