By Marko Rajkovic
I was never a serious cyclist. Serious always sounded wrong to me. Good things in life should be ridiculous, ravishing, breathtaking, sometimes I’ll settle for boring words like reliable, responsible or some horse-banana like that. But “serious?” A word for cancer and politicians.
And cycling was always fun for me. Even when I was focusing on winning the few elusive UCI points back in the days, I was annoyed by fellow cyclists who wouldn’t stop to admire a beautiful old cow pooping by the trail ‘cause they were too busy working on their lactate threshold enhancing workout. I often practiced unsafe and unplanned fueling stops when stumbling upon a mountain hut or a field of berries or mushrooms, and my tires would often end up wallowing in mud in the middle of nowhere while exploring a new uncharted little trail. And my serious friends who enjoy their sport too much would usually just freak out. It was either, “this is f*ing up our workout” or “now we’re going to have to ride at night and get lost” ( isn’t that always the best part?), or “this trail isn’t for bikes”, or some similar serious bull manure.
Yes, my attitude found me starving and lost in the middle of uncharted junkyards in state parks, compromising my optimal fitness, riding through hailstorms, fighting with my future wife, hike-a-biking for miles through bushes slinging my bike clumsily as a machete. But these were also the adventures when I felt so alive and complete as a ripe tomato in a salsa.
So, yes, I wanted to write about Salsa. My new favorite bike brand.
It took me a while to figure out why I like Salsas so much. And then I realized that each one of these bikes begs me not to be serious and seems to have been made by my tribe of people who know that having outdoor fun in life can be a great path to happiness, and that the bikes they are making are seriously fun. Seriously.
Salsas are definitely not your average cyclists’ household brand. Some people when I say the name confusingly think I’m talking about dance moves, some people think of their favorite Mexican green sauce. But Salsa bikes? What?
As I look at Salsa’s bike lineup I can’t help thinking of an obscure 80’s punk hardcore band that has a lot of fun making music for their own pleasure, only other people happen to listen to it and enjoy it too. The audience is just a necessary evil ‘cause otherwise they wouldn’t have the means to make these tunes. And if you happen to listen to it for long enough, it actually not only makes sense, it actually changes the way you hear things.
Digression. Detour to present tense.
2016. Millennials have taken over. Not only is it weird to read a newspaper in a bar, or own a printed copy of a book, it’s even weirder if you’re sitting in a bar on your own, electronic device-free, just chugging your coffee/beer and watching people go by. You must be either a terrorist pedophile or a cop. Something’s wrong there.
On the flip side it’s also becoming socially acceptable not to own a car. Even relatively affluent middle class urban yuppies will proudly say that they only have some kind of car share membership to satiate their motorized needs. Giving up the car is the new trendy urban quitting thing to do. Cigarettes were the 90’s, Sodas were the 00s, personal freedom the early 10’s. And now it’s the car.
Bicycles have even come so far as to become attributes of gentrification, as affluent, bike infested communities are beginning to wrestle away more and more road space and parking spots from the good old 4 wheeled tin can that still rules “This American Life”, but not for long!
The emasculated men and gracious ladies in bike depictions of cyclists in the 20th century media have been replaced by the cool single cargo bike mom that’s proselytizing about local produce and fern rights while her kid sitting on the rear of her electric assist Cargo Bike hangs on for grim death while breathing a healthy organic dose of early morning exhaust fumes as the pedal assist throttle kicks in. Or a mugshot of a guy on a cross bike plastered in mud grinning like he found the Unholy Grail…
Yearlong commuters brag about their exploits as much as triathletes, and proudly post on twittergrams how they haven’t missed a day of biking since Strava was invented. And how much they save on gas and blah and blargh. What will they think of next? Yes, being homeless is also of course good for the environment, and yes a lot of homeless people also ride bike as their only means of transportation. So? Is being homeless the new fad? Oh, never mind, it’s much cooler to talk about how you biked across the country, or, even better, an exotic country.
And what should these cool (grand)kids ride these days? Fixies? Nooo. Not anymore. Cross bikes? Maybee. But no, cross is dead. Bilenky Cross, the heart and soul of grassroots cross is canceled due to a junkyard charging too much for staging a cross race in there?
Salsas? Well, if they aren’t, they should be riding them. Because for all the people that want to do something completely different, these bikes can be the ticket out of the ordinary grind of everyday life. Yes I know, under the right butt, so can any $100 used bike, but a Salsa will make it so much easier and more enjoyable.
These bikes scream from the nipples of their spokes “take me out, use me, take me far away, where no bike has ventured before. Take me to Salsa land. And I’ll help you enjoy the ride and experience something completely different.” They will seduce you like when you first learned how to ride a bike. Seduce you with a sense of dirty muddy, gravelly or dirty asphalt wonder.
Salsa is trying to spark a bike packing revolution; in parallel with bikes they are also developing an offering of bizzare frame bags for bikes that are missing the classic touring punch hole/braze on setup. And they are spot on. Once one realizes it’s not that hard at all, bike packing can be a life changing adventure. It’s actually great when you realize you’ve already forgotten how your phone died a few days ago when you crashed going through that little stream. And instead of checking your phone for signs of life around you, you’ve actually started living the life that surrounds you. And then you might realize how great this world is, or sometimes just how unhappy you are in your everyday slave life, or maybe you just realize that it’s just not your cup of dirt. Whatever the outcome, I still haven’t met someone who regretted departing on one of these journeys.
Detour No. 2. So what makes Salsas so special? Why are they different?
Lately, success stories by people who think differently are multiplying and getting bizarre twists. A banana coffee roasting kickstarter startup (ok, I made that up), some neurotic kid who believed in making money by carving messages into potatoes… These things exist for real.
Salsa really does the bike thing differently, they are building their image on bikes that won’t feature in the Tour de France or win the MTB world cup, none of their bikes will make the weight weeniest or most expensive or cheapest of the millennium bike list.
What they do make is the best bike for touring in snow conditions, the fastest non-stop multi-day, multi surface racing bike, the most fun off road bike packing bike, and some bikes that are the great at being Transformers.
Take the El Mariachi. You feel like MTB singlespeeding. Yip it can do that. You changed your mind, you want to ride it with gears, maybe even race it. Yip, very easy. You want to do some MTB touring, yip it can do that too.
Or my current favorite Salsa dish on the menu. The Deadwood. A bike that was made to show that you can comfortably do fully packed MTB touring over technical terrain and that the bike to do that on is a rigid, drop-bar - single chainring - fat tire MTB. Rigid-drop bar-single chainring- fat tire-MTB? What?
The marketing slogan for Salsa is “Adventure by bike”. I would add that their bikes are an adventure themselves. Rigid mountain bikes with drop bars? Touring fat bikes? Racing fat bikes? Gravel racing bikes? All these are bikes until recently wouldn’t be allowed into any of your standard bike industry scrabble games. And then Salsa came by and helped invent these categories.
My first taste of Salsa came in Utah during Saddle Drive, the bike industry event served by QBP, Salsa’s parent company. And it tasted sooo good.
The sampler menu was pretty much all the Salsa’s, and there wasn’t enough time to try out all of the dishes…
My favorites? The Cutthroat, Spearfish, Deadwood.
Why these fellas?
The Cutthroat feels like cycling reinvented. Road bike speed, but trail thirsty. A rigid mountain bike designed to be ridden in the super flared drops? Weird?
Sure, this kind of bike existed in the early days of cyclocross when Tomac was riding similar contraptions. But those had narrower tires, canti brakes, and were super uncomfortable. Will the Cutthroat be like that? Hell no! After putzing around for a few hours on that thing I felt like someone introduced me to a new high quality opiate that I never knew existed...and that wasn’t harmful.
And then there’s the weird frame bag mounts scream for you to use them and travel the hell out of this fish. The bike also feels comfortable both on and off road as a cyclist riding through Amsterdam. It just feels right wherever you go. However long you go. At the end of the day it left me puzzled. Did I just ride a road bike with fat tires? Or was it a rigid MTB? Or was it a super lightweight touring bike? Did it maybe even have suspension? Whaaat?
The Spearfish on the other hand is something I always knew I needed. A comfy but at the same time racy full suspension mountain bike on which I feel confident going over anything at breakneck speeds, uphill or downhill regardless of maybe having a bad tire day. The proof that one doesn’t have to have an aggressive racy bike in order to race fast and furious… So what if the Spearfish is a full suspension bike with only 80mm of rear travel. Nobody makes those anymore? Did you ride it? Whatever they did actually makes it plusher than a lot of 100mm rear travel machines. Whatever the dude designing this fish was planning on achieving, mission accomplished…
And from the rubble from the last Apocalypse, rises the mighty, magnificent, ugly and beautiful, badass, Deadwood. The one bike that in my dumb opinion rules them all. The bike I would like to have under my behind if it was the end of the world. The one I would use in Mad Max. One big, tough, fat tire, single chainring, drop bar, touring, steel is too real, MTF-ing son of a BICYCLE.
And some other samplers I tried?
The Warbird is another I don’t give a bear dropping about genre bikes. Yes, some wise ass at Salsa named it a gravel bike. But if you ask me, it’s as much of a comfortable endurance road bike, or a great cross bike. I took it on a local MTB trail and it ripped better than most of the cross bikes I’ve ever ridden on mountain bike trails, and it’s definitely better at road riding than most of them. Again I’m not again sure where to pinpoint the use of this bike, but who cares?
Then there’s the Fat Bikes. Salsa is big on these obese bikes, but I still don’t get the hype. I’ve ridden them quite a few times now and the fact that you can roll over stranded walruses with ease doesn’t make up for the truck like handling these bikes offer in comparison to your standard mountain bike. But wait. There’s something more to these bikes. I’ve done some stupid MTB rides where mud was crotch deep and the expected thick undergrowth was, well overgrown. Carrying my bike through inaccessible and inhospitable places was always my passion and on this type of not really groomed trails is where these fat Salsa musk oxen shine. You can actually keep riding trails that have been destroyed by SUV’s and 4 wheel buggies. You can actually tour in the outback where no trails exist. If you buy a plastic (pardon my language, carbon) one, you can even go fast. And yes you’ll still have to carry your bike now and then, and surprisingly they don’t float or fly for you but at least while you’re on solid or sodden ground instead of mostly hike-a-biking, you’ll mostly be biking…
And the one that pokes the eye in the obese Salsa bunch is definitely the Bucksaw, another Salsa bike that’s ventured where no other bike manufacturer went before. A full suspension Fatbike? Who needs that?
It’s not what we need. We can be well fed with oatmeal and beans every day. It’s what we enjoy. The Bucksaw is that wonderful salmon you caught with your bare hands washed down with a wonderful beer you cooled off in the nearby stream.
And yes, there’s such a thing as a boring Salsa. But isn’t a boring bike a compliment for a touring bike? Boring in a good way. The Marrakesh is the only such Salsa I tasted. Except for the odd Zodiac sign paint job on the top tube that makes you think you just scratched your bike it’s just kind of your regular heavy duty touring bike with all the bosses for racks and the stable comfortable ride. But, even that bike has something different. The alternator dropouts will let you turn your bike into a singlespeed if your derailleur happens to snap. And if you’re in the middle of some forsaken place far away from the closest derailleur hanger shop that little detail will allow you to keep riding your bike until you find that elusive derailleur hanger shop, and when you’re touring, that’s great. That’s something that only someone who actually tours and ended up pushing their bike and aborting a long trip before its bitter end would say, hey, this would actually be useful, let’s make a bike that will help me if I end up in this mess again.
Yes, there might be great engineers responsible for a lot of great bikes we’re riding today, but very often these frames happen to be missing something because you can tell that the creators don’t really indulge in that kind of biking. And that’s the big difference with Salsas; their frames are designed around a purpose, but also by cyclists that happen to also be good engineers or designers. Bike geeks that actually test the presumed skill set of these animals on their own cogs and cranks. Unlike some brands that develop fancy bikes for racers, Salsa will develop them for people that want to do stupid things like race forever in freezing weather, or try to do bikepacking where no one’s done that before, or just ride forever on boring gravel roads that nobody uses but a few forgotten stray dogs. Their slogan “adventure by bike” may be one of those clichés, but it actually stands for more. Every single bike in the Salsa line is an adventure itself, and unlike generic models produced by brain powered copycat robots, their designs are really adventurous. A full suspension fat tire bike, a racing FS bike with only 80mm of rear travel, a bikepacking bike without rackmounts, frame mounts for bags, alternator dropouts, rear vibration dampening seatstays missing a bridge?
Beware of Salsa. It’s a symbol of the new bike age, where the millennials and neo-hippies are slowly starting to take over and give bikes a cool mainstream tag. Hopefully the age where one treasures a fart in a tent at the back end of a 15 day bike packing trip more than a gold flake fart Rolls Royce that they bought to show off their first million. Shiny happy people who treasure not only being, but also feeling alive, and who know that biking is a mighty good fix to get that sensation. And yes, the millennials that are getting on these bikes might think they need batteries, gps routes, and rechargeable solar power, that otherwise they’ll suffocate and turn into an analogue video cassette and forever lose their wireless connection. But shouldn’t they try how free one feels without a phone, charger or gps somewhere out there, how at first it scares the poop out of you, then it paralyzes you, and then you realize you’re still alive, you can actually read a map, make a fire, travel at night until your 3A batteries die, and then travel at night by the light of the moon? Should they try that and like it, there’s a bike for this. Oh yes. The Deadwood.
So you say Salsa is overpriced? How come a Tiagra bike goes for $2000, or why the Marrakesh has competitors that seem to have better value for money. Well look again fella, there’s a lot of reasons. Not just appearance. These bicycles hide little engineering gems that one appreciates and marvels at after the end of a long ,long never ending ride. So just grab, buy, steal, borrow, test ride, lease or maybe just make one. And you’ll know that you’re getting your money’s worth.
I always enjoyed taking my bike to places where other people told me it wasn’t bikeable. My most memorable hike a bike probably being the one where I hiked with my now wife next to a beautiful canyon trail that made us scramble next to a steep waterfall trail, and then get caught in the heaviest hailstorm ever. Once upon a time I helped design the course for the first Croatian X-Terra triathlon and ended up carrying my MTB for hours through an endless rockgarden infested by thornbushes in the scorching sun. My longest non-stop MTB ride was a 180 mile ride leg during a weeklong non-stop adventure race in Portugal where we biked an endless 48 hours in pouring rain/ice/hail conditions. And I was always dreaming of finding and riding the perfect bike for this type of riding. And now I found it.
And yes, you can probably do these stupid things with any kind of bike. But having one that is actually made by people that think that such stupid things are fun is better. Having a Salsa is better. And having a lot of Salsas is way better.