by David Gould
March 7, 2014
A supremely fun bike to ride and own that has brought me more smiles per miles than almost any other bike I have ever owned
Salsa’s Fargo is one of the marque’s longest standing models. Now in its third iteration, it has stuck to its basic design premise. A steel framed, go anywhere 29er hardtail designed for everything from ‘oh so trendy’ gravel racing to fully loaded touring and everything in between. Over time the frame has evolved and been gradually refined. The current version now includes a carbon fork option, adjustable rear dropouts for when you want to get your singlespeed or internal gear hub funk on and the ability to run a 100mm suspension fork should you fancy. Add in more bottle bosses (enough for five bottles) and rack mounts that you could shake a stick at and you have, on paper at least, a Swiss army knife of a bike that will take you off map and grid in style.
With this being a long term review, (and as the Singletrack boffins have not yet having mastered the art of time travel), this review is of the second generation Fargo. However, the basic principles of geometry and custom drawn tubing remain unchanged meaning that if you are in the market for the latest and greatest, this review should help inform your choice.
So why this bike?
Being in the market for a bike that I could tow my daughter in her Chariot trailer or in her kiddy seat in comfort, I wanted a bike that wouldn’t handle like a barge when fully loaded but which would still be fun to ride both on and off road when stripped of racks etc. After much research, the Fargo stood out as the obvious choice. Steel? Check. Rack mounts. Check? Disc specific? Check. The fact that it just looked right in the style of late eighties Konas was an added bonus.
Made from custom butted seamless chromoly steel tubing, the tube set varies by size meaning that different frame sizes are tuned to give the same ride feel. Having only ridden the large frame, I can’t vouch for this but more on the ride later. Compared to a regular steel 29er frame, the top tube is noticeably shorter with a pronounced slope to allow for the use of drop bars or if you want to be uber-niche, Jones Loop Bars. Being designed as a drop bar 29er, it seemed only appropriate to use Salsa’s Woodchipper flared bar. Having ridden a Ritchey Swiss Cross for years but never really enjoyed riding on the drops, the Woodchippers were a revelation. The Fargo is designed to be ridden on the drops off road and the contrast to my traditional cross set up was an immediate eye opener. Whether cranking through twisty woodland singletrack or dropping at speed into sweeping road bends, the bars feel supremely comfortable and inspire genuine confidence. The pronounced outward flare give a wider stance and reminded me of when I switched from narrow XC flat bars to wide risers.
Building it up
Buying the Fargo as a frameset, I opted for tried and trusted technology for the build. Middleburn RS8 cranks and chainrings mated to Shimano UN 55 square taper bottom bracket mean that the drivetrain is still running smoothly after several thousand miles. For the shifters, Shimano Ultegra 10 speed carbon levers weren’t my first choice but after my original 105 front shifter gave up the ghost after only a few weeks of use, I was happy to trade up and in use, the concealed gear and brake cables coupled with an immediately comfortable hood shape have proven their worth. Running a 10 speed set up meant that I had to get a little creative with mech choice. Somewhat confusingly, Shimano 10 speed road and mtb shifters have a different pull ratio meaning that I had to use a 9 speed XT rear mech and an older style XTR front mech with the cable mounted on the inner side of the mounting bolt to get the right level of pull. A minor faff but worth it in order to be able to run a triple MTB chainset and wide ratios on the bike given that I wanted to maximise its versatility.
Braking duties are covered by Avid Road BB7 cable operated discs matched with 160mm XTR Centrelock rotors. After many years of using hydraulic discs, the cable discs are not far off a match in terms of both power and feel. However, where they really score points against their hydraulic equivalents is that even on fast and long European road descents, I’ve yet to experience any form of brake fade. Moreover, especially when travelling to foreign climes, there are no concerns about brakes needing bled. Should you ever need to, stripping them down is a simple affair that doesn’t require specialist tools or knowledge.
The wheels deserve special mention. Hand built by the almost mythical Big Al at Wheelcraft (whose fame has even extended to him appearing in an Oor Wullie story in the Sunday Post), XTR Centrelock hubs are laced to Mavic TN 719 rims and shod with S Works Captain tyres and Specialized Superlight tubes. After over two and a half years of hard use including a number of overseas trips where they have “enjoyed” the full baggage handling experience, they are as straight and true as the day they were built. Mavic aftermarket rims seem to get overlooked in these days of factory built wheels and the eponymous Stans tubeless rims which is a great pity given that they build into a strong, light and reliable wheelset.
The short top tube coupled with a relatively high front end to accommodate the drop bars make for an immediately comfortable, upright riding position when riding on the hoods. Coupled with the multiple positions that the drop bars offer, even rides of several hours don’t result in lower back pain that for me at least is a regular feature of riding a traditional road or cross bike. When wanting to get up to and hold speed whether on road or off, riding on the drops help you squeeze out that little bit more speed for minimal extra effort. If you’re used to riding on the road, this will come as no real surprise but what will is the realisation that the Fargo is a genuine pleasure to ride when used in full roadie mode. More by chance than design, the Fargo has proven itself to be more than capable of handling road duties on family holidays in Mallorca. Not having the luxury of being able to take two bikes on holiday, the Fargo has doubled as both family bike and default road bike. Though it’s never going to be as fast as a full carbon race machine, it has proven itself more than capable of chasing down roadies on the sinewy mountain road climbs and sweeping descents and is usually met with a look of bemused disbelief from the lycra clad brigade as I’ve wafted past them; something usually best done when there is a handy cut off not too many kilometres up the road as oxygen debt is a terrible thing! After several trips to the island, it’s now my bike of choice to take with me.
Loaded with my little one on the back or in the trailer for nursery runs, trips to see Grandparents, café runs etc, the Fargo is reassuringly stable and never displays any front end wander or steering lightness that hauling a load on the back can bring. It quickly becomes obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the design and build of the Fargo. Off road and in normal mountain bike mode, it’s as capable as you could hope for in a rigid steel bike. Granted, it will never be as fast or as ultimately comfortable as a full suspension mountain bike but that’s arguably missing the point. As someone who tends to run suspension seatposts on his hardtails, I’ve not felt the need to do this on the Fargo even though the complete build option comes with a Thudbuster ST as standard.
Ultimately, in the Fargo, Salsa have managed to create something of a niche defying machine that can ably lend itself to a variety of uses from singletrack weapon to long haul tourer. In these days of increased specialisation, it’s refreshing that a traditional steel frame can still be at the cutting edge of mountain biking technology. In short, the Fargo is a supremely fun bike to ride and own that has brought me more smiles per miles than almost any other bike I have ever owned. At around £550 including the steel fork, it’s a bit of a steal. Would I ever change it? Hell no… although having said that, the painted Ti version with the carbon forks is one lovely looking machine… hmmm, things could be getting expensive!