If you’re looking for an affordable gravel-ish bike for adventure riding and bikepacking, you might be considering both the Salsa Fargo and the Vaya. Salsa markets both as adventure-ready bikes up for carrying multi-day loads. At first glance they may look similar due to their steel frames, carbon forks, drop handlebars, and comparable prices.
The Fargo and Vaya, however, are very different beasts at home on different surfaces and terrain. If you only ride gravel and pavement, either will work fine (and the Vaya may be slightly better). But if you’re drawn to remote dirt roads, the chunkiest of gravel, and occasional trails, the Fargo is the clear winner. In short the Fargo is more versatile, more off-road capable, and better for heavily loaded riding while being surprisingly well-suited to more casual riding too.
For many folks that already makes the decision clear. Make your choice and go ride it! But if you’re still on the fence, read on for a more detailed explanation of the Fargo versus the Vaya and their differences, similarities, and sweet spots.
First launched in 2009, the Fargo is Salsa’s longest running bike model and a cult classic in the bikepacking world. It’s a drop bar mountain bike especially beloved for its versatility on long mixed terrain routes. The Fargo excels on dirt and gravel roads, including rough and chunky ones, and rides surprisingly well on pavement and smooth singletrack too.
From Salsa: “Fargo Apex 1 is Salsa’s drop-bar off-road touring bike built to shatter limits. Ride it on singletrack, gravel, or other places you wouldn’t take your standard touring bike.”
The Vaya is Salsa’s gravel and light any-road touring bike with steel frame and carbon fork. It also has a long history, following the Fargo by just a couple years with its 2011 launch. It’s a mid-range option between the aluminum Journeyer and carbon Warbird, both also designed for gravel riding.
From Salsa: “Vaya is our any-road adventure and light touring bike. Its ample tire clearance, cargo capacity, and smooth steel ride make it a comfortable, capable steel gravel bike that offers plenty of zip for your road rides as well.”
Latest model and frameset:
Check Vaya prices online: REI
Before I get into the details of each bike and build, let’s start with what you probably care about most: where can you ride each of these bikes?
Though the Fargo and Vaya overlap in their sweet spot of surface and terrain, the Fargo’s range is much larger. A picture is worth a thousand words here:
The Vaya is squarely in the gravel and “any road” category, meaning it’s optimized for pavement and gravel. If you try to ride it outside that range, for example on gnarly dirt roads or singletrack trails, you’ll likely have an uncomfortable and frustrating time. The narrower tires would make for a very bumpy ride and the geometry would not be confidence-inspiring. You’d probably find yourself dismounting and walking through any rough sections.
The Fargo, by contrast, is in a category called drop bar mountain bike, emphasis on “mountain bike.” At the tame end of its range the Fargo is similar to the Vaya; it’s happy to ride pavement and gravel, especially with a narrower and faster tire. But thanks to a number of clever design choices the Fargo can also handle terrain where you’ll typically find hardtail mountain bikes. It’s still not the most trail-capable bike thanks to its rigid fork and drop handlebars, but it’s much better equipped than the Vaya for dirt trails and rough unpaved roads.
Here are some examples. They happen to all involve bikepacking because I do a lot of it, but they apply equally well to unloaded riding.
The Vaya’s Happy Place
The Vaya will be happiest on these types of rides:
The Fargo’s Happy Place
The Fargo can ride all of the above surfaces just about as well as the Vaya can, especially if you take the time to swap to skinnier tires or even a second wheelset. In fact, three of the above pictures were taken with a Fargo along for the ride, either mine or someone else’s in the group.
But – and here’s the magic thing about the Fargo that few bikes can match – it is also perfect for rougher roads and trails, like these:
All four of those pictures feature a Fargo. I may be a bit biased as a Fargo owner myself, but I wouldn’t want to ride a Vaya for any substantial length of time in those places.
Similarities between Vaya and Fargo
Though the Fargo and Vaya are very different bikes, they do have some important features in common.
Both the Vaya and Fargo have steel frames. Though relatively heavy compared to other common bike materials (aluminum, carbon, titanium) steel is popular for its not-too-stiff ride feel, durability, and affordability. Salsa offers similar bikes in other materials (the Cutthroat is a carbon cousin to the Fargo, the Warbird is a carbon cousin to the Vaya) but the Fargo and Vaya are both Salsa’s steel offering within their niche.
Not all steel frames are equal, and Salsa uses fairly high-quality triple butted steel tubing in both these bikes. This means the tube wall thickness tapers down twice toward the center of the tube, compared to double butted tubing which only tapers down once. This allows for lighter and more compliant tubes, which is part of why Salsa’s steel frames are a bit lighter and less stiff-feeling than Surly’s, for example.
Both bikes pair their steel frame with a carbon fiber fork. This is a nice upgrade over a steel fork because it saves significant weight (over a pound, depending on the fork) and offers what many riders feel is better handling and more comfortable ride feel. Personally I love the steel frame and carbon fork combo, and both these bikes nail it.
Price and Quality
As you might guess from their similar prices, the Vaya and Fargo are of similar quality and “fanciness,” for lack of a better way to put it. The steel frame and carbon fork combo mentioned above are part of this, as well as the cost and quality tiers of their groupsets, wheels, etc.
At first glance the Fargo and Vaya appear similar in large part due to their handlebars. Both bikes feature drop-style handlebars, the kind commonly found on road bikes, as opposed to the flat handlebars typically found on mountain bikes. But these drop handlebars are specifically designed for off-pavement riding, and the difference between them is important.
The Fargo uses more dramatically flared Cowchipper handlebars that are wider than the Vaya’s bars at each frame size. The extra control and leverage supports the Fargo’s confidence on rough terrain. The Vaya uses slightly flared Cowbell bars that are narrower for each size and closer to a typical road handlebar, more typical of a gravel bike setup.
To learn more about different types of drop handlebars and how they impact handling and comfort, see Cowbell, Cowchipper, Woodchipper: Comparing Salsa’s Flared Drop Bars.
All else being equal, a mountain bike is heavier than a gravel bike. This is one reason people generally want a dedicated road or gravel bike with a more delicate and lightweight frame. But in this case the Fargo and the Vaya are comparable in weight, both coming in around 25 pounds, plus or minus.
Another way of looking at this: the Fargo is relatively lightweight for a steel mountain bike, thanks in part to its rigid carbon fork. And the Vaya is relatively heavy for a gravel bike, at least compared to higher-end carbon versions or lightweight aluminum. In this case there isn’t necessarily a big weight advantage to buying the Vaya over the Fargo if you just want to ride gravel.
Both bikes ship with exactly the same brakes: mechanical TRP Spyre disc brakes. Mechanical disc brakes are very popular among mid-range bikes, especially those focused on adventurous riding and bike travel, and they’re a great choice. Though some people prefer the feel and power of hydraulic disc brakes, they’re more expensive and a bit more complicated to repair and maintain.
The TRP Spyres on both the Fargo and Vaya are known for their surprisingly food reliability, braking feel, and stopping power relative to other mechanical brakes.
Both the Fargo and Vaya are designed with loaded touring and bikepacking in mind, so they have plenty of ways to mount gear: bottle cage mounts in the frame triangle and beneath the downtube, 3-pack mounts for heavier gear cages on the fork blades, and front and rear rack compatibility.
Both bikes are designed to carry a load without worry of failure in the middle of nowhere. This is especially notable for the Vaya as compared to more speed-focused bikes in the gravel category. For example, the Vaya ships with sturdy 32-spoke wheels (just like the Fargo’s but with narrower rims) that can handle a load and some knocks without breaking a spoke.
It’s worth noting that Salsa says the Vaya is designed to carry “light touring loads,” while they place no such caveat on the gear-hauling Fargo. The Vaya looks pretty sturdy to me, and I’m sure people have loaded it down with plenty of gear. But if I had to choose one bike to load down for a long expedition, it would definitely be the extra-sturdy Fargo.
Now let’s get to the heart of the issue: what distinguishes a Fargo from a Vaya and why would you choose one over the other?
This is the biggie in my opinion. The Fargo covers a much wider range of terrain primarily because it can fit much wider tires than the Vaya, and wider tires offer more cushion and traction when the going gets rough. The difference is due to a combination of the Fargo’s wider stock rims and the design of its frame and fork.
- Fargo: up to 3″ wide in both 29″ and 27.5″ diameters (except for 29″ on size XS)
- Vaya: up to 45mm (1.8″) wide in 700c diameter
Though preferences vary, most mountain bikers and off-pavement bikepackers prefer at least a 2″ wide tire, and 2.2 – 2.4″ is a common range. As you can see, the Vaya doesn’t even come close to clearing this size tire, which makes a lot of popular dirt routes basically off-limits to the Vaya. Yes you can still try to ride them on skinny tires, but most people won’t find it very fun.
Note: Mountain bikes typically use units of inches while gravel and road bikes use metric. 700c is a gravel and road designation for wheel diameter that’s roughly equivalent to the MTB standard of 29″.
The lengths and angles of a bike’s tubes dictate how it handles on different terrain: stability at speed, quickness of steering, weight distribution and how it impacts efficiency and confidence on steep climbs and descents, and lots more.
Here’s an overlay from bikeinsights.com showing the Fargo versus the Vaya:
The Fargo’s geometry leans much more toward the mountain bike side of the spectrum: slacker head tube angle, longer wheelbase, and higher bottom bracket (thanks in large part to its higher volume 29″ tires). These features make for more stable handling, confident descending, and less chance of pedal strikes on rocky trails. The Vaya has a more traditional gravel bike geometry that rolls well on smooth surfaces but isn’t intended to handle rough stuff.
It’s worth noting that both these bikes have a fairly upright stack to reach ratio relative to others in their category, meaning the riding posture is more upright. This reflects both bikes’ emphasis on comfort for long-distance travel and adventure riding, compared to a focus on speed and performance (as you would see with, for example, Salsa’s Warbird carbon gravel bike) where a more forward-leaning posture is typical.
The Fargo has a 1×11 drivetrain typical of mountain bikes, while the Vaya has a 2×11 drivetrain commonly seen on gravel bikes. Why the difference?
Putting it simply, terrain that changes grade often (like singletrack trails) lends itself to fewer gears with bigger spaces between them, so you don’t have to shift as many times to get into the right gear. Terrain with long steady climbs (often gravel or paved roads) can feel better on a 2x drivetrain because you have more gears to choose from, making it easier to dial in the perfect gear for a long grind.
There’s also the overall range to consider. The Vaya’s 2x drivetrain has a wider range that skews higher than the Fargo, meaning it will be harder to climb steep hills but you’ll be able to cruise faster on flats and gradual downhills if you want to work for it. The Fargo is geared a bit lower (though still not as low as some mountain bikes) to make loaded climbing easier, but you’ll run out of gears when trying to pedal hard on smooth gradual descents. Normally this isn’t a problem for leisurely riders and bikepackers; we’re happy to just relax and cruise rather than push for speed.
It’s worth noting that overall the trend is toward 1x drivetrains on gravel bikes too as the possible range expands. I have a 1×12 drivetrain on my Chumba Stella and love it for both singletrack and gravel. The people who miss the higher gears of a 2x generally spend a lot of time on pavement and like to ride fast.
Currently both the Fargo and Vaya frames can be run as 1x or 2x, so you have the option to convert if you want. But this takes an investment of time and especially money, so try to choose the one that meets your needs upfront if possible.
For more on the difference, see 1x versus 2x Drivetrains.
Alternator Dropouts and Versatility
It happens to many of us: we think we’re buying the perfect do-it-all Forever Bike, and then a year later we find ourselves googling “singlespeed conversion,” “lighter wheelset,” or even “Rohloff belt drive.” It’s ok, these things happen!
If you like to tinker and imagine yourself making changes to your bike in the future, the Fargo is a much more versatile platform. It uses Salsa’s Alternator Dropouts which offer a number of options the Vaya doesn’t:
- Ability to run rear wheel with either 148 or 142mm thru-axle, or 135mm QR w/ Alternator reduction plates. The Vaya is limited to 10 x 135mm QR.
- Ability to convert to singlespeed, either permanently or in an emergency if your rear derailleur breaks in the middle of nowhere.
- Ability to run a Rohloff hub and even a belt drive, the latter thanks to a frame split in the Fargo’s rear triangle.
Granted, some of these are a bit exotic and you may not have any interest in them. But I speak from experience: sometimes our interests evolve beyond what we ever expected, and it’s nice to keep options open.
Side by Side Comparison Table
|Salsa Fargo (2024 Apex 1)
|Salsa Vaya (2021 GRX 600)
|chromoly steel, triple-butted
|chromoly steel, triple-butted
|29″ (also compatible with 27.5″)
|29 x 3.0″ without fender (only on SM–XL frame sizes)
29 x 2.4″ with fender
27.5 x 3.0″
|700c x 45mm tires or 700c x 38mm with fenders
|Teravail Sparwood 29 x 2.2″, Durable, Tubeless-Ready
Teravail Cannonball 700c x 38 mm, Durable, Tubeless-Ready
|WTB ST i25
|WTB ST i19
|Salsa Cowchipper (drop bar with generous flare)
|Salsa Cowbell (drop bar with slight flare)
|mechanical disc (TRP Spyre-C),
160 mm rotors
|mechanical disc (TRP Spyre-C),
160 mm rotors
(11-42t cassette, 32t chainring)
(11-34t cassette, 46/30t chainrings)
|Shimano GRX 600
|1x, 2x, singlespeed, internally geared hub, belt drive
|Front: 110 x 15 mm Thru-axle
Rear: 148 or 142mm thru-axle, or 135mm QR w/ Alternator reduction plates
10 x 135mm QR
|XS, S, M, L, XL
|49.5, 52, 54, 55, 57, 59.5 cm
|24.5 lbs – size large
|25 lbs – size 55 cm
Summary and Reasons to Choose Each
If you’re still on the fence, here are my final thoughts on how to choose between the Fargo and the Vaya.
If you have any interest in someday getting into dirt road touring or bikepacking, singletrack trails, or just generally getting more rugged and remote with your bike, I’d recommend the Fargo. You can still ride the Fargo on gravel and pavement, and there’s very little downside when it comes to the usual tradeoffs of weight, price, and compatibility. The Fargo does most of what the Vaya does, and it does much more too, so it leaves your options open. If the legendary Great Divide Mountain Bike Route gets your blood flowing a little faster, you should get a Fargo.
Who should choose the Vaya? Perhaps you already have a dedicated mountain bike that you like riding on rougher roads and trails. Maybe you hate dirt, and smooth gravel is your idea of roughing it. Perhaps you’re buying the bike mainly for paved commuting, or the Vaya’s more traditional gravel bike geometry is simply more comfortable for you. In all these cases the Vaya is a great choice.
In the end, both the Vaya and the Fargo are reliable and quality bikes at a reasonable price, and each unlocks a ton of adventure opportunities. Whichever one you choose, I wish you many happy miles together.
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