Salsa Horsethief Update: Plus in the Snow


It’s been a while, so it’s time for an update on the Horsethief.

In keeping with my desire to limit the number of bikes in the stable, I simplified quite a bit.  I formerly had a road bike, a touring bike, a vintage bike, a gravel bike, a singlespeed, a fat bike, a FS mountain bike, a cargo bike, a folding bike and a townie.  I’m down to a multi-use allroad bike (the Dune), a multi-use mountain bike (Horsethief) and a townie.

The idea behind the downsizing in mountain bikes was the same as road bikes: I found that I’d build multiple bikes around the same principles.  I tried to build my FS mountain bike and fat bike to both have the same bars, pedals, saddles, grips, drivetrain, brakes, etc.  All that distinguished them was suspension vs. rigid, and 29er vs fatbike.

On the suspension front, I’m of the belief that there really is not a downside to a well-designed full suspension bike.  For my riding, saving an extra pound isn’t going to change my life.  I’d do a hardtail if I was doing a SS bike, but otherwise, I find that having suspension allows me to ride harder and faster in just about all off-road conditions.

That left 29er vs. fatbike.  I enjoy the speed and agility of ‘normal’ mountain bike tires, and wanted to keep a 29er.  However, I’ve ridden 29ers in the winter, and even with aggressive tires, they leave a lot on the table.  I’ve ridden just about every “standard width” 29er tire in snow, and also 26×3.8, 4.0, 4.7 and 5.0.  There is a major and quantifiable difference between a standard tire and a fatbike tire, in the snow.  Living in Illinois, we have snow and ice for a good chunk of the year, and I didn’t want to be left out.

That said, we don’t have fabulous groomed trails here.  If I lived somewhere with groomed trails, I’d be looking at a 4-5″ tire as ideal.  In the absence of groomed trails, even fatbikes have limitations.  In powdery snow, you can ride through a lot–perhaps even as much as 10″.  Your pedals press into the snow with every crank, but if you keep moving, you’re golden.  With wet or slushy snow, however, the practical limit is a lot closer to 5″.  In some conditions, even 3″ is too much to push through–traction limited–even with 5″ tires.  I know there are some who claim to ride fatbikes through incredibly deep snow without concern or issue.  I rode fatbikes for 5 years and have a fair understanding of their capability.  It’s not rider ability or power–it is the ability of a 1wd vehicle to drive an unpowered front tire through deep snow.  Again, groomed conditions or having a track to ride in greatly changes the equation.  When you’re riding groomed conditions and can float, or when the snow is hard enough to support float with a 4-5″ tire, a fatbike is unequalled.

I’ve found that for me, living in Illinois, and having some constraints on my time to bike, a fatbike just didn’t make a ton of sense any longer.  There’s novelty to riding a fatbike…but over time, I’ve found that if I’m going out riding mountain bikes in ‘normal’ conditions, I’d rather ride the full squish.

That’s a long way of saying that the Horsethief seemed like a wonderful compromise: 29er full squish when I want to go fast, and the ability to use 3″ 27.5+ tires in the snow.  The question was whether the plus sized tires would meaningfully work in the snow, here in Illinois, on ungroomed paths.

I’m pleased to say that the experiment has worked, swimmingly.

We’ve had a fair amount of snow this year, and I’ve ridden in up to 8″ of medium-dry snow (the most we’ve had).  Aired-down, but still running tubes, the 27.5+ platform has been surprisingly capable.  I have not yet encountered conditions that the Horsethief cannot surmount, that a true fatbike could have ridden through.  It’s been fantastic.

The SRAM GX1 drivetrain and Guide brakes have been flawless.  I can’t compliment them enough.  They work just as well as the XTR 1x I had on my last bike.

The Thomson dropper seatpost is a delight (other than annoying cable routing on the remote, which points the cable straight forward from the handlebars).  Cold weather has not impacted the functionality at all; it works perfectly.
IMG_2808 Full squish hasn’t been an issue in the cold.  When in ‘fatbike’ mode, I tend to set the suspension to climb, which relatively effectively locks it out.  When riding trails, even in the cold, the suspension works perfectly.  Yes, riding in the cold may require more frequent maintenance, but it’s a tradeoff that seems fully worthwhile. IMG_9139
The biggest question lingering in my mind is whether I should just bite the bullet and go all 27.5+.  Running moderate 27.5+ wheels and tires, with tubes, has a substantial weight penalty over my moderate 29er wheels, set up tubeless.  But if I went to a good set of 27.5+ wheels and tubeless tires, that wouldn’t be so much an issue.  I’m inclined to think that the future holds a set of good, lightweight 27.5+ wheels and tires, tubeless, and that I’d get rid of my 29er wheelset.  My current 27.5+ wheels could be used for dedicated winter purposes, preferably with a set of studded tires (as enough ice will stop any bike, fat or otherwise).

On the whole, the experiment has been successful, and I enjoy spending more time riding and less time maintaining a fleet of bikes.  I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the Horsethief, now coming up on a year into our time together.  The geometry is dialed and confidence-inspiring, and the split-pivot design performs as advertised: great suspension action with minimal pedal-induced movement.


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