Salsa El Mariachi

View of the 2015 Salsa El Mariachi from the front left

The good folks at Bike Magazine included the 2013 Salsa El Mariachi in their annual Bible of Bike Tests. Check it out:

There isn’t a ton more to add. The El Mariachi is not a particular kind of a bike. It’s just a bike. Without razzle dazzle. Without wow. It climbs and descends well. Switchbacks are easily navigated. Small drops and trail features are not a problem. I suspect it’s smile inducing for gravity folks and roadies alike.

A lot has changed in the 6 years since this review and in the 4 years since my model year. It’s no longer available. The 2015 El Mariachi is stuck in a generation of bikes that the industry wasn’t sure how best to apply emerging technology to. Examples? The rear dropout upgrade was to 142x12mm when the goal of what that standard was trying to achieve was ultimately satisfied by Boost 148. The fork was a standard 100mm QR with max travel of 100mm. No dropper post or routing for one; not to mention the 27.2 seat post diameter. In the, then, growing era of tunable carbon wonder bikes, the El Mar arrived on scene with skinny, steel tubes. The now popular lower, longer, slacker mantra wasn’t a design consideration. The original OEM spec was boring, on paper at least, though, as a whole, it behaved with a lively spirit.

The Build

4 years later, all of the boring is gone; there are no OEM parts left on the bike; nor should there be. Like I described in a different post, my El Mariachi is an XC bike in trail bike clothes; a very different kind of beast than the OEM version. Half the fun of cycling is upgrading, fitting, and customizing the parts when budget allows.

I’m currently rolling on Race Face ARC 30 Offset rims laced to XT Boost 110mm hubs up front and XT 142x12mm out back. Tires are tubeless Maxxis Minion DHFs and Aggressors. Short stem. Wide bars. Lock-on grips. King headset. Shimano XT/SLX 1x drivetrain. The fork is a Rock Shox Reba RL. I built it up for durability and ease of maintenance. Weight wasn’t a factor. My attitude on weight is that if I need to lighten something, I should just get stronger. Stronger legs. Stronger lungs. Stronger whatever. Just, stronger.

There is a strange phenomenon that happens to some who ride the mountain. They fit the largest tire possible between the fork and stays. I fell victim to this invisible force. Always have. Salsa’s spec sheet says the bike can accommodate 2.4 inch tires. That’s a stretch. Yes, they can fit, but it’s hardly a practical decision. The 2.3 inch widths of my current tire combination on 30mm internal diameter rims are perfect.

As for the cockpit, the stem shrunk to 50mm and the bars stretched to a 800mm with 35mm clamp diameter.

The Ride

The Salsa El Mariachi rolls on steady footing and is capable; very capable. Wide rims prevent tire squirm and the low pressures afforded by tubeless make for a grippy, confidence inspiring combination. The bike can lean and lean hard before losing the the edge. What of the Reba? Yup, I wish the frame was able to handle a larger fork. I suspect this thinking is true for most. The max axle to crown length is 506mm and that puts most forks at 100mm to get close without exceeding the limit. It is the right size fork for this bike. Not because Salsa will void the warranty should disaster strike if using a taller fork, though that alone is compelling enough, but because it works in tandem with the bikes geometry and intended use. The bike rides like it has more suspension than its 100mm limit.

This can only be explained by the magic Salsa engineers and product managers put into the bike when developing it. I run the fork at 95psi; much lower pressure than recommended for my weight. It keeps the fork active over trail chatter. Using one bottomless token allows it to ramp up nicely and provides a soft cushion to bottom out on if and when required; usually every ride.

The geometry of the tubes provides for snappy handling and quick responses to rider input. Let’s not forget the frame is steel and does what it’s known for. It flexes. It loads up. It slingshots you. But it’s not a noodle. It holds a line well. Obstacles don’t force redirection and the bike dares you to attack. There are times when the trail gets technical. Things get slow. Balance and control are critical in these moments. The frame allows you to make the requisite adjustments and welcomes the input. Acceleration, deceleration, weight shifts, and wheel lifts are handled with little effort.

While the 2.3 inch tire widths don’t require an 800mm bar to manage steering, the handlebars provide a solid platform and tons of leverage to manipulate the bike in any direction at any time. Where the handling and control of the bike really shine is in slow technical ascents navigating rock crops, roots, and off-camber sections.

Conclusion

As mentioned previously, there isn’t much more to add that wasn’t covered by the 2013 review. The recurring theme of the 2015 Salsa El Mariachi is balance and control. I don’t believe that attribution to be marketing hype or industry buzz; it’s a fair and accurate characterization of the bike. If in the market for a new bike, consider buying a used El Mariachi. You will be so very glad you did.

salsacycles.com