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Product Review: Salsa Fargo, Part 3 – Touring
This is the third part in my ongoing review of the Salsa Fargo bicycle. In Part 1, I gave my initial impressions based on some short road rides, including commuting. Part 2 was my head-to-head comparison of riding the Fargo on singletrack versus a full-suspension mountain bike. As promised, this post describes my experience with using the Fargo in a touring environment.
First, I’ve made a couple of changes to my Fargo setup since the last part of the review. After the singletrack test was done, I swapped out my Kenda Small Block Eight tires for the new Continental Comfort Contact 700×54. This is a smooth but fat tire, basically equivalent to a 29×2.1-inch tire in size, which runs at a maximum of 60psi. As you might have expected, these tires made the Fargo feel much more road-worthy, rolling more efficiently, not to mention more quietly.
I initially debated about which crankset would be better, a traditional 22/32/44 mountain triple, or a 26/36/48 touring triple. I used the mountain triple for the rides covered in Part 1 and Part 2, and found it to be ideal for riding singletrack, but it felt a bit anemic on pavement. I swapped on the touring triple, and found this, like the tires, made the Fargo feel much more road-worthy. It may seem like a no-brainer: the off-road crankset works better for off-road riding, and the on-road crankset works better for on-road riding, but I can’t really explain why this is the case. The differences in the upper and lower limits of the gear ranges aren’t that significant, and I didn’t really spend much time riding at the upper and lower limits on either crankset. Maybe it’s a mental thing, or maybe it has to do with how often I needed (or didn’t need) to shift between the middle and large chainrings. Anyway, perhaps my experience with choosing the ideal gearing for a Fargo is common, based on the recently released specs of Salsa’s 2012 models. For 2011, they offered the Fargo with one version of the complete bike, which came with a mountain double crankset. For 2012, they are offering it in three complete versions, one with a mountain double, and two with a touring triple.
To transition into touring mode, I installed a pair of Planet Bike’s Cascadia 29er full-coverage fenders. With the Fargo’s full complement of eyelets, plus the chainstay-mounted rear disc brake, the fenders went on without any hassles. The only thing that caught my eye was that the two pair of eyelets on the rear are spaced kind of close together, making the mounting points of the fenders and my Topeak Explorer rack bump against each other. It worked with no problem, but the slightest variation in the length of the rack’s lower struts, or in the angle required for the fender struts, might cause some issues with other fender and rack combinations.
The Topeak rack works great for both commuting and touring, but I decided to dress up the Fargo with matching Salsa front and rear racks. The Salsa Wanderlust rear rack has more streamlined lower eyelets compared to the Topeak, so the rack/fender eyelet crowding is much less of an issue. The upper struts on the Wanderlust rack need to be trimmed to length for installation. Theoretically, you line up the upper struts with the upper eyelets on your bike, then mark the other end of the struts to know where to hacksaw them off. However, it’s not possible to line up the struts with the eyelets at first, because you can’t rotate the struts down enough to clear the strut mounting plate on the rack. This photo makes it more clear what I’m talking about:
Ironically, the installation instructions that come with the rack describe the process of lining up the struts with the eyelets, but they include a photo that looks pretty much like my photo above! So, they’ve designed a rack with a Catch-22 installation procedure: you have to align the struts to know how long to cut them, but it’s impossible to align the struts until after they’re cut. (This would be less of an issue on larger Fargo frames, or other frame models.) What you end up having to do is just completely remove the struts from their mounts on the rack, line up the eyelets, and hold the other end close enough to make an educated guess as to where to mark them to be cut. This is what I did, and my struts ended up being just long enough, so I would suggest over-estimating the length you need on the first cut, test-fit, then cut to trim again as needed.
The front rack from Salsa is called the Downunder. It’s a two-piece rack that uses the lower- and mid-fork eyelets. The problem with many two-piece front racks is that once you load them up with cargo, the torsional forces that the load places on the rack can cause the mounting bolts to loosen, or worse yet, strip out (I have had this happen). The usual solution to this issue is to use a one-piece front rack that has an upper platform or an arch that connects the two sides of the rack, which makes the whole rack rigid enough to relieve the torsional forces on the mounting bolts. The Downunder rack takes a different approach; it keeps the two-piece design to save weight, but the mid-fork mounts have a double prong design. Thus, in addition to the bolt on the lower-fork eyelet, each half of the rack is held in place by a bolt on the outside of the fork leg and a bolt on the inside of the fork leg. This design provides plenty of rigidity, and installation was a breeze.
Not that I anticipated needing them for my first brief touring tests, but just to show how cool they are, I threw on two extra bottle cages using the mounts on the Fargo fork. So finally, here’s a shot of the Fargo in its full touring-mode glory:
One final addition I made that is not apparent in the above photo was to add a taillight bracket to the rear rack. This ended up being a bit more of a science project than I anticipated. Most rear racks made for sale in the US have a light/reflector mount that consists of either two holes oriented vertically, or two holes spaced horizontally at 50mm apart (some, like the Topeak Explorer, have both sets of holes). Many racks made for sale in Europe have a light mount that is two holes oriented horizontally at 80mm apart. The Wanderlust rack has two eyelets spaced 80mm apart, but these eyelets are oriented so that the openings are vertical, i.e. pointed towards the ground and the sky. I emailed Salsa and asked what their thinking was behind this eyelet design, and how they suggested mounting a taillight. In their response, they said that the eyelets are intended for mounting your own home-made enhancements to the rack, and they suggested using a taillight with a rubber or circular (seatstay-type) mounting bracket.
My favorite taillight is the Planet Bike Superflash, which has an optional rack mounting adapter that uses either of the two US-style mounting holes, and I wanted to find a way to make this work. I dug through my stash of spare rack parts, and it turns out I had an adapter made by Topeak that converts an 80mm Euro-style light mount to a vertical US-style mount. I bolted this to the bottom of the Wanderlust’s 80mm eyelets, then bolted an L-bracket (the kind that comes with some cheaper racks in the US market to provide a reflector mounting point) onto the Topeak adapter. The L-bracket then provided two mounting holes in the proper vertical orientation to attach the Planet Bike mounting adapter. So, here’s the finished setup, without the actual taillight, so you can see all of the bracket detail:
I’m still on the fence about how I feel about this. On the one hand, it works really well, and I’m proud of myself for coming up with it. On the other hand, it kind of offends my aesthetic sensibility, because it seems a little too Rube Goldbergian.
I did a few commutes and other short road rides with the Fargo’s touring mode setup, and everything felt great. The first major ride I did was not a “touring” ride in the true sense, but what many recreational cyclists consider to be touring; it was the BikeMS Pedal to the Point on August 13. This is one of the many MS150 rides held throughout the country to raise funds for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. My girlfriend and I do the one-day ride instead of the two-day, so that we don’t have to worry about finding somebody to watch our beagles. We wanted to figure out a way to do this without having to deal with taking a shuttle back (from Sandusky, Ohio) to the starting point (in Middleburg Heights, Ohio). So, we do the first-day route to the lunch stop, including the optional century loop that adds an extra 25-30 miles before lunch. Then, we do the regular route in reverse from the lunch stop back to the starting point. This makes a nice 93-mile loop. The weather forecast that day called for possible thunderstorms, so I put a single waterproof pannier on my rear rack to give us a place to stash our rain jackets and helmet covers, plus to keep our wallets, keys, and cell phones dry. Since we’d be riding the last part of the route “self-supported,” we also threw in a few extra snacks, and took an extra pair of water bottles (in my fork-mounted bottle cages). The predicted rain never came, and the day ended up being not too hot and quite pleasant. The Fargo continued to feel great throughout the whole 93 miles. I never felt like it was a struggle to keep up with the true roadies along the way when I felt so inclined.
My first true self-supported tour on the Fargo came when my friend Brent and I took an S24O trip on August 28. “S24O” stands for “Sub 24-Hour Overnight,” which means a bike-camping trip with a single night stay. The term was coined and made popular by Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycle Works; the Adventure Cycling Association has created a spin-off web site dedicated to the activity at www.bikeovernights.org. This was another “Tour de Salsa,” as Brent was once again riding his new Salsa Vaya.
I left work in Peninsula around 5:30pm, after realizing I forgot to pack a bike jersey for the tour. I decided to just ride in my t-shirt, and that worked fine, since it was a cool, pleasant evening. I had a full complement of front and rear panniers. In one rear pannier, I carried all of my camping gear: tent, ground cloth, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, camp pillow, and headlamp. In the other rear pannier, I carried my cooking gear and food: backpacking stove, fuel canister, cook pot, coffee press, plate, bowl, mug, utensils, two packs of instant mashed potatoes, one pack of ramen, and some pre-ground coffee. In one front pannier, I carried spare clothes: shorts to change into at camp; hat, arm warmers, and long-sleeve jersey in case it turned unexpectedly cold; spare socks; and rain jacket. I left the other front pannier empty to serve as a six-pack cooler. I also used a small handlebar bag for my phone, wallet, and keys. If this were a more full-length tour, my gear arrangement would have been a little different in order to better balance the load, plus I’d have more food, clothing, and spare parts and tools. But for this short trip, this packing scheme worked fine and would be easy to keep organized. When I first got going, the bike and panniers felt a little more shaky and unsteady than I had expected, but I think this was just because it had been so long since I had ridden a fully loaded bike. Within a half mile or so, I got used to the feeling again, and the load on the Salsa racks felt rock-solid.
I met Brent at the Acme supermarket in Hudson.
We stocked up on a little more food, and the aforementioned six-pack:
You can see from the shots of us and our bikes that we are sort of using the opposite packing schemes compared to what our bikes are optimized for. I’m using the full front and rear panniers that are more traditional for a road touring bike, where Brent is using a more “fast and light” setup becoming popular with the off-road touring crowd, with his camping gear up front, top tube bag for extras, and other gear in a large seat bag.
We made quick work of the remaining leg of the 26 mile trip to the campground at West Branch State Park, outside of Ravenna, Ohio. We took the Portage County Bike & Hike Trail for part of the route, which is an unpaved rail-trail, so the trip did provide just a small taste of multi-surface touring. We checked in at the campground a bought a bundle of firewood, which let me test the cargo-hauling ability of the Fargo a little more:
We had enough daylight left to get our tents set up, then enjoyed cooking and eating our dinners under the light of the moon and our headlamps.
We got up with the sun, packed up all our gear, fueled up with some camp coffee, and hit the road.
Our return trip was uneventful; our bikes and gear performed well. We stopped at the Starbucks in Hudson for a quick breakfast, then headed back to work.
I noticed one new thing about the Fargo after several rides with the current setup. I mentioned in my two previous reviews that whether riding on-road or off, I spent much more time in the drops of the handlebars on the Fargo, compared to a typical drop-bar road bike. However, I think mostly due to the smooth tires, and partially due to the touring crankset, I’m not having to exert as much effort to keep my momentum up, and so I’m spending a lot more time riding on the hoods now.
In conclusion, the Fargo without a doubt makes a great touring bike. I had some minor setup issues that were more related to the racks and accessories themselves, and not the actual bike. Packing, organizing, and hauling touring gear is a snap, and the Fargo handles it with finesse.
Of course, a longer, more rugged tour would be a true test of the Fargo’s design and abilities. As I mentioned earlier, the Fargo was meant for off-road touring. I’ll be experimenting with some alternative touring setups, including some fast-and-light off-road options, in preparation for a tour of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route I’m planning for 2014. Until then, I’ll report back on any more shake-down tours I undertake. Either way, the Fargo will be the first bike I reach for whenever I’m planning a self-supported bike tour, whether on-road or off.