If you were to spend a weekend at a World Cup or World Championship event in the early 90s, you would have very likely had your eyes on John Tomac all weekend. Back then he would race in both the cross country and downhill series, and was a major force in both disciplines. At the 1991 World Championships he managed to reel in a gold in XC, and a silver in DH. Also that year he took the overall title at the XC World Cup, and was the NORBA National DH Champion. In what is an almost unthinkable feat these days, Tomac did all those races aboard the same bike. Not only does the idea of racing both XC and DH on the same bike make us quiver these days, but most of us would be lost without three or four different pedigrees of bikes to fill the grey area in between XC and DH.
Fat bikes, thankfully, are learning from the errant ways of the pioneering mountain bikes. Barely out of its infancy, fat biking is starting to see bikes designed for a diverging set of applications. While I don’t expect fat bikes will ever see the array of options that normal mountain bikes have, the industry has been quick to find out that people will still have a wide range of terrain to deal with and a wide range of riding styles even when there is snow on the ground. Perhaps no manufacturer has acted more keenly on this notion than Salsa. Their range of fat bikes spans a full four models, ranging from the full suspension Bucksaw, to the rigid, carbon fiber Beargrease.
Salsa bills the Beargrease as their “racing fat bike”. Essentially the XC racer of their fat bike fleet, and it’s not hard to spot why that is. Massive, stiff, carbon frame tubes, a low bottom bracket, short chainstays, a 140mm rear rotor, fast rolling tires, and a weight well below the 30lbs mark are some key indicators. Our Beargrease Carbon 1 is the mid-point of the three Beargrease models. The lower-tier Beargrease 2 is notable for having an aluminum frame rather than carbon, while upgrading to the Beargrease Carbon XX1 will most prominently gain you the distinction of Whiskey No. 9 carbon rims.
Our Beargrease came shod with a complete Sram X1 drivetrain and transmission, save the KMC X11 chain, as well as a set of the new Sram DB5 brakes – the twin piston little brother of the Sram Guides – with a 160 front and 140 rear rotor. Salsa uses their own Fat Conversion hubs laced to perforated Surly Marge Lite rims. Dillinger 4 tires by 45 North in a 120 tpi casing were specced sans studs, but still have holes for studs should you chose to install some. Salsa was wise to throw on their own lofty 750mm Salt Flat bar mated to a Guide stem, with a WTB Silverado saddle topping a Truvativ post.
Salsa has their own full carbon Makwa fork up front with a 142 x15mm thru-axle, which is matched by a 177 x 12mm thru-axle in the rear. The bottom bracket uses a Press Fit 41 x 121mm interface, which is the press fit counterpart to a more conventional 100mm threaded shell. The shift cable routing is done internally along the top tube, thankfully with internal sleeves to streamline cable/housing replacement, and the brake hose is run externally along the down tube. There are provisions for front derailleur cable routing, but nothing for a dropper post. Salsa also made a point to design a generous amount of heel clearance into the stays to accommodate large winter boots. In a size large, without pedals, this bike weighed in slightly under 28 lbs.
Salsa Beargrease Carbon 1 details:
- Frame: Beargrease Carbon
- Fork: Salsa Makwa Carbon
- Shifters: SRAM X1
- Derailleurs: SRAM X1, 11-speed
- Cassette: SRAM X1, 11-speed, 10-42t
- Brakes: SRAM DB5
- Hubs: Salsa Fat Conversion
- Rims: Surly Marge Lite w/ holes
- Tires: 45North Dillinger 26 x 3.8″, 120tpi, folding
- Crankset: SRAM X1, 30t
- Handlebar: Salsa Salt Flat 2, 750mm
- Stem: Salsa Guide
- Saddle: WTB Silverado
- Seatpost: Truvativ T10
Weight: 27 lb for size Large
MSRP: $3,699 USA
On top of some common trails in the Toronto area, the Beargrease spent some time with me up in the hilly, rocky, Canadian Shield terrain of North Bay in order to put the bike through the gamut. This allowed me to get the bike right into many different conditions of snow, and do so in some seriously cold temperatures, as well as some sloppy, near-freezing weather. It also allowed me to drag the bike up some ten minute climbs, soar back down on runs I would typically prefer my proper DH bike on, and spin a good deal of flat and flowing XC loops in between.
The Beargrease had an immediate feel to it that was much different than other fat bikes I’ve had a chance to throw a leg over. The bike makes no effort to hide its intent: Go fast. Right out of the gate you can feel the stiff frame and light weight lift you up to speed. Meanwhile, the short chainstays and low bottom bracket keep the bike feeling lively – a very confident feel if you’re the kind of rider who likes to move the bike around. I often found myself whipping the back end around, bunny hopping off rocks, and manualling through short sections. The bike lays out an uncharacteristically slack 68.5° head angle, while other fat bikes will typically be in the neighbourhood of 70°, especially more XC oriented models. However, this trait added tenacity to the bike once the speeds picked up, and I had few issues with the front wheel flopping around on climbs that couldn’t be dealt with by the wide handlebar.
On the inclines and pedaling sections the bike was at its best. I often found myself getting atop climbs I considered walking up right from the bottom. Stiffness of the frame creates great power transfer, and the geometry of the bike makes for a very efficient seated climbing position – a great benefit on snowy terrain where sitting down to climb is very often only way to get sufficient traction. The short rear end and nimble nature of the bike also helped hop the rear end over roots and rocks while going up. The low bottom bracket did cause a few issues when pedaling through some narrower snow ruts, as it was not uncommon for the pedals to hit the snow with every pedal stroke. This wasn’t an issue on soft, fluffy snow, but was an annoyance in wet and icy snow.
The Dillinger 4 tires did falter in certain snow conditions. I was very impressed with the tires for the most part, but on wet, chunky snow the center tread could didn’t get me driving needed on some climbs, nor the braking traction on some descents. The side knobs seemed to perform ideally in all snow conditions, and the trade off in center traction is evident in the tire’s rolling performance. However, it is worth noting that there could be better tire choices for certain applications, although it would hardly be worth getting rid of the Dillingers altogether, seeing as they offer such great performance in certain snow. Even tossing a set of studs into the Dillingers could make some major improvements, and would have been a great asset for the amount of ice I had to deal with over the test period.
While the bike is not by any means billed as an aggressive descending bike, I wanted to see how far I could push the thing regardless. In the end it was a bit of a mixed bag. The somewhat slacked out front end gave the bike some character, and the generally nimble nature of the bike made it pretty keen on dicing up some of the downhill sections. Especially in favourable, dry snow on flowing descents this bike liked to go fast. However, 68.5° is still far from an appropriate head angle for some of the long and steep descents the bike was seeing, and the Beargrease never had much of a point and shoot personality. The short rear end gave up some stability when the speeds really picked up, and the aforementioned lack of braking traction in the tires didn’t favour the steep sections.
The brakes caused some major problems for me on this bike. While they performed quite well in above-freezing conditions, these brakes seemed not to be able to handle the cold. Once temperatures dropped to the -5°C to -12°C area, the lever feel turned very soft and developed some pump up, but of more concern was the brakes started to lose some power in this area, and developed a miserable squealing noise. I’m not normally one to complain about a bit of brake squeal in foul conditions, but this was deafening, intolerable, and never went away. I originally thought the pads may have been contaminated, but switching to fresh pads did not help the issue. Once temperatures passed about -15° the noise went away, but the braking power became pitiful, only occasionally gaining some bite momentarily on descents that heated them up, though this led to unpredictable braking performance. Every time I grabbed the lever I didn’t know what to expect, and many times I went sailing into the bushes due to the brakes having insufficient power. Because of these issues, I give these brakes a failing grade for the application of this bike. Larger rotors may gain you some advantage in terms of power, but a brake that can deal with conditions better and provide more consistency in the cold would be an appropriate solution. I suspect any brake will come at some sort of performance penalty in these temperatures, but I’ve been able to obtain satisfactory results in these conditions with other brakes in the past.
Salsa’s own Fat Conversion hubs performed admirably in all conditions. The engagement, although not ultra-quick, was more than enough to satisfactorily deal with the low gear ratcheting that I did so often, and the freehub seemed to have been loaded with an appropriate cold weather grease. There were never any issues with the freehub. Even at below -20° it didn’t develop more drag. The gearing 1x drivetrain with a 30t chainring is appropriate for the bike, though on many climbs I did spend long periods of time in my lowest gear wishing I could spin a bit faster, while I managed to get the cadence up in the hardest gear on some of the fast sections. I would have liked a double chainring for some of the riding I was doing, but seeing as the bike is touted as an XC fatty rather than an adventure or all mountain fatty, so I cannot condemn the drivetrain choice. The shifting performance of the Sram X1 group did little to win over my Shimano-loving heart, though I think simple swap away from the KMC chain to a matching set of Sram links would have been a big step in smoothing out the shifting. I’ve always found a matching chain and cassette to give the best performance.
Salsa have pulled off an interesting feat with this bike. While trying to carve out a niche for XC racing fat bikes, and doing so valiantly, they did not become obsessive. Comparing the numbers to other fat bikes shows some impressive character from Salsa. Very short chainstays (I’ve found very few bikes that even come within half and inch of the these 17.3” stays) give the bike loads of playfulness, the top tube is long enough to allow fairly short stems to be run, and the defiant 68.5° head angle gives the bike some brawn. Despite being aggressive, explosive under power, and most at home on mild terrain, Salsa haven’t let the principal of a fun bike take the back seat. Like anything, it is not perfect. The brakes should be swapped if you’ll be riding below freezing, some snow conditions may merit a tire swap or some studs, and obviously some of the traits that make it an ferocious pedaller will detract from its performance when things get steep. However, most of what people ride on fat bikes at this point is XC style terrain. Salsa have nailed their offering of a performance XC race bike that is equally as relevant when it’s not on the clock. The fact that Salsa was able to pull off such a fantastic riding bike with numbers and design that are very much outside the conventions of current fat bikes tells me that this is a company that likes to ride, pays attention and is well ahead of the fat bike bandwagon developmentally.