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."

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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.

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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

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