Go Far and Go Anywhere on the Fargo
My plans last summer were to bicycle the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) from Bannack, Montana, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. While I did manage to ride from Bannack to Steamboat, a fair amount of the trip ended up taking place on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail instead, a result of last year’s monster snowpack in the western Wyoming mountains. In other words, it was a hybrid ride composed partly of dirt/gravel and partly of pavement. As it turned out, it was an ideal route for testing out the bicycle I was aboard.
The bike was a Salsa Fargo 29er, lent to me by the company for the summer. Salsa describes it like this: “The Fargo is our drop-bar, off-road adventure bike. First introduced in 2008, the Fargo has developed a cult status as a bicycling anomaly: a disc brake only, drop bar mountain bike designed for off-road touring and bikepacking. Drop bars provide multiple hand positions for long rides on singletrack, gravel, and pavement … or possibly, a mix of all three.”
Scanning the company’s blog, I also found these words from Salsa employee Joe, who was looking back to the 2008 inspiration for the Fargo: “We used the phrase, ‘If you were going to tour or race the GDMBR, this would be the bike to do it on’ to inform our ideas and decisions. We were captured by wanderlust.”
The bike they wound up designing features a relatively long wheelbase, and plenty of braze-ons for attaching racks and fenders (although I had neither) and water-bottle cages (these I did have). The bottom bracket sits higher than a typical touring bike’s, but lower than that of an all-out mountain bike. This compromise creates a stability with agility that is one of the bike’s standout features.
As far as riding the Fargo goes, I found it to be terrific on the dirt and gravel roads of the GDMBR, although in a few cases I could have used one or two lower gears, as I was pulling a fairly heavy BOB trailer. (I reviewed that trailer here on Bike Overnights a few weeks ago.) If I’d gone with lighter panniers or with frame packs, that probably wouldn't have been a problem.
The bike came equipped with relatively aggressive WTB 2.1-inch-wide Nano 29er tires, described thusly by WTB: “The elevated centerline tread rolls quickly on asphalt and hardpack, while the numerous working edges track predictably in ‘dust over crust’ conditions.” However I found the bike, equipped with those tires, to be quite slow on paved sections. Loaded tourists in Yellowstone riding skinnier tires passed me way too easily (I'm not THAT slow). If I did a similar hybrid trip involving long paved stretches again I'd probably go with a skinnier tire -- as long as I didn’t anticipate the addition of any super-rough roads or trails. The smooth but fat Continental Comfort Contact 700 x 54 has been suggested by one rider as a choice that would make the Fargo roll much more easily and quietly on paved surfaces.
I opted to have the Rockshox front fork installed on the steel frame I would be riding. In the past this would not have been a choice, but the frame is now suspension-corrected to allow either a rigid 29er fork or suspension fork with 80mm of travel. I haven’t test ridden an unsuspended Fargo, but I can’t imagine that it would be very comfortable on some of the rough stuff I pedaled on last summer -- even with the big fat tires and vibration-dampening Cane Creek Thudbuster ST seatpost it came outfitted with.
Back home, I really enjoyed riding the Fargo unloaded around the mountain valley where I live. Its fat tires and other terrain-softening features really smooth out the gravel roads -- in essence, with its drop bars, extending the “road-riding” possibilities from pavement to gravel. I love riding where there aren't many cars, and around here anyway, that means gravel roads!
My recommendation: If you’ll do most of your touring on pavement with a little gravel thrown in here and there, the Fargo would probably be overkill (although I could be wrong -- consider the mention above about installing less aggressive tires). But if it’s more like 50-50 pavement and dirt/gravel (or 100 percent dirt/gravel!), this could be just the bike for you.
Salsa has a garnered a reputation for building bikes that other companies can’t, or won’t, with models like the Fargo and the Mukluk fatbike/snowbike. Yet it seems that others may be following suit: The high-end Oregon-based custom builder Co-Motion is now offering a bike quite similar to the Fargo, in its aptly named Divide -- a drop-bar 29er with touring geometry. (Interestingly, the Divide has grabbed substantially more thumbs-up ‘likes’ on the Co-Motion Facebook page than any of the company’s other singles or tandems.)
Note: I was leaning toward ordering a medium-frame Fargo (I’m 5’ 9” with a 32-inch inseam), but the guys at Salsa talked me into a going for a small. Good call! The Fargo is available in both Salsa’s custom Kung-Fu triple butted CroMoly tubing (priced at around $1,750 in 2012 for the complete bike) and in a substantially more expensive titanium model. And remember, while bicycles like these may be the cat's meow, any bike's a touring bike!