From Issue #37
Words and Photos by Emily Walley and Justin Steiner
The thought of committing to a four-day, three-night touring adventure aboard the Salsa Powderkeg with almost zero tandem experience was a little bit intimidating. Would we be able to comfortably carry all of our gear? How would we manage some of the rougher dirt roads and trails we planned to traverse in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest?
Despite these reservations, our excitement to share this new experience was thrilling, and we quickly got to work acclimating to life aboard a bicycle built for two. Not long into the first road ride, our confidence swelled as it became apparent we were aboard a very competent and capable rig. But, we also realized that we needed to recalibrate our approach slightly. As independent cyclists we’ve grown accustomed to making forceful and sometimes aggressive maneuvers on the bike. Those inputs don’t jive well in tandem land. Subtle inputs and smooth transitions are the name of the game.
With one road ride under our belt, we jumped to the next logical step: mountain biking. On the Powderkeg, our standard weekly Thursday ride became a whole new adventure and a barrel of fun. Dropping into the first trail was a little rough as trail features we haven’t thought about in years suddenly tested our capability. We were both tense and our inputs were fighting each other. It’s amazing how much influence the stoker has on the bike, despite the lack of ability to steer. The stoker’s wide bar provided a lot of leverage. We occasionally found it helpful for Emily to move her hands to the center of the bars, minimizing her upper body input. Riding as a stoker requires a lot of leg input and a very relaxed upper body.
Not long after we ran poor Emily into the first tree, forcing us to jointly dismount, we began to relax and started into a rhythm together. Amazingly, that first near-crash (and the many that followed) made us realize abrupt dismounts were totally manageable, as was dabbing a foot when necessary to right the ship. We found it helpful for the stoker to remain on the bike and let the captain dab whenever possible. This way Emily could help propel the bike forward on an ascent or technical terrain while Justin resumed his position. From that point on, we were golden, at least once the captain came to terms with just how wide he had to turn so as to not run his stoker into any more trees.
Throughout that first mountain bike ride, we continued to be amazed by the capability of the Powderkeg. With such a long wheelbase the stability is incredible. As long as we kept the pedals turning, we could crank, albeit slowly, up just about anything. We knew we were ready to tackle some reasonably rough and tumble terrain, so long as it didn’t involve a lot of big rocks and logs as it’s awfully easy to high-center.
A Blessing and a Curse
With our confidence high and our communication dialed, we began planning and packing for our tour of a portion of the more than 500,000-acre Allegheny National Forest (ANF). Like most of our National Forests, the ANF is a “working forest,” meaning managed natural gas and oil extraction as well as selective timber harvests provide operational revenue and economic impact within the local community.
While the harvesting of natural resources may be a point of contention now, this forest’s history is far uglier than today’s sustainability managed approach. By the early 1900’s, nearly all of this land, and most all of Pennsylvania for that matter, was clear cut by private companies trying to meet burgeoning demand for lumber for everything from construction to wood pulp for paper to wood chemical production—acetic acid, wood alcohol and acetate of lime. During the Civil War, tanneries used immense amounts of hemlock bark to keep up with leather production.
After the trees were gone, the land was abandoned. In 1923, the Federal Government purchased this land and established the ANF, as authorized by the Weeks Act of 1911. At the time, locals called this shrub-filled wasteland the “Allegheny Brush-patch.”
Unfortunately, when the Federal Government purchased the ANF, funding limitations lead to purchasing only the surface rights. Ninety-three percent of the ANF’s subsurface rights are privately held, which has led to extensive oil and natural gas extraction. In 1981, this region produced roughly 17 percent of Pennsylvania’s total crude oil output.
While there are many undeniable downsides to these industries, one of the upsides comes in the form of forest roads. After decades of drilling and logging, forest roads criss-cross a majority of the forest. Some are open to vehicular traffic, others have long since been closed to motor vehicles. Some barely even exist.
So long as you’re away from extraction traffic, these roads are perfect for touring. You’re off the beaten path, but the terrain is mellow enough that you’re able to comfortably cover ground on a loaded touring bike. But, it’s also just technical enough to keep things interesting. For the most part, forest roads tend to be well signed, so they’re easily navigable. For this trip, the ANF’s administrative map proved to be the right tool for for planning and navigating. These administrative maps show all of the forest roads, whether they’re gated or open to the public. Online maps and gazetteers can’t always be trusted when it comes to showing which roads are navigable and which aren’t.
After spending way too many hours staring at maps drawing and redrawing routes, we settled on three beautiful, remote locations to camp and connected the dots with as much dirt and as little hike-a-bike as possible.
Packing turned out to be easier than feared. With racks and panniers at both ends, a frame bag up front, one Salsa Anything Cage and Anything Bag, six water bottles and a snack bag, we were set. (Visit bicycletimesmag.com/tandem_anf to see detailed setup info.) Here, the Powderkeg again impressed us with its versatility and plethora of options for mounting and hauling gear.
On the Road
Day one consisted of a long, long climb from the reservoir’s edge up a drainage to the top of the plateau, rolling ridgetop pavement, and a steep descent back to the water’s edge to a boat-in-only campsite. Toward the end of the day, we experienced the first of many mini-frustrations. Know how you tend to get fidgety toward the end of a long day in the saddle? Well, that mutual fidgeting and fatigue isn’t the best for morale when every little wiggle and wobble is transmitted to your partner in crime.
After a fitful night’s sleep trying to keep a portly raccoon out of our food stash—Blackburn’s awesome Outpost Top Tube bag may be water resistant, but it’s not coon-proof—we made a fatigued pushed up out of the valley.
In the late afternoon, we rolled into a beautiful, secluded campsite upstream from a fish hatchery. Water rumbling over a small dam provided the perfect soundtrack for a good night’s sleep.
Day three took us to Heart’s Content Scenic Area, one of approximately 20 stands of old-growth forest remaining in all of Pennsylvania. Walking through this forest, it’s hard to believe the entire state was once covered by these giants. Shame of it is, many of these trees are nearing the end of their lifecycle. Each year a few more fall down.
The highlight of this day was bombing five miles down hill on an old timber-era, narrow-gauge rail corridor. All loaded down and traveling on this sometimes-rough surface, the Powderkeg rolled with a confidence that encouraged more speed, despite the rain. This and many other downhills made me thankful for the large disc brake rotors. Even with those big rotors, we often smelled hot brakes on descents.
After a big day in the saddle and one lengthy, uphill, bushwhacking hike-a-bike, our last night camping was by far the most spectacular, right at the base of an underappreciated and positively gorgeous waterfall. We hustled to beat the rain into camp, which hammered down just moments after we finalized our tarp setup. Thanks to the day’s rain, it only took a dozen attempts to get a decent fire going. With nearly a month of rain prior to our trip, the falls were running ample and loudly, making for another good night’s sleep.
After a short trip back to the car on day four, we were happy to be easing back into civilization. It’s funny how being mostly remote for not even four full days provides a whole different perspective on your day-to-day existence.
In all, this trip was everything we had hoped it would be. We had a blast sharing a local adventure, but more importantly, touring on a tandem undoubtedly made us both more connected, conscientious, considerate partners.
Continue reading with our full field review of the Salsa Powderkeg.
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From Issue #37
Testers: Justin Steiner and Emily Walley
To see action photos and learn more about this bike, check out the multi-day bikepacking adventure that begat this review by reading “Allegheny National Forest touring tandemonium” from the same issue.
Salsa first began prototyping tandems back in 2010 when former Salsa Engineer Tim Krueger and his wife Odia saw other couples racing the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival’s Short and Fat Race on tandems. Now, many prototype miles later, including a trip down the Tour Divide,the production Powderkeg is here.
While the Powderkeg is inspired by Salsa’s El Mariachi 29er mountain bike, the construction is much burlier. Salsa utilizes downright huge Cobra Kai tubes custom drawn for this project on the frame and fork to minimize flex. Despite the heavy-duty construction, the complete bike weighs just 42 pounds.
Three frame sizes are available; medium/small, large/small and large/medium. According to Salsa, those offerings will fit captains from five feet, eight inches to six feet, three inches. Stokers from five feet, five inches to six feet even. It’s worth noting we’re both one inch shorter than the minimum stated fit range but had no issues fitting on the bike. Emily ran the standard stoker stem and Justin swapped to a 60 mm stem.
Salsa bills the Powderkeg as a mountain, gravel and touring bike. Big brakes and aggressive knobby tires hold up the mountain bike end of the bargain so long as you’re willing. On the touring side, a plethora of rack, water bottle and three-pack mounts provide ample options for hauling stuff and mounting fenders. Salsa’s Alternator rear dropout system works incredibly well with the company’s Alternator Rack, but doesn’t play as nicely with other racks.
The rest of the Powderkeg’s spec is well thought out and reliable without being overly pricey. The Shimano SLX 3×10 drivetrain worked flawlessly and provided all the gearing range we needed. Avid BB7 cable-actuated brakes with 200 mm rotors provided ample stopping power and resisted fading throughout our testing.
It’s clear Salsa invested and lot of time and energy in this project and their hard work has paid off. The Powderkeg is a cohesive, rough and ready package. I’m so impressed with the ride quality and stiffness of this frame. Fully loaded for camping or on technical singletrack we never perceived a bit of fork or frame flex, which is incredible considering the length of the bike and the force two people can apply.
The Powderkeg’s handling is similarly impressive. Of course, riding a tandem requires some adjustment, this bike’s 70-degree headtube angle and long wheelbase blend low-speed maneuverability and high-speed stability very well, regardless of whether bombing singletrack or cruising dirt roads. At tandem-friendly-speeds off road, I never felt much need for a suspension fork, but a 100 mm tandem-rated suspension fork may be used. Unlike a single bike, each person is only really dealing with the impacts from one wheel. The other wheel is so far away the bump forces are much smaller.
The Powderkeg is one of just a few off-the-shelf mountain tandems available. Cannondale offers the Tandem 29er for $3,125 with some compelling component spec, but it doesn’t offer comparable touring versatility and has a strangely steep 72.5-degree headtube angle.
Aside from that, nearly every other tandem in this category hails from a smaller company and commands a premium. For instance, Co-Motion’s Java 29er starts at $5,595. Ventana offers a handful of tandems; the full suspension El Conquistador de Montañas 29er starts at $6,000 and the rigid, fat-wheel El Gran Jefe ranges from $3,200 to $6,500. All of these make the adventure-ready Powderkeg seem like a pretty good deal at $3,999.
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