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Stock image of the 2105 Salsa Horsethief Carbon

So, a while ago I posited that I was in search of a new personal ride/test sled MTB FS 29er for 2016 and a bit beyond.  I put it to you, dear readers, as to what bike I might consider, as there are a lot of good choices right now.  I will link that post here for your edification…go read it, then come on back.  At the point I penned that, I had not made up my mind.

In the hunt for the next bike, I set out some criteria that mattered to me.  If possible, I was looking to have a ‘one-bike solution’ to all-round MTB use, but that needs to be quantified as not everyone’s needs or wants are like mine.  I wanted a bike that could do a long day’s ride with significant climbs on relatively mild dirt roads, and then handle the fast descents that follow.  Our local trails are not too crazy, but they are rough enough to need a decent travel bike, rough enough to where 100mms at each end might be on the edge of ‘not enough’.  Beyond what you actually need, a bit more travel than 4 inches is very fun and adds to the ‘wheeeee!!!’.  As well, getting into this mid-travel range of 120mm-130mm allows me to roam a bit, say to Moab or Sedona, and not feel out classed.

I also wanted to get to the newer geometry that is all the rage…longer top-tube, shorter stems (90mm to 100mm would be typical for me in the past), slacker front ends and shorter back ends.  That geometry in a 29er FS works really well pretty much anywhere.  I also wanted a frame only deal, no complete bikes.  That was a limiter in my choices as many on my list did not pass muster in that way.

I also was not looking for Boost (more on that below) and I did not want a dedicated 1x bike.  Not yet, anyway.

There was a financial aspect to this. Lest you think that I can just call any bike company and a free bike shows up at my door…ah, no.  That might happen here and there in this industry/media biz, but we are a small outfit at TNI and the realities are quite different.  So I expected to pay with my own money, although at a ‘good deal’ price.  And that affects my choice just a bit, yes?  With some of the new carbon frames being over 3 grand, well that is a lot of cash, even with that good deal factored in.

There were some great suggestions from reader comments in my “what bike?” post.  In fact there are hardly any stinkers out there these days, but there are some nuances that need to be considered.  Some bikes are tuned to excel at one aspect of the ride experience over other aspects, and the trick is knowing where to compromise to get what you want, if a compromise is required.  I could not ride all these bikes before I hit the PAY NOW button, so I actually relied on what I could glean from other test reports, internet chatter, etc.  So, from the suggestions, and my own shopping, let’s list a few contenders:

  • Turner CZAR- This bike seems to have faded off the hot-sheet, but it sure got a lot of buzz when it first came out.  DW Link.  Stiff.  But if I could get more than 100mms of rear travel, I would.  I had even wondered if Turner Bikes was even still around, that’s how little I had heard from them lately.
  • Ibis Ripley and Ripley LS – Right in there as far as center target to my needs.  Again, DW Link.  Travel is spot on.  Sizing was odd with a pretty short effective TT length, but now I would have gone for the LS in an XL.  Top choice.
  • Pivot Mach 429 Trail  – Another great choice.  DW Link.  Fabulous carbon work.  Sizing always seemed short in the length to height ratio to me, but this one was in the top 3.  But it is Boost only.  Hmmmmm.  Kind of homely too.
  • Santa Cruz Tall Boy –  Only 100mm travel out back.  Not really slack even with a 120mm fork.  The New Hightower, from what I can see, is a bit more of a descender than the others but is dead gorgeous.  135mms of rear travel is really more than I need. And it is getting expensive.
  • Yeti SB4.5c – Good looking bike.  Really expensive.  No provision for front der means I am locked into 1x.  Hmmmmm.
  • Evil The Following – Amazing reviews and buzz on this one.  For some reason, it never really seemed like a contender though and I cannot recall why.  Could be my error, but I still saw this as slanted toward AM in feel.
  • Scott Bikes Genius – Good selection of framesets.  Light too.  A bit more bike than I need, and although the Twin Lock works well, I would just as soon have a ‘one-setting’ bike with unchanging travel.  Less fiddly is good and I am not looking to be tied to a particular fork model to make the remote deal operate.
  • Trek Fuel EX –  A real contender from a big bike company, but its Boost only and the frameset options were pricy.  It is, from what I can tell, a truly great bike for the way the average Joe and Jill rides, likely better than many niche brands that get all the buzz.
  • Specialized Camber and Stumpy FSR – Stumpy FSR is a great bike, but a bit too much travel I think, although that is not too much of a handicap in this case as it pedals well enough.  Not sure I like the bridgeless seatstays deal.  The new Camber looked like it was made for my needs, but the frameset options are S Works only and were out-of-sight costly, including a fork I do not want to run and wheels I do not need.  However, if I were shopping pre-built bikes I would have been looking very hard at either the Trek Fuel EX or the Specialized Camber.
  • Niner RIP 9 Carbon – I really loved the alu version of this bike on trail and seriously considered it, even though the geometry is a bit odd these days, what with a steepish HT angle and longer back end.  I think it is due for a refresh, much like the JET 9 saw in the new RKT 9.  I would have run it with a minimum of a 130mm travel fork.


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Stealing Horses:  The other bike choice

No one suggested the bike I chose, the Salsa Horsethief.  Oh dear.  What is up with that?  Why no love for what I see as a sleeper bike in this category?  And why did I choose this bike over all the fine choices out there?  And why did I buy a 2015 version?

  • I like Salsa as a company and I like the people there.  Yeah, I know we in the media are supposed to be all neutral and such, and if I get this bike and it sucks, I will say so. I like the vibe they put out: Adventure By Bike.  Nice.  But I like other bike people in other bike companies too so that was not the biggest part of the decision, however it made it easier.  As well, they were the most responsive to my questions about their bike, where some companies never even returned my emails or calls.  Odd, I know, but having someone care enough to actually dialogue with me makes me feel good before I lay down the credit card.  Go figure.
  • I had ridden the new generation Spearfish, so I had some idea what Split Pivot, the simpler (as compared to his other link designs) rear suspension from Dave Weagle felt like, at least in short travel.  It was not a guarantee that it worked as well at 120mms of travel and how it might have been tuned for the Horsethief, but it was something at least.
  • The amount of travel was right…120mm rear and 120mm or 130mm front.
  • Carbon.  Nice for weight savings and at a competitive price.  It’s in there with the rest of the market.
  • I kind of like the idea of the dark horse entry from the ‘little’ company (yes, I know…QBP, the parent to Salsa, is a big company and all, but still…).  The Horsethief seems to get largely forgotten when dream builds are happening, yet the reviews I could find seemed quite solid.
  • Speaking with the engineer behind the bike, the target audience they designed this bike for is me.  Is I? And what they wanted this bike to be good at is what I want it to be good at.  Wow…nice sentence there, but you get the idea.

Boost:  Do I care?

No.  Well, not yet anyway. A part of this decision to go with a non-boost bike is the fine selection of non-boost wheels I have on hand. I decided to go with a 2015 non-boost version of the Horsethief, as the 2016 version is Boost only and shares the chassis with the 27.5+ Pony Rustler.  I really am not sure if this is something I care about, but for now I moved away from having a bike that would run both a 3.0″ 27.5+ wheel/tire and a 29″ wheel/tire as well.  The way I plan on using this bike most of the time does not really require that fatty Plus tire, although it sure makes for a stable and secure ride.  The times I see myself wanting to swap wheels are pretty slim and it is costly to get into that second wheelset.  I also question, despite the Q&A below,  whether or not a bike can be ‘right’ in its geometry and suspension tune between the two tire choices, although having a shock ‘chip’ would be a good start.  So no Boost.  Not yet anyway.

I am also not yet convinced that FS 27+ is going to be as big in the market as 27+ for hardtails…just a feeling.

Two years from now, would I have tilted towards a Boost bike?  Likely so. There will be plenty of non-Boost wheels out there for some time to come, but eventually it will overtake OE spec and become the norm.


In the next post I will highlight the frame details and the build…nothing terribly fancy, but solid and with some counter-culture gearing and an alternate fork choice.  But to wrap up this introduction, here are some thoughts from Pete Koski, the Salsa engineer behind the Horsethief bike and then a video from when the revised Horsethief was introduced.

TNI:  Back when you were putting things on paper (or on some computer screen) for the original Horsethief and even more so, the 2nd generation Horsethief with the DW Split Pivot rear suspension, what were you looking to create?  What was that bike going to be when it was done?  Did you have a certain type of rider in mind?

Salsa: The first Horsethief was conceived and designed began back in 2010. The motto going in was any trail, anywhere. At the time, 29ers were popular mostly as hardtail race bikes and 100mm XC suspension bikes. For trails that featured rougher terrain and steeper descents, that still required pedaling, riders were choosing 120-140mm travel 26in-wheeled suspension bikes because they featured geometry that worked better for that type of riding than the 29ers available. We wanted to make a 29er for that type of rider that could keep up with those smaller wheeled bikes (myself admittedly being one of those riders).  Salsa definitely was not the first or only “trail 29er”, but we certainly were on the pointy end of things in that segment. The move to Split Pivot didn’t really change the ethos of the bike at all, but it allowed us to work with the mastermind that is Dave Weagle and really refine and optimize the Horsethief. This move really made the bike/frame what it is today, and basically it hasn’t changed since that ‘12/’13 re-design period (with the exception of Boost-148). Going into ‘15-’16 it appears the industry has really gotten behind the 120mm, ~67.5, sub-440-stay 29er trail bike.  It’s kinda gratifying to know we’ve been there, quietly, for several years already.

TNI:  Your choice of the Dave Weagle’s Split Pivot for a rear suspension on the 2nd generation…what drove that over his more common designs that we might see used, for instance, by Pivot Bikes on their FS designs?

Salsa:  We felt the Split Pivot brand was just a better fit/match for Salsa. Split Pivot was a more natural progression for our already established bikes and allowed us to keep the experience, and even silhouettes similar, while drastically increasing the bikes’ performance.

TNI:  If you look around in 2016, you see a lot of bikes like the Horsethief…120-130mm front suspension with no more than 120mm rear, likely a bit less; slacker HT angles like an Enduro bike; longer top tube lengths and shorter back ends.  I think it is a new sweet spot for 29ers and it makes for an amazingly capable bike.  Was this a crystal ball move or were you just that smart to land the Horsethief right into the middle of this trend?

Salsa:  It certainly wasn’t luck, or clairvoyant thinking.  I would attribute it more to hard work, experience, and persistence. The goal of any bike designer or team is to create the best riding bike for its intended purpose. For the Horsethief it was “any trail, anywhere”.  Looking at the 120mm travel 29er segment of bikes as a whole today, that truly is what these bikes are capable of. Perhaps what got Salsa and the Horsethief there a few years ahead of most was the fact that we have been committed to the 29er since pretty much the beginning.  While others we’re developing and refining 26ers to be great all around trail bikes, and then eventually migrating those same designs and insights to 27.5, Salsa spent that same amount of time just chugging away on trying to make a 29er that did all those same things. That focus is really what I think gave us a head start in terms of building a truly great all-around 29er.  It also didn’t hurt to bring Weagle into the mix either. That guy is 4-5 years ahead of everyone else, all the time.  His experience, insight, and vision certainly played a role in making the Horsethief what it is today.

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For 2016, the Horsethief continues the original vision Salsa had for the bike.

TNI:  For 2016, the Horsethief is a Boost bike and shares the frame set with the Pony Rustler, a 27.5+ bike.  Is it challenging to design a bike that is optimized to run both wheel/tire sizes?  How do you allow for as few compromises as possible or are there none?

Salsa:  It’s not a challenge if you maintain overall wheel diameter. Total wheel diameter is why we have distinct geometries and components for 26, 27.5, and 29 today. (It’s also why Fatbikes can toggle between 26×4, 27.5×3 and 29×2.4 relatively easily)  Bikes like our Horsethief (& Pony Rustler) were originally designed around an average 29er tire which ranges Ø735~745mm in diameter. At the moment, there appears to be two distinct classes of 27.5-plus tires. There are 27.5 x 2.6-2.8 tires (mostly labeled 2.8) that measure Ø715-725mm and are only slightly bigger than a standard 27.5 tire (~Ø708mm). These tires fall well short of the average 29 tire diameter, which affects the ride height and trail (steering feel) of a bike designed around a 29er diameter what I would deem a “significant” amount. 

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Pony Rustler with 3.0″x27.5″ tire.

This tire size does have its merits, but it’s diameter perhaps makes it best suited for use on high clearance 27.5 bikes or even frames designed specifically around that diameter.  The second 27.5-plus size option is the 27.5 x 2.9-3.2 (mostly labeled 3.0) that measure Ø730-740mm in diameter.  This is only 10mm average difference in diameter from 29-std (5mm on the radius). This 5mm difference in axle height makes it much more plausible to design a single chassis and not have the 2 different wheel sizes significantly affect the ride height or handling of the bike.  In the case of the ’16 Pony Rustler, the move to Boost-148 provided the width needed for 27.5-plus, and certification to a 10mm longer fork up front with the existing frame geometry allowed us to negate the 5mm loss of BB height, resulting the same ride height as the ’15 Horsethief with 29-std wheels and a 120mm fork.  The additional axle-2-crown does slacken the head and seat angles by ½ a degree(68°/73.5° to 67.5°/73°) but in our case, those numbers are still very relevant and within reason for this style of bike, and for what most riders can adjust to.

The diameter difference is why you will only see Pony Rustlers spec’d with 3.0 tires that are Ø730mm or larger and 130mm travel forks; It’s a 29er, adapted to run 27.5-plus and these higher volume, larger diameter tires keep the ride height getting too low.  We’re also a bit biased here at Salsa in that our sister brand Surly, developed and defined “–plus” as a full 3.0 with the 29-plus Krampus and Knard.  There is a very distinct difference in the ride and feel of the volume that a 27.5 x 3.0 tire offers up compared to the volume of the 27.5 x 2.8s (many actually 2.6-2.7). Both have their pros and cons.  In the case of creating a single frame that can toggle between 29 and 27.5-plus, like the Horsethief/Pony Rustler chasses, it’s best to keep the diameters as similar as possible.

TNI:  Anything else?

Salsa:  If/when retro fitting 27.5-plus to an existing 29er, consider compensating for any loss of BB height with 5mm shorter crank arms, and a little less fork axle-to-crown (~10mm), rather than only with an increased fork length (ex: +20mm).  This will not only keep your change in steering feel small, but more importantly, it minimizes the change in seat tube angle, which affects where your center of gravity is relative to the wheel base.  This COG shift has a larger effect on pedaling and handling (particularly on climbs) than the change in head angle does.  Lastly, always check with the frame manufacturer to ensure you do not exceed the maximum axle-to-crown the frame is rated for.


Salsa Cycles 2015 Horsethief Line from Salsa Cycles on Vimeo.


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Note: Salsa Cycles provided this product at reduced cost to Twenty Nine Inches for test and review and I bought it with my own darn money. We are not being paid, nor bribed for these reviews and we will strive to give our honest thoughts and opinions throughout.