Townsfolk waved, a firetruck honked, and bike tires by the hundreds buzzed like a swarm of hornets. With nearly a thousand other riders, I rolled through a small-town neighborhood and toward country roads ahead.
We were on a dead run for the hilly gravel roads of Minnesota’s Almanzo 100, an infamous gravel century bicycle race. The lead pack had already disappeared, pedaling toward the finish line 100 miles away like their bike shorts were on fire.
I settled into a rhythm aboard a bike, the Salsa Warbird Ti, that represents a new genre for the industry: The gravel road race bike.
At the risk of insulting my industry acquaintances, I have to admit that I whole-heartedly did not want to like this bike. I reckoned that the world could live without another sub-species of a road bike. But at the Almanzo I decided to give the bike 100 miles to change my mind.
Salsa isn’t the first company to build a gravel bike, though they may be the first to market a gravel racing bike. What makes it different from a cyclocross or touring rig? Like a cyclocross bike, the Warbird is light, with butted tubing, no rack bosses, and frame clearance to fit tires up to 38mm. It is not overbuilt to handle the payload of the touring rider.
Like a touring bike, the Warbird sports a longer, relaxed and stable geometry for long days in the saddle and stability on loose, mixed terrain. It does not have the twitchy handling and short wheel-base like a standard cyclocross bike.
The titanium frame features a biaxially-ovalized downtube that stiffen the bottom bracket for good power transfer. It also sports shaped (flattened) seat- and chain-stays that flex to smooth the relentless chatter of the gravel surface. A beefy ENVE carbon fork works as good as it looks, riding the line of smooth-while-stiff.
Titanium and carbon come at premium rates. A standard setup for the Warbird Ti goes for around $3,900 complete. A tall price tag for sure, but for that you get quality parts and a bomb of a bike that’s tailored for its game. (Salsa also sells an aluminum-frame version, the Warbird 2, for around $2,500.)
On the Ti model, flared drop bars created a “just right” cockpit for long-haul grinding. Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes gave confident, controlled braking on those fast, downhill corners.
Finally, big praise for the 23mm wide HED “Belgium” rims, which are laced to DT Swiss 350 hubs — these wheels were a great choice for this setup.
So now, at the end of my test period with several hundred miles spent in the saddle of the Warbird Ti, it’s time for me to eat humble pie — the bike is a fantastic gravel steed. It handles perfectly, tracking straight through short sandy sections like a boss. And all-day comfort was never better, especially when paired with the buttery, hand-sewn, signature Almanzo tire from Challenge.
After a summer on the 2013 model, Salsa also gave me a peek at next year’s model. For 2014, the Warbird will be offered in a few configurations that range in price. This includes the flagship Warbird Ti ($4,499) and aluminum-frame options, the Warbird 2 and Warbird 3 models, for $2,300 and $1,699 respectively.
For future gravel races, I can’t see myself being quite as happy with my CX rig again. If you’ve been bit by the gravel racing bug, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better partner on those long, bumpy roads.
—T.C. Worley is a contributing editor.