Dirt Rag Magazine

First Ride: Salsa Woodsmoke 27plus

TEST Salsa Woodsmoke-5

Ed note: This is part of our initial bike test of three new hardtails introduced at QBP Saddle Drive 2016, each shod with 27plus tires: the aluminum Salsa Timberjack, carbon Salsa Woodsmoke and steel Surly Karate Monkey. Despite their obvious differences, we will draw some comparisons and distinctions among the three, so make sure to check out the other first ride reviews as we publish them.

OK, we know most of you think it’s ugly. You told us all over social media. We also know that elevated chainstays are not a new design, which you also rightly pointed out. But here it is, Salsa’s new carbon hardtail, the Woodsmoke, and it is sporting elevated chainstays in order to get them as short as possible while being able to squeeze in a 29plus tire. On the 27plus bike I tested, you’re looking at a chainstay length of 400-417 mm. (More specifics below.)

That funky rear end also means no chain slap and the ability to run a belt drive. Even though you can’t see it, there is indeed a hidden front derailleur mount (those two holes between the chainstay bend and chain in the below image). The large frame triangle leaves plenty of space for a frame bag—way more than I’m used to on the size small bikes I always ride.

TEST Salsa Woodsmoke-4

Once, when you said “carbon hardtail,” the assumption was automatically that you were speaking about an XC race bike. That is not what this is, although the Woodsmoke can run a rigid or 100 mm fork. It’s also not just a trail bike, even though you can spec a 140 mm fork and big meats, should you so choose. It’s actually all of those things.

On the XC bike side, the Woodsmoke climbs remarkably well for having such a short rear. Part of that is its carbon frame; part of that is the grip of the tires. The 67.9-degree headtube angle is by no means traditional (and is different than the Trek Stache 29plus at 68.4 degrees) but was more manageable on climbs than I expected.

But the Woodsmoke leans more heavily on the trail bike side of its split personality. The 27plus Woodsmoke I pedaled comes with a SRAM GX1 build and a RockShox Yari RC Solo Air 130 mm fork. My Saddle Drive test route on the slopes of Northstar at Tahoe went like this: climb up a long, dirt service road; rip around on some rolling, rooty cross-country singletrack; descend on rocky, dusty, intermediate DH trails.

TEST Salsa Woodsmoke-2

The bike was simply fast—too fast, sometimes. I got airborne more than once when I didn’t intend to. You can run out of suspension and control in a hurry because this thing just rips for a hardtail. It’s much quicker to get up to speed, and holds on to that speed much tighter, than either the Karate Monkey or the Salsa Timberjack.

The slacker geometry means it’s extremely exuberant and, if you ride it right, that geometry allows you to stay in control through some nuts situations. Let’s call the Woodsmoke good ‘ol jazz hands. Get out there and dance with reckless abandon, my friends.

The bike can accept 29plus, 29 or 27plus setups, made possible by Salsa’s Alternator 2.0 Dropouts (which also makes singlespeed setup simple). Since I wasn’t able to ride anything other than the 27plus, I present you with Salsa’s stated intent for each tire size:

  • 29plus creates monumental rollover, traction and momentum
  • 27.5plus delivers quick, punchy grip and increased line choice
  • 29er boosts traditional cross-country and climbing speed

TEST Salsa Woodsmoke-6

So who is this bike for? Almost anyone, it seems. Well, anyone with a good bit of spare cash. All this fun doesn’t come cheap, which is the bane of carbon. I am sort-of lukewarm on how carbon mountain bikes ride, to be honest. They make plasticky noises and can creak and rattle unnervingly. That said, the Woodsmoke benefits greatly from its carbon frame because it keeps the weight down when you’re building it up with a bigger fork, bigger wheels and bigger tires.

Depending on the build you choose, this bike will cost you either $,2000, $3,000 or $4,000. Add to that any extras you might want to occasionally alter the personality of the Woodsmoke and you’re well into the pricing territory of very good full-suspension bikes. My test bike desperately needed a dropper seatpost and grippier tires, for example. With those two things, it would have become a truly badass trail bike.

And that’s the thing. It used to be that if you wanted a really fun, playful, whippy bike, you almost certainly needed a full-suspension rig (or, a dirt jumper, I suppose) because that’s what was being built with this kind of slacker, more downhill-oriented geometry. If your trails aren’t super tech-gnar-chunk all day, every day, but you still want to flick and pop and juke and jive while you ride, this kind of bike should shoot to the top of your wish list.

TEST Salsa Woodsmoke-7

You now have endless options and, with this bike, options within your option. This “trend” of longer-travel, short-rear hardtails is gaining steam on the heels of early attempts by companies like Kona and Surly, and I wholeheartedly endorse it.

As I said before, it’s worth noting that plus bikes do ride differently than your standard 2.2-2.4 tire—you can’t straight compare all hardtails. You will feel a bit of sag if you run low pressures on long climbs (kind of like a rear shock in trail mode rather than climb or lockout). The tires can bounce if you don’t get the pressure right. The noise those big meats make can sound like you actually have a flat because so much more rubber is contacting the dirt and gravel than you’re used to. You have to learn to block that out of you mind.

But all that contact equals grip equals fun times. That’s the deal with these 3-inch tires: confidence. They float over more chunk than you imagine is possible and they will claw you up and over all kinds of trail crud.

TEST Salsa Woodsmoke-1

Woodsmoke 27plus geometry

For full geometry and build details across the line, visit Salsa’s website.

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