Salsa Journeyman: Building A Year-Round Do-Anything Commuter

tl;dr

With a focus on light weight, road bikes are not durable enough for all-weather abuse over crumbling infrastructure, and mountain bikes are too cumbersome to travel long distances efficiently. A properly specced gravel bike makes for the perfect machine.

The Reason

My old commute was 6 miles on urban bike paths which was fine for my mid-90s mountain bike with panniers and a mustache handlebar but my new commute is ~30 miles each way, crossing through 8 towns. I did give the mountain bike a try but it was much too slow and cumbersome with its 42mm armadillo tires and didn’t track very well with the 26″ wheels. I also tried my steel road bike and over the course of a year I encountered multiple flat tires, and finally a broken rear wheel. I found myself in the position of Goldilocks the commuter–I had too much and too little, I needed “just right”. I needed something that was fast and efficient, but tough enough to survive potholes, rain and other abuse with me as its backpack-wearing rider.

The Build

The gravel bike category recently appeared on the scene and provided a perfect platform for this build. Presuming that all big-box factory builds are of equal quality these days it was really a matter of aesthetics. I decided that I wanted a white Salsa Journeyman. I knew this was not going to be a race-lite bike so the white color would psychologically make the bike feel lighter. The clean paint job also meant it would match with any kit that I wore. Because these things matter.

The Salsa only came fully built with bottom-of-the-barrel mountain bike parts so I had to buy the bike, strip it (and eBay the parts) and build it back up from scratch. Here are the parts that matter:

  • SRAM Force 1x with an 11-42 cassette and 46t front chainring
    Mechanically simple for easy cleaning while retaining enough range to scale river valley hills and roll fast on the flats.
  • SKS P45 Longboard Fenders
    After buying, and subsequently breaking literally every clip-on fender on the market it was amazing to get a fully bolted-on set with full coverage. They keep the drivetrain and bottom bracket clean(ish) and prevent the skunk stripe on your back which isn’t just uncomfortable–it’s liquid sandpaper that wears out your clothes. They take on this cool root beer brown color in the sun.
  • Chris King Bottom Bracket
    Speaking of bottom brackets, it only took me ONE winter to grind the SRAM one into the ground. Meanwhile, I’ve got Chris Kings on my other two bikes which get a shot of grease every year. They have been running smoothly for 15 years and 10 years respectively. This bike got a Chris King bottom bracket.
  • Continental Gatorskin Duraskin tires, 700×32
    Since I commute by road/greenway the stock knobby tires were of no use. These slicks provide great protection from debris and potholes while rolling really fast.
  • Zipp 30 Course disc clincher with QR
    These wheels were the splurge of the project. They were almost a grand and they are heavy with aluminum rims but you know what? They’re many times less likely to crack when I hit something unseen in the darkness of winter than carbon. I know that white decals are going out of style but I’m still a fan. At almost any speed these wheels look like they are spinning fast.
  • TRP Spyre disc calipers
    I’m all for ease of service so I went with mechanical discs instead of hydraulic. These dual-caliper brakes give me better stopping power descending the Hudson river valley hills in the rain than my rim brakes do when dry. I’m sure hydraulic is great. If you have them, enjoy. Using a 3mm wrench I can make minor adjustments to the pads in a matter of seconds.
  • King Cage Bottle Cages
    Because if you’re going to bring bottles in the first place, they should stay on your bike. High quality, American made, beautiful.
  • White Accessories
    Since I have the white frame it was clear that I also needed a white saddle and white Zipp grip tape. Phil Gaimon himself had noted that while new grip tape is worth 50 watts of extra power, new white grip tape is worth 70. Notice the trend of psychological enhancements?
  • SLAMMED STEM
    I’m usually the one poking fun of slammed stem riders but this bike was seemingly set up to have your flared handlebars line up with your chin when riding. I got the fork cut down and a flat stem installed to get me closer to my normal road fit so I could get at least some aerodynamics on my ride.

Ride Notes

At the time of this writing, I’m about 2,000 miles in and have been through all of the major seasons at least once. My confidence level is exactly where I hoped it would be–I’m no longer obsessing over holes in the road and trying to bunny hop anything that might give me a pinch flat, I’m plowing through root-invested bike paths like they were flat, and I’m braking in the rain and snow with no concerns whatsoever. There are lots of little things like the tires, the fenders, the 1x shifters and disc brakes that lighten the cognitive load and let me live more in the moment. Now it’s less about constantly adjusting for the environment and more about enjoying it.

In short, this bike has met or exceeded every expectation I had for it. Would I like for it to be about 4lbs lighter? Yeah, but doing that would have completely blown up my budget and even though I feel more burn on the inclines, I make the same time on this bike than I did on my road bike.

I’ll close with some random thoughts from my commutes:

  • THIS BISH EATS UP PAVEMENT IRREGULARITIES LIKE A TURKEY CARVER. The 32mm tires are amazing! They roll fine—very little lost to extra resistance at 80psi but they absolutely suck up road irregularities. The Aluminum frame is beefy and stiff which is good for climbs and acceleration but the tires remove any and all harshness as well as eliminate the fatigue that you’d feel at the end of a ride of being beaten up
  • SRAM 1x is great! Easier than fighting with chainrings over the big hills on the commute. The big shift button is SOLID and even though the concept of DoubleClick leaves a lot of room for skepticism it is super reliable to use and the UX is really, really clear.
  • Using 1x to crest hills is click-click-click vs grind, scrape, clunk
  • That disc brakes are great goes without saying. But they’re really, really great. You brake later and harder in dry conditions and brake with supreme confidence in the wet.
  • The frame is larger for off-road tires means that even with fenders I don’t bump my toes on the front wheel. Track stands are now possible again!
  • The higher bottom bracket seems to make for a good pivot when floating over rough pavement.
  • Once you get the bike spun up and let off on the pedals it coasts sooooo smoothly and for so long. It feels like being a kid again.

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