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There are few brands more influential in the gravel world than Salsa Cycles. And while it wasn’t Salsa’s first gravel bike, the Warbird was the model that helped kick off the market for performance-focused bikes designed to ride gravel, fast.
We haven’t had many Salsa bikes through the doors of CyclingTips, however, our inaugural Gravel Bike Field Test proved the perfect opportunity to test the latest Salsa Warbird Carbon gravel machine, a bike that’s already in its fourth generation (second for carbon).
Can a bike that’s inspired so many competing options from larger (and smaller) brands still ruffle a few feathers? Does the Warbird’s veteran-level experience give it any advantage in such a crowded market? And what does Salsa’s approach to a gravel race bike actually mean to the rider?
With coyotes near, the rocks and roads of Sedona, Arizona were quite a fitting place to see if the Warbird was anything like the RoadRunner. Meep Meep.
- What it is: The 4th generation of Salsa’s gravel race-focussed machine.
- Frame features: Carbon fiber construction, clearance for 700 x 45 mm or 650 x 51 mm tires, flexible seatstays, guided internal cable routing, mounts galore.
- Weight: 964 g (painted 57.5 cm frame, with rear axle), 520 g uncut fork; 8.63 kg (18.99 lb, as tested (size 54.5 cm), without pedals)
- Price: US$4,099 (model tested)
- Highs: Geometry that lets you switch off the mind, light and efficient, compliant, generous size range, considered cable routing, no proprietary components.
- Lows: Basic spec for the money, not for lovers of quick-handling bikes.
The Warbird Carbon explained
As one of the early creators of the space, Salsa has an array of gravel bikes like no other brand, and within the 2020 range, the Warbird is one of nine bikes that fall somewhere in the broadening gravel spectrum.
Coming on a decade in age since the first model, the Warbird takes a considered and somewhat unique approach to what racing gravel means. It’s a bike that within Salsa’s own marketing materials is typically covered in bags and water to cover multiple days of racing. Racing that is often straight, relenting and simply exhausting in its nature.
As a result, it’s a bike that emphasises endurance, efficiency, comfort and control, whereas many competing gravel race bikes could be better described as being wide-tyred road or cyclocross machines.
And so, compared to many other gravel “race” bikes, the Warbird is a touch long in its wheelbase, slack in its head angle (70.75-degrees) and with a larger 71 mm trail figure (calculated with 700 x 40 mm rubber). This is an element that has remained constant with recent iterations of the Warbird, and the only geometry change the new Warbird V4 earned is one of the marginally longer (albeit with still relatively short reach figures) toptubes matched with slightly shorter stems.
Salsa also expanded the size range for the Warbird, and there’s now a generous seven sizes to choose from. Interestingly, across such a range, all feature the same head angle (baring the smallest 49 cm size), 430 mm chainstays, 70 mm bottom bracket, and 50 mm fork offset.
Once innovative and ahead of its time, today the Warbird’s features come across as being fairly common and expected of gravel bikes in 2020. This newer model adds multiple mounts on the downtube, mounts for a bag on the toptube, everything cage mounts on the fork, and capacity for front and rear racks (requires a different Salsa seatclamp for the rear). The front fork offers stealthy routing for a dyno hub, and then, of course, there are fender mounts. And if you’re tall enough to ride a 56 cm or larger, then you’ll earn a third bidon mount within the main triangle.
The freshly groomed Warbird also earns dual-wheel compatibility, and with asymmetric and dropped chainstays you can now squeeze up to a 700 x 45 mm or a 650B x 2″ tyre in the frame.
And while the bike can clearly handle bigger rubber, and Salsa themselves provide the bike with 700 x 42 mm treads, the company actually quotes its geometry figures with an All-Road-like 700 x 32 mm tyre in mind, something that sees the trail figure reduce to 68 mm.
That rear also plays host to a key feature of the Warbird through the uniquely wide-set, thin and outwardly bowed chainstays, something Salsa dubs the “Class 5 Vibration Reduction System” (Class 5 VRS).
The full-carbon Waxwing Deluxe fork features a surprisingly rare implementation of the flat mount disc brake, where the bolts run through the front side of the fork and into the caliper. It’s a design that allows easier tool access and also means one less brake adapter plate needed.
Speaking of that fork, last year it was quickly recalled off the market over safety concerns. Salsa realised the production issues early, but as a result not many 2019 versions of this bike are out in the wild, and so the fourth-generation Warbird feels somewhat like an all-new model for 2020. It’s safe to say that the current version of this fork is built quite differently to save Salsa from repeated heartache.
Other details include 1x or 2x gearing compatibility with rattle-free sleeved internal cable routing. There’s a regular 27.2 mm round seatpost retained by a *gasp* round seatclamp, and the frame can accept a dropper post, too (1x gearing required). But sorry thread lovers, this frame uses a Shimano-style BB86 bottom bracket (which in our experience is the most trouble-free of the pressfit variants).
Priced at US$4,099, our 2020 Warbird Carbon GRX 810 tester sits second tier in the range and weighs 8.63 kg with the control Continental Terra Speed tyres (without pedals). This bike comes setup with a full Shimano GRX 810 2x groupset, including the sub-compact crank (48/31T) and an 11-34T cassette, both intended with fast-paced dirt and tarmac riding in mind. The wheels are DT Swiss C 1800, while Salsa provides its own Cowbell Deluxe flared handlebar and finishing parts.
Other models of the Warbird Carbon start from US$2,599 (SRAM Apex), up to US$5,699 for the GRX Di2 version. The Warbird Carbon is also available as a frameset at US$1,999.
The Warbird is a somewhat unique creature amongst a market of fast gravel bikes. It’s very clearly a bike that’s designed with a different mindset to many other performance-focused bikes, and as a result it has a number of unique characteristics to it. CyclingTips’ global tech editor James Huang and I came to almost exactly the same conclusion about the Warbird: it’s a bike best suited to riding over many, many hours.
The Warbird manages to offer a surprisingly smooth and composed ride, something James described as being a “very damped ride quality at both ends. Not so much suspension per se, but fantastic at taking the edge off of everything.” Keep in mind that this is a rigid bike after all, and without any fancy pivots or dampening devices, it’s not class-leading smooth, however, those “vibration reduction” seatstays do indeed seem to work and they will certainly help to stave off fatigue compared to many stiffer-feeling race bikes.
Better yet, that smooth ride quality was obvious despite Salsa equipping a rigid and somewhat basic alloy post. This frame is ready to receive additional comfort through a more flexible 27.2 mm seatpost, or shock-absorbing additions such as those from RedShift, Canecreek or others. If it were my own bike I’d be keen to gain that additional comfort with a different seatpost, however, it’s quite likely Salsa chose the rigid post it did for reasons of unquestionable reliability, especially once loaded with a heavy saddlebag.
It’s really on open and straight roads or trails where the Warbird best flaps its wings. Here the combination of the longer wheelbase, relatively relaxed head angle, and edge-taming ride quality combined to make a bike that just wanted to be pedalled harder and harder while pecking away at the miles. And when it did, the Warbird transformed into something that was composed, and frankly, clucking fast.
“Handling is very, very much on the stable side,” James said. “Actually quite slow and lazy. Clearly geared towards holding your line when your eyes are bleeding in the 12th hour of DK200.”
Similarly, with a competitive weight (the frame and fork together are under 1,500 grams painted) and reassuring frame stiffness, the bike responds well to higher power outputs, and in many ways, it feels like a high-end endurance road bike – albeit one with more relaxed handling – when you’re out of the saddle and swaying the bike.
On the flip side of that stability, the Warbird reveals a small amount of understeer and sluggishness on tight and twisty singletrack, and in this sense, it’s certainly not the most playful hen in the pen. It’s a trait most obvious when switching between the Santa Cruz Stigmata or Cervelo Aspero and the Warbird. Where the former two felt eager to change direction with a quick flick, the Warbird required a stronger hand and a little more forward warning. Or put more simply, it’s a bike that favours choosing a line and sticking to it rather than re-adjusting at the last second.
Toe rub on the front tyre was just ever so slightly present on the Warbird when fitted with 40 mm tyres; swap to a smaller tyre and the toes of your white kicks will remain scuff free. The Warbird’s front wheel isn’t quite as far out in front as the BMC URS or Evil Chamois Hager, but all things being equal, the Warbird’s toe rub is less of an issue compared to its quicker-handling competition.
The spec is … fine
In the grand scheme of the industry, Salsa is a relatively small bike company producing niche offerings, and so the economies of scale suggest the Warbird is never going to offer class-leading value for money. That said, and considering this is a unique carbon frame with a generous size range, Salsa has done a respectable job of hitting a competitive price point without going too cheep (intended) on the build kit quality.
Our sample Warbird Carbon GRX 810 build performed without significant issue and there’s certainly no glaring issues in the components selected – it’s all reliable stuff that we’d happily take straight to a start line.
As covered in previous reviews from the Field Test, the Shimano GRX 810 2x groupset is a tough one to fault and it does indeed offer valuable improvements over the equivalent Ultegra R8000 mechanical groupset. The chain retention through the rear derailleur clutch is vastly improved, the smaller chainrings (48/31T) are certainly better for mixed-terrain riding, and the tweaked ergonomics of the brake levers aid in stopping when not in the drops.
One thing I’d want to change is the factory cable housing lengths. Out of the box they’re extremely long and the way they cross over to opposite sides of the head tube had me rubbing my knees on them when riding out of the saddle. Some attention from the shop selling you the bike will certainly solve the problem.
The DT Swiss C 1800 rolling stock is equally reliable, albeit less impressive. Effectively just cross country mountain bike hoops, they offer a 22 mm internal rim width, a sub 1,800 gram weight figure and a sealed bearing hub that’s easy to source service parts for. Of all the bikes at the Field Test, the ones fitted with DT Swiss wheels were the easiest to setup tubeless and these were no exception. That said, they feature a cheaper sleeved and pinned rim, and a 370-level pawl hub that James experienced some occasional popping sounds from – something we’d never get from DT Swiss’ much-loved and more expensive Star Ratchet system.
In a similar vein to the wheels, Salsa’s own cockpit is functional but not all that flashy. As mentioned, the aluminium seatpost felt a little cheap for a bike of this level and it’s a similar story for the stem. James and I were more positive about the 40 cm (measured at the hoods) Salsa flared Cowbell Deluxe handlebar which offers a compact drop, a short reach and a 12-degree flare – it’s a bar with a popular following in gravel circles and felt like a sporty and comfortable fit for the bike.
While we didn’t use them, the supplied tubeless-ready Teravail Cannonball 42 mm tyres were made for races like Dirty Kanza and should be a well-rounded choice that is well-suited to this bike. Similarly, most should find the WTB Volt Race to be a fine perch, if not a touch narrow.
And bonus points to Salsa for gifting a bottle cage, large insulated bottle and Anything bracket with the Warbird. The Anything bracket extends off the downtube bidon cage bolts and places a small spares pack below the cage. Personally I found the pack a bit of a fiddle to get things in and out of, and overfilling quickly results in a bag that runs awfully near the chainrings, but still, it remains a nice little addition that no other tested bike offers.
The odd bird in the flock
As evidenced by the Warbird, it can be a tough thing to define what makes a gravel race bike, a gravel race bike. And while the Cervelo Aspero, say, feels like a really good road bike from the first twinge of the calf, the Warbird is seemingly made with slower-twitch muscles in mind.
And while many race bikes can require laser focus to keep them on-track, the Warbird allows you to switch off a little and either zone out, count down telegraph poles, or just focus on having one leg follow the other.
Overall Salsa has made a bike that does exactly what it claims to. While there are more playful-feeling options on the market perhaps better suited to short and fast racing, the Warbird stays true to its long-distance racing purpose: being a bike that wants to be shown the direction of the finish line and pedalled with intent until glory arrives. If you’d rather hallucinate from sheer exhaustion instead of taste blood from extreme lactic acid build-up, then the Warbird is certainly a bike worth flying on.