Old bike, new bike: A kinda-sorta review of the Salsa Marrakesh we'll be taking on tour

  Before we set off, I'll be getting a new Salsa Marrakesh for the journey. Photo credit: Salsa Cycles.

Before we set off, I'll be getting a new Salsa Marrakesh for the journey. Photo credit: Salsa Cycles.

A few years ago, I bought a bike. Outfitted with shiny chrome Campagnolo components and strong, lightweight Reynolds steel and a hidden superpower in which, with just a few loosened bolts, the frame actually separates in half and tucks away neatly into a checkable bag, it was a do-it-all bike that I hoped would be my one and only for decades to come.

Except, it wasn't. There were a few things that worried me about the bike from the start, a few things that weren't quite perfect: a lack of braze-ons for racks and bottle cages, a double chainring more suited for gentle roads than steep passes, a frame and fork that could fit 35mm tires but nothing wider, and a pair of 24/28-spoke wheels that surely had to be treated with care. These features (or lack thereof) weren't ideal, but for my intended uses—short tours on more-or-less paved roads, commuting around town—they seemed workable. And they were: for thousands of kilometers to and from and within DC, across Morocco, and around Iceland, the Ritchey performed well, and it hasn't failed me yet.

Those intended uses, though, didn't include biking around the world. The Big Trip is sure to include long, remote stretches where extra water bottle holders will come in handy, trying mountain passes where a granny gear will be a big help, rough, gravelly roads where two-inch tires will provide better handling, and pothole-ridden pathways where a stronger rim is pretty vital. And for the past few months, I've worked to remedy those shortcomings. I've found a framebuilder capable of welding on some new braze-ons. I've found a rare (and pricey) cassette that would give me more range without swapping out the entire groupset. I've found 35mm tires that could do a decent job on loose road, and chosen a new wheelset that would fare much better in the unpaved corners of the world.

These were, at best, half-measures. Over a thousand dollars of retrofits later, I wouldn't find myself with a proper expedition bike, just a bike more properly suited than the one I had, and I told myself that was good and fine and that it would all turn out okay. And truthfully, it probably would. One doesn't need a fancy touring bike to cycle the world, and had I taken my beloved Ritchey on our very long bike trip, things may very well have turned out okay. But for a journey of this magnitude, I've decided it makes sense to get a new touring steed, something properly suited to do the job, right from the start.

Fortunately, I had just the bike in mind. Shortly before our bike tour of Iceland, Lauren had upgraded from my old Cannondale Synapse (not suited for touring at all) to a Salsa Marrakesh, a new(ish) touring bike that just didn't exist when I'd built my Ritchey. It looked like an awesome bike and turned out to be an awesome bike, and secretly I coveted one for myself. Here's why. (As always, this is not a sponsored post. Salsa hasn't given us anything to recommend the Marrakesh, and in fact I'll list a few things down below that I don't exactly love about it.)

  The Salsa Marrakesh in black (the model Lauren has), as sold off-the-shelf. I'll probably get the frameset in green. Photo credit: Salsa Cycles.

The Salsa Marrakesh in black (the model Lauren has), as sold off-the-shelf. I'll probably get the frameset in green. Photo credit: Salsa Cycles.

It's made of steel.

Having already moved from aluminum to steel in getting the Ritchey, I knew I wanted to stick with a material that was tried-and-tested to handle the rigors of the road. Steel is inarguably a smoother ride than aluminum, and a sturdier one too. It's less likely to crack, and if it does, it can be welded back together by any village welder the world over. The steel is a grade lower than my current bike (4130 chromoly versus Reynolds 520), and thus a tad heavier and bulkier, but plenty strong for world touring.

It has lots and lots (and lots) of braze-ons.

Braze-ons (more specifically, mounts or bosses) are those little threaded inserts that allow you to screw something (like a bottle cage, rack, or fender), onto a bike's frame. My Ritchey didn't have many (just enough for two bottle cages, plus some lower eyelets for a front and rear rack), and I knew I wanted more for this trip. The Salsa Marrakesh has an almost obnoxious amount: on the down tube,  underneath the down tube, on the seat tube, on the seat stays, and plenty up on the fork.

It's geared for steep, heavy climbs.

Truthfully, I've always made it work with my 50/34t double chainring, but our upcoming trip is likely to bring us up against roads and passes steeper than I've ever climbed and with more weight on the bike than I've ever carried. The generous triple chainring (48/38/26t, for those counting) will make those rides way easier—though not without a small sacrifice to top speed on flat roads.

It has clearance for two-inch tires.

Squeezing in a pair of 38mm wheels on my Ritchey would have been a real challenge, but the Marrakesh can accommodate up to 50mm ones with ease (but without fenders), and maybe go even a little wider than that. Wider tires offer better traction and handling on wet and rocky roads, and they can be run at a lower air pressure for greater comfort on those bumpier sections (of course, they do roll a little slower than a race bike's skinny wheels). Lauren's currently riding with 38s on her Marrakesh, though we'll likely both outfit our bikes with 50mm/two-inch tires (Schwalbe Marathon Mondials or Marathon Plus Tours) before departing for a bit more versatility in Africa, Asia, and South America. 

BONUS: It has disc brakes.

As the battle between disc brakes and rim brakes wages in online bike forums the world over, I remain mostly on the fence. I like rim brakes for their simplicity (I've never ridden a bike without 'em), but appreciate disc brakes for their improved stopping power and better handling in wet conditions. The Salsa Marrakesh is built for the latter, so I'm excited to give them a try.

  Disc brakes can be a bit more complicated than rim brakes, but brake better. Photo credit: Salsa Cycles.

Disc brakes can be a bit more complicated than rim brakes, but brake better. Photo credit: Salsa Cycles.

BONUS: It has a kickstand plate.

I'd be getting the bike either way, as my totally-lovely Pletscher two-leg kickstand is compatible with plate-less frames (like my Ritchey) too, but it's nice to have a touring bike that doesn't skimp on something that's really nice to have when touring. Many will claim that kickstands are superfluous because there's always a tree around to lean the bike on, but they're probably just saying that because (a) they've never been to Iceland, where the old joke goes that the way to find your bearings in an Icelandic forest is to just stand up, and/or (b) because they're riding a Surly and Surly won't let them use a kickstand.

  A kickstand plate: not essential, but really nice to have. Photo credit: Salsa Cycles.

A kickstand plate: not essential, but really nice to have. Photo credit: Salsa Cycles.

BONUS: Lauren has the same bike.

I know it's super lame when couples match, but when biking around the world it makes a lot of sense. I've fully disassembled and fully reassembled my Ritchey several times, so I know just how everything works, but neither Lauren nor I have ever (yet) torn apart a Marrakesh. Riding the same model will make fixing the bikes a bit easier, and also means fewer spare parts to carry.

BONUS: It's named after the first place I ever toured.

Just eleven months ago, I was reassembling my bicycle in a tiny little room overlooking the medina of Marrakesh, getting ready to head out on a month-long ride around southern Morocco, my very first bike tour anywhere, ever. I had such an amazing time that I managed to convince Lauren to come along for a ride around Iceland just a few months later, and now we're planning this big 'round-the-world bike trip that we probably wouldn't be planning if I hadn't made it to Marrakesh last February, or if my time in Marrakesh (and the rest of Morocco) hadn't been so absolutely wonderful. I'll probably try to find a way to cover up the hideous Salsa logo on the downtube (more on that below), but the Marrakesh one on the top tube can totally stay.

  Photo credit: Salsa Cycles.

Photo credit: Salsa Cycles.

Of course, no bike is perfect.

There are a few things I don't really like about the Salsa Marrakesh.

The decals are unsightly, and worse, under the clear coat.

Bike manufacturers are pretty universally good engineers and pretty universally bad designers. Surly, once again, makes absolutely hideous decals, but at least they have the good sense to apply them over the clear coat (like stickers) so that they can be easily removed. Salsa's decals aren't as garish, but they're everywhere (a giant Salsa logo on each side of the downtube, a little Marrakesh and a few constellations on the top tube, and a silly hidden Adventure by Bike on the chainstay), and (like most bike manufacturers) short of stripping the frame and repainting, you're stuck with them. 

I'd prefer not to roam the world as a cycling billboard for any bike brand—we are, after all, paying retail for these bikes, asking nothing from Salsa, and would much rather recommend the bikes for free (like we're doing right here) than be forced to recommend them because several layers of varnish compel us to. But at the very least, I wish Salsa would move to a font from this century.

The components are anodized, and anodized components are ugly.

It's probably not fair to fault Salsa for this, because it's something most bike manufacturers are now doing, and some people may very well love the dead black bore of anodized groupsets and seatposts and handlebars and spokes and rims. But underneath that coat of matte black is a really pretty chrome or silver, and I wish the Marrakesh came off-the-shelf with a little more shine to its parts. Because I'll be building the bike up (more on that below), I'll be using nicer-looking components than what the stock Marrakesh offers.

  Silver parts—like the bar stem and headset on my Ritchey—are just so much easier on the eyes.

Silver parts—like the bar stem and headset on my Ritchey—are just so much easier on the eyes.

The rear rack makes absolutely no sense.

The most glaring flaw of the Salsa Marrakesh is, by far, its rear rack. The Marrakesh is billed as Salsa's "world touring bike," which would suggest it's intended to be taken on some serious expeditions. Why, then, does the bike come with (and is really only built for) a proprietary aluminum rack that's advertised with a 15kg maximum recommended load? 

Sure, you can build an aluminum rack that can support 50kg. It'll be unlikely to break but a pain if it does break. Or, you could build a steel rack that can support 10kg. It'll be likely to break but easy to fix if it does break. But choosing a weaker metal (aluminum) and molding it into a feeble rack (my steel Tubus Logo, by comparison, can hold 40kg) and then slapping it onto a world touring bike is an odd choice. (I'm certain the rack can manage more weight, but advertising it at 15kg seems a way of ducking blame or warranty claims if and when it fails.)

Fortunately, buying just the frameset (instead of the full bike) means you don't have to deal with the rack. Other racks (like the Tubus) may fit, though they'll likely sit a few inches higher than they would on a bike with lower dropouts.

The other accessories aren't too practical, either.

Bikes that are ready to take on tour right off the shelf seem wonderful, because so little customization is needed to get them ready-to-ride. But the very nature of touring—spending long, grueling hours with just your uniquely-sized body and your uniquely-sized needs on your generically-sized bike—really demands customization. In addition to the silly weekend rack (above), the Marrakesh comes with 40mm Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, which are really great tires, but that most certainly increase the retail price of the bike by over $100. Yet if you're buying Salsa's self-proclaimed "world touring bike" for actual world touring, there's a good chance you might want to go a bit wider. In that case, you're not left with an extra set of cheap stock rubber to stash away, but pretty pricey brand new 40mm Marathons that you just don't have a use for. (The same could be said for the wheelset, which is good, but not exactly great.)

More problematically, the Marrakesh comes with a Brooks B17 Narrow saddle. Some people love the Brooks B17, but some people don't, and those who don't are generally (a) women, who may not fit the saddle because it's designed for men, (b) women and men who prefer to use a saddle with a cutout for reduced pressure on sensitive areas of the body, (c) vegans, who don't like the saddle because it's made of leather, and (d) people of all sexes and diets who might be biking in the rain and don't want to worry about keeping their leather saddle dry.

Most stock saddles are awful, and so one of the first things one should do when getting a new bike is swap out the saddle for one that better fits their body, values, lifestyle, and budget. But at over $100 retail, the B17 is a lot to pay for an unwanted part that won't get used. (Also worth noting: you would never actually want to go touring on a new Brooks leather saddle. They take months to break in as the leather conforms to your posterior, and so putting a not-ready-to-ride saddle on a ready-to-ride touring bike makes it not so ready to tour with after all.)

All said, it's a great start to a touring bike.

For a well-thought-out, versatile, and not too garish 'round-the-world touring bike, here's my plan:

  1. Buy the Salsa Marrakesh frameset (which is a pretty great frameset with the exception of the decals) and outfit it with the stock Shimano Deore components (derailleurs, cassette, chainring, chain, cables, housing, bar-end shifters).
  2. Swap out the crank arms for non-anodized alternatives and the pedals for the MKS touring platforms and toe clips I use on my Ritchey.
  3. Have a separate wheelset built with silver Velocity Dyad rims, silver Shimano hubs, and silver Swiss DT spokes. Install a pair of 50mm Marathon Mondials.
  4. Top it off with the chrome seatpost, dropbars, and stem from my Ritchey, with my beloved Brooks C17 Carved saddle. 
  5. Retrofit my Tubus Logo rack onto the rear, possibly with some level of difficulty. Put bottle cages everywhere.
  6. Go explore the world.

I'll be sharing some more about the bike once it actually gets built. And with only five months to go before we leave, that has to start happening pretty soon. In the meantime, thoughts about the Marrakesh and its many great qualities (or several not-so-good ones)?