Salsa Vaya 1000 Mile Review (or our thoughts on Salsa Vaya vs. Surly LHT)
We’ve been riding our Salsa Vayas for a little over two months and have managed to put over 1000 miles on them. In that time, we’ve ridden them around town, on the 25th Anniversary Cycle Oregon ride, on our first randonneur event (the Verboort Populaire), up Larch Mountain, on a few overnight bike tours and miles and miles of hills and gravel on road rides around Portland. The good folks at VeloCult built up our frames with components that we picked out that are a little different from the off the shelf Vayas and we had the bikes fitted at Crank PDX. We’ve ridden them enough to get a good sense of how they handle and the ride qualities and what the best uses would be. So what’s the verdict? How do they compare to the venerable Surly LHT?
Perhaps the biggest difference of our builds compared to the pre-built models are our choice of drivetrain. I’m using Apex brifters (which come stock on the Vaya 2) and Laura is using Shimano bar end shifters on some Paul Thumbies. Both work as advertised. The Apex brifters take a little more oomph to shift than Shimano counterparts, but I appreciate the cleaner cable routing and smaller hoods. Check out the video tour below to take a closer look at our handlebar controls.
In the beginning of our builds, we considered compact road doubles, but for us they seemed a little too highly geared for touring, so we decided to go with mountain doubles. Both of us are running identical drivetrains with SRAM X5 mountain double cranks with 42/28 chainrings, X7 front derailleurs, X9 rear derailleurs and 12-36 10speed cassettes. They work pretty seamlessly with both the Paul Thumbies and Apex brifters. Most people will ask, why a mountain double and not a touring triple? We rode with a touring triple on our LHTs for years and they worked fine. However, interestingly enough, after touring with the Bromptons (which only had 6 speeds), we knew we wanted to simplify our drivetrains from 27 speeds with lots of redundancy to just 20. Although we have a third fewer gears than a touring triple, our range is pretty similar. We’ve got a high gear of about 95 gear inches and a low of 21 gear inches. On a flat road we can spin up the pedals to about 25 mph (anything faster than that is beyond our ken of riding for this bike since we’ll most likely be loaded). The low of 21 gear inches has been low enough to get us up and over hills and mountains, even when carrying touring loads. If we were to go to truly mountainous terrain with an expedition load, we’d probably swap the small chainring for a 24t to drop us down to 18 gear inches.
The Vaya has eyelets everywhere you would need them for touring. You get three bottle mounts in the inner triangle. The fork has mid-fork eyelets and two sets of eyelets at the dropout for a rack and fenders. Likewise, on the rear of the bike you have two sets of eyelets at the rear dropout for a rack and fender and eyelets at the seat stay for a rack. Our Vayas have the standard vertical dropouts and not the Alternator dropouts, so we were able to use rear racks off our previous bikes.
Perhaps the most noticeable frame difference is the sloping top tube on the Vaya compared to the LHT. There are lots of schools of thought about what is better. Some say bikes with sloping top tubes are lighter because of less material, stiffer because the triangle is smaller, etc., Being somewhat of a retro-grouch on occasion, it took me a little while to warm up to the looks of the sloping top tube. I’m not going to pretend to have Princess and the Pea heightened sensitivity for all frame nuances, but I will say that I have appreciated the extra clearance especially going on mixed terrain rides with steep slippy climbs. The sloping top tube gave a little more…em..fudge room when having to do a hasty footdown.
Disc Brake Converts
If you asked us a few years ago about what we thought of disc brakes, we would have told you “why bother when rim brakes are perfectly fine.” Having ridden the Vaya for the last few months, we’ve really come around to some of the advantages of disc brakes. We really appreciate the all-weather stopping capabilities (a must in Portland), not having to worry about overheating rims and blowing out tires on long descents and the dirt from brake pads getting everywhere. Of course, it’s not all roses. Disc brakes are a little less transparent than rim brakes, they squeal, and parts are varied and non-standardized. We feel that if you’re touring in super remote places or developing countries, rim brakes may still have an advantage. But, if you are touring in the US or a place where decent bike parts or the internet aren’t that hard to come by, then discs are perfectly fine.
Our builds on the Vaya and LHT are different, so we can’t make an EXACT apples to apples comparison, but they are close enough to make some reasonable observations about ride quality. No doubt the LHTs are solid, stout and reliable touring bikes. Some could argue that it is because of the LHT that bicycle touring has made somewhat of a come back, with Surly bringing a great TRUE touring bike to market (not half ass attempts like the modern Trek 520). That said, after having ridden both frames for some time, we prefer the Vayas for the type of touring and riding we do now.
The Vaya is a fair bit more zippy and responsive than the LHT. It’s not roadie fast, but if you put the pedal to the metal, the Vaya will move without too much negotiation. Riding the first few weeks with the Vaya, Laura was constantly commenting how she felt like she could actually accelerate. The LHT, on the other hand, feels to have far more inertia to overcome. It will hold speed, but you have to work to get it up there.
One of our most memorable days riding the Vaya was on the final day of Cycle Oregon. It was 60 miles back to the town of Bly and we were both feeling pretty good. The last half of the ride was fairly flat so I tucked in and spun it up to about 25mph (loaded with camera gear, mind you) and was able to maintain that fairly well, even with the mountain double. Some roadies came up to us and said we were putting them to shame with our bikes with fat tires. The Vaya is fun to ride both loaded and UNloaded. The riding is predictable, but it isn’t an utter snoozefest either. The LHT, on the otherhand, sometimes feels loaded even when it isn’t.
If it sounds like we are putting down the LHT, we’re not. We still believe they are the most bang for your buck touring bike on the market. If you’re planning to ride fully loaded, you won’t be disappointed. However, for us, we are starting to explore other types of riding. Longer randonneur events, mixed terrain riding, maybe even some gravel grinders are in our future and, for this style riding, with a much lighter load, the Vaya is a better fit. I feel that, of all the bikes on the market that I have had a chance to throw a leg over, the Vaya probably comes closest to being the perfect all-rounder bicycle – you can commute on the Vaya, tour with it, take it on gravel roads, long day rides and mult-day event rides and still have a smile on your face at the end of the day.
(UPDATED: I felt that I should address a comment to this post from Doug. We wholeheartedly agree that the LHT comes to its own under load. When we first toured, we had over 100lbs of gear on our LHTs and it faithfully portaged us around the country. There is no doubt that the LHT is capable of some heavy expedition style touring. Most of the touring we’ve done with the Vayas so far have been fairly short, so we haven’t quite put the same amount of stress on it as the LHT. Our feeling, however, is the Vaya is more suitable for light to mid weight type of touring. We would probably feel a little uneasy at loading the Vayas up with the same weight as we did with the LHTs. Thirty to forty pounds on the rear seems to be the sweet spot and it is nice to have some weight on the front for balance. We’re planning to do a few weeks of touring in January in California with the Vayas, which will have give a better sense of their handling for longer tours.)
Our Surly LHT’s were definitely solid bikes and we built them up in a very traditional touring style. Bar-ends, friction shifters, touring triples, etc., But, we’ve changed from those early years of heavily-laden touring, and our view of cycling has expanded quite a bit as well. I still believe in the reliability of friction shifting, but I also know that having brifters on your bike won’t tear open a hole in the Space-Time continuum. I also know that although touring triples are sort of the de facto drivetrain choice according to Ye Old Touring Canon, it’s okay to explore different options that work for you (and do something crazy like put a mountain double on a road touring bike…or ride a 6spd folding bike). We’ve learned that, although you may have space for four panniers, two is often times enough and will allow you to more easily follow your curiosity without being burdened down by too much weight.
The Vaya is a fun bike. It’s fun with a load and without. It’s fun on the road and on mixed terrain. It’s fun to ride leisurely and to hammer. It is one of the most versatile bikes on the marketplace right now. If you want a bike that is capable of loaded touring, but also doesn’t feel like you’re dragging an anchor around when you’re not on tour, then the Vaya is for you.
-best bang for your buck out of all touring bikes on the market
-handles HEAVY loads extremely well
-true expedition style tourist
-great at light/mid-weight touring
-FUN to ride unloaded
-great multi-use bike for commuting/event ride/touring
-more spendy than LHT
-a little flexier at heavier loads
-disc brakes can squeal like crazy
Which one is for you?
If you tour with heavy loads – LHT.
If you tour with light to mid-weight loads – Vaya.
If your primary use is a fully loaded touring bike – LHT.
If you want a bike that can be also used for a variety of different styles of riding (commute, event rides, rando rides) – Vaya.
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