Review: Salsa Muluk Deore 11 (2020)

A couple years ago I finally got myself a fat bike so that I could keep pedaling through the winter, as well as do some off-road singletrack type riding. I wasn’t sure what to get at the time, so I picked up something used off Facebook Marketplace (Framed Wolftrax) and ran it through a couple seasons.

How Jamison buys a bike… again…

The Framed was a nice solid bike, but there were a couple things that drove me to want to upgrade. First, it was just slightly too big for me. Last year I picked up a shorter stem, and that helped, but it still didn’t fix the overall stack/reach problem. I always struggled to feel fully in control of the bike because of this size issue, and I knew that my next bike had to be focused on a better fit for me.

Secondly, I wanted some better components than what the Framed came with. I could have easily upgraded the Wolftrax, but that wouldn’t have fixed the size issue. Therefore, it was time for an upgrade. I decided to focus on two other Minnesota brands that I really like, Salsa and Surly. I spent some time testing some bikes last winter before the season ended, and really found myself enjoying the Surly Ice Cream Truck. Last year’s color was a really bright pink, and I just wasn’t in to it. Nothing against pink (or bright colors), but it just didn’t fit me. I also tested out the Salsa Mukluk and Beargrease, and between the two, I liked the more relaxed feel of the Mukluk.

Fast-forward a few months and the pandemic hits. The entire bike industry is thrown for a loop as more people take up biking to avoid public transportation, and spend more time outdoors. On top of this, the production lines were hit hard and manufactures simply couldn’t produce enough product to keep up with demand. Suddenly, my plan to upgrade this fall hit some major snags.

In mid-August Salsa released their 2020 lineup of fat bikes, and immediately the new Salsa Mukluk Deore 11 caught my attention. I’ve never been a fan of the feel of SRAM shifters, and seeing a basic Shimano set on a mid-range fat bike had me intrigued. Add to this, the color was a beautiful forest green, which when paired with the 5” tan sidewall tires looks incredibly sharp. The problem was that I still wanted to see what Surly was going to drop for their Ice Cream Truck refresh, so I decided to wait.

In the meantime I headed out and did some test rides of the Mukluk, a Beargrease, and a Surly Wednesday. The Beargrease I tested has Shimano SLX and was a dream to shift, but I knew I wasn’t going to drop $3200 on a fat bike. The Wednesday was OK, and about on par with the Mukluk. However, the Mukluk came with Dillinger 5’s (60tpi) stock, which was a big plus for the $1600 price tag. Even though Deore doesn’t feel quite as nice as SLX, I knew I could be satisfied with the Mukluk.

Then, in early September, the news dropped that Surly wouldn’t be releasing their new Ice Cream Truck until mid-December. That pretty much killed any hope for me to be able to compare it side by side with anything else, since bikes were flying off the racks. After spending some time talking with some trusted bike friends, I decided to grab the Mukluk now, and if I want to evaluate the ICT later, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

Wow those sidewalls look good

This was only the first part of the purchasing adventure though. I picked up a Mukluk in a size medium, after being convinced by the bike shop folks that it was the best size for me. I’m right on the edge of Salsa’s sizing between medium and small, at 172.7cm. The small goes to 175cm, and the medium starts at 173. I brought home the medium and went for a couple small rides around the neighborhood with my wife. Within a couple of miles I knew the medium was a mistake. It felt just like the Wolftrax and I knew I needed to go back and exchange for the small.

Testing out the Mukluk

After my sizing dilemma adventure I took an afternoon off of work to do the exchange, and then went right from the bike shop to hit some trails. First up was the Luce Line crushed limestone trail that heads west out of Plymouth, MN. The Mukluk Deore 11 comes with 5” tires, and I knew that it would have no problem with the very buffed out rail-trail. I wanted to open it up on a straight path and get a good feel for the bike, and watch the large tires eat up the ground.

Looking pretty on the Luce Line

With a 30t crank in the front, paired with an 11-51t in the back, I wasn’t going to set any land speed records (the Beargrease comes with a 10t in the back as the smallest cog by comparison). However, the mid-range of the 11-51t was smooth and comfortable, and I found myself able to accelerate to cruising speed smoothly and efficiently. I managed some solid speed on the straightaways (14-15mph pretty easily), and the tires absorbed every bump and imperfection in the crushed limestone. First test… success.

11-51t in the back

Once I got back to the trailhead (after 10 miles or so), I packed up the bike and went to find some food before heading to the Elm Creek Singletrack for the second adventure of the day. I’m a complete noob when it comes to singletrack so I wanted to get there in the middle of the afternoon before it got crowded and my self-confidence got crushed by constantly having to step aside and let the experienced riders pass me.

I was running out of time for the day, so I opt’d for the 6-7 mile loop. The Elm Creek Singletrack hits you with some challenging hills and terrain right from the start, but by mile 2, you get a nice break and can try opening up a bit on some flowy prairie sections. It was while riding on this trail that I realized how much of a difference the size small bike made in my confidence level. I no longer felt like the bike was pushing me. I was in total control and even got myself out of some sticky spots without a single foot touch. It was a huge confidence boost.

One of the most noticeable differences in between the small and medium Mukluk is the bar size. The medium is where the bars jump from 760mm to 800mm, which is the largest they get throughout the entire line. If I had decided to keep the medium I would have certainly needed to cut those 800mm bars down to something more reasonable for my wingspan. I honestly don’t even know how I would have gotten those bars through some of the tight singletrack areas.

Out on the singletrack

With the size dialed in I managed to push through the rest of the singletrack with little issue. The Dillinger 5’s were amazing, and I found myself able to trackstand in tricky situations without much effort at all. I was able to slide through the lower gears with ease, and never found a situation where I had to hit the 51t, all the way the bottom. However, some of the harder parts of the course were after I turned off to head back, so I’m sure I’ll find a use for it sometime.

The Mukluk isn’t going to win any singletrack races (at least not with me piloting it), but it felt incredibly capable, and when I got to the final roller coaster section of trail I was having some of the most fun of my life. The alternator dropout allows me to extend the chainstay from 440 up to 457, which I might try for some winter trails, but the 440 felt great and responsive on the flowing trail.

The hydraulic brakes never let me down and felt smooth and clean on every turn. I know some people rag on the Tektro line, but until my skill level allows me to go a heck of a lot faster, these brakes are rock solid. This is actually my first hydraulic brake set, so I now get to learn how to do bleed’s and fun stuff like that. Another skill to add to my toolset.

What are the things I’d want to change on the Mukluk Deore 11? I could certainly see myself upgrading to Shimano SLX at some point. The smoothness of SLX just can’t be matched at the Deore price point, but for now it serves its purpose. The Volt saddle is adequate, and comfortable enough. I’m not terribly picky about my saddles though. One thing I might change sooner is the grips. I’m trying to get used to the Salsa File Tread Lock-On grips, but of all the components, these might be the first to go. I’m going to give then a few more weeks, but they feel a bit harsh on the hands if I don’t wear gloves. Of course the simpler solution might be to actually wear gloves…

Green on green in the woods works for me…

The Mukluk has a bunch of mounting points, including a 3-pack on the fork, and 3 different frame/bottle mounts. There are no rear rack mounts so you’ll need to use a seat post clamp if you want to go that route. All the cables are internally routed which is a nice touch, and they even include routing channels for a front derailleur and a dropper post. The Dillenger 5’s come ready to be studded and go tubeless, but you’ll need to do that yourself or get your LBS to do that for you.

Am I happy with my purchase? Yes. The Mukluk is a very capable fat bike, with a nice relaxed geometry, decent drivetrain, solid brakes, and great tires. I’ve got about 40 miles on the bike now, and am enjoying every ride I take. Sure, I might check out the Ice Cream Truck when it drops, but for the money, the Salsa Mukluk Deore 11 is a great bike. I’m incredibly happy, and can’t wait to get more opportunity to get it out on the trails both before and after the snow flies.

If you’re looking for a great midrange fat bike, and can find one in your area, this is a great choice to get you out there and riding the dirt.

Testing fat bikes

I’ve talked about wanting to commute, and generally get around more, by bike. One of the issues in Minnesota is the winter time when streets are icy, snowy, and generally hard to travel on. Since I had some time on Monday I decided to check out a couple of fat bikes at Freewheel Cycle to see what they were all about, and if they might be the answer to my winter biking issues.

I tried out two different models, the Salsa Beargrease, and the Trek Farley 5. The two main differences on these bikes is that the Salsa has a carbon frame, vs the Trek aluminium, and the tire size (Salsa: 3.8; Trek 4.5). I took them both out on the same route down the street from the store, down and up a hill, and a few tight loops in a parking lot.

I tried out the Salsa Beargrease first, and almost immediately I found out why fat bikes are so popular. The smoothness of the ride, and the feeling of stability is incredible. The handlebars extend wide, so you really feel like you’re as stable as possible. The tires make a ton of noise on pavement, which gives you the immediate sense that you’re riding something “different”.

Both bikes have a single cog in the front with 10 or 11 gears in the back. This makes for very easy shifting, but it also does limit how fast you can really go. I took both of the bikes down a slight hill, and wasn’t able to get over 17 mph before I ran out of gears and had to settle for coasting. I wasn’t complaining too much though since riding on flat pavement isn’t what these are intended for.

I also took both bikes around a couple tight curves in parking lots and I could feel how tightly the studded tires were gripping, making my much more confident in my turning. I can see how these would be a tremendous benefit on some of the sharp curves on local mountain bike trails. Heading back up the small hill was slow but steady. Once again I had to suffice with a limited amount of gears, but I managed to get it done just fine. Before I knew it my short test rides were over.

Overall, I found the Salsa Beargrease to be the more enjoyable ride. It felt speedier and lighter, due to the frame and smaller tires. The Trek was fun, and “tank-like”, but lacked just a bit of the “wow” factor of the Salsa. Considering the comparable price, it’s easy to see why the Salsa’s are so popular right now. I think that either one could be a great bike, but if I were to pull the trigger on buying one, the Salsa would be the way to go.

I don’t know if I’ll invest in this, this year, but I got a taste of how amazingly fun these bikes are, and why they’re as popular as they are. If winter is calling and you want to keep biking, these seem like an awesome way to go.