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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Product Review: Salsa Fargo, Part 2 – Singletrack Showdown

I gave an introduction and first impressions of my new Salsa Fargo bicycle a week ago in Part 1 of this product review. Those impressions were the result of short commuting rides, and a medium-length road ride. Here in Part 2 are my thoughts after giving the bike a thorough workout on singletrack mountain bike trails.

I wanted to do a head-to-head comparison of the Fargo versus a “traditional” mountain bike. I suppose to make it as much of an “apples to apples” comparison as possible, it would have been ideal to match the Fargo up against a rigid, geared, 29er bike with a regular flat or riser handlebar; this would have highlighted any perceived differences of the Fargo’s drop-bar geometry compared to regular mountain bike geometry, while keeping everything else roughly the same.

However, I did the comparison with my Mongoose Teocali Super. You might say this bike is the “anti-Fargo.” It’s a 26-inch-wheeled trail bike with RapidFire shifters, hydraulic brakes, a riser handlebar, and five inches of suspension travel both front and rear. Long-travel trail bikes are pretty standard equipment among mountain biking enthusiasts these days, so the Mongoose is fulfilling the original mission of this review series, that is, to see how well the Fargo might replace what the masses are typically riding in various situations.

The location for the test was Quail Hollow State Park, located just outside of Hartville, Ohio on Friday, July 15. The mountain bike trail in the park is a 3.5-mile loop with mostly beginner-level terrain, and not much elevation change to speak of. It’s often used as a “proving ground” by riders testing out new bikes (in fact, I came across another guy taking the first ride on his new Niner Bikes hardtail). I took both bicycles to the park and did alternating laps, thus eliminating any uncontrollable variables (weather, trail conditions, my fitness level for the day) that would have affected the results had I taken the two bikes on two separate occasions.

Mongoose Teocali Super and Salsa Fargo at Quail Hollow State Park

I typically do 4 or 5 laps whenever I ride at Quail, and the middle laps tend to be the fastest. This is probably because I’m warming up during the first lap, and starting to get worn out during the last lap. So, I decided to start out on the Mongoose for the first lap, figuring it would be best to warm up in a more familiar saddle. Here are the results for the 4-lap workout:

Lap Bike Time Average Speed Maximum Speed
1 Teocali 19:35 11.0 16.8
2 Fargo 19:50 10.9 16.9
3 Teocali 18:11 11.8 18.3
4 Fargo 18:30 11.5 20.0

As you can see, I was able to hit higher maximum speeds on the Fargo, but my lap times and overall averages were better on the Teocali. I suspect that I hit the maximums during a section of the loop known by regulars as “The Meadow.” It’s a long, flat section near the park boundary roughly halfway through the loop, with a wooden boardwalk for about 100 yards of it.

The Fargo felt at home on the singletrack. In smooth, flowing sections of the trail, I could hunker down in the drops and put the pedal to the metal, and the bike hugged the curves and kept its line right where I pointed it. I bashed the big chainring on the first log jump of the trail, indicative of the Fargo’s lower bottom bracket height, but I never had this issue on any of the other log jumps.

As expected, the Fargo did not feel as tame in the rougher sections of trail, i.e. rock gardens and roots. The Teocali is a “point-and-shoot” bike; I’d just keep up my speed and the suspension helped me float over the rough stuff. The Fargo required more skill in line selection and finesse in maneuvering. The rough terrain takes more of a toll on your body when using a rigid bike; after each of the Fargo laps, I felt noticeably more “beat up.” My hands got numb or tingly a couple of times, but this subsided after I reminded myself to relax and release my death grip (even those of us with some experience need to re-learn the basics once in a while).

Since the Quail Hollow trail is pretty flat overall, I found myself just picking a comfortable gear and settling into a singlespeed kind of rhythm, more so on the Fargo than on the Teocali. I suspect this is because the bar-end shifters make me put a little more thought and effort into the shifting process. The mantra of avid singlespeed riders goes something like “If you can’t shift, then you learn not to miss shifting.” In the case of the Fargo, that motto might be adapted to “If it’s not convenient to shift, then you learn to get by with less shifting.” Of course, the choice of bar-end shifters was mine; the Fargo can be set up with drop-bar integrated brake/shift levers (the Fargo complete bike offered by Salsa comes with SRAM Apex brake/shift levers).

In contrast to the occasional times I spent riding on the hoods on the Fargo when riding on the road, I found that I spent 100% of the time in the drops when riding singletrack. The drops gave me the leverage and control that I felt I wanted (not to mention easier access to the shifters) for reacting to the constantly-changing terrain encountered on the trail.

With the initial singletrack shake-down ride done, today I headed down to my favorite mountain bike trail, the 24-mile loop at Mohican State Park outside Loudonville, Ohio. This trail is mostly intermediate-level terrain that contains all of the features you’d expect to find: flowing smooth sections, rock gardens, roots, log jumps, and climbs and descents of all stripes, including a handful of steep, tight switchbacks.

On a trail of this length, it’s not possible to do as much of a “scientific” test as I did at Quail Hollow. However, for comparison purposes, I have my previous ride at Mohican, which I did on the Mongoose Teocali Super on June 16. I felt really good that day, and turned in what was probably one of my best times ever on this trail, about 2 hours and 42 minutes. I rode it that day without stopping, so my ride time is the same as my actual elapsed time. It was a bluebird-perfect day for mountain biking, with temps in the mid-70’s, and relatively low humidity.

Salsa Fargo at Mohican State Park

I tried to prepare myself ahead of time so that I’d be feeling as good today as I did that last time. I ate a hearty dinner, got a full night’s sleep, and had a stack of pancakes for breakfast, with a couple of hours of digestion time before I had to hit the trail. Today, however, was a different story from a weather standpoint–about 20 degrees hotter, with the humidity making the temperature feel like it was in triple digits.

All of the things that I noticed at Quail Hollow about the different ride feel of the Fargo compared to the Teocali I felt again at Mohican, only multiplied due to the more challenging terrain. I did shift a lot more often on this ride, which was necessary for the numerous climbs, plus I felt like I was starting to get the hang of using the bar-end shifters more in a technical environment. The Fargo felt balanced and stable, whether cornering, climbing, or descending. I still stayed in the drops almost exclusively, although there were a couple times I sat up with my hands in the hoods, mainly during the gravel road climb near the 13-mile mark. I was getting some stiffness in my lower back, and this allowed some relief. I should note, however, that I do get this stiffness occasionally during long off-road rides, no matter what bike I’m on. I didn’t have any issues with numbness in my hands this time around.

During some long, smooth sections of the trail, it would have behooved me to put some power to the pedals and make up time lost in the rougher stuff. Usually, though, I took advantage of the break to just coast and give myself a little rest.

One aspect of the Fargo’s long and low geometry that did give it an advantage that I was able to capitalize on was its climbing ability. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to clear all of the steep switchback climbs, most notably those located between the 12- and 13-mile marks (just after the covered bridge). I also cleared the infamous climb just after the 21-mile mark. I would drop it down into the granny gear at just the right moment, slide my butt up onto the nose of the saddle, and get down with my nose floating just forward of the stem faceplate, and the Fargo stayed on track, feeling neither like the rear wheel wanted to spin out, nor like the front wheel wanted to float up off the ground.

I ended up completing the entire loop with a time in motion of about 2 hours and 48 minutes, just a handful of minutes longer than on the Teocali. However, my actual elapsed time was considerably longer at almost four hours, due to several factors. One, the feeling of getting beat up made me want to stop and catch my breath a couple of times, although I’m sure the heat and humidity also played a part in this. Two, I got a flat tire, and three, I stopped to look (unsuccessfully) for my cyclocomputer that had popped off (which is a story for another day).

In summary, and to be honest, I would say that this head-to-head test between the Salsa Fargo and the Mongoose Teocali Super did not tell me anything that any experienced rider would not have been able to surmise just by looking at the bikes. However, it was fun collecting the concrete data and experience to confirm these things.

The Fargo design gives it advantages in some off-road situations, at the expense of the disadvantages that you’d expect from a rigid mountain bike. Maybe someday I’ll swap on a suspension fork and get the best of both worlds. In an XC race situation, I’d probably stick with the Teocali or some other bike with suspension, but I’ll never have any qualms about reaching for the Fargo whenever I just want to enjoy the day exploring new trails or hanging out on my old familiar trails.

Coming next: Touring on the Fargo

Product Review: Salsa Fargo, Part 1 – One bike to rule them all?

I’ve just completed putting together the latest addition to my bicycle fleet, a Salsa Fargo. What sort of bike is this? Well, as Salsa puts it, it’s “a disc brake only, drop bar mountain bike designed for off-road touring.”

What does that really mean, and why would somebody want such a beast? The design of the Fargo offers solutions to many of the challenges presented by the requirements off off-road touring. If you’re touring, that means long distances covered over several consecutive days. Drop bars provide the benefit of having multiple hand positions to help keep you from getting fatigued during all those miles. If you tried to put a drop bar on a standard mountain bike, it would be way too low. The Fargo geometry puts you in about the same position while riding in the drops as you would be on a regular mountain bike with a flat handlebar.

As a mountain bike, the Fargo uses 29er wheels and tires (the same 700C rim size as most road bikes). It comes with a rigid steel fork, but you can swap it out for a standard 29er-compatible suspension fork with 80mm of travel.

Satisfying the touring bike requirements, the Fargo has all of the eyelets you need and more for mounting front and rear cargo racks and fenders. The rear disc brake mounts are located on the chainstay, rather than the seatstay, so you can use just about any standard rear rack without the need for contortions and special hardware. And the frame has not two, not three, but count ‘em, five water bottle mounts: one on the seat tube, one on the top of the downtube, one on the bottom of the down tube, and one on each fork leg. The ones on the fork legs and on the top of the downtube accept either a standard bottle cage, or Salsa’s Anything Cage, which has a strap to let you carry a standard water bottle, large Nalgene-type water bottles, fuel bottle, lightweight sleeping bag or pad, or, as the name implies, just about anything.

So, about this time you’re probably saying, “Enough talk; let’s see the dang bike!” Here ya go:

Salsa Fargo

I built the bike up with some parts I had around as well as robbed off of a couple of my other bikes. I chose to use bar-end shifters, because I like the idea of their reliability and serviceability in touring situations.

The handlebar is the Salsa Woodchipper, which was more or less designed specifically for use on the Fargo. The drops are shallow and have a very wide flare-out.

The only minor issue I came across during the build process was hooking up the brake cable to the rear disc brake caliper. With the chainstay-mounted brake, the seatstay ends up running just a centimeter or so over the caliper, making it nearly impossible to get an allen wrench on the anchor bolt for the brake cable. I managed to get it tight enough using a ball-end wrench. The ideal solution would be to swap out the allen-head anchor bolt with a standard hex-head bolt, so you could get to it more easily with a crescent wrench.

My toughest decision was what crankset to use. I decided to go with a standard mountain triple with 22/32/44-tooth chainrings. From past experience with other mountain bikes, the 32T middle ring, coupled with an 11-34 cassette, is sufficient to clear 95% of the singletrack that I ride on, with only occasionally having to drop down into the 22T granny gear, and I didn’t want to give up that same benefit on this bike. My fear, however, is that this setup will feel anemic on the road. I have a spare 26/36/48 touring crankset that I’ll probably swap on at some point in the future, but I’ll stick with what’s on there for now until I have a chance to test it out. Looking ahead, I suspect that my ideal gearing setup for this bike will be the touring crankset and one of those new 11-36 mountain cassettes.

There may be another thought be occurring to you about now; the Fargo, with its off-road burliness, its road-like drop handlebar and 700C wheels, and cargo-friendliness–could it be the only bike a person might ever need to buy? Shouldn’t it work just as well in any conditions by simply choosing an appropriate tire type? Could it be your road bike, mountain bike, on-road touring bike, off-road touring bike, cyclocross bike, gravel-grinder racer, rail-trail cruiser, grocery-getter, and more? Is it, dare I say, a true “hybrid” in every sense of the word? That is the question that I hope to answer as this series of reviews continues. I’ll be putting the Salsa Fargo through its paces in all of these conditions, comparing head-to-head against other bikes when practical, and reporting my thoughts here.

A big shout-out goes to Brent and my other friends at Solon Bicycle for procuring the Salsa Fargo frameset for me. Thanks! I chose to go with a Medium/18-inch frame. According to Salsa’s sizing guidelines, my height overlapped the recommended ranges for the Medium and Large frames. Sight unseen, I probably would have chosen the large, but fortunately, Solon Bicycle had a couple of complete Fargos in stock that I was able to test-ride before ordering, and I found that I liked the feel of the Medium better, and it gave me more standover clearance that I will want when riding off-road. As pictured above (except without the seat bag), the bike weighs in at 27.4 pounds. That will vary, of course, with your component selection.

First Impressions

My first “real” ride on the Fargo was my commute to work yesterday. Before heading out, I installed my favorite rear cargo rack, the Topeak MTX Explorer. As expected, it went on without a hitch, and I was able to use a matching Topeak MTX trunk bag to haul my lunch and change of clothes.

My usual route to work is all pavement, but I took a slight detour on what is known as the Old Hickory Trail, which runs through the neighborhood just next to mine. This multi-use path is, I think, a little rough for the average bike path rider; I’ve seen hikers, joggers, and dog-walkers using it, but I don’t recall ever seeing another cyclist there. It’s got some climbs that are a little steep, some patches of rough gravel, and a few rutted sections from the wash-outs caused by the rainy spring we’ve had in these parts. I figured it would be the perfect introduction for testing the Fargo’s versatility.

Currently, I’m using Kenda Small Block Eight tires, just because it was a choice of either these or the other 29er tires I happen to have at the moment, the CST Caballero. The Small Block 8s are a good choice for smooth, dry singletrack, so I figured they’d give me enough hookup on the Old Hickory Trail, without slowing me down too much on the pavement. I usually run them around 37psi for off-road use, but I went up to about 43psi, just so, again, I wouldn’t feel totally bogged down on the road.

The Fargo felt as good as I’d hoped on the trail. The maneuvering felt confident; I was able to lean into the curves at speed, and the fat tires grabbed the gravel and held their place in the dirt. I could bunny-hop the ruts. Basically, the bike felt snappy when it needed it to, but long, low, and stable when I wanted it to.

Out on the road, the gearing took some getting used to, as I expected, but once I settled in realizing that I should just keep it in my big chainring the whole time, it wasn’t too bad. The tires weren’t ideal, again as expected, but neither of these two issues is the fault of the bike itself. I was just as happy with the overall fit and feel of the ride on the road as I was on the trail.

When riding in the drops, the Fargo’s upright geometry gives me the feeling that I’m “hovering” over the front of the bike, with my face just above the stem and handlebar, more so than on a traditional drop-bar road bike. This is not necessarily a bad thing; just a different feeling to get used to. It’s as if the cockpit of the bike rises up to meet you.

The moving time for my commute was just under an hour, which is typical for any of the other bikes that I’ve used to commute. So, check #1; the Fargo makes a darn fine commuter bike.

Today, Brent and I took a ride from my place up to Mentor Headlands Beach State Park. For this all-road excursion, I took the rear rack back off, pumped the tires up to 60psi, and just strapped on a basic handlebar bag to hold my wallet, keys, and phone. Brent was riding his new Salsa Vaya, so it was a “Tour de Salsa.”

The route took us through a construction zone, which involved about 100 yards of riding on dirt. Another side road later on turned into a gravel and pothole minefield, so I got more unexpected testing of the Fargo’s all-terrain versatility, and was glad again that the fat tires handled it with ease. I did feel like I was struggling at times to keep up with Brent and the more pure road-worthiness of his Vaya. I’ll be anxious to swap on some slick tires later to better test the Fargo’s pavement skills. Still, I was comfortable for the whole 41 miles of the ride.

I have one final observation after two days of mostly on-road riding of the Fargo. I’ve found that with the Fargo geometry and the Woodchipper handlebar, I spend much more time in the drops compared to a regular road bike. With traditional drop handlebars, most people, including myself, probably spend  about70% of the time on the hoods and 30% in the drops. On the Fargo, I spent about 80% in the drops and 20% on the hoods. This felt natural, though, and I think that’s how it’s meant to be. The difference was even more noticeable while climbing. On low to moderate grades, I found it more natural to stay in the drops; only on the steepest grades did I switch up to climbing on the hoods.

Product Review: The Donkey Boxx

The makers of the Donkey Boxx bicycle pannier sent a free sample to where I work, so I decided to give it a try during my daily commute for a couple of days.

What is the Donkey Boxx? It’s a hard-sided pannier meant to be used with front or rear cargo racks, just like a standard pannier bag. The designers were inspired by the need to carry tomatoes and other produce home from their local farmer’s market without them getting bruised and jostled around as they would in a soft-sided bike bag.

The Donkey Boxx is targeted at the commuter or bike tourist who is looking for a no-frills pannier that is simple to use, and does not attract the attention of theives with a flashy expensive outdoor gear look.

Here it is in action on my Surly Long Haul Trucker:

It works equally well on either the left or right side; if you want to use them on both sides, you’ll have to buy two, as they are sold as a single box.

The Donkey Boxx is made in the USA out of 80% recycled corrugated plastic. This is the same plastic that is used in those crates used by the US Postal Service, and found in corporate mailrooms all over the place. The plastic material itself is waterproof, but the Boxx has holes in the bottom and along the edges for drainage and ventilation. If you want to make the box as close to waterproof as possible, they suggest covering the holes with packing tape.

The Donkey Boxx comes with a set of zip ties for installation, reflective stickers, and a strip of velcro that is used to hold the fold-up lid shut. Installation was about as simple as you can get; just wrap two of the zip ties around the top edge, and one around the back near the bottom edge. Trim the ends off the the zip ties, and you’re good to go.

The instructions provide tips for how to install the Donkey Boxx to avoid having heel strike problems. They even provide a unique measurement gauge to help you with this. One end of the gauge has a hook that attaches to your pedal spindle, and the other end has hash marks representing a range of shoe sizes. With the gauge hooked to your pedal, all you have to do is make sure that the Donkey Boxx is positioned so that the front edge is behind the marking for your shoe size.

With the long chain stays of the Long Haul Trucker, this was not an issue for me; I could be wearing a size 16 and still not be even close to having a problem. Regardless of your bike or shoe size, I’d suggest just positioning the Donkey Boxx as far back as possible on your rack. The only suggestion I would make for improvement would be to print the shoe size marks on both sides of the clearance gauge to make it easier for folks to size up the Donkey Boxx position on either side of their bike.

If you want to use a rack-top bag in conjunction with the Donkey Box, that’s not a problem. Mine worked fine, even with the Topeak MTX rack/bag system:

The Donkey Boxx holds 4.2 US gallons (dry); that’s 1,120 cubic inches or 1.83 liters. I carried my windbreaker, change of clothes, and lunch, and had more than plenty of room to spare:

A reusable grocery bag will fit inside, but the bottom is a bit narrow, so you’ll have to mash the bottom of the bag together a bit, but it works otherwise:

My conclusion regarding the Donkey Boxx is that it works exactly as intended. If you’re looking for a low-cost cargo carrier that you can load up and knock around without worrying about it getting ripped or ripped off, then the Donkey Boxx is for you. If you need something that you can detach and take along with you, then it won’t work well, as the installation is semi-permanent using zip ties. If you do need to remove the Donkey Boxx, you have to cut the zip ties. That’s not a major problem if you’re only doing this occasionally, since extra zip ties are readily available at your local hardware store.

The only problem I had was that I would occasionally knock the box against doorways as I carried my bike in and out. That’s not really a fault with the Donkey Box itself; that’s just a matter of getting used to the fact that you’ve got a nice, big solid box attached to your bike.

The Donkey Box comes only in the white color shown; the designers are considering offering other colors in the future. The plastic surface is smooth and friendly to user-customization with stickers.

Check with your local bicycle shop for availability of the Donkey Boxx. Suggested retail price is $28.00 each. You can also order online (as well as find more information, including installation tips and frequently asked questions) at www.donkeyboxx.com.

Now that my test period of the Donkey Boxx is complete, I am donating it to a worthy successor. If you’d like to inherit my Donkey Boxx to give it a try, I’ll give it to the first person that requests via the Contact page. Provide your name and mailing address, and I’ll get back to you with the shipping fee that you’ll need to reimburse to me before I send you the box. If you are local to Northeast Ohio, we can make arrangements for you to pick it up in person instead.

UPDATE 09/17/2011: The Donkey Boxx has been claimed; congratulations to Rocky Conly of Austin, Texas. Check back later for a report of his experiences using the Donkey Boxx.

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