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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Chris Van Camp said...

Thanks for the post Harry. I may try those bars too on my beautiful super-orange Vaya. I miss my old Brown/blue Vaya - I'm glad you have it and love it! I look forward to riding with you when I move back to the valley in early summer!

Velosopher said...

Chris, great to hear from you! I can't recommend the Cowchippers highly enough. I took them on the bikepacking trip I recently chronicled in a post here, and boy, did they shine. Do you remember how we both felt the Woodchippers were a good idea but a bit ridiculous on the Vaya when I tried them? These are the perfect middle ground. They're still drop bars -- but with a very comfy hood position, a very shallow drop, and a crap-ton of leverage in the drops. And the bend of the hooks is comfortable at every point in the curve!

I look forward to riding with you again! I have a few more skills than I did the last time… what, 1.5 years ago?