Shaking it Down on the Salsa Cutthroat

There’s nothing like taking a brand new bike and throwing it into the proverbial fire.

Bikes like this are not meant to be babied, nurtured, wiped down with a micro-fiber cloth and sprayed with chemicals to make them look shiny. They’re meant to be abused, smashed, shredded and put to the test, straight out of the gate. Especially bikes specifically designed for arguably one of the most intense endurance races in the Continental United States.

The Salsa Cutthroat is what I would call a first for the company. In the sense that it’s a bike designed for a specific event: the Tour Divide Race.

Three Days on the Tour Divide with the Salsa Cutthroat-27
A detail shot of the TDR’s course map on the underside of the downtube.

Three Days on the Tour Divide with the Salsa Cutthroat

Everything from the Vibration Damping System to the flattened-out tube profiles which allow for more frame bag space and the Firestarter fork with triple bottle boss mounts, has been designed, engineered and tested specifically for this event.

Three Days on the Tour Divide with the Salsa Cutthroat

Backpedaling a bit. Before I dive into this, I should point out that you can do the TDR on any bike. The bike you already own is capable, but if you don’t own a bikepacking-specific rig, don’t overlook the Cutthroat. It definitely surprised me.

Onto my experience with Salsa:

I’ll be completely honest here. I didn’t like the “predecessor” (in quotes because it’s only a visual cousin, the Cutthroat is a completely different bike) to the Cutthroat: the Fargo. At all. Granted my limited time on one wasn’t the most exhilarating experience, but it just felt too, I dunno, “meh.” So coming into this bike launch, I had no idea what to expect. Personally, I don’t like the aesthetics of a non-sus corrected rigid bike. I want lines to collide in elegant ways, not with giant gaps or offsets. I get the fact that you could throw an 80mm XC fork on it, but still…

Introducing the Salsa Cycles Cutthroat Tour Divide Bike

Three Days on the Tour Divide with the Salsa Cutthroat-24

Yet, when you strap a bunch of bags onto it, suddenly the silhouette of the Cutthroat not only looks balanced, but it looks damn confident. The way the downtube sits proud of the bottom bracket cluster and gives you extra mud clearance at the head tube cluster makes sense. Also, there’s room for a third bottle cage on the downtube… Nice.

Three Days on the Tour Divide with the Salsa Cutthroat

The thru-axle completes the bottom of the “springy” feel of the VDS stays. With long, narrow seat stays and wide, rectangular chain stays, the rear end of this bike really does soften the blow of rough roads. However, I should note that I couldn’t notice feel it until we hit a sealed road climb and I had more air in the rear tire. That’s the point, right? You don’t have to think about it…

Three Days on the Tour Divide with the Salsa Cutthroat

The gearing was more than acceptable, with a 36t front ring and 42t rear. Granted I was also carrying a 25lb camera bag on this trip but I didn’t have to walk anything (except for “The Wall”). 1x systems take a bit to get used to but I like the convenience. Although if I were doing the TDR, I’d go with a 34t direct mount ring to give myself more spin, thus sacrificing the top-end.


Tires! Everyone wants to know about the tires. Teravail is a new tire brand from QBP (the distributor and owner of Salsa, Surly, All-City, etc). They’re offering three sizes initially, the Cannonball is a 38mm tire, the Golina is a 32mm “cross tire” and the Sparwood (pictured) is a 2.2″ multi-use MTB tire. These are made in Japan and come in a 60tpi and 120tpi version. We rode the 60tpi tire. JP is currently racing the TDR on the 120tpi.

The wheels were solid. SRAM Roam 40’s are a great option. If I were to build this bike for the TDR, I’d go 36h 3x with a generator hub on the front though. Just something to consider…

Three Days on the Tour Divide with the Salsa Cutthroat

My favorite spec on the bike is the Woodchipper bar. You can have a bar-mounted bag without interference of the paddle shifter with the SRAM 1x system. There’s more than enough real estate for your hands with the drastic flare. I always descended in the drops and climbed on the tops, never feeling too upright. These bars are a lot of fun and truly make the bike’s experience what it is: a fuckin’ blast to rip on!

Three Days on the Tour Divide with the Salsa Cutthroat

Why doesn’t the bike have fender mounts? Because they’d be redundant. Sure, fenders keep your bottles and legs clean, but they’re a nuisance off-road. They rattle, loosen and get clogged with mud. A seat pack keeps your ass clear of over-spray and the fat downtube of the Cutthroat keeps most of the mud off you anyway. Remember, in a ride / race like the TDR, you’re getting dirty anyway. There are rack mounts on the stays however!

Three Days on the Tour Divide with the Salsa Cutthroat

Reviewing bikes like this can be a daunting task. There are so many marketing details packed into the press-kit, but ultimately what matters is how no-nonsensical its ride quality is and its capability for packing your daily essentials into its tubing profiles.

The Cutthroat has more than enough real estate for bags. Here’s what I was carrying:

Gear (seat bag):
-Rain Jacket and pants
-Short sleeve base layer
-Merino boxers
-1 pair of socks
-Down Jacket
-Wool beanie
-Sleeping pad
-Merino gloves

Bar bag:
-20º sleeping bag
-Trucker cap

Handlebar Feed bag:
-Bear spray
-Bug spray

Top tube feed bag:

Equipment (frame pack)
-Stove, pot
-Coffee mug
-Coffee beans, grinder, pour-over cone
-Head lamp
-Food items
-Plastic bag for used TP, trash, etc.

Three Days on the Tour Divide with the Salsa Cutthroat-26

Bike reviews are not one of my strong suits. I’m more experiential driven and sometimes It’s difficult to capture those experiences with words, much less technical jargon. Let’s be honest, you can read the Cutthroat’s technical data at Salsa. All I want to do is express how much fun this bike was to use on our three-day bikepacking trip. I never felt like the bike was too much for me to handle, or not burly enough for the technical sections. It was lightweight, nimble and descended with confidence. So much so that I had to remind myself a few times of just how remote we were… Don’t wanna eat it on this ride!

As I begin to plan for the 2016 TDR, this bike has inspired and influenced how I’ll ride this challenging course…

Questions? Drop them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.

  • I really want someone to make a shorter fork with those mounts.

    • Yeah. You “could” get a Whiskey fork and send it to the Ruckus composites boyz

      • I will look into that. I already have the Whiskey fork on my bike.

    • Jonathan McCurdy

      I was thinking that too… Trek makes something similar on their new 720, but i doubt one could easily find that on its own. I’d like something with a dedicated “small bag storage” system for my Vaya.

      • I am guessing that the 720 has much less tire clearance. There is also the 920, but it uses an aluminium fork.

  • Area45

    It doesn’t look like the fork crown is drilled, but it’s hard to tell either way. Is it drilled John? That’s where I mount my dyno light and I prefer to keep it off the bars. Seems like it would have been possible to do if the fork is drilled for bottle mounts.

    • Fork is not drilled. I feel you on the light mount too!

      • Matt R

        Here’s a dynamo light mount solution the guys at Seven whipped up or me. Sits under the crown race and adds about 2mm. This is on an ENVE cross fork that they modified for me with a center bolt for mounting a fender and cable guides on the right side of the fork. Super solid. Sorry I don’t have a better picture handy!

        • Bas Rotgans

          Guys, we need to start a petition. All these ‘gravel’/’long-distance’ forks coming out need holes for lighting, dynamos, etc. For all Ic are they plug them up with small rubber plugs to hide them when not needed. I have drilled three holes in my fork, and while I know it will void warranty AND can possibly get me into trouble I wanted the power and lighting to be discreet. 1. hole is at the bottom of the right fork leg for the wiring to enter, it goes up the right fork leg and comes out at hole 2. on the right side of the regular light hole (left side in the photo), the second wire (bringing power to the rear light) goes into hole 3.

          There’s actually a hole 4. inside the steerer at the same height as my top tube. Wire runs backwards through the top tube to exit just before the saddle where it goes into the rear light.

          So basically my fork is like Swiss Cheese. But, god, it looks nice. Now I need someone to ‘officially’ make this into a fork.

      • I am excited about the new breed of bikepacking rigs, from the Cuthroat to the Sherpa. The lack of a simple and secure light mount on the fork is a missed opportunity, something which probably wasn’t as relevant to the Salsa team a few years ago when they began developing the fork. Now, most top racers and many tourists are using dynamo lighting. The lack of a crown mount also means that the Fargos with the Firestarter forks won’t readily accept a fender, a difficult reality for many potential Fargo customers. Not as much an issue on the race-inspired Cutthroat. The Fargo also does not readily accept a standard rear rack thanks to the Alternator dropouts, although the Salsa rack is nice for those that require it.

        John, I wouldn’t be concerned about a 36 spoke wheel. Those days are over.

    • LifeAndItsAdventures

      Ditto. Been thinking about this on my Fargo too.

      • Area45

        Do you have a carbon fork on your Fargo Josh? I have the olde timey steel one so I take that drilled fork for granted I guess. Seems like a bit of an oversight to me.

        • LifeAndItsAdventures

          Yes I have the arson fork. Ruckus composites can put a light mount on carbon tho

  • Ultra_Orange

    The front Dyno would have been a nice touch. Frees up space and many can be used to charge batteries during the daytime. All in all I think this looks pretty cool. Just wish it would be coming out sooner to try it.

  • D0rk

    Damn I was hoping that tire was closer to mid-40’s in width. I’ll still look into the Cannonball when it comes out, but it’s up against tough competition with the Nano and Knard. The Sparwood looks like a great tire though, i’d definitely consider it if I could fit it on my bike.

  • Benjamin Johnson


  • Max Barrow

    so do you think you will use a customized cutthroat for the 2016 TDR john? @John Watson:disqus

  • DopePedaler

    Do you have a review on this site for the Fargo? I own one, and absolutely love it; just wondering if you can elaborate on ‘meh’… or, is it even possible to elaborate ‘meh’?!

    • So… I rode the Fargo unloaded on trails and found it to be not as zippy as a cross bike but not as shredable as a MTB. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I just didn’t vibe with it. It kinda just didn’t do it for me. Not bad, but not good either. It left me indifferent.

      • DopePedaler

        It’s also my very first dirt bike, so I have nothing else to compare it to. I guess you can say it’s literally the best bike I’ve ridden on dirt. Salsa would love my review.

  • Dobry

    I like your fancy new slingshot.

    Very informative and interesting review. Now I have a bikepacking list to try as well.

  • While I am aware of historical context and fit considerations, I am curious as to why road-based designs often have slacker head tube angles in the small frames and steeper head tube angles in the large frames. As a taller rider, this usually always means I end up on the steeper head angle.

    Of course there’s a lot more going on in the way a bike rides than strictly this one measure, but my curiosity comes from the more common standardization of mountain bike head angles across frame sizes of a particular model. That said, the big tires make a huge difference in the handling of bikes like this, and this looks a bike I would really enjoy!

    • nahcaz

      i would assume the slacker head tube angle counteracts the shorter wheelbase on smaller frames as well as provides additional toe clearance

    • I think it has to do with overlap…

      • In response to John and to nahcaz whose comment seems to have disappeared:

        Toe overlap was definitely why smaller bikes historically got slacker head angles. Fit is the reason they got steeper seat angles. Both of these contribute to the way a bike rides, and in theory that means that each size will ride slightly different. It also implies that frame geometry is based around an ideal frame size (typically a medium / 54-56) and all other sizes are some sort of compromise based off that ideal.

        That is, of course, the historical context – but embedded in that thinking is priority given to fit and clearance considerations, not handling. In non-technical terrain, I can see how the relationship between reach, stack, and seat angle may take higher precedence than handling, but given the intended purpose of a multi-terrain bike like this, is handling not more crucial? Which brings up the question of whether 70, 70.5, or 71 is best for this application…

        • Ross Shepherd

          Not sure if this is the answer you’re looking for or not, but a steep HTA on a big road bike is mostly to keep the wheel base short and more weight over the front wheel for better handling. You’ll often see that a manufacturer or builder will have various fork rakes on bikes of different sizes in order to neutralize the effects of different head tube angles on how the bike steers (for example a 72 HTA and 50mm of fork rake gives the same trail as 73.5 HTA and 40mm of fork rake). This is doubly useful on smaller bikes where the increased rake helps with toe overlap as well.

  • Area45

    John, maybe I missed it, but what size is that frame you rode? What do you normally ride? A large I’d guess? I’m curious how big the Medium frame triangle would be. Thanks!

  • Derek


    What was your experience with the Rival 1 drive train shift quality? What was your opinion of the braking performance? I was worried about the lever throw on the hydraulic system.

    • I really, really like it. I’ve used the Force kit extensively but Rival impressed me. The hydro brakes feel great, consistent and reliable. My Firefly will probably have Rival FWIW

  • Tyler Morin

    I think this bike is rad. The one thing I don’t like, which I’ve mentioned before is the way that the firestarter fork looks. With so many flattened out parts on this bike the rounded fork blades really look awful against the rest of the bike imo. I’ll be the first to admit that I want my stuff to work AND look cool and this fork just ruins it for me. I personally would put either the Whisky Parts Fork on there or the ENVE mountain fork. I also hope that they eventually make that bar tape available for everyone because it looks sweet.

    • Bas Rotgans

      I was thinking the same thing. The Firestarter fork was specifically designed to ‘look nice’ with the smaller diameter tubing of the steel and titanium frames that Salsa made (until now).

      All in all a very rad bike though.

  • Stephen Timings

    Hi, I’m doing the Tour Aotearoa in Feb/March, a 3,000k off road Brevet here in New Zealand. I’ve set up a Surly Straggler but was wondering how the Cutthroat would compare in your opinion? It’s a mixture of gravel road, cycle trail with a bit of seal and single track thrown in. Cheers, Stephen.

    • Ant/Skippy Cooke

      Stephen, I have ridden parts of the route that will used for Tour Aotearoa. After riding Auckland to Queenstown I’d say something more mtb like the Cutthroat and less CX will suit the course better.

      • Stephen Timings

        Thanks. The mighty Straggler has been tweaked after doing the Timber Trail(well worth a ride if you haven’t yet!!!), I’m running 2.00 29er on the front and a knarly 42 on the back and put a 50/34 paired with the new Praxxis cassette down to 40 and of course the Klite setup. I’m hoping the overall speed of the bike will make up for some challenges on the (hopefully) relatively small amount of technical stuff. I doubt the Salsa will be available here in time and I want to get setup for training so I’m probably stuck. I found the Timbertrail relatively easy so fingers crossed!!! Any advice received gratefully. Cheers, Stephen.

        • Stephen, I did ride the Timber Trail as part of our 19day journey down the length of Nz. Check out my blog for a full story and make your decision about the Straggler’s suitability from there. Your chosen gear range sounds good, but id still want bigger tyres from my experience. But its all personal remember. :D

          • Stephen Timings

            Great write up, I really enjoyed it! The issue I guess is how much body bashing am I willing to put up with to achieve a distance per day I’m happy with. As a newbie it’s really hard to know, I’ll probably stick with the Straggler and suffer a bit here and there. I’m hoping there isn’t huge amounts of trail more technical/rougher than the Timbertrail. I’ve done parts of the Mountains to Sea and that will be interesting if that’s the bit we go over…oh well…suck it up. On the other hand the normal gravel roads might be fun(ish) Thanks again, Stephen.

  • charlesojones

    Sweet looking bike. I’m not sure my old legs could handle a single ring though…?

  • So, if you could’ve had an XL bike for the ride instead of the large would you have taken it?

    • Nah. I like the way the L fits me.

      • Henning

        How tall are you ? With 184cm would a M still be comfortable to ride ?

  • Frank

    “-Plastic bag for used TP, trash, etc.”

    Hi John.
    If you are digging a hole in the bush and burying your poo, it’s okay to put your toilet paper in that hole and bury that as well. Carrying it with you is only necessary if you are camping in snow and can’t dig down to the dirt (in which case take a crap in a freezer bag and transport poo & paper in a pvc pipe or similar).
    However I do appreciate the intent/spirit of your advice … especially given the Oregon mess.
    Cheers. Frank

    • It depends on how you look at your impact. Some people believe you should pack out your TP. I use Wet Wipes just to keep “shit” from getting funky down there, so I pack it out.

      • Frank

        Yes you are correct … if you are using TP that is not biodegradable it should be packed out. Thanks. Frank

      • Big fan of wet wipes or baby wipes for touring!

  • Great write up! I noticed the Cutthroat was outfitted with a “free pie” Kustomcap!

  • cwoodesq


    How does it compare to the Specialized AWOL? How did you feel about carbon v steel (e.g Honey All Road) or titanium (e.g. seven Evergreen SL) for a gravel bike? I realize it is pretty hard to make a comparison given that the VRS seems pretty different than anything else out there but there is so little info that anything would help.

  • Ben Mills

    I see you have the bear spray VERY handy. Just wondering how common it is to run in to bears in the woods. I live in Vermont and I’m starting to do more backcountry riding on forest roads and trails. I know there are a lot of black bears, but no grizzlies. I get the sense that people don’t seem too concerned about the black bears.

    • BurlyGates

      The race route goes through the highest grizzly population density in the lower 48 (the Flathead NF), so having spray handy is smart. Here’s a heat map for likely encounters along the northern part of the route:

      Racers tend to keep the spray on their rigs even down south as the feral dogs in NM are notoriously aggressive and sketchy and bear sightings aren’t uncommon there either.

    • Black bears are really only to be worried about when they have cubs with them. They are more common near populated areas and are mostly interested in finding food. Be very careful if they have cubs or appear to be protective (charging/huffing), but otherwise negative encounters are rare.

      Grizzlies are a completely different scenario, mostly living in places humans don’t often go – such as this route. When humans encounter grizzlies – unlike black bears – it’s not because the grizzlies went where the humans lived. I’m sure they also don’t like humans, but they are quicker to defend themselves. Hence the bear spray, which is still ineffective if you surprise a bear and can’t get it out quick enough.

    • The spring came late this year and all the bears were hungry. The second day all we rode through was bear shit. It was everywhere. They were out in full force. On the drive out, we saw a few, but luckily we were making a lot of noise so there wasn’t a lot of encounters.

    • Ben Mills

      I think this guy needs bear spray :-)

    • Robert Cooney

      Hi Ben, I ride in Pennsylvania and have occasionally encountered black bears. Every time I’ve come upon them so far, they take off running. As mentioned, cubs may make them aggressive, but otherwise, they are fairly docile.

      • Grizzlies are way more aggressive than black bears though. And way more territorial. Didn’t you see the Revenant? ;-)

  • I wrestled a bear once.

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  • Paul Forbes Bigbee

    Apologies if I missed it but what bags did you use? I see a Salsa-branded frame pack and what looks like a Revelate seat bag. Would you mind passing along what you thought of the kit and how it worked? Also, I’m curious how you felt sans tent?

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  • Hill Harman

    Really enjoying these write ups, but a couple of comments: the “designed specifically for this event” rhetoric sounds like something Salsa is paying you to repeat. It’s designed for bikepacking off-road and to sell to people. The TDR is bikepacking, which is great, but wanting a big frame bag and a smooth ride are not things particular to TDR racers. They are things anyone that uses a frame bag and rides off-road would want. It’s like saying they put two wheels on it specifically for the TDR. It’s great that the bike can perform well in and survive the most grueling self-supported races, and that’s all that needs to be said.


    What lights are you using? Also, a climbing chalk bag works great as a feed bag. And, no tent?

    • I had a Night Rider front lamp. We brought an ultralight shelter to sleep under with our sleeping bags and pads. Normally though I use the BA UL1 or UL2 and the poles fit in my frame bag.


    John, If you haven’t done so already, Im curious to know how you like the hydraulic brakes? Versus say a Paul or Avid type cable actuated system. Keeping in mind, you were loaded down with stuff! Thanks! Great write up! Oh..the bike looks weird without the bags on it. Looks SO much better with the bags on it. Hunter Sling Shot? Badass?

    • I actually liked the feel of the hydro on this bike, but I’d go PAUL for the actual ride / tour / race just in terms of maintenance.

  • kimbo305

    Genuinely curious — is the slingshot just for shooting at random things on the roadside? Hunting small game?

  • mat long

    How were the tires? I have checked Q’s site and they are not available, any idea when they will be? Great article.

  • Jamie Koontz

    I have the X9 version of this bike and I am wondering what kind of frame bag you had? I see that it is a Salsa but when I talk to them they tell me that they have not developed a bag specifically to fit the frame. It looks like the one for the Warbird. If anyone knows more on this please inform. Thanks

    • Rob Grey

      Revelate makes these bags for Salsa/Surly. I got one for my El Mar and they fit like a glove.

      • Superchampion

        The frame bag from Salsa and Revelate for the Cutthroat is very delayed (August 2016 release at the earliest) and I had to go custom to get a bag. The bag being used on these bikes is a Warbird bag but even Salsa said it doesn’t fit properly. I went with a custom bag from Oveja Negra. Amazing fit and finish. 3 weeks total build time too. I love my Cutthroat

    • Superchampion

      see below

  • Thisisntreally Mike

    Hey love the site man. Bike looks sweet. What did you do for water? Just the 2 bottles for 3 days? No water filter? Iodine tablets?? You just fillin up at mountain streams and hoping for the best?

    • Mike, we used a Sawyer filter or iodine tabs and yeah, two bottles were enough for us. You’re literally riding all around water for the trip. It’s not until you get to the desert that picking up some extra water capacity is a necessity.