Gravel might be big business in the bike world these days but it was only in the 2013 model year that the Salsa Warbird was launched as arguably the first purpose-built gravel bike on the scene.
The first Warbirds had frames made from aluminium and titanium and were built with long and low geometries – the 56cm model had a stack of 601.4mm, a reach of 381.1mm, and a 103.1cm wheelbase – designed to provide stability over rough surfaces and on fast descents.
Other key features were clearance for tyres up to 38mm, considered wide at the time, and disc brakes. Discs might be mainstream on drop-bar bikes now but they weren’t especially common in 2013. They certainly didn’t have the market share that they enjoy now.
Of course, not all of the original features would seem normal on a gravel bike today but the first Warbird was an influential bike that has inspired countless others over the years since it was introduced.
We first mentioned the Salsa Warbird in an article introducing the 2013 Salsa range.
“Over in the States, races organised with large sections of gravel track are popular, and it is for this style of racing that the new Warbird has been built,” we said.
We still felt the need to explain what gravel riding was at the time. How times change
“Races like those in the Almanzo Gravel Race Series can be up to 100 miles in length. The Trans Iowa boldly sends riders on a 300-mile race with a 34-hour time limit. Oh, and competitors have to ride unsupported.
“Such racing places unusual demands on a bike, and durability is a key attribute. The Warbird occupies a niche filled by few others: a gravel-specific bike. Essential to racing on gravel is geometry that provides stability at speed with a balanced feel between the front and rear wheels.
“The frame’s compliance over the rough surface is also a consideration. Salsa use titanium and Extrolite EV6 aluminium in their two offerings. Double-butted tubing, flattened seat stays and tapered chainstays let Salsa design a smooth riding frame.
“Salsa will ship complete bikes with Avid BB7 discs. Cables have been routed underneath the top tube keeping them away from the mud. There’s a Press-fit 30 bottom bracket and capacity for three water bottle cages.
“We may not do much gravel racing over here, but we reckon this bike would be ideal for blasting canal towpaths, bridleways, muddy country lanes and everything else in-between.”
Yeah, you never know, this gravel thing might catch on.
In February 2015 we reported that the Salsa Warbird would be available in carbon fibre for the first time. On top of that, it had made the switch from open dropouts and quick-release skewers to thru-axles front and rear, and there was space for tyres up to 44mm wide.
As a genre, gravel was developing in various directions. It wasn’t all about riding as fast as possible on hard-packed roads. People wanted to explore all kinds of tracks and trails and were demanding bikes that allowed them to do that.
The new high-modulus carbon frame was made to the same geometry as the original and featured Class 5 VRS (Vibration Reduction System) seatstays. These are still a feature of the Warbird today.
“The stays are shaped and slender, with a tall and thin profile intended to flex outwards to provide a degree of compliance when cycling over a rough surface,” we explained. “A skinny 27.2mm seatpost and tapered seat tube should also allow a bit of compliance too.”
The Warbird was designed to accommodate internally routed gear cables with full outer housing, and it was Di2 compatible if you wanted to add an electronic groupset. Another sign of the time was that the frame would accept a 1x11 drivetrain with a cover plate taking the place of the front derailleur to provide clean lines.
Although builds have been updated since, Salsa introduced the current version of the Warbird frameset in 2019. It was lighter than before and offered compatibility with 650B wheels fitted with 2.1in tyres.
“The frame and fork are made from carbon fibre with a considerable weight saving over the previous generation bike, and there are all the modern details we’ve come to expect to see, such as 12mm thru-axles and flat mount callipers,” we said. “To ensure maximum tyre and crankset clearance, Salsa has adopted the dropped chainstay design popularised by the Open UP and being increasingly used by bike brands.
“Geometry has been revised, with longer and lower top tubes to provide increased stability at higher speeds and improved standover height. It has increased the front centre and specced shorter stems to provide better handling, a change that has been inspired by modern mountain bike design.”
The current Warbird has a 584.9mm stack, a 381.2mm reach, and a 103.8mm wheelbase. It uses a 27.2mm seat tube with internal routing for a dropper post and is designed to be compatible with a suspension fork, if that’s your thing.
Salsa added extra water bottle mounts: on sizes 56cm and above there are three mounts inside the front triangle and one on the underside of the down tube. There’s also a top tube mount for Salsa’s EXP Series Toptube Bag.
Up front, the Waxwing carbon fork is three pack mounts for extra bags and bottles, pannier rack and mudguard mounts, and dynamo hub cable routing.
There are currently two Salsa Warbirds in the UK range:
As you can see, the Salsa Warbird has changed considerably over its relatively short history to keep pace with changes in the ever-evolving gravel scene. What features would you like to see included in the next revision? Let us know in the comments below.
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now over 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.