We weren’t predisposed to liking the Pony Rustler. At worst, we didn't want to like it, and at best we were discreetly curious about the plus-size full-suspension rig. Would it ride with the sluggishness of a fatbike? Would our friends make fun of us? These were very real concerns, but the Pony's performance immediately eclipsed our apprehension.
Charging down chunky terrain, the Pony Rustler demonstrated it was capable of wrangling the wildest of horses, rolling over roots of every shape and orientation with impunity. We found ourselves going faster and looking farther down the trail than usual, not having to pay any attention to what we were running over. All the rider was responsible for was setting up for the next corner, through which the plus-size rubber would grip and fold controllably with pressures in the mid-teens.
Climbing was a similar experience. The Pony Rustler kept its composure when scaling technical pitches, striking a balance between rollover, traction and maneuverability. But between the big tires and the 120 millimeters of Split Pivot rear suspension, 'open' mode wasn't the most efficient climbing option. Locking out the rear shock and letting the tire do the work made the bike very efficient, and we were able to stay seated on technical sections that testers on 'normal' bikes were having to stand up to negotiate.The stock 3-inch WTB Bridger tires are on the heavy end of the nascent plus-size market, but we didn't suffer any flats, and it's possible that the thicker casings made the tires fold in a more manageable way. As a whole, the parts strapped to this Pony Rustler represent a solid value, including a RockShox Pike fork and Reverb dropper post, a SRAM X01 and GX drivetrain as well as a Thomson stem and carbon Salsa handlebar.
This is a big-picture bike. Aboard it, you'll find yourself watching the brown ribbon in front of you twist and turn with less attention paid to the trail's fine details. A rider who isn't concerned with playfulness or jumping or smashing into berms, but lives where the trails are rough and the conditions often inclement would be well-advised to put a bounty out on a Pony Rustler of their own.
Q&A with Salsa Cycles’ Pete Koski, Kid Riemer and Joe Meiser
Before we even received our test rigs, we had questions about the new bikes—some of the same questions that you might be asking yourself when you start poking around at a new bike. Here's the feedback we received from the posse at Salsa Cycles—Mike Riemer, Pete Koski and Joe Meiser.
—Vernon Felton, Bible of Bike Tests Moderator
VERNON FELTON: When you guys were designing this bike, who was the ideal rider you had in mind for it?
PETE KOSKI (Product Design Engineer): Riders already familiar with the benefits of low-pressure, high-volume tires, who are looking for a little more snappy, nimble, traditional "suspension mountain bike-like" feel and experience on the trail.
There are plenty of fatbike folks out in the world now that know the benefits that come from 'larger' rubber. While we don't consider plus-tire-size bikes to be fatbikes, we obviously think there is merit in the more rubber on the ground approach.
MIKE RIEMER (Marketing Manager): And we aren't oblivious to the fact that there are fatbike haters too. That's absolutely fine but those folks should give plus-size bikes a looksee. They bring benefits that they just might enjoy.
Of course…more rubber also brings penalties, but individual riders need to decide what matters to them and what they want in a bike. We work to provide solid options.
JOE MEISER (Product Manager): More traction, confidence and control in all terrain than a 2.2-2.4-inch mountain bike tire, but not a fatbike. The bike excels especially in "chunky" terrain, where there are tons of rocks and roots in existence. I rode The Whole Enchilada this summer on the Pony Rustler and was fully blown away at the traction and ability to pick a line, any line, and have confidence while still having a "shorter" travel bike that was super efficient.
VF: Are there conditions in which you feel this bike really excels and, if so, what specific design attributes of the bike make that so?
PK: This bike excels in cornering conditions: all shapes, sizes and states. Flat, bermed, rutted, blown out, bumped out, tacky, marbles over hard….27.5-plus makes every corner a berm.
JM: Cornering absolutely, but also steep climbs, chunky trail, and rocky and/or root-filled descents. "I really wish I had less traction", said no mountain biker ever. Plus-size tires give more traction in all situations.
VF: There are a growing number of plus-size bikes out there. What sets this model apart from other plus-size models that consumers might be looking at now?
PK: The PonyRustler is a true "plus" frame, capable of full 3-inch-wide tires on 40~50mm rims at 29er diameters. Our friends over at Surly set the bar at 3-inch for "plus" with the 29-plus Krampus and 26-plus Instigator, and we agree that the volume, operating pressure and traction characteristics at this width really have a defined and unique characteristic. Some of the 27.5 x 2.6 to 2.8-inch stuff being labeled as plus doesn't have this feel, and is frankly, just a large 27.5-standard tire that should/can be run in standard 27.5 equipment.
JM: The Pony Rustler is a fully capable trail bike at 120-millimeters of travel. The confidence of the larger tire platform matched with the performance of the 120/130mm suspension is an awesome balance for a trail bike capable of handling nearly any trail. To me it really is the sweet spot of travel and traction.
VF: Are there any aspects of the frame design that you guys are particularly proud of? If so, what are they and why?
JM: Split Pivot for sure; awesome pedaling and bump absorption characteristics, but also the geometry, handling and attention to detail in the frame. The bike has the shortest stays possible with 2x drivetrains, and handling characteristics that are confident on long rides and most terrain. We have great manufacturing relationships that produce high quality product that performs well and we stand behind.
VF: Component spec is always a tricky thing to nail. I think that's particularly true right now for plus-size bikes, since rim weight, tire weight and tread patterns are kind of all over the map at present. What were you guys aiming for with the spec on this bike and how did you achieve it?
PK: We were dead set on having full 3-inch-wide tires.
JM: We wanted riders to have a full 3-inch tire to really maximize the performance of the platform. The 3-inch tire highlights the traction, cornering, and confidence of the plus size. Rim spec was chosen to balance weight, stiffness and use of the rim. There are single-wall rims out there that are lighter but they aren't as stiff or easy to use with tubeless ready tires. We considered weight with spec, but want the bike to be a trail bike and so we have a tire that is trail capable both in traction and durability while some are specifying lightweight casings and single wall rims that don't stand up to trail use where rocks are present. As I said earlier, I was able to ride The Whole Enchilada on this platform this summer and was fully blown away by its capabilities, including the durability of the rims and tires.
VF: Are there any details/features on this bike that you think are particularly critical to its performance that might be easily overlooked by consumers at first glance?
PK: How effective Split Pivot suspension is. It's not "just a single pivot,” it's as effective as the other big name systems, and has superior braking performance.
MR: That the bike itself isn't a gimmick. The Pony Rustler is a properly designed trail bike with big rubber. I still feel that the mountain bike world wound up with 2.0 to 2.25-inch tires sort of by chance…not necessarily because they’re the best. It is just how things developed, and until recent years, that standard has not really been challenged. To me, it seems like the mountain bike is evolving and what could be more exciting than that?
VF: If someone is looking at the Pony Rustler, they are probably also checking our Salsa's Horsethief. What kind of terrain/rider is better served with the Pony Rustler?
PK: They can function in the exact same terrain and places. Pony Rustler will offer more cornering traction and stability in all conditions and will go little further as an established trail surface dissipates due to the wider footprint and more float for softer surfaces. The 27.5-inch rim diameter and spoke length also offer up a stiffer wheel, making it a great option or riders who are looking for 29er-like roll over without the sometimes-perceived-as-noodly 29er wheel feel (especially true for big riders and/or aggressive riders).
MR: What Pete just said aboiut plus freedom of choice. Two riders, even with similar riding styles, riding the same trail or terrain, might still make different bike choices. I always quote Dave Weagle (and I'm paraphrasing here): You can't make one bike that will make every rider happy.
So part of this is about choice, and helping riders find the solution that pleases them and their needs the most.
VF: Riders can swap wheel sizes back and forth on this bike (going from 27.5+ to traditional 29er and, in doing so, making the Pony Rustler into a Horsethief). In a sense (since the outer diameter of a 27.5+ wheel and tire combo is basically equivalent to a 29×2.3 combo) both versions are 29er—the Pony Rustler version is just squishier. Which do you personally ride and why?
PK: I'd describe the Pony Rustler as grippier, not squishier. I toggle between both modes quite a bit. The 27.5-plus overall is a little more fun from a handling standpoint because you can push it so much harder in the corners and into/over rough areas due to the increased traction and stiffer wheel than a standard 29er setup. It feels faster because I'm using my brakes less into corners and it feels like hero dirt conditions every ride. I prefer to use 29er wheels if conditions are perfectly tacky, the planned ride is high tempo, or there is overall a lot of smooth, non-technical climbing. The 29er setup is a little lighter and more efficient, so for a 100-mile singletrack race, I ride 29er but for general day-to-day trail riding I end up back on 27.5-plus setup for the pure joy of throwing myself with reckless (AKA wreck-less) abandon into every corner I can until I am exhausted.
MR: I had a Horsethief and enjoyed it greatly, but passed it on to another member of the Salsa Crew. I've got a Bucksaw now, but have had the opportunity to spend time on a Pony Rustler as well. I probably shouldn't be surprised, but I kind of still am surprised, at how different each of them is. I'm glad they are that different because that's part of what we try to do: create valid options for riders that don't fall in line with what everyone else does. But if I want to simplify my personal wishes for a mountain bike they are twofold: Stability and Traction. Bucksaw does those two things better than Pony Rustler…but Pony Rustler is far more nimble than Bucksaw, and also provides those two agenda items better than a Horsethief.
At Eurobike this year, while I sat eating my currywurst lunch, I listened to someone from a different bicycle brand talk about how plus-size bikes and fatbikes are just for unskilled riders. All I could think of was 'Wow. You really don't get it.'
JM: The Horsethief has been my suspension bike of choice since we launched it in 2014. I had two wheel sets; one trail wheel set built with wider rims and Maxxis Minion 2.4-inch trail tires, and another set with carbon rims and Schwalbe Racing Ralph 2.2-inch tires. For most rides I was on the trail wheel set and I pulled the dropper and swapped in the Racing Ralph for 100-mile races.
Now I ride the Pony Rustler and still have my two wheel sets. Except now my trail wheel set is 50-millimeter-wide rims and 3-inch tires. I have been absolutely blown away by the performance of the larger tire platform and stiffer wheels riding in places like Moab, Park City, and Grand Junction/Fruita.
I can't imagine a mountain biker saying "I really wish I had less traction, cornering performance, and confidence.” This is exactly what the Pony Rustler provides while still being flexible enough to swap a wheel set and run a lighter setup where weight is more important that traction and cornering. It isn't going to be for everyone, but I do think most riders could benefit from it.