Salsa Cycles Big Mama: Final Review

The Salsa Cycles Big Mama is the companies first stab at a big wheeled full suspension rig, (if you don’t count the soft tailed Dos Niner), and is squarely aimed at the trail category with its four inches of suspension travel in the rear. Here is my final thoughts on the bike after riding Big Mamas off and on for over a year now.

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I have had the unique opportunity to ride the Big Mama set up in entirely different ways on two different frames. The production version frame shown here is set up with a Reba Team at 120mm travel and I have also spent significant time on one of Salsa’s pre-production samples set up with Fox forks at 100 and 120mm travel. I have ridden Big Mama’s in varied terrain ranging from quite rocky and slippery, to tight and technical. Buff single track to rooty trails with steep, punchy climbs. The Big Mama has been satisfying in most every way, but as with any bicycle, there are a few nits.

First of all, the issue with intermittent chain suck. I will tell you that I took every precaution against it happening,(lubed chain, good parts in decent condition), but I found that a certain quirk of the frame design makes an occasional chain jam a problem. The Big Mama has a massive forged bottom bracket/main pivot piece that leaves little room between it and a 32 tooth middle chain ring. If the suspension is cycled just right, and the rear derailluer kicks the chain up just so, it will jam between the forging and the chain wheel. This happened twice to me during my testing. Fortunately, in my years of experience, if I feel any resistance to pedal pressure that is odd, I don’t pedal through it, but if you do, it may make your day come to a screeching halt. Obviously a few different drive train choices will eliminate that issue, but if you run a standard crank set up, (mine is an LX 42/32/22) then you may want to be aware of this potential problem.

The only other minor nit was that the powder coat gets marred kind of easily by the cable housings, and there are several places that this happens at on a Big Mama. I used some clear tape to ward off the onset of unsightly marks. Too bad there isn’t some way to avoid this, but it is only a minor complaint. Otherwise the powder coat has been pretty durable on this sample.

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Handling And Performance: As I have stated in previous updates, I have run the Big Mama most of the time as seen above, with the Rock Shox Reba Team 120mm travel fork with the Maxle Lite 20mm through axle. This set up yielded a higher bottom bracket, and slightly slacker angles. I didn’t feel it hurt the performance of the Big Mama at all. A more “XC” approach does give the Big Mama more of a hard tail feel when you mash the pedals, but the snappiness still is there with the slightly slacker set up. An XC set up also makes the Big Mama turn a bit quicker, but I could pilot the Big Mama around the tight twisties just fine, and the stiff chassis was a big reason why. With all the forged bits and the Maxle, the Big Mama is going where you point it. Slow speed technical maneuvers are not shaky, or vague feeling. I only detected the slightest bit of flex at very intermittent times from this bike. Overall, I would rate the chassis quite highly against many other bikes.

Suspension Performance: The Big Mama is unique in that it does not have a rear pivot near the rear wheel axle. Instead, it relies on some amount of seat stay flex, much like a Dos Niner’s chain stays flex, to allow for the suspension to operate. I never noticed anything odd about this set up. My only nits with the suspension is that it seemed a bit overwhelmed in terms of rebound in situations where several medium sized trail obstacles were hit while seated in quick succession. Things such as smaller branches/roots in the 3-5 inch diameter range, or when several depressions in the trail surface were hit in a row. The suspension seemed bouncy at times in these situations, but this was a rare occurrence. Probably something a good suspension mod could take care of for a particular rider. Otherwise I would say that the Big Mama has a good range of adjustability, damps the trail chatter really well, yet retains a “connectedness” that some designs wipe out with the trail you are riding on. This is more a personal preference thing, perhaps, so take it with a grain of salt. I happen to like the feedback I get from the trail, so I am okay with the Big Mama’s ride in that sense.

I found that in big hits the Big Mama has a bit of a ramp up in compression at the very end of the stroke, but it isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t a “bottomless” feeling stroke though either. Again, not bad, just different. Depending on your personal likes, the Big Mama can absorb small trail chatter very well. I found the stock setting for my weight worked well in this sense. The suspension seems to be really active even on climbs, which I found to be a great asset in getting me up and over some steeps I haven’t been able to conquer on any of my other rigs. Granny ring climbing is fine, slow speed mashing is a bit of a bob inducer, but not bad if you are seated. Quite acceptable actually. Standing and climbing taxes the design the most, but switch the ProPedal over and it takes much of the bob out and it feels very hard tail like, especially when locking out the fork in combination with the ProPedal.

I had no issues with getting all the travel on the biggest hits. Overall, a very good performing suspension design, with a tilt towards the stiffer, more trail feedback sort of feel than some other designs. Downhills were a piece of cake, and the Big Mama cornered through fast turns and rolled over obstacles in its path with aplomb.

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Conclusions: The Salsa Cycles Big Mama is a bike that bridges the gap from XC to All Mountain. As I was exploring its intended purpose as an “all day trail bike”, I couldn’t really find any holes in the design. My nits are all minor and could be easily addressed. The suspension performs in a well mannered way with the rider being able to feel the trail, yet not get bitten by it. It isn’t the “magic carpet”, “buttery feeling”, or “bottomless” suspension feel other bikes may possess. But it does have a snappy feel when it is time to motor, it climbs steeps like it has tank tracks, and can bomb a downhill just fine, thank you very much.

The chassis is solid, very rigid laterally, and as Salsa intended, it seems to be very durable and trustworthy. It is light where it can be without sacrificing this, and I appreciate that from a design intended to be ridden all day, most anywhere. As I found out, it can be successfully set up in a few rather different ways, so riders can build up the frame option into a more personalized tool to satisfy more closely their intentions. It isn’t an All Mountain chunk rig, and it isn’t an all out full suspension XC rig. However; if the Big Mama is used as your “go to”, every day trail bike, I don’t think you can do a whole lot better in the four inch travel 29″er full suspension category.

Thanks to Salsa Cycles for supplying the frame for review.

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No Responses to “Salsa Cycles Big Mama: Final Review”

  1. grannygear Says:

    Do you have any thoughts on those long CS’s?

  2. Guitar Ted Says:

    @grannygear: Well, let me answer by way of an anecdote: When I first was introduced to the Big Mama, it was at Sea Otter 2008. I wasn’t told a thing about the geometry, or any measurements. Same when I came to ride the final prototype in June 2008. Jason Boucher let me ride it for a couple hours, and then asked what I thought.

    One of the things I remarked on was how easy it was to wheelie and manual the bike. It climbed great, and I said it accelerated like a bike with shorter stays. What was the measurement?

    Well, you know now what I was told that day. I was flabbergasted. I never would have guessed that number. I was thinking somewhere around 17.75 inches. That’s what it felt like then, and still does……….to me. πŸ˜‰

  3. Shop Mechanic Says:

    The chainstays likely felt shorter due to the high bb which puts the bb above the rear wheel more quickly when you lean back. Unfortunately there is little real benefit to making this geometry compromise in my opinion since you don’t wheelie anywhere near as often as you corner and a lower bb is going to improve cornering. Just my 2 cents.

  4. Guitar Ted Says:

    @Shop Mechanic: My static BB height was about 14 inches with the 120mm fork as shown above, but the stock Big Mama complete BB height is a shade over 12 inches, and that isn’t all that high. Keep in mind, my initial impressions were from a Big Mama set up with a 100mm fork, and close to the completes spec. So, the sensation I was getting on my first ride likely wasn’t clouded a high BB. (In fact, the sag setting was likely too much on that first ride, settling the BB even lower than it should have been. πŸ˜‰ )

  5. Ventana El Rey Rider Says:

    I own a Ventana El Rey w/ 2009 Rock Shox Team 120 and recently rode the Big Mama back-to-back with my El Rey on a fairly technical XC trail (Dot Trails in Nederland Colorado). It was set up with a Manitou Minute 120 thru-axle fork. My impression was that it felt dramatically different than the El Rey. It has a slacker, more leisurely steering feel and it wheelies / manuals much more easily than the El Rey. I would’ve guessed it had significantly shorter chainstays than the El Rey. It also feels a bit more planted and less likely to endo than the El Rey on steep decents. On steep technical climbs (25%+grade) it requires a much different body position than my bike, so I didn’t really get a feel for its ultimate performance in that regard, I would need more time to acclimate to it.

    I didn’t get a chance to jump it or do any steps up or down, so sadly no information on that front either.

    It did acquit itself nicely in the 10 minutes I rode it and it didn’t have any glaring faults. Definitely a nice addition to the universe of Full Suspension 29ers.

  6. T Shepherd Says:

    Nice to know that the gruesome chainsuck thing wasn’t just me! I tend to keep a clean, well adjusted drivetrain. Apparently there is a 1 mm. offset BB spacer shim kit available which should keep things from getting quite as bound up.
    If I can add my two cents: The crazy long chainstays LOOK like they should be a detriment to this bike (coming from a Karate monkey for 5 years, this has almost 1.5 extra inches of wheelbase, all in back), but the only thing I’ve really had to adjust to is a split second of steering delay. Zig-zagging through trees on tight singletrack was a bit dangerous until I re-programmed myself to lay back slightly and time things just a hair past the apex of turns. I can’t lead into turns the way I did, but I wouldn’t call it sluggish. And, oh man! Out of the saddle pedaling and traction is fantastic, which is to me was already just one of the many benefits of bigger wheels…
    I really can’t help thinking of this thing as a sled. Ahh, to spend all day aboard this thing pounding the mountains of western Virginia without any worries (sorry, I’m still in the honeymoon stage).

  7. t0m Says:

    @Ventana El Rey Rider-

    I have had a 26er Ventana for years and still love it. Would be interested in your thoughts on the El Rey. I’ve been looking at the Ventana website, wondering if I can justify a big wheel FS frame. Some laugh at the “old” suspension design but that lateral stiffness is just killer. Can ping me at t0midrej@hotmail.com.

  8. El Monkey Says:

    If you compare it to the Dos Niner, which I know you’ve been riding quite a lot (and so have I). What is the biggest difference, and the biggest similarities?

  9. Guitar Ted Says:

    @ El Monkey: Well, the Dos is definitely lighter, and is more hard tail-like. Similarities? Well, they both have that Salsa handling feel, and they both smooth out the smaller trail chatter in a similar fashion. The Big Mama just goes waaaay beyond what the Dos is capable of in terms of suspension feel and performance. I really don’t see any other overlapping features in terms of performance though.

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