[tired fatbike pun]
Every so often, I see a particularly nice looking fatbike build in some forum or magazine, and there’s a familiar longing in the pit of my stomach. Like a middle school crush, the fatbike whispers in my ear, slips me a note, giggles, and punches me in the arm with a massive $4,200 pricetag. I don’t know whether to smile or cry.
There are, of course, fatbikes at every intersection of budget and compromise, but I got to abandon all my pretenses and ride it like I owned it at Salsa’s Bike Demo at Earl’s Trails yesterday. Salsa is a partner with another local shop, Hampshire Bicycles, and Will has breathed new life into his corner of the Amherst bike market with a strong push into the winter biking, fatbiking, and bikepacking market with Salsa as his flagship. This bike demo was a perfect opportunity for me to see whether the girl next door was worth all the swooning I’ve been doing.
Salsa brought its full line of fatbikes with a few extras. A couple of Warbirds, a couple of El Mariachis, and a titanium Fargo made for a good spread of the usual fare, but the rest of their rack was completely dedicated to the big-wheel bikes. They had the Bucksaw, the Beargrease, the Blackborow, and the original Mukluk.
I signed my health and safety away to the Mountain Bike Gods with Salsa’s waiver and one of their mechanics set up a Beargrease for me.
The Beargrease is Salsa’s full carbon fatbike, and rocks a Bluto suspension fork (like every other fatbike at the top of Salsa’s product line). I tested an XL. I slammed the seat a little lower than I usually do, counting on some out-of-the-saddle time, and adjusted the suspension for my scant weight.
“The XL frames get ridden by a 6’5″ dude who weighs 350 pounds, or a 6’3″ dude who weighs 120!” said the rep, commenting on how firm the suspension was off the rack. These poor Blutos really get abused, since everyone wants to dial before their test run. I didn’t really care; when the rep had it approximated for my weight, I went riding. What do I know about micro-adjustments?
Riding the Salsa Beargrease
Go big or go home. A 4-inch tire with a Bluto suspension fork is a helluva damper on a rough trail. It felt like I was more passenger than driver as the tires spoon-fed me the course. They absorb nearly everything, to the point that all I could think about or feel was the tires themselves, their knobs vibrating loudly on hardpack and pavement. I hit a section of Earl’s Trails I had only seen once before, spinning up the hill past the old Strategic Air Command bunker now owned by Amherst College.
I had a mix of terrain, from sloppy, tar-thick mud to steep, rooted climbs and everything in between. There were tons of wet leaves, a situation I hadn’t really considered a fatbike for, but the traction provided by the Beargrease was ideal for late fall riding. I also got to pop up over a few curbs, wooden bridges, and stumps.
First, the not-so-great:
The carbon frame keeps the bike relatively light, though it still felt about as hard to whip around as my heavy steel Surly, and the weight comes in over 29lbs. At the end of the day, a 4-inch tire with a tube is a lot of weight, no matter how light you get your frame down to. There are other benefits to carbon that, I think, still make the Beargrease worth it, but I’ll get to that later.
The Bluto fork felt a little odd. I could tell it was working when I hit something really meaty, like a tree stump or a rock garden, but otherwise it just seemed to mess with my braking, steering, and pedaling efficiency. I’m not by any means a suspension fork expert, but I was surprised at how much the suspension fork ate into my power. There’s a lockout on the Bluto, but I didn’t mess with it in the interest of moving fast through the rollers and giving it a fair shake, and maybe that was my problem… but on a bike with 4-inch tires, I would have preferred a rigid fork. Those tires just do the whole job for my riding style.
Lastly, I was surprised at how low the bottom bracket height felt. I expected to monster-truck over everything on the trail, but I ended up landing pedal strikes a bit more often than on my surly. User error? Likely, but the really low bottom bracket was a surprise. I agree with Salsa’s motivations for keeping it low; stability and handling were definitely on-point. But a middle ground where it’s easier to pedal up and over roots and logs while climbing makes sense to me for a bike which will never lose traction.
On to the good stuff:
First and foremost, this bike corrects user incompetence like no other bike I’ve ever ridden. I am not a skilled mountain biker, and I leave a lot to be desired in the bike handling boxes, but I do have pretty strong legs. Hammering on this bike delivered incredible speed and increased my confidence to take on obstacles I usually skip on my Surly. I slammed into one of Earl’s little jumps at full speed and caught air, for the first time actually, and landed in step and ready for more action. Wow.
The Beargrease floats over everything, forgives you if you take a root at an angle or slam a baby’s head, and keeps on trucking no matter how many wet leaves there are underneath your back wheel. It delivered and delivered and delivered again. I feel like I “get” fatbikes now, and I definitely understand the year-round appeal. The Beargrease made me feel like I was punching way above my weight, and the fat tires turned the trail into a roller coaster.
Another note: The Sram X01 drivetrain makes a lot of sense on this bike, and I was blown away at the crispness of this system. I’m coming off of Sram X9 trigger shifters and the X9 carbon rear derailleur, and I thought that drivetrain kicked ass. No, this one far surpasses any other shift system I’ve ever used. I am glad I no longer have to put “Electronic Shifting” on my wish list for the next ten years, because I can’t imagine anything better than this.
I could mash the trigger all the way in and skip three or four gears at a time, and the derailleur and cassette were already lined up and ready to go before my finger came off. This made the Beargrease really fun to ride, and even trying to frantically downshift into a steep climb felt effortless.
Is the Beargrease Worth the Pricetag?
Short answer, yes. The carbon frame is a huge upgrade over the aluminum frames in terms of “fun.” That’s not the metric I’d pick if I were an editor, but honestly, that’s why everyone’s buying fatbikes in the first place. Ten people are trying to set records over Alaskan wastelands and the other ten thousand just want to smile wide and mess around on a muddy bike.
The carbon frame is just excellent. The thru-axle rear, tight geometry, and super stiff handling make the heavy bike feel young and lively.
I don’t love the Bluto. if I were buying a Beargrease for myself, I would probably go with the X7 Carbon and upgrade the rear derailleur and right shifter to that beautiful X01, and I’d be willing to bet the weight still comes in lower thanks to the lighter fork. I think the Bluto’s suspension fights a bit with the rebound in the tires, so you can’t really tell exactly how the front end is going to behave on a particularly rough section. Luckily, the bike corrects everything if you just hold on.
Still, the fork feels like marketing, not innovation. Maybe I’m wrong. At any rate, the Beargrease is on my list of possibilities as my income increases. Maybe I’ll stop by the shop and test-ride it a few more times, just to flirt with my new crush.