The Story of Warbird


The Story of Warbird: Introducing Warbird V4, written by Mike 'Kid' Riemer


In 2008, I took part in the second edition of the Almanzo 100, finishing onboard a Salsa Casseroll Singlespeed in 38th place with a time of 8 hours and 12 minutes. I’d ridden paved centuries before, and I’d ridden gravel roads before, but I’d never ridden a gravel century…or participated in a gravel event before. There just weren’t many gravel events yet.

But that day, as I recall it now, brought with it all the things that gravel events have since become known for; beauty, challenge, comradery, and newfound adventure.

To be clear, there were cyclists that were truly competing as well. Not for a cash purse or national fame, but for the rewards that come from thrashing one’s self completely in a self-motivated attempt to be fastest on the day.

What others remember from those early years may differ, but the bottom line is that folks liked what they experienced. Gravel events began to grow, and that growth continues to this day. Gravel has become a thing, and to my eyes, that’s a good thing.

Event promoters like Mark Stevenson of Trans Iowa, Chris Skogen of Almanzo, Jim Cummins and Joel Dyke of UNBOUND Gravel, and Jeremy Kershaw of Heck of the North were creating labors of love that welcomed and challenged cyclists to try something new. They saw a rich abundance of gravel, two-track, and forest roads. They saw a wealth of amazing places that they wanted to share. They saw an opportunity to create something beautiful.

There were a whole bunch of folks from the Salsa Crew that were drawn into the early gravel scene, and some, like Salsa Product Manager Joe Meiser and Product Engineer Sean Mailen were frighteningly fast, winning events like Trans Iowa and the Royale 162.

“In those days, we were mainly riding cyclocross bikes,” said Mailen, “or whatever road bike you had that could fit slightly bigger tires. You’d get to the finish and look down at the 10 extra pounds of mud you’d carried along the route. And you’d feel how numb your hands were from the constant rattle that worked its way into the back of your eyeballs.”

For the Salsa Crew, the personal experiences at gravel events slowly piled up and after each weekend, you would hear chatter about their races, what worked and what didn’t. I still distinctly remember Mailen saying “I think we can make a better bike for these experiences.”

“I had a list of things that I wanted to explore,” said Mailen. “And eventually I took the time to do so.”

Little did we know that the result would not only dramatically affect gravel riding, racing and the Salsa brand, but also, the entire cycling industry.

The first-generation Warbird was the result of that early thinking about just what gravel racing entailed. Gravel racing and cyclocross are wildly different beasts, and anyone that is telling the truth will admit that one bike cannot be built to do both of those tasks best. Our initial aluminum-only Warbird model proved the benefits of our first take on gravel-specific geometry (long and low for increased stability on rough roads and fast descents), increased mud clearance, and disc brakes. It also pointed out the opportunity for continued improvement, especially related to increased rider comfort.

“At the 2009 Trans Iowa, I rode a one-off titanium frame we had made to test geometry,” said Meiser. “It had a lower bottom bracket and better tire clearance, but what really shined was the compliance it delivered. I won the race, but perhaps more importantly, I could stand up after completing the 300-plus miles of Iowa gravel and B-roads. That compliance made a real difference and resulted in the Warbird Ti, which we consider to be the Warbird v2.”

It’s important to realize that throughout these years, our knowledge and capabilities within Salsa were also improving. Mailen’s next mission was to bring that same comfort, or better, to Warbird v3, which would be designed and offered in both Carbon and Aluminum models.

At his desk, Mailen designed the Class 5 Vibration Reduction System rear end (Class 5 VRS), that is now used on our Warbird and Cutthroat models. The design looked promising onscreen, but needed to be proven out in the field. To do this, Mailen used mounted accelerometers to benchmark prototypes against the quite comfortable and proven Warbird Ti v2.

“I had a list of things that I wanted to explore,” said Mailen. “And eventually I took the time to do so.”

“The testing I did wound up showing dramatic improvements from the Class 5 VRS rear end,” said Mailen. “The Warbird Carbon frame was showing 9% more compliance than Ti, and even the Warbird Aluminum frame was showing 6% more compliance than Ti. That is pretty incredible when you consider the costs of a good Titanium frame.”

Other improvements to Warbird v3 included further refining our gravel geometry and increasing mud clearance and tire fit, but the real gem was Class 5 VRS.

“As a marketing guy, it always makes me a bit nervous naming a technology that is invisible to the naked eye, because I think some people then immediately tend to discount it as BS. But the beauty of Class 5 VRS is that it is something very real and it results in an incredibly comfortable back end. Thankfully, it only takes a short ride to notice the comfort.”

And that, in this much abbreviated history of the Warbird, bring us to today, and the introduction of Warbird v4.

Salsa Product Engineer Pete Hall was given the honor of taking on the development of Warbird v4.

Hall’s first thought upon receiving the project was, “Oh crap!” he said. “There was excitement mixed with nervousness because the Warbird really is the gravel nameplate.”

Hall immediately met with Mailen, who was charged with other currently top-secret projects. “We talked, and I asked him what did he like? What would he do differently? And of course, we already had a short list of ideas for improvement that we would try to implement.”

Among the list of items on that short list that have been accomplished with Warbird v4 are:

Dual Wheel Size Compatibility – 700c x 45mm OR 650b x 2.1”

Increased Size Range – 7 sizes total, including a new 49mm frame size to fit smaller riders

Improved Power Transfer – updated chainstays, bottom bracket, and downtube designs transfer rider power more efficiently

Improved Standover Height – lower toptube for improved fit

Increased Water Bottle Capacity – 3 bottles inside main triangle for sizes 56cm and up (2 for smaller sizes), 1 accessory mount under downtube, Three-Pack mounts on fork legs for two additional bottles

Integrated Toptube Bag Bosses – for use with Salsa EXP Series Toptube Bag; offers secure connection and elimination of strap wear

Refined Drivetrain Compatibility – 1x, 2x and all current electronic offerings

Rear Rack Compatible – using Salsa Rack-Lock seat collar and Wanderlust Rear Rack

Sleeved Internal Cable Routing – internal tubes guide housing through the frame

Internal Dropper Routing – when running a 1x drivetrain

Fender Mounts – because wet weather training rides don’t have to be miserable

And perhaps most importantly…

New Gravel Race Geometry – we’ve created even greater stability with longer toptubes on most sizes increased front/center combined with 10mm shorter stems

Change can be scary, but folks need to remember that this wasn’t designed without check and plenty of ride testing.

Considering that the previous Warbird v3 was held in such high regard, this geometry change is perhaps the most challenging thing for people to understand. Dealers learning of the change expressed concerns…until they rode the Warbird v4 at our SaddleDrive dealer event.

Art Doyle, owner of Art Doyle’s Spokes and Pedals in Hudson, Wis., was extremely nervous when learning of the change as he personally loved the Warbird v3 and had many customers that did as well.

“It was exciting to see dealer reactions,” said Hall. “They were coming in apprehensive about the changes to a bike they knew and loved, but they all came back psyched and excited. When Art came back to the booth after testing both our 700c and 650b builds, he walked up to me and asked me if he could give me a hug!”

Change can be scary, but folks need to remember that this wasn’t designed without check and plenty of ride testing.

“That first ride proto came in and it was new bike day,” said Hall. “I built it up and went looking for the bumpiest stuff I find. So, I rode the railroad tracks home.”

“What I hope consumers experience from the Warbird v4 is the same experience,” said Hall. “I hope they get out and challenge themselves. We improved the geometry and feature set. We made this for people to get out and push themselves. I hope they push that much further.”

“We kept everything that was great about it, but made it better,” added Mailen. “More mounts. Improved geometry. Increased tire clearance and wheel size fit. I can’t think of anything we missed. Now I think we need to let the people get out on them!”

“I believe consumers are going to find noticeable improvements in the new Warbird,” said Meiser. “Not one improvement more important than the others, but rather it is the whole package…the sum of its improvements. It is still the Warbird that folks know and love.”

Looking back the decade-plus that makes up this story brings with it a lot of fond memories, laughs, and smiles.

“The first couple years of gravel racing, I was surprised by the growth because it was typically early spring, often in horrible conditions,” said Mailen. “But I think it speaks volumes about the people that show up to challenge themselves at these events to see what they are capable of.”

“I think we came out with the original Warbird at the right time, and in the right place,” added Mailen. “We had so much gravel experience at that point and it just sort of put us in the right position.”

“We didn’t go after it because there might be a market,” said Meiser. “We got into it because it is what we were doing. Personally, gravel events gave me an opportunity to ride longer distances, instead of driving a long way to an event just to race for two hours.”

“When I first went down to Trans Iowa, I said thank you to Mark Stephenson (aka Guitar Ted),” said Meiser. “Nick Legan exposed me to it, and Trans Iowa gave me the confidence to take on the Tour Divide. Trans Iowa is really what kickstarted me as an ultra-endurance athlete.”

Meiser continued, “I think Chris Skogen’s message that gravel was for all people was really important. Without that, I’m not sure what the scene would have become. I think the message was embraced, and really affected the way promoters put on their events, and I’m thankful for that.”

“Whether you are racing, or just out riding it, gravel makes road riding fun again,” said Hall. “It gets me away from cars and distracted drivers. The roads are beautiful, and you see more things. The surface is uneven, so you have to pay more attention and remain present.”

We’re pleased to introduce five model levels of Warbird v4. All share the same carbon frame and utilize either the Waxwing Deluxe or Waxwing fork, both of which share the same features.

“We kept everything that was great about it, but made it better”

We’re incredibly proud of the Warbird. To those who own or have owned them, thank you for helping us make a mark in gravel history.