Salsa Pony Rustler Review: Smarten up, dumb down.

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Lines ignored. Corners railed. Roots degreased. Rock gardens manicured. Are trails being over-tamed by full-suspension plus tire bikes such as the Salsa Pony Rustler? Preface: this article is one part opinion, two parts review…

A couple weeks ago I darkened the doorway of a small bike shop and caught the tail end of a conversation. It was more of a monologue, really; a young employee was giving his ‘expert’ opinion to a customer that “fat bikes are stupid” and plus bikes — rigs with 2.8-3.2” tires — are just an industry fad for lesser riders who “feel the need to dumb down trails”. We obviously don’t agree. Prior to the 2016 crop, plus bikes didn’t get much mainstream attention, nor reap this type of belittlement. They passed as an eccentricity limited to rigid frames and a mostly older crowd. But now that real full suspension mountain bikes are mutating, shod with wide rims and 3” doughnut rubber, these bikes and their riders are taking jabs. Rocky Mountain even offered a sarcastic take on such slander with the release of their own 27.5+ Pipeline and its ‘Dumbing Down the Shore’ campaign.

So what’s behind this chastisement? Perhaps big tires offer too much traction for the purist mountain biker? I’ve never heard anyone complain about too much traction. Maybe they reduce the margin of error on classic lines? Why then have long-travel bikes not garnered such judgement; do they not make trail riding easier by smoothing out the rough edges? How about dropper seatposts; that’s taking an obstacle out of the equation, no? If any body chooses to deem a rider less-than because of their choice of bicycle, I think the accuser should be limited to a singlespeed 26” rigid bike with 2” tires and a coaster brake. After all, that’s the original criterion on which this sport was built. I kid, but for what it’s worth, I think that as long as there’s not a motor or *ahem* batteries, there’s no such thing as cheating. Whether the onus for ride improvement lies in longer travel, knobbier rubber, fatter tires, more moving parts, or a combination thereof, a mountain bike — no matter the type — is a tool for the style of riding that one wishes to tackle. To each his or her own. It’s evolution, not a battle for the appropriate yardstick of radness.

Salsa Pony Rustler Review, Bikepacking

  • Salsa Pony Rustler Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler Review, Bikepacking

That said, I get it. Bigger tires allow more traction, better rollover and unprecedented stability. They enable us to choose lines a little less carefully. They can boost confidence and may even help riders clean more obstacles, both climbing and descending. Whether plus bikes should be accused of dumbing down trails is just a negative terminology debate, born from machismo perhaps. I’ve ridden a rigid 29+ Krampus as my go-to bike for a few years now, as well as a couple 27.5+ hardtails, and now the full-suspension Salsa Pony Rustler. I personally love the platform. Has it improved my skill level? Yes, absolutely. These bikes have opened up a whole new way of riding that encourages me to pedal what I may have walked in the past. They allow access to more terrain, and make longer days in the saddle more efficient, less taxing, and more interesting. In essence, plus bikes let us travel places we might otherwise miss.

The 29+ platform has been around a while, but 27.5+ is relatively new. Oddly enough, 27.5+ has quickly gained traction in the industry, while only a handful of companies have focused their efforts on 29+. The slightly smaller wheel size is a welcome shift to the plus movement; popular opinion is that it offers a more nimble ride than it’s predecessor, which makes it more approachable to skinny tire converts. Several companies debuted 27.5+ plus hardtails in 2016, but just a handful merged full-suspension with voluminous rubber. Salsa’s Pony Rustler is one that piqued our curiosity. While others took a modest approach with 2.8” tires, Salsa aimed to harness the volume, operating pressure and traction characteristics of the true 3” plus platform. Then, they built a short travel, full-suspension bike around it.

Salsa Pony Rustler Review, Bikepacking

  • Salsa Pony Rustler Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking

Salsa Pony Rustler Review, WTB Bridger 3.0

The Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 vs Pisgah

Needless to say, the fear of being mocked by other mountain bikers didn’t hinder my excitement to try the Pony Rustler. So I happily shelved my ego, embraced my average technical riding skills, and spent over three months on this beast. It’s been on four bikepacking trips in the North Carolina Appalachians and tirelessly trail tested in the Pisgah Ranger and Grandfather Districts. There is probably no better place to prove the Pony Rustler. Even as a ‘short-travel’ rig, it’s a lot of bike. With 120mm rear travel and 130mm up front — and the added suspension characteristics of the beefy 3” tires — Salsa built the Pony Rustler for chunky backcountry terrain that warrants added control and traction. Pisgah’s rugged trails are just that — burly rock gardens, steeps, drops, and gnarled roots that are often described as ‘greasy’. To put the cart way before the Pony, this bike excels here. Would the Pony Rustler be too much bike for your average local municipal trail? Probably. But in Pisgah, it helps put the metaphorical bridle on an otherwise unruly horse.

  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking

Breaking the Pony

To be honest, the Pony Rustler felt a little off to me initially. Maybe it was the fault of lingering muscle memory that had manifested itself over a winter of riding a rigid 29er. It took an outing or two and some adjustment to dial in the ride and feel I was looking for. At first, I tuned the suspension too soft, with a travel akin to what I’d ridden on 26” full-suspension bikes — based on sag and normal tire pressure. This resulted in a sloppy ride and too many pedal strikes. Eventually I found the ideal setup by introducing a bit more pressure in both the fork and shock, and dropping the PSI in the tubeless tires to the mid to low teens. This gave the bike a nice combination of traction, compression, and stability. It also maximized the suspension, and made it come to life on the trail. Overall Dave Weagle’s Split Pivot suspension design is pretty amazing, and certainly one of the most stable and confident platforms I’ve ridden to date. While loping down craggy and gnarly terrain, the suspension, meaty tires and low tire pressure creates a tour de force that wrangles roots, jagged rocks and off-camber pitches without exception. This combo also keeps small bump chatter to a minimum.

The Pony Rustler holds its ground while climbing as well. Technical ascents are easily tamed with the additional traction and rollover afforded by the chunky tires and a suspension that is surprisingly compliant. That said, I often turned the Trail Mode adjustment dial to the middle position on both the fork and shock to tune the bike for trails with a lot of ups and downs. And the steepest of climbs were no match for the fork or shock whilst in the open/soft setting. Ultimately I preferred to lock them out completely for extended and/or steep climbs. The softer tire pressure compensated perfectly for the loss of suspension these situations.

Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking

  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking

Meaty tires aside, the Pony Rustler has a spritely geometry. A short chainstay and slack 68.1° head angle coupled with a rather low ~13” bottom bracket makes for a fancy free modern trail geometry. The bike handles beautifully, begs to be pushed and carved on singletrack, and rails corners like a dream. The deep inset riding position afforded by the lower BB offers a stance that’s maneuverable at slow speeds as well.

There are a few other things to note about the bike’s overall design. In addition to the large footprint, the Pony Rustler has a 148 x 12mm axle spacing and BOOST crankset specification. This allows plenty of chain clearance for the big tires and adds to the overall stiffness of the bike. Also, the Pony Rustler frame retains its capacity to run 29 x 2.25-2.4” wheels/tires, which allows riders to toggle between 29 and 27.5+ should they wish.

  • Bikepacking Wilson Creek, Yancey Ridge S24O
  • Salsa Pony Rustler Review, Bikepacking

While Out Bikepacking

For some folks, setting up a full-suspension rig for bikepacking is somewhat frustrating… for good reason. Typically the added weight and baggage affects the ride more so than that of a rigid or hardtail bike. Then there’s the risk of bloated bags rubbing the tires when the suspension is engaged. And, then there’s the limited frame triangle space for a framebag. But, with a bit of fine tuning and attention paid to packed weight, outfitting a suspended rig doesn’t have to be a ride killer. The Pony Rustler can be easily outfitted into the perfect bikepacking rig. First off, it’s a really solid bike. The parts spec is bomber, and the overall stature of the bike feels indestructible. Adding bags and weight didn’t change this. In fact, the Pony Rustler felt at home when loaded down for a three or four day trip. With 10-20psi added to both the shock and fork, bag rub was extremely rare.

On our first couple of outings I employed the larger new Ortlieb bags, which were a little big for a full-sus setup. Later, I mounted a harness in the front and the slimmer Mr. Fusion V2 seat pack. This setup had no issues whatsoever. In addition, the large Pony Rustler has an ample frame triangle that allowed a custom made framebag to carry the camp kitchen, rain gear and a few other odds and ends. When not donning a framebag, the same triangle fits a full-sized water bottle.

It’s also worth elaborating on Salsa’s choice of tires in the bikepacking context. The fairly aggressive WTB Bridgers are on the heavier end of the plus tire spectrum — 1207g. However, so far they’ve proven extremely durable. The Bridgers have a stout feel, incredible cornering prowess and bar-none traction. They don’t feel as sluggish as one might guess by their looks. All of their good traits might just be a result of the thicker than normal casing. Thier hefty casing also proved worthy when the bike was loaded. Even at lower pressures, the tires still felt solid in the corners with no folding to speak of.

  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking

Build Kit

Salsa rolled out the Pony Rustler GX1 with a choice and generally sturdy built kit. Everything down to the short Salsa Guide stem feels like it was handpicked for where and how the bike was intended to be ridden. The GX1 drivetrain is fairly snappy and the SRAM Guide R brakes are equally impressive. If I had to find one complaint it would be in the 32 tooth chainring. Strictly from a bikepacking perspective, I’d prefer a direct mount 28 or 30 for steeper terrain.

Frame

  • Frame: Pony Rustler Carbon, Army Green (Large)
  • Fork: Fox Float 34, 27.5+ x 110, 130mm
  • Shock: Fox Float Performance (120mm)

Drivetrain

  • Crankset: SRAM GX, 30t, BOOST
  • Derailleur (rear): SRAM GX 11Sp
  • Shifter Rear: SRAM GX1
  • Cassette: SRAM GX1, 11sp, 10-42T
  • Chain: KMC X11
  • Bottom Bracket: PressFit 41x92mm w/ISCG05 Tabs

Components

  • Hub (front): SRAM MTH 716 110mm, WTB Scraper i45 TCS
  • Hub (rear): SRAM MTH 746 148mm, WTB Scraper i45 TCS
  • Rims: WTB Scraper i45 TCS, tubless
  • Spokes: DT Swiss Competition, butted, black
  • Tires: WTB Bridger 27.5 x 3.0, TCS
  • Brakes: SRAM Guide R, 180mm rotors
  • Handlebar: Salsa Rustler 2, 750mm
  • Grips: Salsa Backcountry Lock-on
  • Stem: Salsa Guide
  • Headset: Cane Creek 40 ZS44/28.6, ZS56/40
  • Seatpost: Truvativ T20, 0mm offset
  • Saddle: WTB VoltComp

Pros

  • Solid and stable 27.5+ platform that excels on difficult terrain.
  • Completely dialed Split Pivot suspension design and stiff chassis.
  • Build kit/value: The high end carbon frame and excellent build kit make the Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 a pretty good value at $4,500.
  • Gearing is great for light bikepacking, although some might complain that it runs out a bit early for trail riding.
  • The paint and graphics scheme are really nice.

Cons

  • No downtube bottle bosses; in my opinion, any ‘adventure’ bike should be equipped these… but many don’t.
  • For ‘bigger’ all-mountain riding the 120/130mm travel might feel a little limiting to some.
  • Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 Review, Bikepacking
  • Salsa Pony Rustler Review, Bikepacking
  • Model Tested Salsa Pony Rustler GX1 (carbon)
  • Size Tested Large (20″)
  • Sizes Available Small, Medium, Large, X-Large
  • Weight (as tested) 30.5lbs (13.85kg)
  • Price $4,499
  • Contact SalsaCycles.com
  • Recommended Uses Trail riding, backcountry bikepacking, Singletrack weekenders.

Wrap Up

Some might say that the mountain bike industry landed on the 2.25” tire standard by chance. Perhaps this standard isn’t founded on reason, nor is it the best; it just ended up that way based on manufacturing techniques and historical firsts. For years this standard hasn’t really been challenged, until now. Maybe 2.25” isn’t what all trails should be measured by. I see plus tires not as an industry forced gimmick, but as an evolution of what the mountain bike can be.

Salsa has embraced the challenge of making this new platform viable, and the Pony Rustler is an shining example of what plus sized tires are all about. Through the fusion of the well engineered Split Pivot short-travel suspension system, a solid trail geometry, and the traction and control of plus tires, they’ve created a machine that does backcountry singletrack really well. It’s a rugged trail machine that’s fun to ride and built like a tank, yet still light enough to be playful. The Pony Rustler seems to beg for craggy trails, rough and wild terrain, and challenging conditions. With a great build kit and carbon frame, the GX1 model makes for an excellent choice as a go-to, go-anywhere trail bike.

Salsa Pony Rustler Review, Bikepacking

Rider’s Background

Between big trips, I can usually be found riding my favorite trails in Pisgah, NC, or tacking together 4 or 5 day bikepacking trips throughout the eastern US and beyond. This past winter, Gin and I designed and rode the Trans-Uganda and Altravesur bikepacking routes.

Height: 6’0”
Weight: 170 lbs
Inseam: 33”

Disclosure

The Salsa Pony Rustler was provided for testing and review.

Tags

  • Joe Newton

    I agree with you, Logan. Loving my carbon Pony Thief (Salsa ran out of Pony Rustlers, so they’ve been offering the new Horse Thief with both wheel sets, 29er and 27.5+). Not used it on a bikepacking trip yet, but I have a route in mind. Mine came specced with a 30t chainring and dropper-post, so while the gearing is OK straight out of the box, I might have to carry a larger backpack to make up for not being able to run a seat pack. Now we just have to wait for the tire manufacturers to catch up with this new wheel size and start offering some decent options.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Nice! I am liking the WTB + offerings. I used the Trail Boss 3.0s in Spain this past November and the Bridgers are pretty amazing for this type of riding. Also, I just got a pair of the new Ranger+ … they look like they could be a good option for mixed terrain stuff; very light.

  • Smithhammer

    I’m currenly loving the Trail Boss 3.0s – they take everything I throw at them. I have high hopes for the Rangers – if they can offer similar durability and performance in a lighter package, I’ll be sold. I have one on order right now to try out as a rear tire with a Trail Boss in the front…

  • wedelmaster

    Nice review. Had been eyeing up the Pony Rustler but a weak Canadian dollar brought the price in a bit high so ended up on the Devinci Hendrix which IMO is a comparable solid choice with somewhat similar parts spec and 120mm travel split pivot design. After 9 years on a Stumpjumper 29er the plus platform feels like a logical evolution of the rollover of my 29er but with added grip and stability. The naysayer comments about plus-sized tires takes me back to early days of “fat” (89mm waist haha) skis and the way they felt on junky cut up snow after years of skinny 207’s. Similar feel on the Hendrix (running maxxis chronicles) plowing through chunky single track and rock gardens. Yup. It’s easier. And way fun.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks! Definitely fun.

  • mikeetheviking

    Excellent! I’m amazed as well at all the resistance towards plus and fat sized tires. (Most of this coming from cyclists who have never even put miles on these platforms) I’m excited to know that a full sus bike can perform well being fully loaded/this has also been a recent controversial issue. It would be cool if someone out there (logan) hint hint, could make a graph/chart/matrix that showed overlapping/transparent sections that starts with road tires on the left indicating them being the best for speed and then cross sized tires then traditional mtb tires then +tires followed by fat tires as the slowest but winning in traction/flotation. It really is astonishing that it has taken this long for these tire sizes to come to fruition,
    However im loving my 29+ still and can’t wait to test ride the pony rustler and even the new full sus farley. Loving the comment that these guys should be forced to ride rigid 26in bikes!!!!! Hell yes! Lmfao!!!!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks man! Probably a little harsh on the rigid 26″ one speeds, but just trying to illustrate a point that there shouldn’t be a particular standard to judge all other bikes… save e-bikes. We all know those are a different beast.

  • DamagedSurfer

    Hi Logan,

    I’m with you man. I’ll never understand why so many cyclists feel compelled to judge what other riders choose to ride. Carbon, aluminum, steel, whatever. 29+, 27.5, 26, whatever. Fatties. Skinnies. Tandems. Spandies, no spandies. No one is getting hurt. Regarding this ridiculous cycling arrogance, I’ll paraphrase Anti-Nowhere League, “Who cares, who cares you boring little f**k.”

    Thanks for the review. I love my 29er hardtail as it’s a great platform for my daily trail bike as well as a great bikepacking beast. If I could justify owning another mtb, I would be interested in a 27.5 full sus bike, as honestly, I’m an extremely average rider on steep technical gnar. I like Salsa’s offerings and would be intrigued with the Pony Rustler. I’ve read up on trip reports of people using full sus for extended trips. I think I’d be too paranoid, with all the bobs and bits and whatnot. I freely admit I find it incomprehensible how anyone can ride with a backpack for an extended trip, but each to their own

    Keep up the great work on this site!

  • Scott Felter

    I dunno…there are some dudes absolutely SHREDDING on B+ e-bikes on our local trails. I mean, I like pedalling as much as the next guy, but…

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks! Yeah, for a really long trip, I will stick with rigid; semi-long, a hard tail. But for weekend trips, it’s hard to beat this bike.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Are there really B+ e-bikes?! I know the big S has a e-fatbike, but… jeez.

  • wedelmaster

    Re: tires and rolling/speed, FWIW I stumbled across this (somewhat un-scientific) bike radar video that compares 27.5+ vs 29. Doesn’t really factor in climbing or pedaling a loaded bike but kind of interesting to see his findings. Coming from 9 years on a 29er I’m finding the same on my local trails…the plus offers at least the same rolling momentum with added stability and grip.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=w6TMA2vI8bA

  • Brad Beadles

    anyone know the brand of the frame bag?

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Hi Brad. It’s a DIY bag I threw together… Scroll down and check out Oveja Negra or Porcelain Rocket…. They both do custom work.

  • Jesse

    I don’t care what kind of bike the someone rides, but I do think there is an issue when you remove barriers of access, which modern trail bikes undoubtedly do.

    Many of us learned to ride/bike/climb/backpack/ski/whatever using sub-par gear, and we were forced to put in hours of work to learn the fundamentals. In the process of learning those fundamentals, other (much, much more important) lessons are learned; like ethics, etiquette and stewardship.

    You can’t take shortcuts without suffering the consequences. Rites of passage – for a lack of better terms – are an essential part of the learning curve. Compromise the process, remove the learning curve, and you generally (yes, this is a generalization) end up with a bunch of clueless assholes stumbling around the backcountry.

    Sections of trail that once required skill, fitness and experience to access are now being lapped as shuttled runs by new cyclists on modern bikes. Many of them have never taken the time to learn proper trail etiquette, and as a result, hiker-cyclist-equestrian relationships suffer. Riders who havent spent much time pedaling (or hiking) up narrow single-track show it in the way the descend, too. 1,000’s of hours and the trail, and it is still scary when someone comes blasting around a blind turn with no regard for 2-way traffic. Trails experience more erosion and damage as a result of poor riding habits, and more cyclists rarely means more riders showing up for trail work.

    Bikepacking sees the same issues: give a bunch of self-absorbed, narcissistic, instagram obsessed kids from the city a .gpx file, send them on their way, and you end up with the Oregon outback clusterfuck. Never mind the finer points of leave no trace, or the nuances of environmental stewardship… many of these shitheads don’t even know how to pack out their fucking trash.

    I believe access is remarkably important. In a time where the battle over public lands is gaining momentum, people need to experience the wilderness to understand its importance, and as a result, feel an obligation to protect it. But I don’t think that removing all of the barriers – be it modern trail bikes, or GPS, or whatever- is a good thing.

    I know this is long-winded, but as “adventure” cycling and trail riding gains momentum, I think there needs to be a commensurate amount of attention given to outdoor ethics.

    At the end of the day, ride whatever bike makes you happy- just don’t be an asshole. Smile and say hello to other trail users, pick up trash others have left behind, and volunteer for trail work.

    I don’t judge anyone by the bike the ride – only by the way they act out on the trail.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    All great points. I considered one point you mentioned heavily when writing this was (and should have done a better job illustrating it in relation to bigger tires) — as you stated, “Trails experience more erosion and damage as a result of poor riding habits, and more cyclists rarely means more riders showing up for trail work.” I agree and I think that’s where ethics come in and proper riding and trail respect comes into play. Consider fatbikes: just because you can run over anything, doesn’t mean you should. http://www.bikepacking.com/plog/seven-principles-for-bikepackers/

  • Jesse

    I’ve always appreciated that you have a link dedicated to LNT ethics. I wish all of the companies jumping on the adventure cycling bandwagon would do their part in educating and informing new riders. But the same could be said for all outdoor companies, really….

    Speaking to the original point of why a lot of people hate on technology in cycling… I think there can be a lot of ego involved. Watching an inexperiended rider on a sus bike clean a section of trail that you spent days, weeks, or months working on your old hardtail can be a bruise to the ego. Lord knows it happens to me and my fragile ego all the time. But at the end of the day, modern trail bikes are so goddamn fun, you can’t blame anyone for wanting to ride them. I’m about to purchase one myself. Selling out? Maybe… but if having fun on two wheels is selling out, count me in!

  • Israel Magalit

    Thanks for the awesome write up!

  • Smithhammer

    At the end of the day, ride whatever bike makes you happy- just don’t
    be an asshole….I don’t judge anyone by the bike the ride – only by the way they act out on the trail.”

    Agreed, but then why frame it within the context of a particular type of bike to begin with? Even though you end with the statement above, it certainly sounds to me like you’re making some big assumptions based on the type of bike someone rides. Someone doesn’t become an asshole because they happen to own and ride a “modern trail” bike any more than they might be an asshole because they ride a cross bike or fat bike or a tricycle.

    As for modern trail bikes making the trails too “easy” and taking the “skill and finesse” out of the sport, I get your point, to a point. But it’s also an easy and overly-simplistic statement to make. You might want to look at what today’s talented riders are actually riding – it’s still terrain that requires a high degree of talent and finesse – but it’s the kind of terrain that would have destroyed your ’91 Rockhopper. People said the same things when suspension first came on the scene several decades ago. Hell, before that there were people saying that putting gears and hand brakes on klunkers made things “too easy.” Now, they’re saying the same thing in regards to plus and fat bikes. But the fact is – none of this makes one unethical. None of this makes someone disrespectful. If something has become too easy, then ride harder. And if someone is cleaning a trail on a plus bike that you have struggled with on your old, skinny-tired 26er hardtail, is that wrong? Or are you just being a pouty retro-grouch about it?

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