The Big Mama is the bigger wheeled, shorter travel sibling of the Salsa El Kaboing. With 100mm of suspension travel front and rear, its trail persona is pert, plush, confident and precisely controlled – perfect for comfortable long rides rather than encouraging lift-offs or slamming through rock gardens, although it can cope with such antics without inducing trauma.
It’s one of the most endearing full-suspension 29ers we’ve ridden. It’s also one of those bikes that feels lighter on the trail than its 28lb heft might suggest, and feels totally at ease on almost any type of terrain.
Ride & handling: A trail-tamer of the highest calibre, and one of the best big-wheelers we’ve tested
Several aspects of the Big Mama’s design and character combie to produce its superbly stable and super-plush ride feel. In terms of simple bump absorption, 100mm of suspension on a 29er feels like 120mm on a 26er. But bump absorption can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it.
It’s hard to know how much of the Salsa’s ride feel comes from how well the suspension is working and how much comes from the smoothing effect of 29er hoops, which soften hard edged bumps more effectively than 26ers. Either way, it’s a wonderfully confident ride on rocky rooty trails, with extra confidence coming from the inherent stability of a long wheelbase.
The handling rarely seems to suffer from the slight yaw that’s a feature of some longer travel full-sussers when you really put the hammer down, even on fairly easygoing terrain, and the back end feels really taut unless you start to hit stuff hard while banking into bends. At that point you’re reminded that bigger wheels with their longer spokes and bigger softer treads often start to feel squirmy if challenged.
Climbing and traction are very impressive; we never felt the need to lick the ProPedal platform damping lever on the shock, as we never felt any unwanted suspension feedback in the shock action, even when powering out of the saddle. On big hits, you need lots of rebound damping to keep things stable, but the suspension is remarkably capable considering there’s only 100mm of travel.
The Salsa Big Mama is a bike that’s simply very pleasing to ride. It doesn’t exhibit any particularly distinctive mannerisms. It just gets on with the job, smoothing both tiny and big square-edged bumps with ease, keeping you comfortable and confident and making you feel like you’re having a lot of fun.
Whatever sort of terrain you’re on, you never feel as though you’d rather be on a different sort of bike, and that’s unusual in a market with so many very different, and very good, suspension bikes on offer.
It’s hard to judge how much of the Mama’s trail-taming effect comes from the frame and suspension configuration and how much comes from the big wheels. All that matters is that it’s a very easy bike to ride on any type of trail, to the point where it almost seems to give you an unfair advantage on group rides.
If you still haven’t ridden a 29er, try to get a test ride on one. They have a noticeably different ride rhythm to 26ers. In short they’re easier to ride, so much so that full-suss 29ers don’t need as much suspension travel as full-suss 26ers. In the case of the Big Mama, that simply creates a tight, confident and incredibly comfy ride.
Frame: Compact chassis with flexy stays instead of rear pivots
The surprisingly compact frame (our test bike was an 18in medium) offers lots of standover room, space for big tyres and a short head tube so that you don’t end up feeling too lofty at the front end.
The back end is configured around a complex single pivot with a rocker driving the Fox RP2 shock. Rather than putting extra pivots on the seatstays at the dropouts, the laterally ovalised seatstays offer 4mm of flex as the shock compresses.
The lack of extra pivots saves weight, boosts stiffness and helps to create a linear shock stroke, which suits the bike’s ride character. With shock sag correctly dialled, the seatstays provide resistance to pedal-induced bob but remain very sensitive to small bumps.
On bigger hits, the flex of the stays conspires with the rocker linkage to help the shock move through its full stroke. The shock showed us that we’d reached full travel on every ride but we never felt any of the harshness that shorter travel bikes sometimes exhibit as they reach the limit of the shock.
Salsa’s attention to detail on this custom drawn scandium alloy frame (tube proiles are different on every size) is impressive. An extra cable guide or two keeps routing tidy. The forged scandium dropouts use chainring bolts on both sides so you can upgrade to a through-axle at some point in the future (assuming that Salsa eventually makes an upgrade kit).
The pivot bearings are well sealed cartridges and Salsa use post mounts for the rear brake, a worthy step ahead of the curve. A Salsa Flip Lock seat clamp is included and the frame weighs in at about 7lb, including the Fox RP2 air shock.
While the Big Mama is available as a frame alone, you might be tempted by other goods from the distributors. The White Brothers fork on our test bike was well bedded in and is one of the best 29er forks out there. We also like Salsa’s handlebar, stem and triple-bolt seatpost options.
The skinny Gussett saddle was more comfy than it looked, and Halo’s Excite wheelset is one of the lightest 29er options around. The full drivetrain and brakes on our test bike were Shimano SLX, with Gusset 180/160mm disc rotors.