At Commuter we consider ourselves extremely fortunate that so many people choose us to be a part of their journeys, both big and small. Over the years we’ve had a lot of hands in a lot of really interesting builds for a lot of really interesting trips. As a result, we’d consider ourselves up there with the most experienced in the industry when it comes to speccing a bike for a serious expedition. Occasionally though, a plan comes along that challenges us to think much harder. To consider even the most minute details in regards to durabilty. To rethink what is even rideable under serious load. Jason’s new Salsa Blackborow is one such build.
Jason came to us with a big idea. A big idea that the places Jason had tried before us admitted they just didn’t think was possible. Over the last year, I think we’ve all been Jason – working from home, many of us taking care of families at the same time, detached from our usual abilities to get out and explore, if even just for a few hours. This where big ideas are born, and Jason’s in a monster.
The brief for Jason’s trip was a prolonged beach fishing expedition along the remote Western Australian and South Australian coastline. Esperance to Adelaide hugging the coast through remote four wheel drive trails, open and deserted beaches and sections of tarmac along the Nullabor. That route on it’s own would be tough enough to plan for but there was also the unusual load to consider. The regular camping and repair gear, very large volume of water and food were a given, but beach fishing gear, it turns out, isn’t small! The rods themselves are still about a metre and a half when packed down to their smallest. Oh, and you have to carry some big old lead sinkers and some appropriate tools to let you eat your catch. There really was only one sensible bike choice in our range for a trip of this nature – the Blackborow from Salsa Cycles.
Salsa list the Blackborow as their ‘dream big’ cargo fatbike with offroad expedition and creative thinking in mind. Best paired with an unlimited imagination. Perfect.
While it was the ideal base for this build, choosing the Blackborow frameset was only the beginning. Durability is our primary concern on any build aimed at remote use but Jason’s plans demanded another level of commitment to this end. Mechanical issues that would be a mild inconvenience on a regular bike, on a regular trip, could prove much more costly under these kinds of loads and substantial delays in progress could actually make a big difference to the water and food budgeting for the trip. We’ll walk through the fine details of this in a moment but firstly it’s worth mentioning how hard it is to plan a trip when you don’t quite have a grasp of what is actually rideable. Was this route even possible?
We’re a strong Yes. Between all of us at the shop we’ve taken on some similarly gnarly routes. Will rode most of the way across central Australia and Bolivia on his Surly ECR and I had the fortune of experiencing Tasmania’s wild west coast in fine weather on my Salsa Mukluk fatbike. It’s not an easy thing to explain to people how well a BIG volume tyre handles extremely soft and loose surfaces but, speaking for myself, I’ve been repeatedly amazed by what is actually rideable, even under load, on BIG rubber. The Blackborow offers a lot of flexibility in wheel size depending on the intended use. There’s no doubt that 29+ is the winner for true mixed surface use but if you want the ability to ride the softest and the loosest terrain then twenty six inch wheels sure ain’t dead.
One thing we REALLY aimed to avoid Jason having to do on this trip is walk. Pushing a longtail fatbike with about a hundred kilos of gear through deep sand is just what it sounds like. Total shit. Actually, it might not even be possible, requiring unpacking gear and walking it up the trail then coming back for your bike. Again this threatens to totally ruin the experience not to mention the food and water maths of the trip. Definitely not okay. We’ve elected to run the 26 x 4.8 Surly Bud tyres – pretty much the biggest volume, grippiest tyre we could get our hands on. Having ridden them myself over dunes and through pea gravel so slippery you couldn’t walk it I’m supremely confident of them handling whatever this trip will throw at them, especially given the overall lack of elevation change. Are they gonna be lightning fast on the Nullabor? Hell No! But that’s a small price to pay for not ending up crying on your own in the middle of nowhere because you’ve been averaging 500 metres an hour for two days carrying all your gear in your arms.
Okay, let’s take a proper wander through the details of this build. Feel free to hit the comments if you have any questions or there is anything we missed.
The Blackborow is designed with external drivetrains in mind but there’s really no question that, when it comes to expedition durability, Rohloff internal geared hubs are the superior option. But what do you do when the frame you want to use and a Rohloff aren’t compatible with each other out of the box? You call the Germans!
Rohloff have a system that involves taking some very detailed measurements of your intended frame, submitting it to them and them manufacturing and supplying the correct hardware for the hub to work in your bike. Not all frames are compatible with this system, but the Blackborow fortunately is. The massive Rohloff XL Speedhub fits nicely into the Blackborow’s 197mm rear end, and certainly looks the part. In an ideal world we’d have some ability to tension chain with sliding dropouts or an eccentric bottom bracket but given the Blackborow’s intended load carrying Salsa elected to run big, burly fixed dropouts requiring the use of some kind of chain tensioner. In this case we used a Shimano Zee rear derailleur as it reached far enough inboard to work nicely on the adapted XL Rohloff and also has the advantage of being adjustable in the event that it takes a bump and moves a little out of line.
Rohloff do have some restrictions on how low a gear you can run with their hubs. Super low gears generate a lot of torque and at some point that torque will start to destroy the internals of the hub. The good news is that the lowest allowable gear is REAL low. Around fifteen gear inches for people who’s brains work like that (mine doesn’t). In all seriousness, there aren’t a lot of bikes that are even rideable on fifteen gear inches as they lack the traction and stability to keep rolling at such a low speed. That’s not a Blackborow story though and, with the load this thing will be hauling, it should certainly be rideable through the most horrid of conditions.
Dynamo Hub, Lighting and Charging
In general, I’d say our workshop job do a REAL good job of making sure your dynamo setup is functional, super clean and not prone to damage during use or crashing. It wasn’t a goal that was discussed for this build but our workshop team really took it upon themselves with this build to make Jason’s setup extremely reliable and conditions specific.
There was a lot of soldering going on the last few weeks that’s for sure! The basis of the system we used here was the Schmidt SON28 Fatbike hub (a 150mm wide dynamo looks huge) and the Beacon light/USB charger from Sinewave Cycles. The Beacon puts out plenty of light for riding 4WD trails in the dark and has a USB port conveniently in the back making cable routing to a cache battery in a top tube bag super simple. It’s also pretty burly, and mounted centrally on the bar should be impervious to damage in the case of a crash.
The cable routing on this thing ended up being some kind of industrial work of art. From hub to front light is usually a short and simple job but, knowing that sand ingress and corrosion was likely to be a big issue on this bike, our team swapped out the connections to much beefier options usually reserved for stereo systems. I say ‘swapped out’ like it was a five minute thing but the reality of the work that went in to this is pretty wild. The front cable had to be guided through the internal routing of the fork prior to the ends being modified and there was a lot of pretty cute, sitting close, four-hands-required soldering happening, all while making sure no hot solder ended up on the carbon fork or the handlebars. Pretty great effort.
The next fun part of this is how far away the rear light is from the Beacon. It’s a real long way compared to a regular bike. A lot of that space is also the massive Blackborow rack that’s going to have all sorts of stuff hanging off it and probably end up laying on it’s side in the sand a bit. Also, it needs to be removeable for transport. Here, our team routed the rear light cable along the brake line, internally routed through the frame. Exposed areas around the cockpit and at the centre of the frame were wrapped in heat shrink to minimise snagging. Small holes were drilled in the rear rack (which has plenty of strength through triangulation) and the cable was run internally through the upper rack. Panniers on and panniers off a thousand times, laying on it’s side, getting attacked by drop bears – this rear light is gonna keep working!
Where the rack meets the frame our team added a heavy duty joiner in the cable to enable simple rack removal for transport. It also features a nice rubber sheath to minimise sand and salt-spray ingress so things should stay working long term.
Wheels and Tyres
We touched earlier on our choice of tyre – the Surly Bud in the massive 26 x 4.8 size. Having used these before myself I can certainly attest to them being super tough. As also mentioned earlier, durability issues that would likely be small concerns for general bikepacking were things we really took a deeper dive into on the Blackborow. For example, a bit of a tubeless leak, especially around the valve, wouldn’t really be a big deal on a regular bike. A pretty easy switch out to a new valve at the worst. On a bike with this much load, likely parked up on deep sand, we really wanted to aim to make sure there are zero issues around tyre reliability.
If you zoom in close on the above image, you’ll notice a small sliver of rubber protruding between the rim and the tyre. We’ve had a lot of success running cut-out fatbike rims tubeless over the years using Gorilla tape and a regular tubeless valve built up with some spacers to cope with the very shallow wall thickness of this style of rim. None of us felt great about this system for Jason’s trip and so we decided to get old-school. It must have been ten years since I’ve fitted a split-tube system on a bike but I was instantly reminded how good it is. Basically, you take a 20 inch tube, something designed for like a 2.2 tyre and cut it all the way along the back. What you are left with, is a huge rubber rim strip, with a valve already attached. It’s not super easy to get tyres set up on a split tube, as there’s so much friction between the tyre and the rubber strip, but with the help of a little dishwashing liquid and a blast from the compressor, it’s a rock solid setup. It held 15psi (a lot for a fatbike tyre) for a week on the shop floor with no sealant and should be impervious to burping sealant in the wild as the strip will move with the bead of the tyre.
Tumbleweed Persuader bars were a great choice for this build, adding control and stability to an already stable ride. A KS dropper post was a last minute addition, and a really smart one. Jason’s not really going to be able to lean this thing over at all to get on or off when it’s loaded and he’s super tired and making the Blackborow that little bit easier to get on and off will be super valuable.
Avid BB7 mechanical brakes with staff favourite Yokozuna Reaction housing and big rotors mean this thing is slowing down fast when it has to and the rear housing is full length to prevent issues with corrosion and lack of feel. The kickstand on this thing was invaluable for display and fitting accessories but isn’t going to be happy with a loaded Blackborow. We don’t really have a good option for one that will work but the good news is it’s pretty easy to dig a small hole with your foot on the beach and have this thing stay upright for loading.
We’ll endeavour to post some pics as Jason get’s closer to his trip (hopefully in July if Covid doesn’t throw a spanner in the works) so you can all check this thing out loaded. Jason has had full custom bags and a deck for the rack, that also doubles as a gutting and cleaning board, by the team over at Cedaero in Minnesota. He’ll also be rocking a pair of Ortlieb lowrider panniers up front and some serious rod storage going on.
Thanks for following our stories and images, looking forward to seeing you all in the shop or on the trail at some point.