Background: It's only been in the last few years I have done much biking, with last year filming some classic climbs in Washington State and pretty much all of Mt. Rainier National Park. All of this was done on my vintage Gary Fisher circa 2000 Hoo Koo E Koo mountain bike. Recently I put some more road friendly tires on it and it has served me well over these past 17 years. In 2000 I bought my road bike, a Trek 5500, from a friend of mine. He custom built it with top components and a set of titanium wheels; this is what I ride STP (Seattle To Portland) on, 7 times now. My first two were one day events and the past 5 years an older buddy and I have kicked back and ridden this over the normal 2 days (206 miles), but this classic is now about 20 years old. However, recently I wanted to do a "somewhat difficult" ride that was harder than RAMROD, and termed it RIMROBOD (121 miles/15,600' elevation gain). That was the kicker, as my Trek is geared for speed with wimpy climbing gears and RIMROBOD killed my legs as I had to crank, not spin, all the climbs. I finally determined that it was time for a new bike.
Adventure/gravel bikes: I'm glad I waited, as this newer category of bike seemed to be perfect for my needs....a more relaxed geometry for long days, forgiving frames to mitigate vibrations and made to be decent on the macadam but able to handle crappy fire roads and even occasional single track. With an eye towards bike packing, I made my choice: the Salsa Cutthroat Rival.
The Test: If you want stats, gear ratios, weights etc there's info out there on the netherweb. I'm not a bike afficionado; I can change a tire (I think) but that's about it. Can it climb? is it heavy? Can it go fast? Is it stable? These things I can figure out for myself, so after purchasing one at a local bike shop, I had it fitted with different tires for mostly road work, a set of Compass Snoqualmie Pass 700cc's. No real tread but slightly siped, perfect for my uses, although the lightness of these tires means no kevlar lining for puncture resistance....I'll take my chances. I also purchased the made to fit frame bag and the EXP top tube bag. I installed two water bottle cages, one mounted on the front fork and the other in front of the frame, as the frame bag nixes using those mounts. Most of my previous jaunts I'm wearing a back pack, various sizes depending on the route, and I had my eye on freeing up that real estate. Cleared after minor surgery, I set out for my stomping ground of Mt. Rainier National Park to see what this puppy could do. My itinerary was flexible but I knew I wanted to first climb to Paradise and then hit the West Side Road, it being 22 miles of gravel with some moderate climbs.
Leg 1: Longmire to Paradise to Klapatche Point (on the West Side Road) to Longmire: 59.4 miles with 7320' of elevation gain. I did the leg up to Paradise first while traffic was light. I had just climbed this a few weeks prior on my Trek, taking 1:45 for the 2,600' climb. On the Salsa: 1:45, but with some noticeable differences. Granted, the skies were a bit overcast and the temps were cooler, but being able to spin with an efficient cadence meant I never broke a sweat. The bike felt solid and tracked straight without much fiddling. The relaxed geometry had ME relaxed, and in a testament to the stock seat, I went for long stretches without even thinking of standing up to relieve pressure. Once I arrived at Paradise, I took a short break and gassed up, then I was off on the descent. Here's where the difference in bikes really showed. On my Trek I essentially never got down in the drops, but the flared Cowchipper bars were like magnets, enticing my digits to drop down and play the hydraulic disc brakes with just my index finger. I immediately noticed the stability of this bike, giving me confidence even over the rougher parts. I also assume this is due to the fatter and lower pressure tires. My Trek was a little squirrely at high speeds, but the Salsa tracked true like it was on rails, carrying exactly where I wanted it to go even through the 180 degree turns. On a downside, I found that I maxed out on the high gear peddling around 25 MPH. If you look at the pics you can see how small the crankset is (SRAM GX 1000 36/24t) so the stock SRAM isn't going to give me 30 plus MPH spinning, but everything is a compromise and I gladly sacrifice fast spinning for efficient climbing. When I rolled back into Longmire I was grinning from ear to ear, so far enamored with this fine piece of machinery.
I switched out a few things and continued down to the junction with the West Side Road, eager to see how the bike handled the rough stuff. Climbing was efficient but the ride was better than my mountain bike, noticeably lighter yet more solid feeling. The true test came on the first 700 foot descent on the rocky road. For a bike that has no suspension it felt remarkably cushy, but due to the overall roughness with occasional potholes, runnels and sharp edged rocks, I rode the brakes to keep speed in the area of 15 MPH. Here I discovered an annoyance...the front brake chirped and squealed once I passed a certain pressure point, and this condition persisted no matter the surface or speed for the rest of the ride. I'm supposed to put a couple hundred miles on the bike, then take it back to the shop for an adjustment so I guess I'll wait and see what they say about this. Thankfully the brakes functioned as advertised despite the noise and I was able to comfortably negotiate the rough road in the drops just using my index fingers. The trip out was the same with the exception of the lower 3 miles of this road, which had developed serious washboard in some places. I let the bike run a little faster over this stuff, upwards of 25 MPH just to see how it would do. It was still easy to handle but there was a lota shakin' going on. I'm not sure how much better it would have been on a full suspension bike, but it would have been better. The Cutthroat's Class 5 Vibration Reduction System (see side bar) is probably more suited to the bumps of a gravel road versus the deep pitted waves of washboard hell. But I bought this bike for its versatility with an eye towards bike packing; one bike to do it all, and so far I'm pretty impressed.
Leg 2: White River Campground to Sunrise and return 23 miles with 2900' of elevation gain. Once back at Longmire I planned on repositioning my vehicle to continue biking without getting too far afield. Delayed by construction on the drive up towards the Stevens Canyon road cut off, I proceeded to the other side of the park thinking I could snag a campsite at the Ohanapecosh Campground, then bike back into the park for a late afternoon/evening climb back towards Paradise from the other side. However, Ohanapecosh was completely full, so I continued on around to White River (off highway 410) to try my luck there or at least camp in the parking lot. Oddly enough, plenty of sites were open so I parked and configured for the climb to Sunrise, the most suitable option. I stripped the bike of cameras and added my headlight, setting off at 6:40 PM. At this point, after over 7000' of climb, I noticed my knees were a little achy, not a usual occurrence for me. I'm thinking I need to go in for a better fitting for an adjustment of my seat position. It was merely an observation, not a detriment, so I set off on the climb, again enjoying the efficient gearing and noting the incredible difference between now and when I did RIMROBOD, which at that point was a grueling sufferfest up to Sunrise. As I climbed higher the temperatures cooled, and the broken cloud layers made for stunning vistas. My familiarity with the road meant that I knew eventually the grade lessens approaching Sunrise Point (the last 180 bend) and I covered the last few miles at a higher pace. Lingering light stayed with me but by the time I reached Sunrise it was pretty much dark. I donned some warmer gloves and an extra jacket but enjoyed an empty road on the descent. Once again I was in the drops playing the brakes all the way down as the roadside bankings here spit rocks onto the road bed with regularity; I'm certain the park service sweeps (as in removes rocks) this road every morning. Doing 35 MPH didn't seem prudent, as fun as it is. With the wind noise mitigating my chirping brake, I quite enjoyed this unique run down the road, with just enough ambient light left on the upper portions to still make out the mountain and the far vistas. A short climb up to White River had me back at my vehicle before 10, ravenous but happy, configuring my truck for sleeping whilst shoveling double stuffed Oreos into my pie hole.
Final thoughts: On this trip the Cutthroat saw some varied terrain over 82 miles and 10,200' of climb and descent. This really isn't a bike review, but I hope it's of some use to people like me who like to bike but don't know much about the equipment. I see the Cutthroat as a vehicle of opportunity; I can do just about anything with it. If I'm going to spend lots of time on gnarlier terrain, then I'll put either the stock tires back on that came with it or a set of tubeless on the tubeless ready rims. If I want to do some lengthy trips, I'll add the seat pannier and a front roll bag, or take advantage of the fork screws to add some dry bags there. I may even have my eyes on the Tour Divide, supposedly what this bike was designed for. The bike feels like a Towncar and Porsche at the same time....would that be a Tesla? It's solid feel, true tacking and relaxed geometry inspire confidence in at least the terrain I had it on...gravel, washboard, rocky and rutted to newly paved or patched surfaces. Now let's see what the shop can do about that chirpy brake.
UPDATE: My Salsa proved itself on a recent (Apr 22-25/2018) 350 mile bike packing trip around the Olympic Peninsula, running tubeless on my Snoqualmie Pass tires. View trip report and video here.