Tester: Eric McKeegan
Weight: 160 lbs.
There is no getting around it, the Deadwood SUS is perhaps the weirdest full-suspension bike released by a major player in a long time, for a number of reasons. There is little that is normal about this bike. The name, geometry, suspension travel, wheel size, and even the backstory of this bike aren’t typical for the industry.
RockShox might be to thank for this bike, as Salsa product manager Joe Meiser explains: “When RockShox announced that they would be producing a 29+ chassis suspension fork I felt that we needed to prototype something, but had little expectation that it would become a production bike.” Those prototypes proved to be compelling enough to lead to the bike we see here.
A drop bar 29plus bikepacking rig already used the Deadwood name, but with an update to the Fargo to allow room for 3 inch tires, the Deadwood was dropped from the lineup. Knowing the name was too good to leave on the table, Salsa tacked SUS on to the end and ran with it. The name wasn’t the only thing pulled out of the parts bin.
Those with good eyes and a head full of too much bike geek knowledge might have noticed the similarities to Salsa’s Pony Rustler and Horsethief models. It isn’t just similar; all three bikes share the same carbon front triangles. This meant all the testing and design was done, so the Deadwood could get to market in a matter of months, versus a matter of years. The aluminum swingarm and linkage are specific to the Deadwood.
Most of the component choices are safe and reliable, although the WTB Asym i35 rims are narrow for 3 inch tires, and the rear DT 370 hub is pretty low engagement for a 46 tooth cog. But for the price tag, the rest of the bits are well sorted. Hard to complain about a Pike RC, Reverb dropper, XT drivetrain and XT brakes.
Cable routing is external, which I am always going to be happy to see, even if the execution isn’t the cleanest looking, as in this case. You get 110/148 Boost spacing and a PF92 bottom bracket. You can install a front derailleur if that is your thing.
Let me tell you this up front, I didn’t have high hopes for the Deadwood SUS. When I got the news about the new bike, I was expecting a full-suspension version of Salsa 29plus trail hardtail, the Woodsmoke. The Deadwood isn’t that. Salsa sticks it in the “backcountry singletrack/endurance racing/bikepacking “ category, while the Woodsmoke fits into the “backcountry singletrack/bikepacking/off-road exploration” niche. Clear as day, right?
The Deadwood is hard to pin down. The geo says “Welcome to 2008,” the suspension travel says “Lycra and shaved legs” but the weight asks “which way to the chairlift?” and the giant tires “next stop, Baja California.” See, clear as day! To sum it up, this is a bike with mostly cross-country geometry with similar weight to most 150 mm travel bikes in this price range, and has enough rubber to make some fat bikes feel a tinge of envy.
But ignore all that. This thing is a blast to ride, for reasons I still have a hard time putting my finger on. It’s like the Pete Rose of singletrack. Old Charlie Hustle never seemed to have an amazing amount of athletic ability, but that dude ended up in 17 All-Star games at FIVE different positions. How?
In a word, HUSTLE.
And this bike likes to hustle. You can certainly back off the gas, but the heavy wheels, long chainstays and just general weight starts to feel pretty sluggish. But ride this thing on the gas and off the brakes and it just sends all the right signals to the pleasure centers in my brain.
The big tires and suspension create all kinds of traction on trails that might upset those with less well-endowed bikes. I noticed in action photos of the Deadwood on Salsa’s webiste that the front tires were often swapped for Dirt Wizards. I followed that lead with a new Bontrager SE4 up front on a wider rim. The Rangers are fine tires, and are at least predictable when things start to get loose, but a more aggressive tire up front really helped me keep cornering speeds higher, thus more momentum, which meant I had to work less hard to keep things chugging along.
I could never quite settle on a tire pressure on the Rangers, it was always a little bouncy or squirmy. I blamed most of this on the 35 mm rims. I asked Meiser about this rim choice, and he agreed that the light casing on the Rangers could exhibit less than desirable traits on the narrow rims. Since Salsa recommends this bike with tires from 2.2 to 3 inches wide, the i35 can handle a lot of different tires to tune the ride for conditions and skill set. With a bunch of 2.6 tires coming down the pipeline soon, this spec could make a lot of sense. This is probably where I should mumble about fighting a war with the army you have, not the army you want, but in the long run, I think Salsa will look smart with this spec.
Meiser brought up another good point, and it is something I noticed as well. Since the bottom bracket drop wasn’t lowered for the big tires, it is really pretty tall for a bike with about 4 inches of suspension travel. I checked some numbers for other 29plus bikes, and came up with a range between 60 and 72 mm, so obviously at only 45 mm of drop, this bottom bracket is way up there. But it somehow doesn’t feel that way on the trail.
For a bike so long and not light, it doesn’t stay glued to the ground. It takes more than a little flick of the hips to change direction, but it isn’t anything like a modern enduro bike. The suspension is easy to load-up for a little extra pop to clear things. Just like hardtail 29plus bikes, the Deadwood can get into trouble, particularly in rock gardens. The stability of the long wheelbase and the big tires make for entry speeds that aren’t wise, and there isn’t a lot of suspension in reserve to handle bad line choices through the chunky bits. And the thin sidewall of the Rangers aren’t known for being sturdy.
With only 90 mm of rear travel and the efficient Split Pivot design, there is little need to do much more than set sag and forget about the rear end. I played a bit with the platform lever, but outside of pavement, it isn’t needed. The Deadwood can scale all kinds of steep stuff with ease, but it seemed my legs would run out of juice sooner than I expected on steep grunts.
I’m having a rough time figuring out who this bike is for. Meiser says, “This is the bike that I would migrate to for long distance XC/Endurance Rides/ Races, multi-day bikepacking, or a 1-2 hour rip around local XC trails. We don’t expect it to be for everyone and everything.” On a personal note, I wanted it to be a full-suspension version of the Woodsmoke, but in the end it is a plus-size Spearfish, but that’s not a bad thing.
I’m finding it easy to find a way to criticize the Deadwood as not being particularly good at any off those things Meiser mentions. But the key is it can do any of those things, and with some hustle and maybe a tire swap, can be pretty darn good at all of them, just like our tragic hero, Pete Rose.
I don’t think 29plus tires are ever going to hit fad-status like fat bikes did a few years ago. But I also think that 29plus bikes are some of the most fun I’ve had in years. The Deadwood doesn’t quite bring the fun like the Stache or Woodsmoke or Krampus, but it’s still out there on the dance floor getting down. For riders who are looking for a different riding experience, the Deadwood can deliver. I imagine a lot of riders that had be tempted by full-suspension fat bikes bike be checking out the Deadwood as well, and unless you live in the snowbelt, the Deadwood will be a better choice.
Sizes: S, M, L (tested), XL