Salsa Horsethief

Somewhere a few thousand feet above Los Angeles after a good, long climb.

It is not too often that you read someone from the media saying they screwed up; that something they planned, like a bike build, did not come out as they expected.  In the cycling media, things are usually all roses and chocolates.

Well, this will be different.

After some time on Project New Whip, a bike that I intended to use for testing things as well as for my main MTB ride, I realize I made some errors in my decision making process.  The errors came mostly from old thinking patterns, but some were from making geometrical (is that a word?) miscalculations.  So now I am getting ready to do it all over again.  Sigh!

But if anything is true in this cycling thing we do, it is that the times are, as they say, A Changin’ and so am I, at least a bit.  Follow along as we dive inside my head while I work through this process of New Whip: Take #2.

Let’s get some links here for the posts leading up to today:

The Planning

The Choice

The Parts

The Result 

I had made some choices that determined the course the build would take.  Taken as a whole, I was looking for a bike that could do a lot of things well.  It could handle long, multi hour fireroad climbs, not be a heavy beast, and needed to keep some snap*crackle*pop when pedaled hard.  But when things went tipped downwards a bit, and when the trail got twisty, etc, it would handle that too with enough grace to make the day pleasant.  Basically, the ‘One Bike Solution’, So Cal style.  And that is what I did get…mostly.

One of the decisions I made was to pass on Boost, as I really did not need it for my immediate purposes, and I had some great wheels around that were non-Boost.  I also decided to go 2X11 with Shimano XT, swimming upstream against the current of 1X madness.  I chose a bike with middle range travel in the carbon Salsa Horsethief, with 120mms of rear end squish in the guise of Split Pivot.  I chose a fork that matched the frame at 120mms (with an option to go 130mm) and was a bit of an XC/Light-ish Trail model.

The weight came out at 29.5 lbs with pedals and tool bag and cage.  Not bad at all. No complaints there.

But what happened to spoil the soup?



Now keep in mind that the planning of this bike goes back to Spring of this year, so as the process went along, things were changing out there on the trail more than I realized.  I had been riding the Specialized test Fuse for some time, and had grown to appreciate what the Plus wheels did (and did not do) well.  What I did not expect, however, was how much I would miss them once I stopped riding them.  And as soon as I rode the freshly minted New Whip bike, I knew I had messed up.  As good as 29ers are, I had come to appreciate how 27.5+ is better in many ways. And while I was not sure I wanted to be Plus 100% of the time, I knew then that I wanted the option for some of the time.  And I had nicely maneuvered myself into a place where that was not possible with the new bike. Crap!

Pony Rustler

An option that I passed on…27+…oops.

Many new bikes in the same genre as the Horsethief (and of course, the newer version of the same bike by Salsa) were capable of running 27.5+ and 29er wheels/tires.  And while I had not thought I would care all that much, I was wrong.  I did care.

Sizing…how tall am I again?

monkeyAt 6’2″ and with monkey arms (long) and monkey legs (read ‘not that long’), I have always been on XL MTBs and typically with 90-100mm stems.  Now sometimes that stretches me out a bit, but remember I am an old dog so I come from the NORBA days of low, long bikes (and stupid long stems to match).  As the calendar pages have been turned over the years, angles have been getting shallower on bikes, with even many XC-Race 29ers now being well under the standard 71° setting.  As well, top tubes have been getting longer, chainstays have been getting shorter, and suspension travel has been increasing.  It’s a new game and I have been trying to find where I fit in it.  An XL bike in this new geo, with 130mms of travel, to toss out a number, has a darn long wheelbase, like over 1200mms.  Is that OK?  I am not sure.  Past times spent riding 29ers with that wheelbase have felt a bit…hmmmm…staid, shall we say?

So the bikes are getting a bit longer in reach, but not a LOT longer…TT numbers are slightly increased and ST angles are steeper too, so the cockpit is getting pushed out a bit, making a LG frame a possible fit for me.  But.  Stems are getting way shorter.  Chop 30mm to 40mm off of the stem length and the handlebars get closer to you really quickly.  Make them wider and that spreads you back out a bit, but only a bit.

I can run a LG frame in something like the Horsethief or its ilk, but it will mean I need a 75-80mm stem to not feel cramped on long climbs or feel like I am over the bars too far when standing and going fast downhill…like some vulture awaiting my own demise.  It is doable, but it is not ‘right’ either.  And fit is so important. So I am in this hell of needing a LG Long, like some custom suit.

I know I see many riders on bikes with stubby stems and wiiide bars and lots of travel and they look like the bars are in their lap.  I get that compromise as that keeps the bike feeling right when ridden more aggressively; over jumps, down steep drops, etc.  But it is a bridge too far for me and for where and how I ride.  Fit is not just important, it is personal.  What is right for you may not be right for me.

So I spent a lot of pen and paper time corresponding with the engineer that designed the Horsethief as to what size I should buy.  My first thought was XL.  Crunching Reach and Stack numbers seemed to point to a fit on the smaller frame and the shorter wheelbase appealed to me.  But numbers are like that old saying: There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. You still need to ride the bike to see how it turns out as the numbers do not tell the whole tale.  Bikes, taken as a whole, are more nuanced then that.

End result:  Basically, if I want to get the room I need and keep the stem in the 60-70mm range, I still need what is an XL in today’s market.  I have a LG.  Crap. Crap!

Please pass me the salt and a larger fork.

IMG_4601A 120mm fork is not making me happy, and while the action on the MRP Loop TR is very good…supple and responsive, and decently stiff, it’s not a Pike or Fox 34, nor does it claim to be.  But I am spoiled now with the bigger forks I have been riding lately.  They are what every bike like this should have, really.  And once 130mm feels ‘normal’ then less than that feels odd. This was ‘old thinking’ on my part.

Tuning the Loop TR is a bit tricky as the inflation technique needs careful attention paid to it or it will not be right.  JeffJ called out that the fork looked low, like it only had 100mms of travel.  Careful measuring showed that there was not 120mms of exposed stanchion tube on the fork.  Consulting with MRP, they suggested I revisit the inflation settings and inflation process per the hang tag that came with the fork.  I did, and that gave me an additional 20mms of travel after I retuned the Loop TR.

And as a marathon or XC fork, it feels really good…supple, no diving in braking.  The compression damping with that blow off deal is great for allowing you to climb out of the saddle with little fork compression yet remain active when bumps happen. But when things get faster it should be more fun too, but it lacks balance on this bike.  I think taking it to 130mm would be better, but I think it’s a bit under built for that length…yes, that is speculation based on how it feels now.

Salsa Horsethief

Split Pivot is a solid performer.

So what did go right?  Well, the frame itself is very well done.  It is not the stiffest thing I have seen, speaking of the back end of the bike, but I can only see that when I look for it.  On trail it feels great.  Split Pivot is very impressive.  Although each suspension design has some shades of difference, I think it pedals as good as anything else I have ridden, not terrifically inspiring, but very, very solid.  Taken overall, the Salsa Horsethief is a very nice bike and would be a great choice for anything from marathon trail days to general MTB riding to some XC races if you build it right.  No complaints there. I just need a bigger, XL version.

Shimano XT 2x

Got range? And close ratios? Yes.

The Shimano 2X is just sooooo darn good at certain things I really care about.  1x cannot match the range of a 2x system and still keep the gaps between each gear small.  Yes, I can get a low enough gear with a 28×42 combo.  That is pretty much equal to a 24×36 in old ten speed speak.  But a 28×10 is not much of a high gear.


What is often overlooked when this is debated on the innerweb are the jumps between gears.  A SRAM 1x has some big gaps as you get to the larger cogs.  And while it may not matter at all if your trails are a series of quick, techy ups and downs, ride those big gaps over hours of long fireroad climbs and you will come to love the closer ratios of the 11-40 cassette on the XT 2x.  Want just a little more or a little less gear to keep your legs efficient and your heart rate in the zone…you can have it with my set-up.  And while I really do not need a 22×40 low gear to get up things, it is more about spinning over mashing, and as you age, that makes more and more sense, allowing me to control my expenditure of energy over long and varied conditions.  It rocks.

Shifting the front der is just a non-issue.  If you cannot get this to work, then get a 3 speed internal hub or something because you are hopeless as a bike mechanic.

The top end gear is just so so with that 34×11.  It feels small, like 1x does with that typical 30T chainring, so I have to go way down the cassette to the 11 or 12 to get a big feeling gear.  Meh!  But the closer ratio between the 24T and the 34T ring is pretty sweet, allowing me to run between the two without that big drop down or jump up we have come to accept, like in the typical road bike compact 34/50.  That sucks.  We have just gotten used to what they sell these days.

Keep in mind that what works as far as gearing is very dependent on who, what, where, and why.  If I were riding in Sedona, AZ, all the time, I would only have 1X, geared low.  It is such a dynamic trail environment that having any option for front shifting makes no sense to me.  One lever….11 gears.  Got it.  But the other day at home ground I climbed for 90 minutes up a long, open and rough, steep dirt road.  Before that on another ride I had climbed for nearly 3 hours before we topped out.  Then things got blurry on the way down.  Typical So Cal.  Who you are, where you ride, and what you want should determine your drivetrain choices, not current trends.

So now what?  Options, options, options.

So how do I fix this?

Well, the most obvious choice is to simply get an XL Horsethief/Pony Rustler, a new fork in 130mm length, and some Boost wheels times 2…one set in 29er and one set in 27.5+.  I would have it all, fit to the demands of the day.  It would be a bike for all reasons.  Almost.  A spork of sorts, but a very good spork, and there is good value in that.  I could swap wheels so that 27.5+ would be an option, keep 2x, and have more fun in the rougher stuff with something like a Pike or Fox 34, or even an MRP Stage fork for that matter.

But other frame choices have come up as I wait for the 2017 versions of the Horsethief to arrive over the ‘pond’.  More bikes have been released that do this double duty wheel deal…Plus and non-Plus.  Niner has the new JET9.  Santa Cruz announced the alu version of the Tall Boy 3.  Alu appeals to me a bit these days as carbon is getting quite expensive in the nicer blends (the JET9 will have an alu option too, I bet).  It is a competitive market.

jet final

Even the pure blood of Niner bikes has yielded to the mid-in-fatuation of Plus options.

sporkBut here is another thought and it relates to the spork idea.  As much appeal as the ‘1 bike for all’ has, trying to walk that middle ground…I am wondering how much of a reality it is? Right now I am riding a review bike I cannot talk about, but is a fine example of the pinnacle of today’s 29er trailbikes.  Light (lots of carbon…$$$), 130mm of travel, killer wheels, 1X, slacker/shorter/longer geo. And it does a lot of things really well (no Plus option).  But it still does not rip upwards on long smooth climbs like my old Epic does. And while it is really fun on techy, rougher trails, I wonder how much penalty there is in another 20mms of fork and a bit slacker HT angle?

Same with the Horsethief.  Even the revised one I would end up with…would it be a jack of all trades, master of none?

If the bike does not really do what a true XC bike will do, like a Spark or Epic or RKT 9, as far as rapidly getting you up some long climb, and yet does not really make you grin madly like a more aggressive trail bike might, is it not best to just have 2 bikes?

For instance…Stumpjumper 6 Fattie/Epic Combo.  If I am going to have a 29lb bike with compromises, why not have a 30lb bike with no compromises?  150 front/135 rear.  Plus tires. Sounds like a blast.  And if something like that bike can spin up a long climb without crushing it yet also not crush you in the process, then why not do that? It is not a bike I would have considered in the past, but I might have blinders on. If it took 29er wheels then even better, although I suspect that this option would be more likely a pure 27.5+ bike, and that brings in other considerations.  Like maybe having no 29″ bike for bigger days.  Is that OK?

Specialized 6 Fattie

Is this the ‘Max Fun’ option? Or is it more than that too? Specialized 6 Fattie in alu and orange. I like orange bikes.

Is it?  I don’t know.  I am working on getting on a bike like that in for review…longer travel, more trail focused.  27.5+ tires. I might find it is too much.  But….maybe not.  Maybe if the wheels are kept light and the tires moderate, who knows?

It is a new ball game and the rules are still being written as we speak. I struck out this time, but I am coming up to bat again and I have been working on hitting those curve balls.  Put me in, coach.

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Note: The products shown here were purchased or were provided at no cost to Twenty Nine Inches for test and review. We are not being paid, nor bribed for these reviews and we will strive to give our honest thoughts and opinions throughout.