Salsa Warbird Review: An Underbiking truce.
Back in the fall Logan and Joe borrowed a pair of Salsa Warbirds to ride the Green Mountain Gravel Growler. Here are their thoughts on the bike after a week of riding gravel, dirt tracks, plenty of singletrack… and Vermont’s infamous Class 4 roads.
The first time I laid my eyes on a Salsa Warbird — or heard about one being used for bikepacking for that matter — was at a bikepacking clinic in San Diego. Ben, the Salsa rep who led the talk, had one setup for demonstration and seemed genuinely passionate about it. That particular Warbird was in fact his own, a bike that he considered his go-to for just about any occasion. For the clinic he had it completely kitted out with his full weekend gear list. Even loaded, it remained unbelievably lightweight. The entire rig and kit weighed significantly less than my ride did unloaded. To rationalize this incongruity I assumed the Warbird was reserved for easy lightweight overnighters.
Fast forward a few years, and after hearing only positives about the Warbird, I decided to give the 2017 model a go. I talked Salsa in to sending a pair for Joe and I to demo on a route we put together called the Green Mountain Gravel Growler. To clarify, the Growler isn’t all gravel. In fact, it consists of somewhat equal shares of dirt roads, buff singletrack, rooty mild-tech trails, and several stretches of Vermont’s finest ‘Class 4’ roads — forgotten, insanely rough, rutted, and rocky tracks that are often steep, and when you’re descending on them, they’re perfectly fit for a downhill bike. Now don’t tell Salsa this, but there were a couple occasions on those roads where I white knuckled the drops and yelled over at Joe, “Holy shit we’re going to break these things!” Of course we didn’t break them — no matter how hard we tried. I tease to some extent. The Warbird didn’t quite match some of the terrain we rode, but I will say that there is no single bike that would perfectly fit this route. At times it’s ideal for a full-squisher, at others a carbon road bike, and, sometimes, even an ultra-granny geared touring rig would fit the bill. While riding the Growler, if you’re on any bike other than a big dog, there’s going to be a stint of ‘underbiking’ in the mix.
What exactly is underbiking?
As Jan Heine defines it, underbiking is “riding a bike that is only marginally suited to the environment where we ride.” For the cool kids, that means skidding a roadie or cross bike down a dirt road or slice of singletrack. So why are folks drawn to underbiking? Well, the old non weight-weenie me might have said, “Screw that, just ride a bike that’s burly enough for everything.” Which I did, a lot. But now I have made peace with the idea that there is a place for underbiking. As most people would tell you, it offers a different style of riding. On technical, steep or loose terrain where the bike is undergunned, a different manner of riding is required. Sometimes this can breathe new life into local trails you’ve ridden a thousand times on a mountain bike. When you’re on a cross bike picking down a technical bit of singletrack, instead of blowing through it and letting the tires and suspension do the work, you’re using body English and steering maneuvers to pick a different line. It keeps the ride interesting. Plus, you can still tear down the tarmac and have fun on everything in between. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in the one bike for everything/‘run what you brung’ camp. I think there’s a place for different bikes, and some bikepacking routes certainly call for specialty tools, so to speak.
OK, how about the Warbird?
Speaking of specialty. With the initial release of the Warbird back in 2012, Salsa was one of the first bike companies to fully embrace gravel riding. More specifically, the Warbird was unambiguously designed for gravel endurance racing. According to Salsa, grassroots gravel events in the midwestern US are what inspired the creation of the Warbird. Long distance races such as the Almanzo 100, Dirty Kanza 200 and 340-mile Trans Iowa are where this bike thrives. It was Salsa’s solution to a problem riders faced when using cyclocross bikes on these 100+ mile courses — connecting the dots between road oriented snappiness and endurance stability for long days in the saddle. To accomplish this, the Wardbird blends road bike geometry with more tire clearance, a low bottom bracket, and a slightly slacker head angle — in turn creating a longer wheelbase and adding to it’s long-ride stability. That’s a claim that should pique the interest of bikepackers as well.
A word from Joe Cruz
There are so many companies producing bikes like this these days, it would be easy to overlook the comparatively venerable Warbird. Now having spent a solid week of riding on one, I’m pretty sure that’s a mistake. On asphalt the carbon Salsa Warbird feels less sprightly than a road bike; but that’s no surprise. But on dirt roads that are a mainstay of New England riding, it’s suddenly fast and confident. One way to describe it is that the feel of the Warbird on dirt is very close to the feel of my carbon road bike on asphalt. The terrain for which the bike is optimized has been shifted smoothly offroad while keeping the overall feel. That’s not that easy to achieve, evidently, since many gravel/allroad bikes even when ridden in their element don’t necessarily give the sensation of road riding. (Nor, of course, would everyone want that.)
And here’s another thing about the Warbird: Eyeballing the geometry numbers and then even taking it for a spin on a favorite gravel loop, you wouldn’t get the sense that it’s as capable as it is on singletrack. For our Vermont craft beer tour, we passed through a bunch of local trail systems. Nothing overly technical, of course, but the kind of stash that folks from the area might hit after work for a fun session on a hardtail mountain bike. The loaded Warbird was as easy to love as maple syrup in those sections. The steering is precise, the rear end doesn’t lag, and drop bar format was surprisingly at home in twisty parts. I’m impressed.
Complaints? The bottle cage mounts under the downtube aren’t quite low enough. With some cages—e.g., King stainless—a tall bottle will make contact with the front tire. Also, the horizontal stripe graphics are painful to me.
Needless to say, pedaling the Salsa Warbird up and down those Class 4 roads — even with 37mm WTB Riddlers — was kind of like bringing a Red Rider to the OK Corral. But it was sort of fun, in a ‘type 2’ kind of way. I was pleasantly surprised by the Warbird on all the other terrain that the Growler dished out. Of course on the gravel and dirt road stretches of the route is where the Warbird shined the brightest. It felt solid, stiff, fast and fairly responsive. As Joe mentioned, the Warbird even felt capable on singletrack. It’s low BB lends itself to providing a stable balanced feel. The Warbird’s lightweight stature make it interesting to climb and pick up semi-techy stuff, and not too bad when slowly working down technical bits too.
The frame design of the Carbon Warbird has a few details to speak of. Formerly offered in alloy and titanium, in 2016 Salsa revamped the Warbird with a carbon frame, ever so slight geometry tweaks, internal shifter cable routing, additional tire clearance (up to 44mm), and the ‘Class 5 VRS’ to smooth out rough gravel roads. The Class 5 — named after a grade of gravel popular in the midwest — Vibration Reduction System is basically made up of thin outward bowed seatstays that function much like leaf springs to add vertical compliance and work in tandem with engineered chainstays to keep the rear end stiff. While on the Growler I thought it could have been the placebo effect, but the rear end of the bike did seem to mask chatter on the gravel and graded roads. And the Warbird doesn’t feel like a noodle either. Having ridden the Cutthroat even further, I can vouch that Salsa’s VRS does in fact provide a tangible cushion over the long haul, without noticeably affecting the overall lateral stiffness of the bike. However, not being set up tubeless, the 37mm tires beat me to no end on the Class 4 roads.
Also in the 2016 redesign, Salsa added a 142x12mm thru-axle rear and a 15mm thru up front. For 2017 not much changed aside from the addition of hidden fender eyelets and colorways. Unlike Joe, I have no beef with the striped graphics, and the embossed glossy icons on the raw carbon add a bit of flare as well. The 2017 Salsa Warbird carbon comes in several flavors: Force/Brooks (dark green/$4,499); Ultegra (red/$3,999); Carbon Rival (raw carbon or teal/$2,999). You can also get the alloy Warbird 105 in purple or white for $2,299.
Build Kit: 2017 Salsa Warbird Rival
Joe was on a demo 2016 white carbon Warbird while I tested the 2017 Carbon Salsa Warbird Rival. We’ll outline the latter. Overall the build seems solid. To start, the 37mm WTB Riddler is a nice tire for gravel and graded roads. It’s pretty quick on tarmac as well. The DT Swiss R460 are tubeless-ready, so I was a little bummed that we didn’t have time to set them up tubeless for the trip; that could have added needed cushion up front. Moreso I wish it was specced with 42mm tires. For bikepacking and the type of riding I like to do with bikes such as the Warbird, I’m convinced that 42 is the magic number. According to Salsa the Warbird can clear up to 44mm tires, although too much tire might infringe and add some toe overlap for bigger footed riders. I had no overlap to speak of with size 10 shoes.
- Rear Der SRAM Rival 22
- Rear Der SRAM Rival 22
- Cassette SRAM PG 1130 11-32T
- Chain KMC X11
- Crankset SRAM Rival 22, 50/34T
- Shifters SRAM Rival
- Brakes & Rotors SRAM Rival Hydraulic Disc, G2CS 160mm
- Fork Warbird Carbon
- Headset Cane creek 40
- Stem Salsa Guide
- Handlebar Salsa Cowbell 3/Salsa Gel Bar Tape
- Seatpost Zoom 27.2 x 350mm set back
- Saddle WTB Volt Race
- Bottom Bracket PressFit 41 x 86mm
- Rims DT Swiss R460
- Front Hub Salsa 28h
- Rear Hub Salsa 28h
- Tires WTB Riddler 37mm TR 120TPI
A couple other components that impressed are the Rival Hydro brakes and the Salsa Cowbell dropbars. I was underwhelmed by the Rival drivetrain. While it shifted fine, I’m just never a fan of road drivetrains when bikepacking. The 34/32T granny combo left me walking up a few steep grades when loaded with a somewhat light kit. A Rival 1 option with a big ring in the cassette would be nice to see on future builds.
- Price (Carbon Rival) $2,999 USD
- Size (as tested) 58cm
- Weight (56cm) 20lbs 2oz (9.13kg)
- Place of Manufacture Taiwan
- Contact SalsaCycles.com
- The Salsa Warbird is insanely light, and surprisingly versatile.
- Offroad it’s really fast. And, it’s not shabby on the road either; faster than most.
- Solid component spec.
- Raw carbon with shiny icons makes a really nice looking package.
- No bottle bosses on fork.
- Bottle bosses on downtube are too high (I would have to use a shorty bottle in that position).
- Gearing too high for bikepacking. On a couple of the steeper roads, there was a bit of walking.
- 37mm tires are fine for racing, but I’d rather see it specced with 42mm tires.
In just a few years, the number of gravel oriented bikes hitting the market has exploded, and even though we are talking about recent history, the Salsa Warbird is without a doubt a respected classic in this niche. And in 2016 Salsa’s addition of the carbon frame and modern tweaks such as thru-axles and internal cable routing helped solidify their stake in the category. The Class 5 VRS — as I discovered on both the Warbird and the Cutthroat — is not just some made up tech magic, it actually does what it claims, to some degree anyway.
While we didn’t have the opportunity to formulate long-term opinions on these bikes, I feel that a week with two Warbirds provided a pretty good sense for what this bike can and can’t do. A different drivetrain and larger tires would have adapted it for my own tastes, but overall I found the Warbird platform to be an excellent tool for fast and light exploration. Overall I’d love to have one in my stable for setting out on long gravel missions around Pisgah. I could see quick overnighters and fun fast getaways being a regular occurrence for this bike. If you’re in the market for a really lightweight, fast rig for long rides on gravel dirt and pavement, with the occasional overnighter thrown into the mix — and even the every so often Class 4 downhill — the Warbird might just be your ticket.
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