Generally more at home on paved bike paths than rugged mountain bike trails, six-year-old Sage takes the Salsa Timberjack 20 for a whirl amongst the beautiful saguaros of Tuscon Mountain Park, Arizona…
Kids bikes have really come on over the last few years. Gone are the lookalike hunks of metal that were disproportionately heavy for their riders. Now, they’re scaled-down bikes for scaled-down bodies. Some are even shod with large volume tyres for extra confidence over rough terrain.
For the Salsa Timberjack’s maiden outing, we headed out to ride some family-friendly trails in Tuscon Mountain Park. Perfect conditions they were too. Some mellow singletrack. Some two track. Some chunk (relatively speaking). Some sand. A few awkward arroyo crossings that required a dismounted and scramble/push. Mostly flat grades. And an incredible display of cacti: saguaros, ocotillos, prickly pears, barrel cacti, and chollas, to name a few.
Where we spend a lot of time, in the Desert South West, fat tyres hold a real advantage.
For the last year or so, Sage has been riding his Islabike Beinn 20, a wonderful bike that’s perfectly scaled down for small statures in every way. In the Desert South West, however, fat tyres hold a noticeable advantage: they add comfort, confidence over rough terrain, and grip through loose corners. But they’re also heavier beasts. Initially, I worried that a model like the Timberjack might be too much bike for him to push around, which in turn would impact his enjoyment.
So, we waited until Sage grew stronger and his off-road biking skills improved, before even thinking about trying one. Then, I heard about six-year-old kids riding mid-fat bikes and loving them. Perhaps the extra confidence and rolling ability afforded larger-than-life tyres helped offset their weight? When the opportunity came up to borrow a Timberjack 20 from Salsa Cycles, the planets aligned for Sage to find out for himself.
Mid-fat, you ask? By this, I mean 3in tyres on 35mm rims, which is considerably wider than a standard mountain bike. And heavier too, as mentioned. Still, although I have yet to weigh it, the Timberjack 20 doesn’t feel as portly as I’d feared, worried as I am about bike-to 6-year-old weight-ratios. Or at least, neither did Sage comment about the difference, nor did it seem to affect his riding. I asked him what he thought of the Timberjack after his initial test ride. (Did I mention that he actually built it up himself from the box? I check the bolts of course!) He replied, ‘It’s definitely different’. How so, as I pressed? ‘Just… different…’ I’m going to take it as a ‘different’ in a good way for off road riding, as he was soon crunching his way over the large stones and rocks lining the driveway of his grandma’s house, terrain that he’d never have tackled so brazenly before. It definitely gave him an immediate boost in confidence.
He seemed happy with the way it handled too, for such a big bike. Salsa says it’s paid attention to the needs of a child and adjusted the geometry according. Apparently, kids tend to steer by pushing the handlebars left and right, rather than responsive leaning and countersteering as adults do, so it helps if steering is a bit quicker than normal.
All things considered, the Timberjack 20 really is pretty nifty. It uses an aluminum frame and fork, complimented by reasonable quality parts, mechanical disc brakes (the same I have on one of my own bike, in fact), and a simple but reliable 1×8 drivetrain operated with a light, gripshift-style shifter. Note that the front wheel uses a nutted axle, so you’ll need a 15mm wrench to pop it off, which is a bit of a pain if you need to put the bike in the back of a car.
Unfortunately, whilst the stock WTB rims are tubeless ready, the unbranded tyres can’t claim the same. Even so, I’ll have to figure out a way to set them up with sealant, as tubes in the desert are a no go, especially in goathead season. In the meantime, I’ve added sealant to the inner tubes, which is a little more complicated than it might otherwise be, as the stock tubes don’t feature removable cores. In any case, there are other benefits to tubeless tyres too: they save weight and can be run lower at a lower pressure, which helps them roll better offroad and grip more efficiently.
In terms of fit, I lowered the saddle and position of the handlebars; At 6 years and two months old, and 4′ (122cm) in stature at the time of writing, Sage is very much at the smaller end of the rider scale; according to Salsa’s website, the Timberjack 20 is recommended for riders between 4’1″ and 4’9″ (125 to 145cm). I expect a bike like this would have a good resale value too, if it wasn’t being passed on to a sibling.
The handlebars are also much wider than his Islabike and the whole stance of how he’s positioned is very different; watching him ride, the q-factor (space between the pedals) looks greater, to accommodate the fatter tyres. I noticed the brakes aren’t as easy to reach, though they seem very powerful. As it is, the Islabike will remain his city bike – it has a kickstand, rear rack, low q-factor, and lighter, skinnier tyres that are more suitable to his school commute – whilst the Timberjack 20 will be perfect for our dirt road and singletrack explorations.
If today was anything to go by, what Sage may currently lack in skills, he certainly makes up for with speed on the flowy stuff! The three of us really covered some ground.
Anyway, I digress. We went for a spin around the trails in Tuscon Mountain Park and he did really well. Amazingly well, in fact, riding with so much more confidence than normal. There were a few tears, a couple of crashes… but we all, as a family, had a great ride together. In fact, it’s pretty much our first full-on trail ride outside of occasional, local singletrack loops in Santa Fe. Despite my own love of roughstuff, Sage has always prefered a good bike path to an off-road trail. If today was anything to go by, what he may currently lack in skills, he certainly makes up for with speed on the flowy stuff! The three of us really covered some ground. Sage still has a lot of confidence to gain – he’s always been a reserved child – though I’m sure this will follow naturally, especially on a confidence inspiring bike like the Timberjack. Nancy did a great job guiding him from behind, bolstering his confidence, and discussing the merits of cultivating ‘grit’ in life as they rode.
There are two Timberjack models available (as well as the 24in wheel version); we forwent suspension for a rigid setup, saving weight. Besides, I’m not sure how effective suspension forks are at that price point, and the rigid fork includes triple-pack fork mounts for light cargo. If bikepacking (or collecting rocks/road finds) is your thing, there’s an optional velcro-closed frame bag too. I should add that this is a really good looking bike; the colour stands out and finish is great. We’ve slowly been investing in good quality riding gear for Sage – like his Giro helmet and Camelbak backpack – so he now has the mountain biker look dialled (not that I’m especially into that as such, as someone who generally rides in his day to day clothes).
Fact and Stats
- Product nameSalsa Timberjack 20 (2018)
- Price$549 rigid fork, $599 suspension
- ContactSalsa Cycles
Cut to the Chase
I’ll report back on how Sage gets on with the Timberjack while he’s borrowing it, and press him for a few more details on how it compares to his Islabike (-; For now, we need to get the tyres set up tubeless to avoid frustration and puncture woe, given where we live. This aside, I can safely say the Timberjack 20 has proved a big hit and has definitely given Sage an immediate confidence boost on the trail, despite its added weight.
The bike is very nicely put together too, with some great detailing for aspiring bikepackers. It’s not as scaled down as his Islabike Beinn 20, in terms of finishing kit, but this should become less of an issue as he grows into it. Aside from the day to day school commute and paved, or well-surfaced bikepaths, where his Islabike Beinn 20 remains the better choice, I expect it will jive really well with our family riding, whether we are dipping onto singletrack, or exploring our local, low traffic dirt roads back in Santa Fe. I’m looking forward to the adventures Sage and I get up to together, and from what I can gather, so is he.