Car Less Ohio

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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

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8 responses to “Product Review: Salsa Fargo, Part 2 – Singletrack Showdown

  1. Cyclophiliac July 24, 2011 at 8:55 am

    This is SO geeky! But of course, I love it! Sorry that you lost your cyclocomputer, though…Doesn’t that skew your results somewhat? I mean, did you have to guess at your times once you were without a computer?

    I hope you’ll be able to help me out when I get my new bike, Kevin – I’m thinking of doing the same kind of comparison between it and my Bianchi. Maybe a short TT course somewhere.

  2. Christian August 22, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Very much enjoyed reading your review. Thanks. Looking forward to seeing your touring review. I took my Fargo to the Indian Himalayas and it served me well!

  3. Kevin August 22, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Christian, touring in the Himalayas is pretty impressive; I doubt I’ll have much wisdom to contribute to your experience. I’ve got the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route penciled in for 2014, but until then, my touring on the Fargo will probably be limited to sub 24-hour overnights, or maybe a week-long trip if I can squeeze it in.

  4. Christian August 23, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    Sorry Kevin, I thought you had a Fargo touring review coming up… Even though I tested the bike in challenging conditions, and was very pleased with it, I wouldn’t have the expertise and technical knowledge to do an in-depth review such as yours :-)

  5. Kevin August 23, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Oh, no apology needed. I am indeed planning to do a Fargo touring review soon, but I just wanted to point out in advance that my touring conditions will not be nearly as challenging as the conditions that the Fargo is made to handle.

  6. Dmitry November 20, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    thanks for the nice review of Fargo! I’m choosing a bike for touring built on a cromoly 29″ frame, tired of alu frame bike I have right now.
    Can you tell the difference in ride quality between other bikes you have with alu frame and Fargo?

  7. Kevin November 20, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Dmitry, thanks for the feedback; glad you enjoyed my review. I think all else being equal, cromoly does give the best ride quality, but that being said, all else is rarely ever equal. As I mentioned in the review above, my Mongoose Teocali Super gave the best ride quality, but that’s because it’s a full-suspension bike. I think a rigid cromoly frame is the best choice for touring, unless money is no object, then titanium is good. I think titanium gives the same or better ride quality as cromoly, and is usually a little lighter and more durable. This is a generality of course; there is some cheap titanium out there.

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