These are no-bullshit, fun-loving bikes built for whatever adventure life throws at them.
A muscular storm bulldozed Minneapolis on the summer solstice, flooding roadways, toppling centuries-old trees on houses and cars, and killing the electricity to nearly 600,000 homes for days. But it wasn’t enough to derail Salsa Cycles from launching its completely revamped Spearfish and Horsethief mountain bikes.
I had been drawn north by the promise of great new bikes, including a chance to race one of them in a grassroots endurance event called the Chequamegon 100. There was also the opportunity to catch up with one of my dearest friends and racing partners, Steve Yore, who had recently taken a job at Salsa’s Minneapolis-based parent company, QBP. The plan was to fly in Friday afternoon, see the new bikes that evening in Cable, Wisconsin, race all day with Steve on the new Salsas on Saturday, and fly home on Monday.
But between the time I boarded my flight in Salt Lake City and the time Steve picked me up curbside at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport—not more than four hours—five inches of rain had drenched the race course, the Chequamegon 100 was cancelled, and a band of savage storms crouched on the eastern periphery of Minneapolis.
I was ready to climb back on the next flight home. But Salsa’s motto is Adventure By Bike, so naturally the show would go on, Salsa’s marketing manager Mike Reimer assured me.
To call Riemer a marketing manager, which can have some slippery connotations, doesn’t do him justice. His nicknames, Kid Riemer or Miker (think: biker, adventurer, beer drinker), are much more befitting. That’s not to say anything about his abilities to promote Salsa—Miker is the perfect brand ambassador for a company that sells high-performance bikes with a downhome attitude and value. Salsa makes products that work great, pack lots of value, and, as a result, are easy to recommend. So when Miker calls and says the company has something worth looking at, I listen. And when Miker said the show would go on, I stayed—naturally.
I brought a certain ambivalence to Minneapolis with me. The original Spearfish, a short-travel 29er aimed at cross-country and endurance racing that Salsa launched in 2011, was a hard-riding specimen whose amazing value garnered it all manner of praise. And its big brother, the Horsethief, a 120mm 29er, was nearly as popular when it released a year later. Why mess with a formula that works, I wondered.
In Cable, after treating us to a couple beers and an $11 all-you-can-eat fish fry, Miker allayed my fears. Though Salsa loved the original Spearfish and Horsethief, the company has been working for several years—since the bikes inceptions, actually—to improve their ride quality. The new models have been designed in conjunction with Dave Weagle, the prolific suspension designer who is best known for the DW Link that graces Ibis, Pivot, Turner, and a host of other bikes.
After careful consideration, Salsa settled on Weagle’s Split Pivot design, which uses a simple, single-pivot arrangement and a concentric pivot at the rear axle to deliver progressive travel, excellent small bump compliance, and the ability to isolate the suspension from pedaling and braking forces.
The design immediately calls to mind Trek’s ABP suspension, and indeed Weagle, who patented Split Pivot in 2006, has been defending it in court ever since Trek subsequently launched its similar design. Salsa opted for Split Pivot over DW Link because the design is less expensive to manufacture, thus allowing the company to continue to offer their bikes at a great value.
Both the Spearfish and Horsethief got significant changes in addition to the new suspension design. To improve handling, both head tube angles get half a degree slacker and both bikes switch to forks with 51mm offsets. The chain stays also get shorter, for better acceleration and pedaling response. And both bikes get the wider BB92 bottom brackets, which Salsa says helps to add significant stiffness in the rear ends. These geometry tweaks mean both bikes will be limited to either 1x or 2x drivetrains; triple chain rings up front are no longer an option.
Whereas the Spearfish and Horsethief were initially offered in just one build when they were first launched, Salsa continues to plump up specs and options. The Spearfish will be available in four build kits and five sizes, from a SRAM XX1-equipped top-shelf build for $5,500 down to a base model with a mix of Shimano Deore and SLX for $2,750. The Horsethief comes in four sizes and three offerings, ranging from $5,600 for the XX1 spec to $3,300 for a SRAM X7/X9 blend. Both bikes will also be available as frames only for $1,700.
Though much of the Chequamegon course was underwater, Miker assured us there were still trails on which we could test the bikes. So Saturday morning we met at an empty trailhead tucked in thick trees, and after setting up the bikes while fighting off swarms of mosquitos thicker than Walking Dead zombies, we plunged into the damp north woods.
I was aboard the Spearfish 1, an anodized evergreen-colored frame hung with SRAM XO and X9 parts that will retail for $4,100. It felt immediately quick and playful, accelerating fast under power and making easy work of the slick rocks and wet roots. The bike felt at once firm when I pedaled but still capable and comfy over obstacles and down tricky, rough descents.
While the new Spearfish still has only 80mm of travel out back and 100mm up front, the Split Pivot design gives it a plusher and more refined ride quality than the original. Steve and I logged some 25 miles on tight, twisting singletrack, and by the time we looped back to the car, I’d decided that the Spearfish was every bit as capable a race bike as anything on the market.
Next I headed out on a 15-mile loop aboard the Horsethief 2, the $3,300 non-anodized model in minty green. Whereas the changes to the Spearfish were pronounced but subtle, the Horsethief offers a dramatically different ride than the previous generation.
It loses the big-truck feel of version 1.0 and instead gets a friskier, more chipper ride quality. The Split Pivot suspension has the same supportive feel here as in the new Spearfish, but at 120mm front and rear it’s just plusher and more bottomless.
Heading out in the afternoon on a heavier bike than I’d been riding all day, I worried that I’d walk away thinking the Horsethief was corpulent and clunky. But by ride’s end, I’d almost come to like it more than the Spearfish for its easygoing, perky feel.
At the cars, Miker had built a fire to keep away the mosquitos and one of the other Salsa staffers had driven down the road for refreshments. A huge box was brimming with cans of Wisconsin microbrews sand a couple of paper bags were overstuffed with local meat sticks and beef jerky. There was no pretense here. It was just tasty food, good company, easy conversation, and the satisfaction of sitting out in the woods after a solid day of riding. The moment captured Salsa and the new Spearfish and Horsethief well. These are no-bullshit, fun-loving bikes built for whatever adventure life throws at them.
We’ll be taking possession of a Spearfish or Horsethief this fall for long-term testing. Look for a full review in the coming months.