Salsa Woodsmoke Review (29+ GX): Space Oddity
The latest progeny in Salsa’s eccentric lineup is aimed to bridge the gap between trail ninja and adventure rig. In addition to a fair share of trail rides, we took the Woodsmoke 29+ GX1 on a 1,000km expedition in Kyrgyzstan to see if it lives up to its pedigree…
Salsa has a penchant for creating bikes that attempt to merge worlds. The Deadwood was last year’s frankenstein — it combined terrain squelching 29+ tires with drop-bars and long-distance geometry. Let’s call it a roll-over anything dirt-road tourer. The Pony Rustler was equally as enchanting as one of the first polished attempts to fuse full-suspension with 27.5+. And this year at Saddledrive, Salsa dreamt up a slew of new hybrids including the new Fargo plus and budget Timberjack. So where does their all-new Woodsmoke fit in?
For starters, Salsa created the Woodsmoke with versatility in mind. The same carbon frame can be adapted for multiple wheel and tire sizes — it was designed to fit both 29+ or classic 29er tires with a 120mm fork, or the 27.5+ wheel/tire combination with a 130mm fork. The 2017 Salsa Woodsmoke comes in a variety of flavors, each with it’s own color scheme. To summarize there are five models total that combine one of two build kits — XO or GX1 — with one of three wheel/tire sizes. Although there are some subtle differences, the main variation between each model is in the fork, brakes, drivetrain, and of course wheel/tire sizing. It’s obvious that Salsa’s goal with this bike was to give riders the option of getting the platform they want for a one-bike solution — namely a trail bike and adventure rig in about any wheel/tire size you can think of, barring 26”.
Woodsmoke vs Stache vs The Internet
People of the interwebs immediately compared the Woodsmoke to Trek’s Stache, and rightly so. In the same manner as the Stache, the Woodsmoke was created to blend grin-inducing agility with the freakish traction and rollover ability of plus sized tires. To accomplish this, both companies built a bike around an unconventional asymmetric, and remarkably short, ‘mid-stay’ chainstay frame design. As evident in the drive-side photos, this gives the Woodsmoke a rather unique aesthetic. It’s one that’s already drawn a maelstrom of critique from around the internet, or so I’ve heard; there wasn’t too much ether surfing to be done in Kyrgyzstan.
Either way, after having admired this bike 12 hours a day for three weeks straight — granted, mostly set to incredible Kyrgyz mountain backdrops — I don’t mind the looks. In my opinion it has a rather peculiar and pleasing feng shui about it. To help in the aesthetic department, Salsa continued in their move toward minimal and tasteful graphics. There are only a handful on the frame including the white logotype on the downtube, the word ‘WOODSMOKE’ in a nicely kerned font on the toptube, a small ‘WS’ campfire icon on the seat tube, and the new overhauled headbadge. The pepper logo synonymous with Salsa is now reduced to a clean yet retro stencil design on several of their new carbon models. It also helped that the company picked an interesting array of colors. The model reviewed here, the 29+ GX1, comes in matte khaki and has a clean black accent at the interior of the chain stay which adds a nice touch.
The Woodsmoke is built around modern trail bike sensibilities, a full carbon frame with internal cable routing, Boost 148 rear with Alternator 2 dropouts, long top-tube, and a slack front-end. The chainstays are where this schema goes ultra-modern. The 29+ Woodsmoke’s are 417mm, although they can be fine tuned via the adjustable Alternator 2 dropouts. Salsa claims they’re the shortest 29+ stays on the market. It’s close though; Trek’s geometry chart claims those of the Stache are 420mm. And while the Woodsmoke 29+ and Trek Stache share a few things in common, such as the mid-stay design, their numbers are slightly different. For starters, the Trek has a head angle of 68.4 while the Woodsmoke sports a more aggressive 67.8°. The seat tube angles are also different. The Stache sits at 68.9° while the Woodsmoke’s steeper 73.3° seat tube calls for a longer top tube — effectively 64.1cm on the large — 1.7cm longer than that of the Stache. These aren’t huge number variations, but they are enough to make a difference in the ride. UPDATE: As you’ll note in the comments conversation below, Nicholas brought to my attention, “…there are actually two Stache models, the older aluminum [model] and the new carbon Stache. The [carbon version] features a longer top tube … and is reported to have the exact same effective top tube length as a Woodsmoke (both size Large, 641mm).” See the comments for more.
The [Rowdy] Ride
So how do the Woodsmoke’s angles measure up in terms of ride performance? Hypothetically, in a conversation at a loud bar with someone who’s never seen such a rig, I’d say, “Ride it. The big tires and all that craziness in the back makes it really fun.” But there’s a little more complexity to it than that, and intricacies that deserve elaboration. In essence, the Woodsmoke has long and slack design, with a particularly short span between the bottom bracket and the rear axle. This puts more of the bike out front and creates a nimble rear end; it also places the rider over the rear wheel more so than on other bikes, such as the Surly Krampus. The most notable result of this blueprint is its maneuverability; it really likes to carve, sometimes to the point where I forget I’m on a plus tire bike, much less 29+. Silly words often come to mind, such as ninja and flickable. On steep downhills the Woodsmoke still feels fairly stable, although it seems to want to go fast, and sometimes has to be checked a bit.
As with many of the bikes I’ve reviewed, I’ve found the best curricula for testing to include a big mileage bikepacking trip and a healthy dose of unloaded trail rides on familiar turf – Pisgah and Dupont State Forest. Pisgah is known for its gnarled steep climbs, rocky descents and roots. It’s tough terrain that can serve up a beating. After riding the Pony Rustler this past spring and summer, attacking these trails on the Woodsmoke was certainly a different experience. One thing I noticed right away is that the shorter chainstays require a shift in riding style and body position. When bombing a downhill on the Krampus or Pony Rustler I tend to position my body rearward and let the plus tires take the edge off. Already being over the rear wheel on the Woodsmoke means the bumps and rocks require a little more thought and finesse. On the other hand, Dupont State Forest, a favorite of western North Carolina, is known for its fast and flowey trails. Berms, turns, and fast serpentine singletrack is where the Woodsmoke feels most at home.
But, while it’s indeed a blast to ride, the Woodsmoke is not without faults. Like the Stache, the Woodsmoke is an niche bike that’s honestly not for everyone. With short chainstays and slack angles come a few hitches. The most evident is in bump compliance. With the rear wheel forward, and positioned under the saddle, the bumps are felt a little more that they would be on a bike with longer stays. However, with voluminous 29+ tires set up tubeless, the pressure can be dropped which alleviates this. In addition, when climbing ultra steep and technical terrain, the Woodsmoke’s stability seemed a little questionable. Maintaining traction on steep climbs wasn’t the issue, more so general balance and poise. The short rear end and long front give the bike a little bit of a clumsy feel. At first I was thrown off by this, but admittedly got used to it over time.
Our Kyrgyzstan expedition was a mixed terrain trip, in the truest sense of the term. It dished out everything from crumbly steep climbs and long gravel tracks, to horse trails and grasslands, to blazing fast rocky descents. Much to my astonishment, big days in the saddle weren’t bad on the Woodsmoke. I expected its trail geometry to take a toll toll over long days, but for 20 days straight it proved to be a comfortable bikepacking rig. Also, our route had a couple of long flat gravel stretches that traversed plains between mountain ranges; the Woodsmoke performed surprisingly well there too. Power transfer felt particularly good with the lightweight carbon frame and short stays working in combination with the fast rolling WTB Ranger+ tires. At times, dare I say, the Woodsmoke felt like a bikepacking race bike.
The spec on the GX1 is generally adept for bikepacking. The mid-stay design and SRAM’s XSYNC chainring fitment allowed me to swap the stock 32t ring with a 26t for the long and tedious climbs in the Kyrgyzstan alpine. The tire and wheel combo seems adequate, but perhaps not ideal for a bigger trip. The WTB Ranger+ came set up tubeless on Whisky Parts Co. alloy rims, but the rims burped air on a couple occasions. Granted this could be the fault of the tire, but I’ve never lost air with other WTB plus tires on Scraper rims. This was my first experience with the new WTB Ranger+ tires. Honestly, I was worried about taking these on a big trip. With a notably thin casing, and at 902g a piece, they’re the lightest 29+ tire on the market. In the end I put together an extra upfitted tire repair kit and took the plunge. In the end the Ranger+ tires lasted through the trip and proved to be extremely fast-rolling with great traction. However, a few weeks later, I skulled a rock during a rowdy downhill on Pisgah’s Black Mountain trail which led to a small tear in the rear tire casing. That said, my confidence in the Ranger+ as a great bikepacking tire is still intact… and we’ve been told a TCS Tough version of the Ranger+ might be in the works.
Like all the other bikes in Salsa’s lineup, the Woodsmoke is rooted in the idea of adventure by bike. It features a few obvious and purposeful characteristics that may be of particular interest to bikepackers. Salsa included a pair of bottle bosses on the underside of the down tube — which should be on every Salsa, IMO — and an additional pair on the upper top tube, which is intended for the company’s new top-tube pack. The most evident characteristic is the expanded frame triangle. It’s more than ideal for a cavernous frame pack. Outfitted with a custom frame pack built by Porcelain Rocket, I was able to fit a massive pile of stuff in that space, which is ideal for keeping a good center of gravity. Typically I packed my kitchen, a lot of food, a sleeping pad, rain gear, the toolkit, and a few other odds and ends in that space. If it wasn’t for the fact that this was a big mountain weather trip, I probably could’ve done away with the seat pack. The protruding down tube that results from this oversized triangle is a bit of a trade-off though. While the not-too-low bottom bracket and large tires keep it from hitting obstacles, I did notice a few rocks knocking it with blunt force; perhaps more so than a higher, out of the way down tube. In addition, this protrusion limits the water bottle size with the 29+ configuration. I tested it with a few bottles and when the fork is engaged, larger bottles rub the tire.
Carbon vs Kyrgyzstan
That actually brings up another point about which a lot of folks have voiced concern. How does a carbon bike hold up during a big, long-mileage trip? Mind you, this three week, 1,000km trip, wasn’t huge by comparison, but given the location, altitude, terrain, and weather, a few pitfalls came to light. On day three of our expedition we hit a valley traverse and it started to rain. The packed dirt suddenly became the consistency of sticky cement. Unfortunately the side knobs of the WTB Ranger+ tires didn’t shed mud as well as expected, so it wasn’t long until the chainstays and drivetrain were caked with rocky paste. This isn’t uncommon on a bikepacking trip. It usually involves unclogging the drivetrain with a stick, and a fair amount of pushing. This chipped the finish on the interior of the stays. In addition, the headtube got a nice wear gouge from constant agitation by the Revelate Sweetroll handlebar bag. Of course the same issues are common on steel bikes, but it’s slightly more scary when it happens to a carbon frame. In hindsight, it would have been wise to protect such wear prone areas with helicopter tape or Shelter tape. This would certainly solve these issues.
The other issue that came up was with the press fit bottom bracket. A common complaint with press fit bottom brackets has to do with noise; it’s pretty well known that hard pedaling can cause the cups to shift slightly, creating an annoying creak with each pedal stroke. This is especially the case if contaminants have managed to find their way between the cups and the shell. This started on our trip somewhere at the end of week one. Granted it wasn’t a daily occurrence, more so after hard pedaling or when temps dropped.
Priced a grand less than the 3,999 XO1, the Salsa Woodsmoke 29+ GX1 still has a fine component spec. Unless you found a pile of cash under a rock recently, count grams, or really like the Tomato Red model, I see no reason the GX1 isn’t a fine choice. Here’s a detailed build kit. It’s worth noting that most models have a 120mm fork, with the exception of the 27.5+ versions which have either a 130mm Pike or Yari on the XO1 and GX1 models respectively.
- Frame Woodsmoke Carbon
- Fork RockShox Yari RC Solo Air 120mm
- Color Khaki
- Highlights Internal cable routing; Alternator 2 Dropouts; Thru-axle
- Rear Der SRAM GX
- Cassette Sun Race 11-42t
- Chain KMC X11
- Crankset SRAM S1000, XSYNC 32t
- Shifter SRAM GX1
- Brakes & Rotors SRAM Level, G2CS 180mm
- Headset Cane Creek 40
- Stem Salsa Guide
- Handlebar Salsa Rustler 3
- Grips Salsa Backcountry
- Seatpost Zoom 30.9 x 350mm set back post
- Saddle WTB Volt Comp
- Rims Whisky Parts Co. alloy
- Front Wheel Salsa, 32h, 110mm, 15mm Thru-Axle
- Rear Wheel Salsa,32h, 148mm, 12mm Thru-Axle
- Tires WTB Ranger 29 x 3.0″, Tubeless
- The short chainstays and slack head angle turn 29+ into an unbelievably spritely, dare I say ‘flickable’ bike.
- A huge frame triangle for a cavernous frame bag.
- A good component spec, overall.
- Downtube bottle bosses, although this should be a standard.
- Allen wrench rear thru-axle is a nice touch.
- Alternator 2 Dropouts provide a lot of options.
- The playful geometry sacrifices a little bit of balance and poise on steep technical climbs, especially when loaded.
- I’m not so sure about the wheels; I’ll update this post should I dig deeper, but unlike Scrapers, they did burp air a couple times.
- The pressfit bottom bracket started squeaking intermittently after a couple weeks… usually when temperatures dropped or after a long pedal.
- I had heel clearance issues with the non drive side chain stay; although, it’s worth noting I ride slightly duck-footed (size 10 shoe).
- With 29+, a full-sized bottle doesn’t work on the underside of the downtube… when the fork engages, the tire rubs the bottle.
- Model tested 29+ GX1
- Size Large
- Price (as tested) $2,999
- Weight (as tested) 29 lbs 13 oz for Medium, set up tubeless
- Best Uses As do all trail bike, Singletrack bikepacking
So how does Woodsmoke’s shred-worthy geometry get along with its ‘adventure’ tagline? The simple, yet ambiguous, answer to that question is that it depends on how you define adventure. Yes the Woodsmoke is a blast, both loaded and unloaded on flow trails, twisty dirt roads, and fast gravel. However, what makes this bike insanely fun — it’s frolicsome geometry and ultralight carbon frame, may also be its achilles heel when it comes to some aspects of really big adventure.
Would I pick another bike if I were to redo the same 3 week trip in Kyrgyzstan? I’m not sure that I would. While it was perfect on those long and windy descents through endless glacial valleys, and surprisingly comfortable over long days in the saddle, it’s not a bike made for steep and technical climbs. When pedaling for multiple weeks without service opportunities, 10 hours per day, the dreaded press fit BB creak can be a little annoying.
However, if your trails of choice are winding singletrack, and weekend or weeklong bikepacking trips are your forte, the Woodsmoke is a great contender. It’s a playful bike with a few worthy adventure perks thrown in the mix. Regarding the 29+ GX1 in particular, Salsa did a great job of reinventing this platform. Despite all of the nitpicks that pertain to more of a big trip scenario, the Woodsmoke is a blast to ride and ultimately it’s another bike I’d love to keep… be it for trail riding, weekend singletrack bike packs, or even a race such as the Trans North Georgia.
Between big trips, I can usually be found riding my favorite trails in Pisgah, NC, or tacking together 4 or 5 day bikepacking trips throughout the eastern US and beyond. This past winter, Gin and I designed and rode the Trans-Uganda and Altravesur bikepacking routes.
Weight: 170 lbs
The Salsa Woodsmoke was provided for testing and review.
New in bikes
- May 24, 2019Bespoked UK 2019: Stayer Cycles’ Dirt Drop MTB
- May 22, 2019Salsa Warbird 650b Review: Over/Under
- May 21, 2019Matt’s Crust Nor’ Easter
- May 19, 2019Stinner Refugio / Sklar All-Road: Builders for Builders
- May 16, 2019Santa Cruz Carbon Chameleon (C): Full Review