The Salsa Cutthroat is Much More Than a Tour Divide Rig – Spencer Harding

Salsa Cutthroat, Much More Than a Tour Divide Rig
Words By Spencer Harding, bike photos by Spencer Harding, with action shots by Locke Hassett

While I was able to finagle this incredibly snazzy bike solely for the purpose of reviewing a framebag on it, I figured why not squeeze a bike review out of it as well? First things first, I’m not a huge fan of riding drop bars and as I mentioned before I’m no ultra-endurance racer, which is precisely what this bike is designed for. So, I may be a fish out of water in that regard, but I think there is still plenty of potential in this bike for us humans who enjoy riding less than 200 miles a day and more than 2 hours of sleep a night.  At face value, this bike is fast, when you point this thing down a dirt road and put some muscle into the pedals it fucking moves, it doesn’t much care for going slow.  When using a combination of the magtank 2000 and two stem caddy style bags, the bike actually couldn’t turn sharply at low speed, but this bike was designed to haul ass on the Tour Divide, not make low speed technical turns.  Lets delve into the specifications and all that jazz…


The Wheelset

The DT Swiss CR1600 wheelset encompassed my favorite and most frustrating points of the build. The wheelset was so light I actually had to lookup if it was carbon or not, turns out the rims are aluminum.  The Maxxis Ikon tires setup tubeless on the rims with a standard floor pump, zero hassle.  Possibly my favorite part was the fact that the hub engagement was very quiet, seemingly almost silent, but after breaking in a little the action became more audible, nonetheless many orders of magnitude less than a Chris King or I9 hub thankfully. Which brings me to my biggest gripe with the build, the externally splined center lock rotors. These use a standard external cup bottom bracket tool instead of the Shimano standard cassette lockring tool.  If anything would go wrong with your rotor on the 2800 mile journey it was designed for you would S.O.L unless you are carrying a massive wrench, which is unlikely.  I had issues with just such a situation on a 3 day ride, which was frustrating and nerve-racking to no end.  I can see the appeal of center lock in a race situation, but this isn’t that kind of race bike. I want to be able to fix my bike with a standard multitool if at all possible, and almost every one has a t25 for a 6 bolt rotor on their usual tool.  The wheelset came with Maxxis Ikon 29×2.2” tires, thankfully with EXO sidewalls for defending against the harsh desert’s thorns and rocks. I can’t really imagine wanting to ride tires much smaller or larger on this bike, though the frame can clear a 2.4” in the rear.  The Cr1600 rims have a 23mm internal width which would allow you to run a much smaller tire if you wanted this bike to double-down on some lighter back road or gravel duty.  I could image this bike being an absolute rocket ship with a 40c to 50c tire mounted. 


The cockpit caused me some issue as well, while the carbon Cowbell handlebars are a more reasonable alternative to the hyper-flared Cowchipper, my size large frame came spec’d with 44cm drops (at the center of the hoods) which, I personally felt was far too small.  The flared drop position felt more appropriately wide but more bent over than I’d prefer to have as my go-to riding position (even with the stem as high as it could go).  My first few rides I couldn’t decide if I wanted the bars higher or to slam a 140mm stem and go full roadie. I still prefer riding on the hoods instead of in the drops, so if I were to make any adjustment to the cockpit it would be wider drops, maybe a set of 615mm Towel Rack bars from Crust paired with a smaller stem to compensate the reach.  If you are coming from a more road riding background you may find the size of the bars familiar which can make a nice transition from road to gravel/ trail riding.  If I really had my druthers, I would set this up with a nicely swept flat bar. This would involve a major component change, but would make a super-sweet rigid XC style rig. 

The Sram Force lever provided a comfortable hand position and a level of stopping power I was unaccustomed to having on a drop bar bike.  I found the large upper section of the brake hoods actually made a serviceable aero position if you bent and secured your forearms against them, not quite full aero but a nice position to rest on your elbows without adding weight and trouble of aero bars.  The shifting action was light and I found I could even shift with my pinky while riding on the hoods.  While I would normally favor shimano levers for shifting style, for a drop bar bike that will most likely be loaded, the sram shifting action with its shorter lever action allows for more optimum use of space between the drops before it would interfere with shifting.  I will forever hate that feeling, on sram shifters, when  you try and shift one more gear and the lever starts to click, gives you hope of sweet relief, only to give way before the second click, leaving you stuck with nowhere to go.

The braking action felt familiar to what I have experienced on Sram guide flat bars brakes, which seems to have a very on/off feeling with little modulation. This was my first time spending some serious time on hydraulic drop bar levers and it was still such a pleasure compared to the death grip I’ve experienced trying to use mechanical disc or rim brakes off-road with drop bar levers.  As well, I had some initial issues with the disc brake pad spreader clips getting jostled around while riding on rugged singletrack, which resulted in the clips rubbing on the discs. This makes me wonder about the gumption of these flat mount “road” calipers over long periods of rougher riding. 


My bike came equipped with a 38t (Salsa’s website lists it with a 34t) crankset paired with a NX 10-42 cassette.  I felt the 38t front chainring to be a stout gearing for my preference, especially  for loaded riding, but I tend toward being a spinner.  I think a 36t or 34t chainring would make a better compliment to the not-so-wide-anymore 11-42 cassette.  If you plan to ride with a heavier than ultralight load I would recommend upgrading to a NX Eagle cassette. This bike sports a press fit bottom bracket which is all fine and well, but since you are going to be carrying a external BB cup wrench to fix your rotors that come loose, it would be cool to have an external bottom bracket to make carrying the weight worth it. 

The Frame

The frame on this bike is beaut-i-fuuul.  While I really love the paint on this one, Im kind of curious why a bike named after a trout is painted like a tropical fish.  The downtube is optimized to create as much frame space as possible across all sizes, which means you can run upto 3 bottle cages or the very large, Cutthroat specific bag I reviewed here.  While this does leave lots of space in the triangle, it does limit what you can run on the downtube bottle mount, I found that running even a larger 22oz bottle would come very close to interfering with my tire. I opted to just store peanut butter down there instead, also you don’t want to be drinking from a bottle that has been sprayed by cow patties from the your tire all day anyway.  The toptube sports a mount for a bolt on gas tank bag.  All of the tubes have a flatted almost rectangular shape that makes fitting bags to them very secure and less prone to shifting and sliding.  The rear triangle features Salsa’s Class 5  Vibration Reduction System which some fancy-dancy carbon jargon for “it goes sproingy boingy in the right direction not the wrong way.” Tongue-in-cheek comments aside, the seat stays are as elegant as they are comfortable, creating a surprisingly forgiving ride while remaining stiff when you put weight into the pedals. 

The Ride

The Cutthroat is by far the best cross bike I’ve ever ridden, It rides how you may have always dreamed a cross bike could ride.  Now I know this bike is not a cross bike in the traditional sense, but the 2.2” tires will take you places in comfort you could never imagine with measly 32mm semi-knobs.  As I mentioned before, this bike is fast and doesn’t much care for going slow.  Point this bike down a fire road and just put the pedal down and this bike gives so much back when you lean into it.    While the Cutthroat is pigeon-holed as drop bar mtb specifically for the tour divide, I feel that the Cutthroat could easily service as a cross bike for someone who isn’t racing sanctioned races. It is an amazing bike if you want a light and efficient bike to cross town on that is still plenty capable when the pavement ends. 

When that pavement ends is when the fun begins on this rig. While the bike retains a road/gravel  bike silhouette, the Cutthroat is plenty trail capable.  While I will admit that I was terrified tearing down some of the rocky trails out here in Southern Arizona, but this bike ate all the trails up, albeit at a more restrained speed.  What it lacks in modern trail geometry it certainly makes up for in being very light weight and agile.  I can’t count the number of times I was surprised at how easily I could dance this bike down the trail avoiding obstacles. While most full squishers are having a mosh-pit on the trail, the Cutthroat slips on some fine leather wing-tips and takes the jazz line.   The trails down in southern Arizona are very rugged and chunky which is why I was only able to do limited amount of singletrack on the Cutthroat, but if you live in a place with more buffed/smooth trails this bike will continue to be plenty capable on your local trails.

Overall, this is an amazing bike that isn’t something I would normally gravitate toward, although having such a capable bike in the house has got my mind planning bigger dirt rides.  If I could have had the time and resources to change the cockpit to a wider drop or flat bar, I think would have had a much harder time sending this bike back.  I was surprised how adequate the Cutthroat felt on rugged AZT singletrack and amazed how fast I could blast down fire roads all the same.  If you like drop bars and avoid doing 4ft ledge drops and big jumps then this bike could easily be a quiver-killer for you. I would recommend sizing up from what you typically ride to optimize the riding position in the drops which is where this bike is most comfortable.  Im 6’1”  and was riding a size large and felt that I would have preferred the more top tube and stack height of an XL.  In the end, the Cutthroat is a mountain bike that rode how I have always dreamed a cross bike would ride; tackling occasional singletrack, fire roads, and pavement all the same.  This bike was designed for the tour divide but I truly believe it has so much more potential than that. 

See more information on the Cutthroat at Salsa.

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39 responses to “The Salsa Cutthroat is Much More Than a Tour Divide Rig – Spencer Harding”

  1. Jack Ommen says:

    I rented a Cutty while visiting AZ. I agree with everything you say about the bike’s ability to tackle road, dirt, and single track. It’s the coolest bike I’ve ridden, it’s highly versatile and rather pretty to look at. However, I feel that by making a bike that can do it all that Salsa has made a bike that’s not particularly good at anything. It feels slow on road and twitchy on the trail, the geometry screams “just a bike” with no notable features save for drop bar and front sus compatibility. Maybe I’m missing the point of dirt drops or I needed some more time/money for adjustments but I didn’t find this bike to have much character on any surface. How do you think it compares to bikes advertised to be fun ridding like the Trek Checkpoint?

    • spencer harding says:

      I haven’t ridden the trek checkpoint personally, but I think besides the silhouette there isn’t much to compare. The trek is a beefed up road bike, meant to ridden like a road bike and occasionally on gravel and such. The Cutthroat is a parred down mountain bike, the stance is intended to put you in the drops comfortably. I took the Cutthroat confidently down trails I wouldn’t consider on a 35-42mm gravel bike. The Trek seems like a road bike that can be taken on gravel, while the Cutthroat is a mountain bike that is quick on roads and gravel as well. does that make sense?

      • Jack Ommen says:

        Thanks, Spencer! Perhaps my original take was biased seeing as I come from a roadie background. The Cutthroat is an extremely capable bike, IMHO telling people it is quick on road is overselling it a little, but that is all subjective to what bike they are coming from!

        • spencer harding says:

          Im coming from the other end of the spectrum where riding 2.2″ tires are the skinniest tires ive ridden in years, so this bike feels damn fast to me. It may very well be the lightest bike Ive ever spent a significant amount of time on. I try to qualify my opinions as Im kind of an outlier in a lot of my preferences.

    • Teamdarb says:

      You have just described late 90s’ hardtails.

      • Jack Ommen says:

        Right! The geometry harkens back to older bikes but it borrows modern features i.e. 29” wheels, drop bars, lightweight carbon frame, 1x, and dropper routing. I would be very interested to see this bike get more modern trail geometry like a shorter chainstay and a touch slacker heat tube. However, that might kind of defeat the purpose of this bike as a light weight offroad tour bike but it would make it feel a little more lively!

        • spencer harding says:

          I think more trail capable geometry would just be a woodsmoke, which is a conclusion I kind of came to about my time with this bike. I tried to see if for what it was not what I could mold it to be. I had a similar issue with surly’s packrat, all of my critiques would basically added up to a midnight special. In the end I should be a on a woodsmoke or midnight special instead of making the other bike be that bike.

          Now I would love to see what a shorter travel/ lightweight bike would be like with a slacked out geometry. Though Im more curious what a 100-120mm travel full sus bike would be like with a <65 degree head tube angle and all that jazz.

  2. Davey Struthers says:

    I learned a new word!
    Great writing, good read.

  3. Joe says:

    Is it an illusion, or is that chainring juuuuust about to skim the chainstay in #23?

    • Zeb says:

      He says his bike shipped with an abnormally large chain ring, so maybe that’s why?

      • Joe says:

        Right. Still, I’ve not seen another bike like it. Like what if you actually wanted to use a 38, seems just a bit too close for comfort.

        • Zeb says:

          agreed, it could still be an optical illusion too. 36:10 is still a lot of gearing on a bike like this, but yeah the 38 does seem tight!

        • spencer harding says:

          It was tight but even cranking on it I never had an issue with it rubbing. possibly if the BB deteriorated it could be an issue. All that being said I would recommend a smaller chainring anyway.

  4. StaySaneSleepOutside says:

    Nice, Spencer! I completely agree on its amazing capability and desire to go fast. When you pedal, at any output, IT DOES GO FAST. Incredible how little effort it takes. And yes, it rides sooooo smooth. Maybe the best and simplest way to describe it is its everything the El Mar and other do all xc mtn bikes wanted to be. It keeps a lot of that early to mid 2000s hardtail feel, with so much speed, more BB drop, etc.
    Since I spent nearly all my time on the hoods too, I put Niner Low Top swept carbon handlebar and 120mm stem on my Cutthroat and I love it! 30mm longer than I prefer with the Cowchippers seemed perfect to me. Do it! With aerobars, I think a flat bar Cutty is equally fast and even more capable.
    BTW, for drop bar lovers, the carbon Cowchippers are soooooooo good! You can feel they are carbon, the vibration dampening is so apparent.

  5. Davin Dahl says:

    I appreciate you addressing the nuances of the cockpit. Dirt drops seem like something everyone should like, but I always end up feeling I want my hands to be somewhere else, whether wider, more turned, or closer to my body. If I had to choose a single position for my hands, the sweep and width of the Jones Bar or similar clones always feels the most right. And, like you said, braking with brifters feels so dicey compared to mountain bike levers! With one finger braking on hydraulic brakes you can grab your bar and do the other work that needs to be done while slowing yourself down.

    • spencer harding says:

      I jokingly say that they make drops with so many hands positions because they are all too uncomfortable to ride in for too long. That is coming from someone who really wants 900mm+ swept back bars, so a major grain of salt needs to be taken with my opinion.

      • Davin Dahl says:

        Haha! May your dream come true!

      • I have the opposite problem, where shoulder mobility prevents me from being able to ride bars that are on the wider end of the spectrum. I basically swap the bars on every review bike I ride, because I feel like most people will eventually do the same if they buy the bike. If you happen to fit the stock bar on a production bike, you are in the minority.

        • spencer harding says:

          Id have done that, except my change would have been so drastic i would have had to re-house the whole cockpit, hydros and all…

      • Michael says:

        Ha! As someone who recently tried a modern slightly flared “dirt drop” I kinda have to agree with your joke… Just don’t get it. I thought perhaps the more neutral wrist position would improve comfort but it had the opposite result. The only benefit I see to a drop is presenting a smaller wind profile and for the short periods where that is necessary I’d rather use a Jones Loop.

        • spencer harding says:

          I think flared drops are far more comfortable than standard drops, I just cant be comfortable on anything smaller than 48cm at the hoods personally. Since there are few options in that realm im better left to flat bars.

        • John Solomito says:

          Another benefit you don’t hook brush as easily with drops, consequently narrow trails become functionally wider than with flat bars

  6. John Solomito says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful review of the Cuthroat and to Salsa for coming up with the platform. I recommend it highly and frequently to people interested in having a single bike quiver. With the addition of a suspension fork, easily, the most versatile “off the rack” platform available.

  7. Hrvoje says:

    It seems to me that it comes with GX 10-42 cassette, not an NX (which does not use xd driver and comes in 11-42). I do not get how you could use Eagle (12 speed) cassette on this bike due to Force shifters (11 speed).
    I agree about centerlock rotors, I do not get why Salsa does not use 6 bolt CR1600 wheelset (it exist in any combination, with XD or spline driver).
    Great review!

    • John Solomito says:

      Hell yes! Great photo!!!

    • StaySaneSleepOutside says:

      I had Molokos on my Ogre and they are my favorite bar ever. I’ve just struggled with putting heavy steel bars on such a light carbon bike, but I think I’m ready. See my flatbar comment below. Thanks for the motivation, Jeff!

    • spencer harding says:

      hell yeah

  8. Scott Johnson says:

    New (old guy) posting. Thanks to the Radavist community!

    Thank you for this review Spencer (by the photos I see you possess mad skills).

    Regarding SRAM Force brifters – you stated
    “I will forever hate that feeling, on sram shifters”
    Bummer. Hate is a tough one. I hate Shimano upshifts via the bake lever (Oops!! and shit). You (that bike you rode) either have a too tight shift cable bend, or you’re just doing it wrong. I’ve been running SRAM 1×11 drop bar Force (mechanical with TRP Hy/Rd calipers) for three years now and it has been brilliant and flawless.

    Regarding center lock rotors – you stated
    “carrying a external BB cup wrench to fix your rotors that come loose”
    I feel center lock rotors are great. Perfect machining – perfect alignment… they don’t “come loose”. Also, I’ve never known or seen anyone do a rotor service on the road/trail. Possibly fewer than 1% of all disk brake riders perform self supported rotor repair.

    Regarding noisy DT Swiss rear hub – you stated
    “after breaking in a little the action became more audible, nonetheless many orders of magnitude less than a Chris King or I9 hub thankfully”
    I respect your interest in quiet engagement… Me too!! I built a wheelset with Onyx Racing hubs. Onyx Racing hubs are absolutely silent and have transformed my rides… the sprag clutch is brilliant (there, I said brilliant again) total performance and blissful pleasure….

    Thank you for your review Spencer.

    • I think the idiosyncrasy Spencer is describing is when you’re already bottomed out in your easiest gear and you try to go for one more (usually on a steep uphill, right?). On the Force shifter you get an extra click, which almost feels like you’re breaking the shifter, but the derailleur doesn’t move. On Rival, that extra click doesn’t happen, and you end up having to hold the shift paddle until you’re in a safe place to release cable and drop into the next harder gear. I find the Rival “wait for a good spot to drop a gear” situation much more irritating than the Force “did I just break my shifter” feeling.

      With respect to DT hubs, they can stay relatively quiet if you hit them with the occasional dab of special DT freehub grease, which can be done without any tools. The DT star ratchet system is my favourite field-serviceable freehub system; I am slowly putting one on every bike in the house.

    • spencer harding says:

      Yeah what Morgan said!

      its not the feeling of the shifting its the hope that is creates. The shifters worked flawlessly!

  9. great piece, this line had me hooked: While most full squishers are having a mosh-pit on the trail, the Cutthroat slips on some fine leather wing-tips and takes the jazz line.

    That Salsa is a beast too

  10. rickyk76 says:

    Not just one of the best reviews of the Cutthroat I’ve read, but one of the best bike reviews I’ve read. Lots of great technical information while not being too techy. And some great writing at that: “leather wing-tips and takes the jazz line.” Classic! I considered this bike for a long time and loved the test ride I did, but decided I would never be the racer or even the rider this bike was designed for. So, I built up my Crust Evasion to handle the same terrain at a slower pace. Wide drops forever! Great job, Spencer.