By Eric McKeegan
I rode my first Ventana during a press camp a few years ago. I was working my way through the test fleet of bikes, unhappy with how flexy most of the bikes were in the rocky terrain of Sedona, AZ, until I got to the Ventana. Within the first few miles I was sold: stiff chassis, effective suspension and old school good looks. Ever since then I’ve been wishing for a long-term test bike. After tossing countless quarters into wishing wells, I recently had my wish granted.
Needing a short travel 26” bike to test some parts, Ventana was kind enough to send a frame our way. Many moons later, after delays getting the bits needed to make this a bike, the El Saltamontes was assembled and riding commenced, just in time for a crappy winter riding season. And to top it all off, by the time I got this together to write about, Ventana goes and redesigns the bike (more on that later).
Manufacturing is done almost entirely in-house at Ventana—an increasingly rare thing in the U.S. these days. The El Saltamontes is one of a dozen full suspension models Ventana produces, including tandems, 650B, and mixed-wheel sizes. The 100mm travel El Saltamontes is designed for the sweet spot between XC race and trail bike: light enough to race, relaxed enough to ride all day and able to handle dicey terrain. Geometry is slightly relaxed by XC standards: 70.5° head angle, 600mm top tube, 1,087mm wheelbase, 13.2” BB height. It is also bright orange. And the paint and welds are better than what is on your bike.
I was surprised to learn straight-gauge aluminum tubing is used for the front triangle, but the reasoning behind this choice is solid. First, Ventana does a good bit of business building custom geometry. Straight-gauge tubing makes it easy to have the proper tubes in stock to build anything. Second, the gussets allow for thinner tubing to be used with no lose of strength, so little to no weight penalty results.
The rear end is Ventana’s long running single pivot linkage design, also seen on a good number of smaller builders’ full suspension bikes. Ball bearings at all pivots, lots of machining of yokes and linkages, all very shiny and pretty. All fasteners are stainless, and thread into steel inserts—much harder to strip than bolting directly into the softer aluminum. The main pivot is slighty behind the seat tube, lined up with a standard 32t ring, and rides on a double row of bearings for stiffness and durability.
Various tires and cockpit parts were swapped during the test period, but the basic build remained the same: 2×10 X0 drivetrain and brakes (reviewed iknDR #156), Magura Durin SL fork (see page 49), Mavic Crossmax ST wheels (next issue!) and Fox Float R rear shock, all pretty awesome stuff.
I haven’t ridden anything remotely XC race-ish for a good long spell, so I was looking forward to getting on a bike weighing less than 30lbs. I was also looking forward to the simplified suspension pairing of the Durin SL fork and Float R rear shock. Factory preset platforms; no levers or knobs except for rebound adjust, kinda like the singlespeed treatment for suspension…
The relatively simple suspension worked very well. Obviously 4” of travel and relatively firm platform settings didn’t make for a super plush ride, but it did keep the suspension stable, no wallowing around mid-stroke and almost no brake dive meant the bike was very predictable when cranked over in turns and tackling steep stuff. I did notice the rear brake caused the suspension to stiffen, making the rear wheel prone to skidding, but a deft touch at the lever squared that away. Small bump compliance wasn’t the suspension’s strong point, but the faster I went, the better it worked, which seemed to be how this bike liked to be ridden. And the firmer suspension really liked to pop off little lips and kickers on the trail—a nice change from all the terrain-flattening 29ers I’ve been riding.
Every so often I could feel a little suspension bob while climbing in the small ring, but overall I could thrash about on this bike like a hardtail. Climbing traction was great while seated, and perfectly acceptable while standing. Singlespeed style climbing worked well: sprint like mad at the bottom, ride that momentum over whatever was between me and the top of the hill.
It did take me some time to set up the handlebar height and reach on this bike. I settled on a 110mm stem to make up for the short-for-a-20” frame top tube, and a low-rise bar. I was still having some trouble with pushing my front tire in certain turns, but a final swap of a 10mm spacer from the below to above the stem got the front wheel biting, and my back feeling better as I was more stretched out and less slouched. In other words, a racier position was the ticket to really get the most out of this bike.
I was obviously most at home in tight singletrack and moderate terrain, but it was pretty easy to get going at a good clip on faster terrain, although the Salty’s XC nature became apparent when getting a bit offline in rockier terrain; things would be a bit dicey as the suspension and not-so-slack geometry became overwhelmed with bigger hits—more of a reminder I personally might be better off on of Ventana’s longer travel offerings. It didn’t stop me from putting myself in that situation more than once, and the overall confidence I had in this bike often had me getting in as many pedal strokes as possible before each downhill-faster-pussycat, kill, kill, kill!
It didn’t take me long to get into the groove on this bike. El Saltamontes is “grasshopper” in Spanish, and I’m not going to try to relate that to the ride. Mostly because I’ve never ridden a grasshopper, and I’m going to bet the Ventana is laterally stiffer than a locust anyway. That stiffness is what really makes this bike work for me. Stiff, fast, responsive, with the handling and suspension to back up the full-speed-ahead nature of this bike.
Back to that redesign: It pretty neatly matches up with my short list of changes I’d like to see. The new bike will have a tapered headtube, and a 30.9 seatpost for dropper post compatibility. The top tube will be slightly longer in the large size, allowing the use of a shorter stem, and the chainstays will be 424mm (down from 432mm) which should make the front end easier to move around, adjust lines, and float over trail junk. And finally, a half degree slacker head angle to 70° should add a touch more stability going down without losing much of anything in the twisty stuff.
In some ways I shouldn’t like this bike, at least not on paper. Steepish angles, higher BB, 26” wheels, stiff suspension, short wheelbase, almost the complete opposite of most things I’ve been riding lately. But I loved this bike. Who else would love this bike? Set up as tested, hard-charging riders and racers who like fast handling bikes and set-and-forget suspension would be right at home. With more trail-oriented suspension (meaning less, or adjustable platform damping) the El Salt would be a great short travel trail bike that would be well suited to endurance racing. Personally I’m glad the Ventana will be sticking around the office as a test platform, as I’m not ready to stop riding it.
- Age: 37
- Height: 5’11"
- Weight: 155lbs.
- Inseam: 32”
- Country of origin: U.S.A.
- Price: Frame and Shock: $2,095, $5,000 as tested
- Weight: 25lbs.
- Sizes available: 16, 18, 20 (tested), 22, custom sizing also available
This review originally appeared in Issue #157. You can order a copy in our online store, and if you purchase a subscription you’ll get to read all our world-famous reviews as soon as they are published.