The Beta Tests: Salsa Blackthorn Carbon GX
Literally all-mountain. Like, the whole damn thing.
140-millimeter rear travel, 160 front
Carbon front triangle, and seatstays, aluminum chainstays
Boost 157 rear spacing
Stable at speed
Outstanding lateral stiffness
Excellent fit and finish
Unique, legacy brand
Too businesslike for some
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The phrase “mainstream mountain-bike brand” used to be an oxymoron. There aren’t many names still around that have been putting dirt first since the cantilever days, but those that survived have stayed small and edgy. Small and edgy used to be the rule, not the exception. We forget about that when bikes like the Salsa Blackthorn come around. Now that Salsa has a bit of a counter-culture vibe to it, we expected this bike not to fit in with the modern landscape. We expected it to be, you know, weird. Turns out, it is anything but.
The Blackthorn and its longer-travel sibling, the Cassidy, are far from Salsa’s first carbon full-suspension bikes. There have been Horsethieves and Pony Rustlers. There have been Deadwoods, Spearfish and Redpoints. The Blackthorn continues their Split-Pivot suspension platform, stacking 140 millimeters of rear travel and 160 up front. But Salsa took a future-proof approach to the rest of the bike. We have folks on the Beta Tests crew who like tidy cable management, and the Blackthorn checked that box for them. Also, we like threaded bottom brackets: Check. We like 180mm-specific rear brake caliper mounts: Check. We like room for 29×2.6-inch tires: Check. We accept that Super Boost 157 has a place in the industry: Check. And the package that Salsa wrapped all that into is just as modern. You get a roomy 490mm reach on a size large in the flip-chip’s low position (which we also like), as well as a 64.6-degree head tube angle.
We found ourselves making comparisons to the Yeti SB130 LR, which at its launch, set the standard for mid-travel burlyness. But in the tradition of its Super Boost rear dropout spacing, the Blackthorn may be a new standard. Bikes in this travel category often cling to their trail-bike sensitivities like light weight and lateral compliance. The Trance X 29 and even the Evil Offering have more spring in their step and compliance in their bones than the Blackthorn. But in moments when we had to grit our teeth through a bad line, this bike keeps its shape better than nearly any other worth comparing it to. The Devinci Troy is the closest to its ballpark, but it doesn’t give up its travel as readily as the Blackthorn. This bike likes to hug the ground until you’ve got proper features to help you get off of it. It wasn’t tugging on the leash whenever it saw a transition coming. We found something more subdued about the Blackthorn. Something more interested in squaring its shoulders and charging. The stiffness of the frame and the wider, Super Boost rear wheel combine to make a ride as unflappable as heavier more enduro-oriented rigs. Which makes sense, really.
Salsa built both the Blackthorn and the 160/170mm Cassidy off of the same mainframe. All that separates them is the fork travel, shock stroke and a frame link. On a trail bike like the Blackthorn, that from the beginning was meant to be able to stand in for an enduro bike like the Cassidy, it will naturally be ready for some outsized abuse. It’s why we came back to how well this bike fits the classic definition of “all-mountain.” It is not a lumbering one-trick enduro bike, but it’s way burlier than a trail bike. Mystery solved. All-mountain.
Having just now been christened an all-mountain bike, the Blackthorn’s got to climb. And it does, but not in a way that got us back at the roundtable sharing anecdotes about sprinting and hoverbiking. On the long, unrelenting climb that started our mid-travel test loop, we each found ourselves reaching down for the DPX2 shock’s lockout lever. The Split Pivot suspension design, in itself, has no specific magic for making climbing more supportive under load or more supple over bumps. If we wanted to put the power down and to do it for a while, the little blue lever was the right way to get it done.
And it’s a comfortable package while you’re doing it. The 76.5-degree seat tube angle is just as forward-thinking as the rest of the choices made in frame design, though that modular frame concept means the longer-travel Cassidy has a slacker seat tube angle than the Blackthorn even though, in a perfect world, it should technically be the other way around.
But we kept coming back to the Blackthorn’s potential for adventure. Not just because adventure is what you do on a Salsa. But because it’s built into this bike. The steady, confident descending, the burly, reliable frame and the long-haul-ready climbing are made for big days. Even Salsa’s clever gear strap gives the Blackthorn a little backcountry cachet. That cachet doesn’t come cheap, as we found the Blackthorn has a hard time stacking up dollar for dollar against other bikes in its category. But that’s nothing new for small brands. It’s why so many stick to steel single speeds. It’s rare that you see a core company with the sort of vision Salsa has, make a bike this modern and this shred-friendly. It fits in with today’s bikes where we wanted it to, but where we want it to stand out, it stands out.
The $3,300 Blackthorn Deore is another bike that takes advantage of Shimano’s recently updated fourth-tier 12-speed group. And this is Deore from stern to bow. No KMC chain, no Shimano 400-series brakes. Look at the spec list—they stuck to it. Most important on the drivetrain, where the chain, chainring and cassette work together even more deliberately than an all-SRAM drivetrain, the commitment to full Shimano benefits both shift quality and durability. The brakes, also recently updated Deore, still use a 180-millimeter rear rotor and 200-millimeter front. The RockShox 35 fork is just about the least they could do at this travel, and doesn’t offer the support and complex damping we’ve gotten spoiled by, but the stiffness and durability are there. The RockShox Super Deluxe Select+ needs no upgrading. You wouldn’t have seen external compression damping adjustment at this price point, but it’s a welcomed feature to see the lockout. The TranzX droppers have proven to be a little slow, but also plenty reliable. And Salsa specs a 150mm on a medium, 170 on a large and rare, especially at this price point, 200 on the XL.
Find the Blackthorn at salsabikes.com/blackthorn.carbon.gx.eagle
Photos: Anthony Smith