Sunday, November 22, 2015

Salsa Chowchippers: 30-mile review

It seems bike guys can't resist scatalogical animal humor
In the four years I've owned my beloved Salsa Vaya, I've had three different handlebars on it, and none of them felt exactly right. The  Ritchey Biomax it came with (used) were inexplicably swept back, and Salsa Woodchippers—as rad as they looked—were flaired too wide for comfort. When Salsa brought out their Bell Lap, I switched to those and stuck with them. They were perfect on the hoods, but the drops were too deep and I rarely went low on them.

I stopped by Hampshire Bicycle Exchange this month to order the Salsa Cowbell—the bars which took the place of the Bell Laps in the Salsa catalog, and since have become popular cyclocross and gravel bars. However, Paul at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange tipped me off to Salsa's newest gravel-oriented bar: The Cowchipper. As you can guess from the clever name, they're meant to slot in between the Woodchipper, with its crazily flared and spread-eagled drops, and the Cowbell's more narrow and sedate profile. 

Image © 2015, Salsa Cycles
I did my research and the few reviews online were strong, so I placed an order. Last week, Will Sytsma, friend and Bike Exchange owner, installed and wrapped the bars for me. He even gave me trade-in value on my Bell Laps.

A "flare" for rough surfaces
Moss-green tape will call just a flicker of attention to these unusual bars
I took the rig out yesterday and rode it on my favorite nearby gravel-and-trail testing grounds, and then today for a longer jaunt in the hills and swamps of Shutesbury and Wendell, MA. I rode every surface: primitive roads that really called for full-suspension, lots of gravel and dirt roads, a smidge of tarmac, and a few miles of trail. (Yes: it was a heavenly ride.)

Captured in their natural habitat
In general, the bars deliver handsomely on their promise.

They're very comfortable and the wide drops do, indeed, provide very useful leverage on choppy surfaces. They're also great for grabbing on the super-steeps to get power from the glutes and keep the front end down. I've been wanting bars with a short drop forever (these are 116 millimeters, just a hair deeper than the hyper-shallow Woodchippers), because my lower back just isn't that flexible, and these seem to provide about the right amount. The curves of the hooks and angle of the lower extensions fit my large hands just like gloves; I found a delightful variety of places to rest down there. 

As with any bar, it's a bit tricky finding the perfect place to secure the hoods: high enough to provide a natural wrist angle when on top, but low enough that at least your index fingers can cover the brakes on crazy descents in the hooks. This balance is made a bit easier by the shallow drop. I don't even have to jam my hands all the way forward to scrub a little speed. 

The benefits of the very wide flare became obvious as soon as I turn down the trailheads that proliferate beside gravel roads. Neither bike nor bars were made for single track, as my middle-aged neck and elbows are reminding me tonight. But I just couldn't resist—especially once I found that I was more agile on the trails than I've ever been on this bike. 

But it's on the gravel that these bars shine. Comfortable on the hoods and restful and stable in the drops, I could see racking up some long, dusty miles with them. I could be wrong, but the width of the drops (especially on the straight rearward extensions) seemed to absorb some of the ever-present chatter.

I look forward to putting more miles on these, and will check in about them when I do. 

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Just Strap Some Stuff to a Bike and Go

Away back in 1980,  I lashed a sleeping bag and some clothes to my boat-anchor Japanese bicycle and followed my American Youth Hostels trip leader (barely older than the pubescent punks in his wake) over the length and breadth of New England. I liked it enought that, the next year, I rode the northern Pacific Coast the same way. In those Jurassic days, few Americans knew about this thing we called bike touring.

The author in July 1980, somewhere off the Pacific Coast Highway
Fast forward 35 years. After decades off the bike, I came to my senses and spent the last nine years buying and riding every kind of bicycle I could get my hands on. I've ridden on everything from glorious mountain roads to overgrown, unrecognizable double-track, to buff and sinuous mountain trails. All along I wondered if I would, at some point, return to the touring fold. People were certainly still doing it. Mostly very young people…

I looked at the pictures and thought, "Who would want to load a beautiful bike down with 40 pounds of luggage? It's so much more beautiful and spritely without it."

Then about five years ago, the young'ns started crowing about this new thing called "bikepacking." I guess it started out with someone piling a bunch of stuff on their bike—this time, a mountain bike—and riding it into the woods to sleep. While there, you could build a dangerously large fire, have a libation or two, and maybe listen to the owls hooting.

Hmm. Touring in the woods? Interesting.

These folk were folding in the ultra-light ethos of modern backpackers (another ancient pursuit overhauled for the 21st century). Also, moving the weight lower and more in line with the frame. This started to look like a solution for the elephantine nature of touring bikes.

Bikepacking setup  © 2010 The Lazy Rando Blog
Bikepackers also (being busy trying to keep their jobs in an overcompetitive, anemic economy) were very short on time. So they were going out for overnights, or weekend outings, and inventing cute names for them like the s24o and the microadventure. This meant you could pack less than ever on the bike—maybe even leaving it a little bit fun to ride.

My defenses were crumbling.

Finally, a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on this:
Heck, in India I met a Spanish guy who had cycled from Spain (over 15,000km) on a twenty-five dollar used bicycle which he had bought ten years before, and he couldn’t have been happier. If he isn’t proof that any bike will work, I don’t know what is […] The hardest part is taking that first step out of the door to leave, once you have left, the rest comes naturally […] Go out and try it. If you don’t have bike bags, don’t worry about it, just strap your backpack or a duffle bag to the back of your bike and head off for the weekend straight from your front door. 
I'm not too ossified to admit that this twenty-year-old young lady fired me up like a camp stove with this post. It was the last push I needed. I picked a weekend and started thinking creatively about how I could get a bona fide adventure in.

Where to stay? Too chilly for camping this time of year (for my blood), so my thoughts turned to the various cabin locations I've been researching in the area. I decided I could a) sleep warmer and b) haul less stuff if I went that route. I booked a lovely hut pretty far into the woods, with a wood stove, no running water or electricity, and well out of cell phone range -- but also less than a two-hour ride from my front door. Perfecto.

I'll ride up there Friday afternoon, fire up the wood stove and store up a bunch of water from the well. Then I'll make dinner and libations, and settle beside the fire with a book. In the morning, my friend Will, owner of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange in Amherst, MA, is going to join me for the second and third day. We'll spend the long middle day exploring all the dirt we can find, and return to town the following morning.

But wait! I don't have all those fancy bikepacking bags! 

Well, duh. I have a Salsa Vaya, a bike built for dirt road touring. It's got a rack and fender system perfect for commuting. Maybe I won't look like the trendy photos all over the bike blogs these days... but they Vaya been secretly pining to be returned to its natural habitat. What I do have is a huge, waterproof commuting pannier and a big ol' daypack: that ought to fit everything I need and then some. It'll be awkward and a little gooberish, but, yeah… whatever. I'll be riding a bike in the woods! Who cares if it's a little off-balance? 

The point of this exercise is to see if I really like this kind of thing. A bikepacking dry run, if you will. If it leaves me thirsting for more, maybe I'll get hold of some purpose-built bags and ride a fat or mountain bike next time. But if I'm not thrilled, I'll sure be happy I didn't spend $500 on the latest trend without knowing if it's really me.

Since I  got all of that mapped out, I haven't been able to think of anything else. The trip is three weeks away, and I've researched an 85% dirt route to the cabin, got a food shopping list going, as well as a long list of tweaks to the bike set-up to get through before roll-out.

And then, for even more fun, there are the shakedown rides!

Sunday morn, I strapped a simulated load to the Vaya, and took off for all of the gravel roads, double-track, and "is-this-really-a-road?" trails I could find. A few hours later, I was drinking coffee in a local breakfast place and writing down more to-do's. 

If I can't distribute the load a little more evenly for the real trip, I'll just work on my skills
You're never too old to get excited. Myself, I'm like a kid again these days, just thinking about the trip. Isn't that half of what adventures are for—the anticipation?

As the Wandering Nomads say on their blog: If your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Salsa Cycles Demo Day in the Holyoke Mountains

I headed for the hills yesterday to ride some bikes. Some SALSA bikes. Good ol' Hampshire Bicycle Exchange was hosting a demo day up in the Holyoke range, our local mini-mountains and home of Earl's Trails, the most beloved mountain biking area in the Pioneer Valley.

After the addition of my treasured Pivot Mach 429 this year, I've sworn to try to keep my collection to four machines. That didn't keep me from feeling like a kid in the proverbial candy store as I approached the Salsa tent in the parking lot of the famed Cold War-era bunker up at the Notch. I planned to ride models I'd never tried before, and that's always a thrill.

First up for me was the Beargrease, Salsa's ultralight carbon fat bike. This year's model added a Rockshox Bluto suspension fork, which was a bit of a disappointment; I had hoped to experience the fully-rigid featherweightness. Nonetheless, the bike did not disappoint.

Earl's is mostly known for flowy trails and lots of steep, short climbs, though over the years, roots have become taller and more difficult to overcome. What with leaves all down and a light rain earlier in the day making things slick, the testing ground for fat tires couldn't have been better. This Bear proved a nimble and surefooted one, both downward (though I'm finding all but the most race-oriented mountain bikes shine on the descents) and—significantly for me—the climbs. The low weight is, of course, a plus in that category. The one-by drive train (the first I've tried) is pure delight. So simple and elegant: Too hard? Shift down with right hand. Too easy? Right hand shifts up. Almost like automatic transmission. Never having to think about the compounding factor of the front rings frees you up to be present for the ride. I found the Beargrease had that magic balance of materials, geometry, and wheel size that allowed for truly intuitive riding. My mind wandered pleasantly over sections that other bikes had me struggling with.

Thoughts at the end of the ride? "If I had to own a hard-tail (a set-up I've sworn off) this would be it." Does everything a high-end 29er can -- but with more confidence and fun. It's also probably lighter than most of them. The Pepto-Bismol-to-orange-popsicle color scheme is a bit unfortunate, though.

Having jumped on the Salsa fanboy wagon upon the purchase of a 2010 Vaya (still owned and loved) I've been mighty curious to experience the bikes the company has developed since then specifically for dirt roads. Before the profusion of gravel events exploded all over the country, the Vaya was one of the first go-to bikes for that domain. The Warbird is meant to take gravel geometry to a racier place, and indeed it does. The difference between this and a purebred cyclocross race bike feel minimal to my (non-racer's) body, used as it is to the upright and relaxed Vaya.

The Bird is as stiff and light as a razor blade, but the newly designed rear triangle's Vibration Reduction System really does makes it surprisingly comfortable over the nasties, even in the aluminum version I rode (the higher end is, of course, carbon). Took it on some road-like trails behind the Notch visitors center and tried some quick turns, bumpiness, and gravel traction. It even held its own on a short section of rooty single-track, though I certainly wouldn't want to get beat up like that all day.

Final thoughts? "If some calamity destroyed my road bike and my Vaya, I'd replace them both with this bike." Maybe with a higher stem, though.

This machine was the star of the show for most riders yesterday. Although the boys in Minnesota have more recently forayed into full-suspension 650-plus territory with the new Pony Rustler, only one person at the event had ever tried such a bike, much less the full-suspension pure-fat (with four-inch tires) that the Buck represents. The reviews have been delirious, so I was eager to climb aboard.

The reps were touting it as a full-suspension mountain bike with fat tires -- not the other way around. I disagree. The Buck is a lot of bike, and handles accordingly. However, if your first priority is traction, traction, traction... you'll be in pig heaven. No kidding, it feels like you could ride up the side of a tree on this thing. In that regard, it was great fun; there's no dabbing, no moments of panic; you just ROOOOLLL. Climbs that would normally vex me because of tall, slick roots yielded meekly (well, with less strain than usual). Even with all that suspension weight and the extra rubber, climbing was surprisingly easy thanks to the greatest traction of the day. 

Like every bike I demoed yesterday (except the Warbird), it features a one-by drive train, which was ample. A hidden benefit is the rims: their relatively skinny 80 millimeters meant that the fat tires were formed into a rounded profile. This meant that turns were fairly self-completing; lean the bike a little and the U-shaped tired just took over; the wheel wants to turn.

If you wanted to skip all that irritating skill-building and simply flatten out the rock gardens, this is the bike for you. Final thoughts? "A bit too much bike, but a load of fun."

At one point, friend Adam showed up and we wanted to ride together. All the demo bikes in my size were out on the trail, so Salsa rep Jeremy generously loaned me his bling-tastic Ti Mariachi wtih Fox fork, carbon rims, and all the other trimmings. He even changed the sag on the fork for me. Thanks, man! 

It's featherweight. It's beautiful. It descends and turns like a dream. The set-back seat post and 2.4 Ardent Jeremy had cleverly mounted on the back provided so much cush, I felt almost like I had a fat rear wheel. But when I turned it upward, I realized I still don't like hard-tails. Powering that rigid rear wheel on super-steep switchbacks with tall roots just wears me out. Summary: "This is probably the best hard-tail 29er I've ridden. But, yeah. I'm tired."

*     *     *

In recent years, it seems Salsa's line-up has been sub-dividing rather rapidly. They invent new ways to split categories: Fat bikes, then fat bikes with a carbon frame, then with front suspension, then with full suspension, and then with five-inch tires (on the Blackborow, which I didn't get to ride yesterday). 

They were one of the original bikepacking and ultra-distance mountain biking promoters on the scene, and that all started on the strength of just their redoubtable Mariachi and Fargo lines -- two clearly distinct and respected bikes. For 2016, they've added the Cutthroat (a lightweight, front suspension mountain rig slotted into the narrow space between between the Fargo and the Mariachi) and the Deadwood (an unfortunately-named 29-plus entry that basically is a Fargo with slightly fatter tires). They also list many other bikes as bikepacking-ready—even their one paved-road-only bike, the Colossal.

In the full-sus category, they list no fewer than four distinct models (though in a variety of wheel sizes). 

On the one hand, I love all this experimenting. Riding all these bikes is a grand experiment in minute differentiation. On the other, I can't help worrying that Salsa is teetering under the weight of some catalog bloat. 

They are inventive and passionate, and i adore that. I also adore simplicity, though, and doing one thing well. That's what Salsa used to represent to me. Sixteen models, many claiming they can do a little of what each of the others do, feels a bit overwhelming. The biggest pleasure of the day was realizing, as I climbed wearily into my car to head home, that I'm quite happy for the moment with my current stable. Four distinct bikes -- fat, full-sus, dirt-road, and paved road—is more than enough for the non. I hope to tweak them until they all delight me, instead of dumping them for flashier versions. The differences, when all's said and done, are not that great. A beautiful bike is a beautiful bike, even if the next-big-thing trend that gave birth to it vanished a few years ago.

*     *     *

These ruminations notwithstanding, it was a true delight to experience all these gorgeous bikes on a beautiful, moody fall day in my favorite hills., and to stand around talking geometry and tire choice with people as absurdly obsessed as I. Many thanks to the kind, helpful Salsa reps, and to Hampshire Bicycle Exchange for hosting and co-staffing the event.

I'm still a fanboy, that's for sure. Two of my four horses are Salsas. So keep doin' that mad scientist thing up there in the frozen North, boys; I'm sure I'll be bellying up to the cash register again sometime in the middle future…

All photos © Salsa Cycles, with thanks