Salsa Warbird Review: An Underbiking truce.

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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.

Salsa Warbird Review, 2017

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.

Salsa Warbird Review, 2017

  • Green Mountain Gravel Growler, Bikepacking Vermont
  • Green Mountain Gravel Growler, Bikepacking Vermont

Salsa Warbird Review, 2017

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.

Salsa Warbird Review Review

  • Salsa Warbird Review Review, 2017
  • Salsa Warbird Review Review, 2017

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.

  • Salsa Warbird Tire Clearance
  • Salsa Warbird Review Review, 2017
  • Salsa Warbird Review Review, 2017
  • Salsa Warbird Review Review, 2017
  • Salsa Warbird Review Review, 2017

Salsa Warbird Review Review, 2017

Joe Cruz, Salsa Warbird

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.

Salsa Warbird Review Review, 2017

  • Salsa Warbird Review Review
  • Salsa Warbird Review Review

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.

Salsa Warbird Review, 2017

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.

Drivetrain

  • 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

Components

  • 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

Wheels

  • 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.

Green Mountain Gravel Growler, Bikepacking Vermont, Salsa Warbird

  • Price (Carbon Rival) $2,999 USD
  • Size (as tested) 58cm
  • Weight (56cm) 20lbs 2oz (9.13kg)
  • Place of Manufacture Taiwan
  • Contact SalsaCycles.com

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.
  • Salsa Warbird Review, 2017
  • Salsa Warbird Review Review

Wrap Up

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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  • jamie

    Great write-up Logan! I had the chance to take a spin in the Brooks’ edition Warbird while trying out the 2016 Salsa Fargo in the fall. I have to agree, it would make for some interesting single track riding for sure! Keep the articles coming, I’m a huge fan of the site and the editorial you guys put together.
    P.S. Should one always squeeze for a bigger frame size if they can get past the stand over height?
    Regards,
    Jamie

  • http://www.bikepacking.com Logan Watts

    Thank’s Jamie! I tend to like frames a little big, but if you like technical riding having a too big bike can sometimes be cumbersome, IMO.

  • Aaron Banks

    Ok so what’s the head to head comparison with the Cutthroat? I’m in the same boat here in the west (CO &NM) where my rides jump from pavement, fire roads, washboard gravel, rocky logging roads, jeep trails and moderate single track.

  • Matt M.

    Gearing too LOW for bikepacking? Surely not.

  • Harley Raylor

    I looked at a lot of carbon fiber “gravel” or “all road” bikes before finally deciding to go custom steel frame with carbon fork. I ultimately went that direction because my impression of the Warbird and others such as Parlee Chebacco and the Open U.P. is that these are gravel “race” bikes not necessarily meant for gravel touring with loads. My thoughts were that my steel (Spirit HSS tubing) frame bike would be more predictable in handling with lightish loads over varied terrain which it is and I think the weight penalty is worth it. But its good to know that carbon gravel bikes are more capable that I maybe thought.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com Logan Watts

    Thanks Matt… good catch. That’s what dyslexia and copy editing do sometimes. :)

  • http://www.bikepacking.com Logan Watts

    That’s a tough one. While I really like both bikes, for me the Cutthroat is more my speed as it’s simply more of a mountain bike. I try and stay off roads as much as possible. The Cutthroat also descends much more confidently. However, for speed on gravel and pavement, the Warbird is the winner.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com Logan Watts

    They are pretty tough. I put the Cutthroat through even more hell in the Trans-Cuba and it’s still as good as new. Tip: carbon and bikepacking bag rub don’t get along; use a product called Shelter by Cantitoe Road wherever this might occur.

  • Matt

    Underbiking…Finally a term for what I’ve been trying to achieve over the last year. Lately I’ve been drawn to riding “as little bike as possible” for my locals trails. A couple times I’ve even taken my gravel grinder on 20+ mile singletrack loops just to test my skills. I’m actually about to trade in my 5″ travel FS trail 29er and my Plus Bike for a WC caliber XC hardtail and “skinny” XC tires. There is something enlightening about Underbiking. I’m just glad I have a word for it now. Keep up the great work guys!

  • Scott Gater

    Actually Chris Kostman described “Underbiking” back in 1993
    http://www.xo-1.org/2007/09/mountain-bikes-who-needs-them.html

  • http://joecruz.wordpress.com Joe Cruz

    Thanks for sharing, Scott, I remember that piece well! I can’t say I entirely agreed then or agree now, but I find the aesthetic dimensions of it very compelling.

  • JD

    Just picked up the Teal Carbon Warbird. Can’t wait to hit the Iowa gravel and try some singletrack. I am impressed with how comfortable it is to ride while being a stiff bike.

  • Seth

    Glad to see that a conversation of underbiking is taking place in the context of New England rides. Having grown up riding out west, moved and ridden in the midwest and now out in New England it is certainly part of the Ethos that many riders are on board with in a way I haven’t seen in other places. It is embodied in events like D2R2 (The Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée), IRR (The Irreverent Road Ride), the Rasputitsa Spring Classic, and many others, so all that to say – another great writeup that is true to not only to the bike but also a vibrant part of the riding scene out here!

  • http://joecruz.wordpress.com Joe Cruz

    Really well said, Seth, and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve found that in Vermont, Western Mass, Columbia Co., NY, if you’re not riding the dirt roads when you head out on a group road ride, you’re absolutely missing all the best stuff. I don’t want to be one of those annoying old timers who says “we were doing it back when…,” but I *am* old and we were! Where do you live? I hope we cross paths some time.

    Joe

  • http://www.bikepacking.com Logan Watts

    Thanks for calling that out, Seth. We talked quire a bit about the IRR on that trip… and I think I could credit that particular ride to my theme for this review.

  • Seth

    Definitely nothing wrong with traditions regardless of how it comes across! I think that fact is what drives a lot of us to want to ride different places beyond just a change in scenery and, like most things, the more exposure you get to those differences the more it makes you appreciate certain regions. It is definitely one of the things I appreciate most about living and working in Boston with great riding in the city (surprisingly great “underbiking” routes in the greater metro actually), with all the access to the rest of New England at your fingertips! Hope to cross paths as well – It would be great!

  • Seth

    IRR is definitely an experience you don’t forget, and yet one that pulls you back wanting more – perhaps a strange fascination with suffering. Regardless, I think perhaps the most appealing aspect of that ride, which is embodied in your review here, is that while there may be no “one bike to rule them all” some wise choices can get you dang near 95% of the way there, particularly if you like approaching mixed routes with a little bit of extra gusto!

  • Smithhammer

    Great write-up, Logan. The Warbird has such a reputation as a race bike, that it’s good to see it being used in a different capacity and ‘stretched’ beyond it’s primary purpose, as it were.

    So….I’ve been pondering this whole “under-biking” thing, which, by the way, I’m largely a fan of. But the ‘devil’s advocate’ part of my brain can’t help but wonder – how much of our current notion of “under-biking” is shaped by how accustomed we’ve become to “over-biking” so much of the terrain we ride?

    To look at it another way, if we were to take the Warbird above, transport it back through time say, 50 years, and put it in the hands of a cyclist of that time, what would they think? More likely than not, their jaw would hit the proverbial floor at the technology and capability of the futuristic steed in front of them. And I bet they wouldn’t hesitate to grab that bike and take it down some rough dirt roads and have a blast with it. Would they have thought they were “under-biking” at that time? What if we put it in the hands of someone in a remote, rural part of the world today?

    I guess what I’m getting at is how much our perception of things like “under-biking” is shaped through our cultural and generational lenses. Full suspension, carbon, Boost spacing….all of these things are awesome, but I think it’s also good to remember that we could still bike much of the terrain we do without these things. And some of us can even recall a time when we did exactly that. As I recall, our enjoyment wasn’t diminished one bit…

  • http://www.bikepacking.com Logan Watts

    So true! And well said. I always reflect on rural east Africans and their bikes because I have traveled there quite a bit; but if any of them were to have their steel single speed Chinese bikes swapped for a Warbird they would likely ride places they normally wouldn’t and hoot and holler the whole way. Technically most of us are indeed overbiking at this point, I think.

  • simon kirk

    I am a huge fan of underbiking, I love taking my Genesis Croix De Fer down the local downhil trails, even off the odd jump, I think people are too hung up on having the right tool for the job instead of just riding and enjoying.

  • Josh Pierce

    Aaron, I had that same question. I had the original aluminum Warbird that I replaced with the Cutthroat last year after looking at the numbers and seeing that virtually all the numbers are the same between the Warbird and Cutthroat (other than the Cutthroat having somewhat longer chainstays to accommodate 2×2.4″ tires). I use a set of 700x38c gravelly tires for dirt and gravel road rides here in New Hampshire and Maine, and it rides like a slightly more stable Warbird. I recently put a Lauf TR29 suspension fork on the Warbird, which at 60mm of travel gives the bike a much wider range in the woods. Even with the stock rigid carbon fork I’ve been surprised at the terrain the Cutthroat can handle. I’ve definitely done some underbiking on the rocky, rooty trails in these parts, but being able to ride 10-20 miles of pavement and dirt to get to a technical trail ride has been a game changer. I can’t say enough good things about the Cutthroat – it’s the first bike I’ve owned since the 90s that puts a smile on my face every time I ride it.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com Logan Watts

    I rode mine (still demoing it and an loathing the idea of returning it to Salsa) yesterday and railed down some chunky forest tracks. Such a great bike.

  • wayne

    I have been looking at the warbird, even rode one at a demo day. I rode about 8 miles of gravel and love it. I didn’t get to try it out on the pavement very much how much of a difference is there between it and a road bike. I ride the road a lot but would like to extend my rides down some gravel or hit a trail here and there. Just didnt know what I would be giving up on the road if any at all.

  • Rebekah Baharestan

    where do oi fimd genesis datum ? cant seem to find dealers in the us ,to try genesis out??

  • Adam M Leadbetter

    Great article – here is my go to on “underbiking” http://5metresofdevelopment.blogspot.ie/2011/03/rough-stuff-machine-as-i-see-it.html

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