Editor’s Note: This is the story of a SoCal guy, (Grannygear), and his pursuit of an “all-road” bike for adventures that fall between full-on mountain biking and road riding. In this post we will get a feel for where he is coming from and why he chose a Salsa Cycles Warbird as his foundation for a bike build to pursue his vision of gravel riding.
Let me say this right up front. I ain’t got no gravel. The area where I live is chock full of dirt roads, make no mistake. But gravel roads that meander across the countryside? Not really any of that going on. And the dirt roads…us So Cal natives call them Fire Roads, the dirt roads we do have are typically steep grades with loose and rutted surfaces. It is hardly an enticing environment for a non suspended, relatively skinny tire wearing bike with drop bars. So the idea of me buying and owning a ‘gravel bike’ is a bit odd. And yet that is exactly what I just did.
Now it is not like I have not ridden gravel at all. I have. I have done Rebecca’s Private Idaho twice and attempted the Crusher in the Tushar once (and will be going back to both events this year). Quite frankly I blame Guitar Ted for all of my gravel interest anyway. He and others like him make it look so darn appealing. The wide vistas, the open skies, the hours spent chasing that horizon (the high winds, the dust, the mud, the…well you know what I mean)…it is sooo different than the type of ride experience I have on the West Coast.
And I had a blast at both gravel events I did. One time I even did it on a decent bike for that kind of ride, a Specialized Cruz, while the other times were on some MTB 29″er or another. As well, there are more and more ‘gravel’ or, more accurately for my area, mixed road events where the course will be a combo of pavement in both good and bad condition and dirt roads of some kind. You see, something we can do a lot of is ride big and varied loops, really quite long loops for a well populated area like ours, and it got me thinking that a gravel type bike just might be something I could enjoy by putting it through the type of big endurance rides I typically do on my 29″ers. I am not the only person to think that way and I know of at least one bike shop close to me that is hosting rides just like this featuring some Jamis and Niner models they sell. The rides are growing in participation. Interesting.
So about a year ago I began thinking about what brand/model would work for me. For 2016, I bet the choices will just keep getting better and better, but a year ago it was pretty much some type of Cyclocross Bike or almost nothing else. There was the Tamland and the Niner RLT and…yeah, not much really. As time went by, I came very close to pulling the trigger on a couple of models but they just never worked out (I darn near bought a Ritchey Swiss Cross Disc but my size would always be back ordered or some such thing). I still think that Ritchey would have been sweet but I was worried about tire clearance and a pretty high bottom bracket. I also did not want to drop a lot of coin as I was not sure if this will be a love affair or not so most carbon models were off the list So I waited and I shopped and saw more than a few bikes come along that did not really tick all the boxes for me. Then the 2016 Salsa Warbird was announced and I was very intrigued. The old model of the Warbird did not interest me. The titanium version was too costly, the aluminum version had a reputation for a stiff ride, and I wanted to be able to run a pretty big tire on there, at least a 40c, and the previous generation was not very roomy in that way. But this one…this one looked very promising.
I liked a lot of what I saw and the timing was right. So even though I was taking a chance on a bike that no one I knew had even ridden, I jumped in the pool feet first, ordered a 58cm Warbird in aluminum and began compiling parts. Let’s take a look at what showed up at my door, what I think about what they changed for this year, and how the build will look.
Box number 1: What it’s made of – Metal, carpet fiber, or bamboo? What the frame was made of was something I struggled with. And without going into too much of a dead horse beat-down, I will say right out that what a frame is made of is not quite as important as how they (the engineers and such what) use it. Any material can be harsh or flexy or lively or dead feeling depending on how well it is designed and constructed.
Carbon for me was too costly and cheap carbon is seldom all that satisfying to ride. Titanium was really tempting too but good titanium is even more costly. Steel is a natural for this type of bike. But most of the steel bikes in this category were a bit heavy, many with steel forks. We do a lot of elevation gain here where we might climb for multiple hours at a time and that extra heft of steel is not your friend in that situation. Aluminum is seldom the material I look to in a hard tail. But it is light, easily manipulated (odd shapes, extrusions, etc), and relatively cheap. I never shopped for bamboo. Sorry.
All that said, I was betting I would end up on a steel bike because if I had to choose between a bit lighter but kind of harsh and really nice riding but a bit heavier, then…the nicer ride would win. So I looked at a bunch of steel bikes with upper end tube sets and carbon forks but never found the combo of geometry, fit, tire capacity, or weight that really came together for me. Beer can solutions.
I remember having a discussion with one of the engineers at Specialized about the new at that time Allez Smartweld road bike, a quite advanced use of aluminum that allowed for shorter butted sections of tubing and thinner wall thicknesses. He was saying that the new aluminum frame was very competitive in overall performance to the carbon Tarmac and at a lot less cost. Cannondale has a very loyal following with the CAAD 10 aluminum road bike frames. Folks rave about the balanced performance of those. So if you can get them to ride well and last long too, an aluminum bike has a lot to offer.
From the outset it was obvious that the 2016 Warbird with its AL-6069 butted and hydroformed frame and Warbird Carbon fork was way more than a fresh coat of paint and a new decal set over last year’s version. According to Salsa Cycles, compared to the older model this one has room for 42c tires. Excellent! They also made a big deal about the way the frame was designed to offer a smoother ride.
From the Salsa website:
“All 2016 Warbird models feature our Class 5 Vibration Reduction System, designed to reduce the millions of micro impacts that lead to rider fatigue while also making room for large tires with plenty of mud clearance. To further your pursuit of speed on rough gravel roads, the Warbird carbon fork keeps you on track for your best finish ever, and disc brakes deliver consistent and confidence-inspiring braking when Mother Nature is indifferent about your endeavor.”
Supposedly it is more compliant then the older Ti version too and they say they have the numbers to prove it.
Box number 2: Room for bigger tires. Okay, not monster cross big, but bigger than the average Cross bike frame clearance allows for. It will fit a 40c for sure. Mud for me is not an issue, but tire casing volume is. The 42c claimed tire capacity of the aluminum Warbird is smack dead center for me. I may not always want to run a 40c tire, but I at least have the option.
Box number 3: Geometry and design of the frame. Most Cross bikes are a bit steep in the front end, a bit high at the bottom bracket, and overbuilt, especially in the front end, so they will feel really good pinning it around a grassy, tight cyclocross course. I want something that will yield a bit to the terrain, not try to fist fight it. A bit more willow tree and a bit less oak tree, if you know what I mean. Now steel is the king of ‘willow’ but if Salsa pulled a rabbit out of the engineer’s hat, then I will have a good riding frame/fork combo out of this decision. I really like how they gave attention to the head tube/fork area. The current trend in over-sized, more over-sized, really over-sized front ends in road bikes might be fine for tarmac but not gravel, or so I would wager. Would I like, at least on paper, to tweak anything? The head tube angle still seems a bit steep, but that may not be so in real life. Really I have only my long experience on mountain bikes and a bit of road riding to go by and that may not really apply here. It’s a journey into the unknown, this is.
So getting this thing out of the shipping box showed a shapely frame for sure. The chain stays go from tall and narrow at the bottom bracket end to wide and flattened where they meet a nice aluminum extrusion. That extrusion holds the post mount brake disc brake bosses and the 142×12 rear axle with the DT Swiss 12mm quick release included. The derailleur hanger is replaceable. The 142×12 rear axle is an important part of keeping the frame from getting too noodly as it ties the back end together solidly at the rear wheel, something that allowed Salsa to ‘relax’ the back end construction of the bike a bit. Do through axles matter on a rigid frame or fork? Well, Salsa says they needed that 142×12 to keep the frame in hand under hard use, but I like it because it allows me to use several mountain bike wheel sets I have around, giving me a wide internal rim, tubeless potential, and of course, disc brakes.
Looking at the bowlegged, bridge-less seat stays, I remembered another day where I was in the back room of one of the big bike makers watching a bike frame get tortured on a test jig. It was bolted into the equipment and was being cycled by applied stress over and over till failure. Watching the seat stays flex, I was told that the natural tendency of a seat stay is to flex outwards, not upwards. I could see it with my own eyes as they slightly bowed with each stress cycle. So that does make one wonder about the efficacy of those vertically bent stays you more commonly see. The build of the Warbird agrees with what I saw that day.
There is a tapered head tube for that nice all carbon fork to fit into. It does not look too over built for the task but still provides a 15QR front axle. In between, there is a mix of internal (shifting) and external (brake lines) routing. The seat tube is set for a 27.2mm seat post which is fabulous. Thank you Salsa. The frame comes with a bolt type seat tube clamp (but no headset by the way…you will need to supply that). The PressFit BB86 is okay with me and makes it easier to manufacture a frame, or so I hear, but it is hard to beat a threaded bottom bracket set-up for all around user friendliness and simplicity.
I weighed the frame with the 12mm rear axle (it weighs 2oz) installed at 3lbs-14oz for the 58cm frame. That does not seem to be exceptionally light, but I cannot think of any production steel frames that would be that light in a 58cm. I would expect them to be .5 to 1 lb heavier for the most part. The fork I weighed (uncut) at 1 lb 5 oz.
I will be slapping some parts on this frame soon here, so hang out while that happens. When it is all built I will be in search of gravel. There must be a long driveway around here somewhere.