Salsa Journeyman 650B Review: 7 Days on The Prairie
We took three Salsa Journeyman 650B bikes on an epic trip through the wilds of Montana to see how Salsa’s budget off-road drop-bar rig would perform. After a broken derailleur in the first half mile, we were skeptical. Here’s what happened, the full review, and ride impressions from the trip…
On the last day of May, four of us set off into Montana’s rugged backcountry to scout out a new week-long bikepacking route around the Upper Missouri River. We decided to bring three 650B Journeymen along; we thought they’d be a good fit for the mix of gravel and doubletrack that we laid out. Little did we know that this beauty of a route would break components and dish out everything from soft sand to softball-sized rock roads, from endless smooth gravel to rutted and rough two-track, and sometimes no tracks at all. Aside from one hell of a “death mud” mechanical, the Salsa Journeyman handled it all pretty well. Here’s more about the bikes and how they performed…
A few weeks ago Joel Caldwell, Peter Hall, Jacques Boiteau, and myself set out one rainy morning for a week-long ride in Montana’s remote north-central prairie and river breaks. Three of us happily rolled out on the Salsa Journeyman fitted with 27.5 x 2.1″ Teravail Sparwood tires. Within a half mile, the “gumbo” mud that had developed from the morning rain took its toll. Jacques’ rear derailleur snapped in half. The sticky death mud built up on his tires, got into his chain, and somehow slung the derailleur into his spokes. Considering we were at least a two-hour drive away from anywhere, we thought his trip was finished. However, Jacques bravely jumped into our borrowed transport van, said “see you soon” and drove off in search of a bike shop. Three of us would continue onward.
You can’t blame the bike for this incident. Death mud can take its toll on any number of drivetrains, save a Rohloff, perhaps. I will say that Jacques’ Journeyman was the only one of the three that had a 2x drivetrain. Having the chain a little closer to the tire may have played a role in having mud gum up the chain, in turn fouling the rear derailleur.
That being said, within an hour, Joel’s Journeyman Apex 1x nearly suffered a similar fate. Luckily he laid off the pedals just in time. The Apex rear derailleur was bent pretty bad, however, as was the derailleur hanger. Thanks to a gate closure clamp and a rock, we forged it back into shape and Joel managed to finish the trip with the bike relatively unscathed. And, Jacques later returned on his Journeyman to finish too. More on how that panned out later. First, a rundown of the Salsa Journeyman 650b.
Salsa Journeyman 650b Overview
Priced from $950 to $1,500, the Journeyman is Salsa’s entry-level bike platform within its all-road lineup. According to Salsa, “The Journeyman provides features the cycling enthusiast is looking for to take on their first gravel race or their first ramble down that old ‘B’ road.” It’s clearly a bike designed for gravel/bikepacking-curious riders who are looking for a feature-rich and versatile rig but aren’t quite ready to pony up the big bucks for a Warbird or Tour Divide-ready Cutthroat. It comes in either 700c or 650b, and in flat-bar or drop-bar variations. If bikepacking or dirt roads are in the mix, one of the five Salsa Journeyman 650b models will likely be a more capable option than the 700c x 38mm models. With bigger 27.5 x 2.1″ tires, it’s certainly better suited for tackling rugged terrain.
- Frame/fork: Alloy/Carbon
- Angles (57mm): 70.5° Headtube, 73.0° Seattube
- Stack/Reach: 624mm/379mm
- BB Drop/Chainstay: 72mm/440mm
- Bottom Bracket: Threaded 68mm
- Hub specs: 135/100mm QR
- Seatpost: 27.2mm
- Max tire size: 700x50mm or 650b x 2.2″
- Price: $1499 (Apex 1) / $1199 (Sora 2x)
Built around a 6061-T6 aluminum alloy frame and either a Fantail carbon or alloy fork–depending on the model—Journeyman 650b variations come with a 2×9 Shimano Sora, 2×8 Claris, or SRAM Apex 1x drivetrain. We checked out the high-end, $1,499 Apex 1x model for this writeup and also had a $1,199 Sora 2×9 model along for the ride. Each had a carbon fork and was shod with 2.1″ Teravail Sparwood tires (set up tubeless, which is not standard).
All 10 Journeyman models are loaded with mounting bolts. These include a pair of top-tube bag mounts, three-pack bosses on each fork blade, three bottle mounts on the frame, a fork crown light mount, rear rack mounts, and a rack and fender kit. In addition, each model has several range-wide standard features to note, such as flat mount brakes and a 68mm threaded bottom bracket, which many folks will appreciate. All Journeyman frames also have internal cable routing for both the rear derailleur and rear brake. Both cables enter the downtube on the non-drivetrain side and exit at the bottom bracket shell (which I never managed to get a photo of while we were out riding). The Journeyman also has internal routing for a dropper seatpost, should you be interested. Lastly, Salsa built the Journeyman around standard 135/100mm QR dropouts.
Salsa Journeyman 650b Apex 1
The Salsa Journeyman 650b Apex 1 comes in either yellow or pink. Both are specced generally the same and have a carbon fork, Cowbell handlebars, an Apex 1 drivetrain with a 40T chainring and an 11-42T cassette, and 32-spoke Novatec/WTB i23 wheels. The one difference is that the pink version comes standard with WTB Nanos where the yellow model has Sparwoods. Here are photos of the yellow version I rode, outfitted with a custom Rockgeist wedge frame pack built around a Widefoot cage coupled with a 32oz Klean Kanteen. Find the full build kit below, then photos of the pink version that Joel rode, followed by thoughts and impressions from our ride.
- Frame Journeyman Drop Bar
- Fork Fantail Deluxe Carbon Fork with Three-Pack Mounts
- Color Yellow
- Rear Derailleur SRAM Apex 1
- Cassette SRAM PG1130 11-42
- Chain SRAM PC1110
- Crankset SRAM Apex 1 XSync 40t
- Shifter SRAM Apex 1
- Brake/Rotors TRP Spyre-C flat mount, 160mm rotors
- Headset FSA Sealed Bearing
- Stem Salsa Guide
- Handlebar Salsa Cowbell
- Grips Salsa Gel Cork Bar Tape
- Seatpost Salsa Guide 27.2 x 350mm
- Saddle WTB Volt
- Front Wheel Novatec, 32h, 100mm, WTB ST i23, 2.0mm spokes, brass nipples
- Rear Wheel Novatec, 32h, 135mm, WTB ST i23, 2.0mm spokes, brass nipples
- Tires Teravail Sparwood 27.5 x 2.1″ Wire Bead (not tubeless compatible)
Build Kit Impressions
There are a few things I like about the Apex 1 build, and some others I don’t. Positives include a decent set of cockpit components. The stem, saddle, and seatpost are all solid, and the Cowbell is a decent handlebar, although I’d prefer the Cowchipper, my personal favorite. The WTB rims are also fine, although I’d spec a slightly wider inner width rim if I had my way. And, contrary to some opinions I’ve read on the interwebs (of which there are many), the Apex 1 drivetrain is pretty solid. But, as per the norm, Salsa geared the bike slightly too high. While generally fine on most of the gravel roads we were riding, once the going got steep, the 26 gear inches provided by the lowest 40T/42T chainring/cog combo wasn’t low enough. In addition, it’s nearly impossible to find a smaller chainring in the odd asymmetrical bolt pattern that SRAM gave the Apex 1 crankset. A 36T ring would be much friendlier to the knees when riding up steep roads with a bikepacking load.
The 2x Sora gearing was a little better with 24 gear inches in the 30×34 gear. Kudos to Salsa for speccing a 46/30 chainset, instead of a larger compact road double, as many gravel bikes often get. Even so, 24 gear inches might not be quite low enough for precipitous mountain climbing with a full bikepacking kit in tow.
My other complaint about the build kit is that the yellow model is specced with wire bead versions of the Teravail Sparwood tires. This makes them non-tubless compatible, which is quite frustrating. In addition, the pink Apex and blue Sora builds come with WTB Nano Comp tires, which re also non-tubeless compatible. Fortunately, Salsa fitted each of these demo bikes with tubeless tires for us.
Salsa Journeyman 650B Sora (2x)
The 650b Sora model has the same frame/fork as the Apex 1, but features a Shimano Sora 2×9 drivetrain, a Sunrace 9-speed 11-34T cassette, and an FSA Vero Pro Adventure crankset with 46 and 30 tooth chainrings. And, as with the Apex model, the Journeyman Sora 650b also gets WTB i23 rims, and a Salsa Cowbell drop bar.
After Jacques (pictured above) took off with a broken rear mech, he drove a couple hours to a small town bike shop and luckily found an inexpensive replacement derailleur. However, when they tried to bend the aluminum hanger back into shape, it snapped. Jacques, being the resourceful gent that he is, rummaged around the shop’s used parts bucket, found a sufficiently similar hanger, and filed it down so it fit in the Journeyman’s hanger pocket—crazy luck and good thinking. He was up and running. After driving back within striking distance, Jacques rode to meet us on the evening of day two. He would ultimately finish the seven-day ride with all of us. Pro-tip: always carry a spare derailleur hanger.
While Out Bikepacking
Note that this isn’t a full review as we only rode these bikes loaded. Typically, we put bikes through the wringer, both loaded and unloaded for a comprehensive test.
Upon unboxing, the Salsa Journeyman 650B (Apex 1) exceeded my expectations. First, it was decidedly lightweight, something I didn’t quite expect from a “budget” bike. I wasn’t carrying a travel scale, so I didn’t get an official weigh-in, but Salsa claims about 25.5 lbs (11.56 kg). That sounds about right—not crazy light, but not at all heavy. In the age of carbon gravel bikes, which I’m convinced I’ve typed a thousand times this year, Salsa chose 6061-T6 aluminum for the Journeyman frame. While many of us might appreciate the perceived invincibility, compliance, and nostalgia of steel, there’s no doubt that aluminum is economical, easy to form into interesting shapes, practically stiff, and very light. And coupled with Salsa’s relatively new Fantail Carbon Fork and 2.1″ tires (tubeless, with about 20-22psi), it certainly didn’t feel too stiff or harsh, as one might expect. After our escapades with mud and mechanicals, we spent the better part of day one going up and down gravel roads. I’m happy to report that the fork and tires do a good job of managing vibrations overall. I certainly never noticed any overt harshness to the point where I wished I was on a carbon or steel frame.
Geometry and Stance
Within the vast gamut of 650B gravel bikes, the Journeyman’s geometry sits somewhere between the racey Warbird and the rambling stance of a Vaya or Fargo. While it’s obvious that the Journeyman takes cues from the Warbird and has similar angles, it also has some significant differences that lean toward exploration instead of racing. Joel and I both are about 6′ tall and rode the 57cm model. When compared to the 57.5cm Warbird, the Journeyman has a notably higher stack (about 2cm higher), as well as about 2cm shorter reach. This puts you in a more upright position. And when coupled with a slightly lower bottom bracket, it gives the bike a rather pleasant feel—somewhere between “in the bike” and “comfy perch.” For lack of an original description, it has a pretty nuetral, well-balanced ride. There’s no doubt that it’s comfortable and stable. I typically have to adjust a few things due to numbness or pain when riding a new bike for long days. I felt like the Journeyman fit well right out of the box and stayed comfortable as we topped 65 miles during the evening hours that first day. But it also felt surprisingly fast. Even loaded, it felt quick and rather snappy on the Montanan gravel roads. We certainly weren’t hammering, nor did we want to, but we were pushing at a relatively good clip to make up time lost during the morning mud fest. The fast-rolling Sparwood tires helped this, no doubt.
On The Rough Stuff
Day two was when the agility test began. We entered the Upper Missouri River Breaks, a remote and rugged landscape pocked with hoodoos, steep doubletrack, and sometimes technical rutted out dirt roads. Both Joel and I were happily surprised at how capable the Journeyman felt in this mixed bag of terrain.
Throughout the week we rode on this route, the Salsa Journeyman 650B didn’t disappoint. On longer descents it remained stable and confident, and on short and steep bits, it didn’t seem to hesitate. With a 440mm chain stay, it’s not as quick as the Warbird, but it feels pretty snappy. My one fault in the technical riding capability of this bike falls on the Sparwood tires, and perhaps partially owed to the somewhat narrow 23mm rims. Don’t get me wrong, I really love these tires and recently chose them to ride on another bike for a weeklong route in the northeastern US. However, they can get a bit squirrely in loose and steep situations. Two of us took a dive while descending a very rubbly and steep section of road in the mountains. While the Sparwood is generally fine on hardback and loose gravel, when it comes to deep railroad gravel on steep roads, they loose their stability, as many tires in this category would.
Generally speaking, the Journeyman holds its own when pushed on the rough stuff. Riders looking for a drop-bar mountain bike to ride singletrack on a regular basis might opt for something like a Salsa Fargo, Cutthroat, or a Bombtrack Hook ADV, which all have a suspension-corrected frame, meaning that its designed around a fork length that can accommodate a suspension fork. The Journeyman lacks suspension correction, which rules out that option.
In the end, all three of our Salsa Journeyman 650B bikes made it to the finish line with zero flats and only the two mechanicals we mentioned due to a bout with death mud. Given the terrain on this route, several falls, and sheer chances, I’d say that’s a fact that shouldn’t go ignored.
- Models Tested 650b Apex 1, 650B Sora
- Size Tested 57cm
- Rider Height(s) ~6ft (1.83m)
- Price $1,499, $1,199
- Place of Manufacture Taiwan
- Manufacturer’s Details SalsaCycles.com
- Frame and fork are well designed and offer a great bang for the buck
- Frame geometry suited for a blend of exploration and fun
- Loads of mounting options
- 650B x 2.1″ tires offer a wide range of capability
- Cowbell handlebars and cockpit components are solid
- Apex 1 drivetrain isn’t too bad, but definitely not great
- Gearing is too high; a crankset that could fit a smaller chainring or 11-46T cassette would be better
- Thru-axles are commonplace these days and QR skewers feel like an unnecessary step backward
- Non-tubeless compatible tires come standard on all model
- If I’m splitting hairs, I’d prefer 27mm internal width rims and a Cowchipper handlebar
One thing to love about the growing crop of 650B “gravel plus” rigs is that they can indeed offer a one bike solution—that is, if drop-bars are your thing and a mix of paved roads, gravel, two-track, and non-downhill singletrack is your preferred playground. The Journeyman certainly fits squarely within this camp. And for those on a budget, it offers a lot of capability for a minimal investment. That alone puts this bike in its own category.
Its not likely going to be the bike for a roadie transitioning to gravel. Instead, the Journeyman’s relaxed geometry and excellent price point will likely attract new riders dabbling in adventure and gravel road rambling. On another front, it’s an affordable option for mountain bikers looking to diversify their quiver and try out drop-bars for fast mixed terrain rides, winter training, and weekend National Park exploration.
It took us a while to test drive the Journeyman—after all, it was released back in March of 2018—but I’m glad we finally did. Admittedly, having access to other higher end options, such as the carbon Warbird 650B and the Kona Libre DL, the Journeyman wasn’t at the top of my list of bikes to freely demo. However, if I were looking to purchase a drop-bar rig, it would certainly be on my radar based on the tire clearance, mounting options, and value. While I had a few quibbles with the components on the builds we tried, they are mostly personal preference. My biggest gripe is the lack of tubeless-ready tires on all of the builds. And while I think that QR skewer axles are also a step backwards, this won’t be a major issue to many buyers. And some people might actually appreciate the more traditional standard.
Ultimately, I think the Apex 1 and Sora builds are both an excellent value. Not only are they pretty good right out of the box, the low initial investment will allow buyers to immediately have a capable ride and upgrade worn out parts over time with choice components and drivetrain modifications to suit their style.
Last but not least, while some diehards may write off the idea of an aluminum frame, I found that with the carbon fork and larger volume tires the Salsa Journeyman 650B rode really well and didn’t exhibit the harshness I expected. I applaud Salsa for spinning this material into a bike that’s loaded with capability and available for a pricepoint that’s accessible to the masses.