Salsa Horsethief II frame £1500

Stylish yet conservative American trail bike

BikeRadar score 4/5

The Salsa Horsethief first appeared in 2011, but this is a newly redesigned frame. The 2014 version is shorter at the back, stiffer, and half a degree slacker up front. It's also a lot better.

With 120mm of rear travel and 29in wheels it may sound pretty cross-country, but even if this build wasn't a hefty 29lb 8oz without pedals, the Salsa's heart lies in more aggressive trails.

It's at home on worn descents, and it rarely feels as heavy as it is on the climbs. It's agile too, with rapid yet well-planted steering that only starts to tuck, rather than push wide, on the steepest, tightest lines.

Frame and equipment: different build options

It's frame-only option in the UK, but our imported Horsethief II features a representitive, if not top-end spec. Note that UK frames are gunmetal grey (with lime decals) only, and not the vibrant green of this complete bike. Shame. The similarity of the deeper numbers to Specialized's Stumpjumper FSR 29 EVO is no bad thing either.

The Schwalbe Nobby Nic tyres on our test bike are big, and a good indication of the upper size limit… and nothing else, thanks to the awful PaceStar compound. Clearance is tight, and big tyres leave little room for winter filth to fall through. Slimmer tyres (such as the Hutchinson Toros we tried) help, but nothing stops slime piling onto the mech mount, main pivot and linkage. It's quite a mud trap.

With a head angle of 68.1 degrees it's neither notably slack nor steep, but the longer fork offset the frame is designed for – the axle is 51mm ahead of the steering axis, not the common 46mm –  puts the wheel further forward to effectively slacken that angle.

Salsa says you should fit a 530mm axle-to-crown fork with a 51mm offset – a Fox Float 32 at 130mm/Float 34 at 120mm, though other makes will fit. The 51mm offset is important as it reduces trail to create quicker steering responses; a 46mm offset fork may feel sluggish.

The Fox Float CTD rear shock has the mid-level Performance damper inside and no Kashima outside, and the result is a slightly grey, muted response to hard cornering where there could be a more vibrant, colourful pop. It's certainly not bad – just not amazing.

If we were building a Horsethief, for once we'd take the lower weight of a 32 over the extra stiffness of a 34. With bolt-through axles at both ends and strong, wide wheels, the Horsethief is accurate enough to let you choose more zing and lower weight.

These Stan's ZTR Rapid-rimmed wheels are a solid choice, and though the 21mm internal-width rims aren't available aftermarket, they're similar to Stan's Crests. As with any 29er, wheel choice is vital, and carbon hoops such as Whyte's £1,000 XC/Trails or Superstar's £749 AM Carbon Enduros would be right at home.

Ride and handling: playful and fun, with taught pedalling courtesy of the Split Pivot rear suspension

Back-to-back with a much lighter hardtail on pedally, twisty trails, the Horsethief II is as fun and (surprisingly) often as fast thanks to its predictable, feelsome stance under cornering, and its eagerness to pump extra speed from every dip.

It's confidence-inspiring on steep, rough, natural descents too – the 'local' kind that hit every root at an awkward angle, flick round the backs of trees and fire you into the roughest ruts. It's a playful trail bike, not a finicky cross-country bike, no matter what the headline numbers suggest.

The Split Pivot rear suspension provides taught pedalling thanks to its inherent anti-squat – it rises under power, counteracting pedalling forces without needing loads of low-speed compression (such as heavy ProPedal) damping. It also allows the shock to work unhindered under braking, so stopping is strong.

Ground clearance is good thanks to the reasonably high (329mm) BB, though its 36mm drop below the axle line means it feels poised neatly between precarious and low-slung. Sprint climbs standing up and you'll feel the suspension pulsing, and not every rider likes this – or the supple but slightly disconnected feel Split Pivot creates – but we had no issues here. It strikes a good balance between efficient pedalling and stability-enhancing plush that suits this short-travel, do-it-all frame well.

Sizing is good, and the shorter rear stays (437mm) combine with a well-proportioned toptube (610mm on the medium) to create a stable, roomy bike that's still easy to carve and pop around. If you're around six foot you've got a choice between medium and large, and while 6ft testers were happier on the medium than expected, we'd recommend the large for the extra 20mm of top tube and wheelbase (with the same 437mm rear).

It's to the frame's credit that, even in this £2,300 build, it feels underdressed. Vitally, the Horsethief – even cloaked in this very solid if unspectacular kit – has what you need from an expensive, relatively rare boutique frame: that sense of being special, an air of quality, style and exclusivity.

As good as it is in real-world dress, this redesigned frame feels like it has more to give. That's a good thing that bodes well for years of riding and upgrading, and with a willing credit card your Horsethief could be something special – but totally usable. It's a fun and characterful ride.  

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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