We recently reported on Salsa's two new full suspension mountain bikes - the El Kaboing and the Big Mama. In this article, What Mountain Bike's Matt Skinner takes an in-depth look at the new offerings from the Minnesota-based bike company.
Salsa are on a mission. For the past two years they’ve been slowly turning up the heat under the considered stewardship of head honcho, Jason Boucher, and becoming more than a frame and parts brand by launching a trickle of complete bikes; now with the launch of two further completes – the all-new El Kaboing and Big Mama full suss trail bikes recently at their Minnesota home – that trickle could be about to turn into something significantly more as Salsa signal their intention to be more than just the sum of their parts. They’re back to the business of making great product for discerning and passionate riders.
In 2007, they launched one of What Mountain Bike magazine’s current cream of the big wheeler (29in) crop: the El Mariachi complete bikes. Then last year they returned and added four further models to the mix – the A La Carte 1x9 steel hardtail, the La Cruz ‘cross bike and two versions – geared and single speed – of their Casseroll road bike. With their new bikes, Salsa signal their intent to go higher end than their traditional steel, singlespeed and 29ers niche haunts.
The new bikes themselves are firmly focused as cross country/trail full suss bikes for real world riders: the kind of bikes you can haul into the truck, head out to the hills and ride for as long as the day is long.
Both the 26in wheeled, 5in travel El Kaboing, and the 29in wheeled, 4in travel Big Mama frames use custom drawn Scandium tubing (Scandium and aluminium alloy that is lighter and stiffer than most aluminium alloys) and custom forged parts for optimum strength and low-weight. The respective frame and shock weigh in at 6.6lb (16in frame) for the El Kaboing and 7lb (18in frame) for the Big Mama, and place these bikes as firmly right on the money for their class but without being either super expensive or super light: in a nut shell, ideal for everyday riders looking for reassuring solidity and performance.
The bikes employ a new suspension configuration for Salsa in the form of an essentially faux bar (or complex single pivot) system, but sans the seatstay/dropout pivot. The pivot itself has been replaced with custom Salsa ‘tuned’ flex stays to give 8 mm and 4 mm of flex on the 5in travel El Kaboing and 4in Big Mama bikes respectively. Salsa say the result is a lighter, more reliable and arguably stiffer rear assembly that eeks out a more linear shock stroke throughout the shock’s action.
With the same flex stay technology applied elsewhere in Salsa’s current line up in the guise of their Dos Niner soft tail, they’ve got the know-how to make it last the distance too.
Out on the trail and Salsa have done a fine job with the bikes’ geometry: they’re perfectly poised for the XC styled riding that these are built for: up steep, switchback climbs, over roots and rocks, and down sinewy singletrack chutes the 69 degree head and 73 degree seat angles conspire to promote a perfectly poised ride that ensures that both bikes – 26in or 29in wheeled – are at home in all trail situations.
The cockpits – effective top tube and stem length – are specific to each size of frame, so that the geometry and feel remains in proportion on each size bike.
So what about those flex stays? The rear end is particularly impressive on climbs and, tracking well at 25% sag, tenaciously claws upwards with traction to spare up steep, loose, smooth, rocky and rooty pitches. Although the bikes both come with Fox RP2 shocks with ProPedal, we only felt the need to engage the pedalling platform for gravel road duty – even when running the shock soft: pedal bobbing does, however, occur but is relatively minimal and unnoticeable out on the trail, even when out of the saddle and laying the power down.
Attention to detail on both new bikes is impressive and offers a great insight into Salsa’s intelligently designed, no-fuss thinking: extra cable and hose guides on both the rear mech and rear brake routings to prevent snagging; the top tube offers generous standover with its dropped curve design; generous tyre clearance within the forged chainstay yolks for 2.5in widths; forged aluminium-scandium replaceable drop outs that use crankset bolts for a clever no-fuss solution that future proofs the design, allowing different drop out standards to be catered for; forged bottom bracket shell/swingarm pivot mount and a forged swingarm yoke that provides mud room to spare around a 2.5in tyre; all the bearings are Enduro sealed cartridges.
The drop outs also see extra long welds for strength and resilience and forged Post Mount disc brake mounts are, to the best of our knowledge, the first on a modern mountain bike and show that Salsa are keen to innovate rather than imitate. The downshot? They cost more money to do, but then this is a premium frameset designed for lasting the distance, rather than one season.
Extra long welds for strength and resilience
The spec sheet reads like a trail riders’ choice-pick, with Fox Float RL forks and RP2 shocks, Kenda’s mighty Nevegal treads, RaceFace Deus XC seatpost, bar and stem – although Salsa are working on their own higher end versions that will launch later in the year – Shimano XT transmission and hydraulic disc brakes. There’s not an obvious upgrade choice on this spec sheet: it’s all solid, dependable – and proven – stuff.
The new bikes also see the rolling out of more accessible graphics and paintwork: in the past, the Salsa look was either love it or loathe it, but now the artwork perfectly hits the middle line, appealing to a new kind of Salsa rider, as well as the old faithful. Expect more bikes and more focus on becoming a true bike brand in the coming three years.
It’s still early days for the new bikes and Salsa’s new and reinvigorated direction and although they’re not setting the world alight with ‘yet another’ record breaking, headline grabbing bike that costs as much as a Space Shuttle, the new bikes are no nonsense, do-what-they-say-on-the-tin bikes for riders who want bikes to ride, to smile on, and to do so for many years to come.
Pricing is yet to be decided. Frames will be available in September and complete bikes in January 2009.