Tester: Jon Pratt
Age: 45; Height: 5’10”; Weight: 190 pounds; Inseam: 31”
Salsa Cycles is not one to shy away from big tires, so it is only natural to see another one of its bikes with a bit of extra rubber show up at our door for review. This time around it’s the Pony Rustler, Salsa’s 27plus rig sired from the esteemed line of the Horsethief. In fact the two bikes are so similar, they might be better classified as twins. I think the Pony Rustler just decided to wear different shoes and jacket to make sure we didn’t mistake one for the other.
And where did that name come from? Jokingly, Pete Koski, the product design engineer for the Pony Rustler, told me “It rhymes with Horsethief.” I’m kind of glad Pete designs bikes and doesn’t write poetry (that I know of).
As for that design, Joe Meiser, product manager at Salsa, explains that the Pony Rustler was crafted to add to the growing trend of short travel bikes that can climb and descend, while providing increased traction through the use of plus-sized tires. Joe sees it as not just a good bike for trail riding, but one well-suited to bikepacking as well.
The Pony Rustler uses the wide 45 mm WTB Scraper tubeless rim and 3 inch WTB Bridger tire to create a large contact patch between the tire and trail surface, increasing the amount of grip you will experience. This was quite apparent to me in several different scenarios: craggily climbs, rocks and roots, and fast downhill berms.
I commonly ride up hills strewn with rough rocks and slippery roots where getting up and over something not only depends on strength and timing but on the amount of rubber you can keep on the ground. With the Pony Rustler, I always felt the gains in traction overcame the weight penalty. Unlike narrow, higher-pressure tires that rely more on suspension to smooth out the ride, the Pony Rustler’s lower pressure tires more easily deform around objects and limit the amount of shock transmitted to the rider.
When you are motoring through a rock garden the bike’s suspension doesn’t get distracted by the smaller noise, leaving more in reserve to handle bigger hits. This makes the Pony Rustler feel more in control than a narrow-tired bike with similar travel. It feels more in control and leads to more confidence and faster sprints through the trail chatter. Finally, the Pony Rustler is really fun on those fast, flowy trails we all know and love. The increased grip of the larger tire allowed me to take my favorite berms just that much faster. It’s a noticeable difference.
All that grip comes at a price though. Not only does the wheel weigh more, the larger contact patch creates more resistance with the ground. You have to work harder to get going, and keep going. That’s where the trade-off between the 29 inch Horsethief and the 27.5+ Pony Rustler really lies.
But don’t fret too much about the wheel size choice, because the Horsethief and Pony Rustler share a frame and fork. You can purchase either bike and build up the alternate-sized wheelset and swap to your heart’s content. To make this swap as seamless as possible, Salsa used 3 inch WTB tires to maintain very similar geometry between the two bikes. This tire size choice is important to maintain the overall wheel diameter and keep bottom bracket height within 5 mm of each other without making changes to the frames.
According to Salsa engineer Pete Koski, standard 29 inch tires average 735-745 mm in diameter while 27.5×3 inch tires average a very close 730-740 mm. The smaller 2.8 inch tires average 715-725 mm. Those smaller tires would result in the bottom bracket up to 20 mm lower on the Ponty Rustler. So in this case, 3 inch tires are a no-brainer.
Since the 2014 model year, Salsa Cycles has used Dave Weagle’s Split Pivot suspension on their bikes, and that’s a really good thing. At its heart Split Pivot rear suspension is designed to separate braking, pedalling and bump absorption from each other. The Pony Rustler’s mechanical linkage is used to provide pedaling efficiency instead of relying on the low-speed compression damping of the suspension.
Where on some bikes I’m forced to switch between the various modes of the shock, the Pony Rustler allowed me to leave the shock wide open for most of my testing. It’s great knowing that if an unexpected hill appears I just have to mash up it, or slam the RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper and take off for a fun ride down. There’s virtually no need to worry about flipping the shock from trail to descend and back again.
Split Pivot design isolates the shock from braking forces. Because the Pony Rustler’s seat stays rotate around the rear axle, when you engage the SRAM Guide RS brakes the braking forces are not transmitted to the RockShox Monarch RT3 and therefore don’t affect its ability to absorb bumps.
Weagle’s design is an incredibly simple, but effective, single pivot suspension. It allows the Pony Rustler to be predictable during braking and adds to the already good small bump compliance afforded by the large, low-pressure tires.
Besides just taking the Pony Rustler out for a few laps around the local park, Salsa designed it to be a great bikepacking tool. Since the bike does not have very much space for a frame pack in the front triangle and no easy way to attach gear to the fork, most of your load is going to either be near the top of the bike or on your back, which raises your center of gravity. The wider tires do a good job offsetting this issue and keep the bike stable under large loads. Increased grip from the tires will also limit the bumblings that can topple a top-heavy biker at the most inopportune times.
I took the Pony Rustler out for a few loaded excursions on both singletrack and slush covered gravel trails, and it performed as expected. I didn’t notice any errant movements from the bike as my bags naturally shifted due to pedaling or experience any puckering situations when traversing some more challenging trails. Overall the bike felt well-planted, stable and comfortable on long treks.
As with most full-suspension bikes, if you feel the need to take everything and the kitchen sink with you, the lack of on-bike storage options might be of concern. I’m OK with paring down and using a backpack when needed.
With the Pony Rustler, Salsa has done a great job building off the Horsethief’s successes and creating an incredibly good bike with arguably more going for it. It’s becoming apparent that plus bikes have a real purpose in the marketplace and that the Pony Rustler is a good example of a well-executed bike that can handle various trail-related tasks with poise.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that you head over to your local bike shop and try one on if you are in the market for a bike that could breathe some excitement back into your local trails, or give you the confidence to venture out and explore a bit more.
Stats (with a 130 mm fork)
- Reach: 17.4”
- Stack: 24.4”
- Top Tube: 24.9”
- Head Tube: 67.5°
- Seat Tube: 73°
- BB Height: 12.6”
- Chainstays: 17.2”
- Weight: 30.1 lbs. w/o pedals
- Specs based on size tested
Price: $2,500 frame. Complete starting at $3,500. Tested: $5,500.
Sizes: S, M, L (tested), XL
More info: Salsa Pony Rustler