A couple years ago I decided to start looking for a fat bike. It took me almost two full seasons before I pulled the trigger on a used Framed Wolftrax. I was methodical in my analysis and spent hours looking over frame geometry and specs. In the end I decided to settle on a price I was willing to pay, and then based my choices off of that, based on the models I was interested in.
Fast forward a bit and I just bought a new gravel bike to act as my daily driver. This is another purchase that has been about a year in coming. I once again pulled out spreadsheets and calculators to go deep into what makes each bike unique. I also availed myself of sites like bikecalc.com and bikeinsights.com to help me do comparisons, and get into the nitty gritty of gear inches and “speed at cadence”. This is all on top of test riding bikes whenever I got an opportunity. In the end, I test rode around 8 bikes before deciding what to get. More on the bike later, and in my full review, but I wanted to shed some light on the process I went through, as it might help others, or just help my friends understand me more.
I had first heard of gravel bikes through various YouTube channels. At first blush they look like road bikes with bigger tires, but there’s actually a lot more going on. I would actually classify gravel bikes as closer to touring bikes, but with more aggressive geometry and maybe a few less mounting points.
What I was really looking for was something to replace my daily hybrid bike that I had been using for 9 years with something better. It had to both serve my desire to commute by bike more often, and my desire for adventure. The idea of bike packing takes multiple things that I love and puts them together. No longer am I restricted by how far I can hike in a day, but I could actually lay down some serious miles before camping for the night. At least that’s the dream right now.
This led me to start my analysis by looking at the gravel bike market and learn what makes these bikes tick, and how the different brands are approaching the product space. First, I started looking at the basics of frame geometry. There appears to be a couple different directions that manufactures are going. One of them is closer to the road bike world with bikes that are more aggressive in their wheelbase, trail, and chainstay length. These bikes seem targeted at folks who want to go fast… off-road.
I tried a couple different models of these, notably the Trek Checkpoint and the Specialized Diverge. Both feature a fast, aggressive geometry that lends itself to power. When I first tried the Trek Checkpoint I really enjoyed it, as it was a comfortable ride and the feeling of speed was awesome. The Diverge was similar, but due to the lower end model I was testing, I was left with a poor taste in my mouth.
Soon though I got to try some gravel bikes on the other end of the spectrum which were more relaxed and supple, yet had a geometry that was still much, much closer to a road bike than my hybrid. One of the first ones I got to try was the Raleigh Tamland. This was a steel frame bike that was on clearance from 2018 at a local bike shop. It had a nice soft ride, and great components for the price, and after riding it back to back with the Diverge, I knew that it was the style of gravel bike I was looking for.
Sometimes though we have criteria that aren’t based in specs and measurements. As silly as it sounds, I had two decision points that were purely aesthetic. One was that the bike should be from a Midwest manufacturer, preferably from Minnesota (Raleigh is west coast). Secondly, it needs to have a frame color that appeals to me. On both of these counts the Raleigh was mediocre.
Because I was interested in Minnesota bike makers I then moved on to test some Salsa’s. Salsa is a part of the QBP empire which is headquartered in Bloomington, MN. My first exposure to their gravel bikes was when my wife got to test ride the Journeyman. I also took out a Journeyman for a test ride and we both agreed that these were really great. They had a nice feel to them and were off-road and long-haul focused. Additionally, for my wife, they fit really her really well.
After a couple of test rides at a couple different shops my wife decided on the Salsa Journeyman Sora in a lovely bluish-teal color. She found a size that worked well for her, and she was quickly able to identify what she didn’t like about the other bikes she tried in comparison. That left me, the one who originally was the one looking for a new bike, still taking my time and contemplating what I wanted to do.
This is where things get a little silly. Despite enjoying the Journeyman there were a couple things that I didn’t care for. First, I was not the biggest fan of the drivetrain options. The high end model was a 1x SRAM Apex 1, and despite some folks loving these, I just don’t enjoy their double-tap shifters. I’m sure I’d get used to it soon enough, but it was certainly a mark against the bike for me.
The second item that was a problem was the color. The Journeyman color I absolutely loved was the olive green model. However, it only came with a 2×8 Shimano Claris drivetrain and that just did not appeal to me at all. My hybrid was a 3×8 and I wanted something that was markedly different. There was a lighter teal frame that wasn’t bad, but it was the Apex 1 groupset that I wasn’t 100% sold on either.
I decided to sit on things for a bit as there were still a couple more bikes I wanted to check out. Two of them in particular were the Salsa Vaya and the Salsa Warbird. I happened to find both of them in stock, in my size, at a local bike shop and so I headed out one afternoon to give them a try.
When I got to the shop I also tried an All-City Cosmic Stallion, but due to their weird sizing it just didn’t feel right at all. Then I hopped on the Salsa Vaya 105. Immediately I was struck with how nice this bike felt, and how well it fit me. The Vaya is a steel frame bike and comes with a Shimano 105, 2×11 drivetrain. This is exactly the type of drivetrain I’d been looking for. The shifting was smooth, and the 48/32 crankset on the front is a nice balance between the 50/34 road compact double that’s common on gravel bikes, and the more lax 46/30 of the Journeyman.
As I took the bike for a spin around the neighborhoods it just felt “right”. The size was good, the geometry was comfortable, and it had just a small bit of aggressiveness that was lacking in my old hybrid. I got back to the bike shop and they had a full carbon Warbird ready for me to try. This bike was way more expensive than I was interested in spending, but I figured this would at least give me a sense of what’s possible.
The Warbird is a really amazing bike. The carbon frame is SO light, and I was climbing hills like they weren’t even there. It did have a SRAM Force 1x groupset, but this was a much nicer component level and I actually didn’t mind the double-tap quite as much in this quality level. I pulled the bike back into the shop and hopped right back on the Vaya for a quick reaction comparison.
As nice as the Warbird was, with it’s light frame and speedy feel, the Vaya just grabbed me. I knew within seconds on my second test of the day that this would be the bike for me. Plus, it had a nice green-teal color frame that really popped. I finished up my test ride and headed home to think about it a bit more. The bike shop I had visited was doing a sale and so I called up my regular shop to see if they’d price match it. They said they certainly would and so the deal was sealed.
I took the bike out for its first long ride last Wednesday on my usual Beer & Bikes casual ride. On the way home I took a route that is similar to my commute home from work and has some substantial hills. When I loaded the ride in to Strava I had clocked 5 PRs, many of them by quite a margin. Not only did I find the bike to be a bit faster, but the challenging stuff was easier and I was able to power through things in ways that I never could on my hybrid.
I’m excited to eventually post a full review once I get a few more miles on the bike. But for now, I’m loving it. I realize that to some, my process might have seemed tedious (I didn’t even mention all the other bikes I tested), or my love of spreadsheets comparing bike dimensions a bit weird. Yet it’s worked for me, and I know that I’m happier with the outcome when I take my time.
Now to decide on more accessories…