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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:
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.
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.