2022 Salsa Journeyer Apex 1 700c gravel bike review: The happy bike
The fun and easy-going one of the party.
The fun and easy-going one of the party.
“The Happy Bike.” That’s what we kept calling the Salsa Journeyer during our 2022 Field Test in Steamboat Springs.
The Journeyer is Salsa’s most affordable gravel bike and is intentionally versatile to provide an almost open book on what it can be used for and where it can be taken. Certainly, this bike doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed into any sub-segment of gravel.
We’re occasionally criticised for being a little too negative about the bikes we review, but this, The Happy Bike, proves there are great bikes that can turn our frowns upside down. And more importantly, a bike like this will go a long in helping to convert more cycle-curious riders into the impassioned cycle-obsessed.
There aren’t many brands that can claim to have been at the forefront of gravel cycling to the extent Salsa Cycles can. The American brand wasn’t just there as the gravel boom was picking up momentum, it arguably was the brand that got it moving in the first place.
Fast forward to today and Salsa Cycles has a huge range of gravel-specific bike models spanning everything from carbon fibre race machines (the Warbird Carbon) to mountain-bike-like thrashers. And for those looking to get into gravel on a tighter budget, there’s the new Journeyer, an overhauled model for 2022 that takes the spot previously held by the Journeyman.
Salsa designed the Journeyer to be almost a blank canvas in its usage. Want to build it tough for touring or commuting? Go ahead. Build it lighter and with fast tyres for the occasional race or mixed surface riding around town? Yep. Or just want a gravel bike for gravel things? It can do that too.
The Journeyer’s wholly revised 6061-series aluminium frame is designed to provide an approachable geometry with relatively short reach figures and tall stack heights which will save you from having to stretch too far for the handlebar or be aggressively hunched over. And Salsa combines this with a fairly long wheelbase for easy riding stability.
The aluminium frame is made to a price and so isn’t light (a 56 cm frame with a Waxwing fork weighs approximately 2.2 kg), but it features a healthy number of touring-ready accessory mounts and can take full-length fenders and racks. All component fitments – such as the English threaded bottom bracket and round seatpost – are kept simple for easy servicing and upgrades down the track. You can fit 1x or 2x shifting, and even internally route a dropper seatpost if you wish.
Meanwhile, there’s generous tyre clearance for up to 700 x 50 mm rubber front and rear, or you can go equally wide with smaller 650B wheels. That’s room for a lot of tyre; quite a bit more than what many more expensive gravel bikes can claim.
Salsa offers the Journeyer in a staggering 18 different build kits which span an array of bikes with smaller 650B or bigger 700C wheels, and options for either dropbars or flat bars (the geometry does differ between the two). The cheapest models start from just US$1,030 and feature an aluminium front fork and quick-release dropouts. Spendier models – which go up to US$2,800 – of course get better components and also move to Salsa’s Waxwing carbon fork and thru-axle dropouts on the frame. And Salsa offers a bare Journeyer frame with a Waxwing carbon fork for US$850.
We tested a dropbar version of the Journeyer that rolls on 700C wheels – the Journeyer Apex 1 700C. Priced at US$1,850, this model sits approximately in the middle of the Journeyer price range and offers a SRAM Apex 1 1×11 drivetrain, mechanical disc brakes, 38 mm Terravail Washburn tubeless-ready tyres, a carbon fork up front, thru-axle dropouts, and a number of Salsa-branded touch points.
Well, names like ‘The Happy Bike’ typically stick when a tech editor, James Huang in this case, returns from a ride and exclaims, “Holy ******* ****, this bike is so fun!”
By the end of the test, this bike was receiving similar praise from all, and that’s quite a feat given it’s far from expensive. At the most basic level, this is a bike that feels welcoming to all levels of rider, one that makes you smile, and that encourages you to ride further.
“So much love for this bike,” said pro-racer-on-sabbatical Ellen Noble. “As far as a hop-on-and-go bike, it’s great. Extremely comfortable; with wide bars and a slack geometry, it’s just a great bike for fun.”
That fun is the combination of a surprisingly good amount of ride comfort from the aluminium frame and a frame geometry that’s just easy to get along with.
“Regardless of ride speed, it offers an incredibly smooth ride quality that’s super compliant and nicely muted,” said James. “The bumpy climbs on our test loop were dramatically different as compared to the Vaast [ed. review to come]. It’s just easy to keep power down and the wheels on the ground, even though the tyres were ‘only’ 38 mm (36 mm measured width).”
A large part of this seated comfort is likely due to the amount of exposed seatpost that the geometry encourages (I’ll return to this). Another aspect is that the lengthened chainstays and perhaps slacker head angle have allowed Salsa to make this frame a little less stiff than what you’d normally expect of the material. “The frame isn’t super stiff, but this thing is incredibly sprightly under power,” James said. “And it feels lighter than what the weight suggests.”
The bike’s light and whippy feeling is also evident on the descents, and we all found the Journeyer to be far more playful than the long wheelbase figures had led us to expect. “I rarely pushed the pace on this bike, but when I did, I was surprised that it wasn’t sluggish-feeling,” said Ellen.
James likened the ride to a mountain bike with drop bars, and a look at the modern geometry confirms such a statement. All six sizes of the Journeyer feature the same relatively slack 69.5º head angle combined with a long 50 mm offset fork. This combination offers a gravel-common 79 mm trail figure (a figure that can be quite telling about the steering speed of a bike) while keeping the front wheel forward of your hands.
The wheelbase on the Journeyer is relatively long, with roomy 440 mm chainstays and a decently long front-centre length, too. And so while the bike is indeed playful in how it encourages you to do silly things, there’s also no getting around the fact that it requires more input from the rider to get it to turn. This characteristic made me feel like it wanted to sit up a little (understeer) on high-speed sweeping corners. The flip side is that this bike is almost the reverse of being twitchy, and that’s an incredibly good thing when you’re talking about a newer rider tackling a variety of terrain and/or an experienced rider looking to push the limits of their endurance.
The other positive to that lengthened wheelbase is that toe overlap isn’t of concern, so tackling more technical singletrack won’t present any unwanted surprises. And when it comes to charging into rough terrain, it’s really only the price point of the components used that holds it back.
Salsa Cycles is a mid-size player within the bike industry. It’s owned and operated by the largest bicycle parts wholesale distributor in North America (QBP) and as such is sold through traditional channels. This means that while the Journeyer is decent value, there are bikes out there – namely from consumers-direct brands – with better components for the money. However, it’s not any one component that makes a bike good.
The provided components on our test bike aren’t anything special for the asking price, and yet, it’s obvious that the people responsible for choosing them knew exactly what those components need to be able to do and survive.
Most likely to garner attention – and not just because it’s in the model name – is the SRAM Apex 1 drivetrain. This 1×11 (one chainring up front, 11-speed at back) drivetrain is intended to offer the functionality of SRAM’s more expensive 1×11 mechanical shifting systems, albeit at a heavier weight.
The single-ring shifting means you only have to think about whether you want an easier or harder gear, and with SRAM’s DoubleTap, there’s just a single lever to control such a decision. That DoubleTap places a small lever behind the brake lever (right-side lever in this case). Pressing the lever for a short click initiates a shift to a harder gear, while pushing the lever past this point sees the derailleur move in an opposite direction to an easier gear. Meanwhile, the hood shape is more compact than most on the market today, which Ellen noted, works remarkably well for smaller-handed riders.
The 11-42T cassette provides a gearing range sufficient for most riding. Still, it’s not as generous as the latest 1×12-speed options or that of a double chainring drivetrain (which the more expensive Journeyer options provide). Up front sits a 40T chainring, providing something easier than a 1:1 lowest gear. Still, we suspect there will be plenty of riders left hunting for something lower again when riding ultra-steep off-road climbs, loading up the bike with luggage, and/or running a larger tyre that the frame affords.
When set up correctly it’s easy to shift gears and it happens reliably. There’s a good level of chain control from the clutch-equipped derailleur and it all just does the job. SRAM released its Apex 1 drivetrain back in 2016, and hasn’t updated it since. This had us, once again, scratching our heads over why SRAM has seemingly let all of its still great gravel-focussed mechanical drivetrains fade away for Shimano to eat its lunch.
This particular model stops with mechanical disc brakes. There were a couple of stinker mechanical disc brakes at this Field Test, but the Tektro MD-C550 brakes (a cheaper version of the TRP Spyre) on this bike worked well enough. The whole test team unanimously agreed that if the budget allowed, we’d prefer the reduced hand effort, better-stopping power, and lower maintenance of hydraulic disc brakes. Still, these brakes work by moving both pads toward the rotor, they offer decent modulation and will stop you if you pull the levers hard enough (the same couldn’t be said for some other brakes on test).
Unfortunately, an upgrade to hydraulic brakes only occurs on the next model up, which costs an extra US$600, although it solves the previous complaint related to the gearing range, too.
It was exciting to find that both the WTB i23 rims and Terravail Washburn 38 mm tyres are tubeless-ready, a feature we immediately made use of. Ditching the tubes will require you to replace the provided rim strip with an air-tight tubeless tape. You’ll also need tubeless valves, tyre sealant, and the knowledge of how to use such parts. However, all of these small parts are relatively cheap and bring major benefits through the ability to run lower tyre pressures without risk (or at least a greatly reduced risk) of suffering the common pinch flat.
While the shallow-depth aluminium rims offer a respectable 23 mm width, the tyres still only inflated to an actual 36 mm. Narrower than expected, we found them to be a good width for mixed terrain rides with extended tarmac stretches linking up dirt roads and well-kept trails. However, we were missing wider and more aggressively treaded tyres as soon as the trails turned rough or loose. At the centre of these wheels sit WTB’s own branded sealed bearing hubs – a fine product for the price point.
It’s common for bikes of this pricepoint to feature a saddle, handlebar or another easily-overlooked part that merely ticks a box. Kudos to Salsa for providing parts in these areas that had us happy to keep riding. Notably, the saddle is a well-padded and broadly inviting WTB Volt, and not one of us winced while seated on it. Salsa’s own Cowbell 3 handlebar is equally as comfortable, with a 12° flare and short 68 mm reach. This bar adds to the descending confidence when in the drops while helping to retain the more relaxed riding position when in the tops.
And then we come to the tiny little details that even the most keen-eyed can overlook. The seat clamp is Salsa’s LipLock, an old-school component once-upon-a-time found on almost every no-expense-spared bike. The headset (the bearings the fork turns on) is a sealed bearing unit from FSA and offers nothing strange in its dimensions. And even the derailleur hanger (a frame component that the rear derailleur bolts to) has had serious thought put into it with Salsa choosing the SRAM Universal Direct Mount that is fast becoming a widely adopted design in the mountain bike world, something that can’t be said for most other frame-specific derailleur hangers.
OK, so there’s a long list of things we love about the new Journeyer. However, at the top of our short complaint list is Salsa’s unusual approach to sizing this bike.
So unusual is the size labelling that James had us test a labelled 53 cm when in hindsight, the 55 cm would have been a better fit for him and I. And that’s simply unexpected given that I don’t ever ride anything bigger than a labelled 54 cm in any other brand, and James tends to stick with 52 cm bikes.
For a given size the reach and stack figures both make sense and offer a comfortable fit, it’s just that the seat tube lengths are weirdly short for a given size. They’re so short that James and I had to run a huge amount of seatpost (I was above the maximum limit) to make this 53 cm size work for us. I’d also be edging close to the maximum allowed seatpost height on the size up. Meanwhile, our 53 cm sample looked like a kid’s bike compared to some of the other equivalently-sized bikes we had at our Field Test.
Salsa Cycles has chosen the path of tiny-length seat tubes to make the Journeyer more accessible to more people. In this sense, they’ve arguably achieved class-leading standover heights (where the top tube sits in relation to your crotch when straddling over the bike). That has merit, especially for newer riders, but James and I agree that they went too far.
“I’m kind of worried about the long-term durability of the frame at the seat cluster given all that leverage (from the long seatpost),” said James. Meanwhile, by using such a low-slung top tube and stubby seat tube, the front triangle is then an ultra-compact shape that doesn’t leave much room for a frame bag (a popular choice for adventure riding and bikepacking). It also limits just how big a bottle you can fit on the seat tube.
This stubby seat tube and odd sizing isn’t at all a deal-breaker, and in fact, some riders may truly favour it. It’s more a warning to ignore Salsa’s quoted frame sizes and pay close attention to the stack and reach figures, and how those compare against other bikes. Alternatively, if you follow Salsa’s recommended rider heights for a given size you’ll likely be just fine. And moving forward, I’d like to see Salsa ditch the numerical sizing for Alpha-type – our tested 53 cm should be called a small.
Of all the bikes at our Field Test, the Salsa Journeyer was the most unanimously loved. We all agreed the bike was easy to ride and confidence-inspiring. It rode more comfortably than we had expected. And it just generally felt more ready and capable across a wide range of riding styles than anything else at this price point.
If you’re in the market for an affordable do-it-all-style dropbar bike, then do add this to your consideration list. Just watch the funky sizing and consider spending extra (sadly quite a bit) for a hydraulic disc-equipped version.
An affordable bike that rides this well and with almost unrestricted usage potential will only help riders figure out and expand on what facets of cycling they love most. And in this sense, it’s one of the few bikes at our Field Test that we believe could have a positive impact in converting new riders to lifelong cyclists. A big call, but one the Journeyer deserves.
Salsa has a history of realising ideas that then become industry trends, and we hope this is one of them.