It was a matter of true coincidence when two similarly priced carbon gravel bikes showed up at the RBA offices in the same week. But there they were—Salsa Warbird 105 and the Donnelly G//C Rival—two bikes spec’d with their respective component company’s mid-tier drivetrains. We knew it was time for a gravel-grinder shootout.
While Salsa and Donnelly are both known for their off-road products, each brand comes to the gravel segment from entirely different experiences. Donnelly came to the gravel scene from the cyclocross arena. Their gravel tires have helped Team RBA rides out on local fire roads and races like Dirty Kanza. Salsa, on the other hand, has a 30-year history in mountain bikes and hard-core adventure riding. The Minnesota-based brand (originally a pioneer NorCal brand started by Ross Schaefer) is well-regarded for the quality of their fat bikes and touring rigs.
Salsa’s parent company is Quality Bicycle Products, which is located in Bloomington, Minnesota, where winter rides especially demand a hearty dedication to “keeping it real.” This is Salsa’s fourth version of the Warbird, and it was engineered with input easily gathered from many of their product managers who enjoy a fair amount of industry-wide renown for their true-to-life product testing.
Originally launched in 2012, the Warbird had a visionary design that flew under the radar of many. More than just a cyclocross bike but not yet a modern gravel rig, the original Warbird included both titanium- and an aluminum-framed options, was designed for 700x38mm tires and was able to accommodate semi-compact chainrings.
Donnelly sponsors a litany of pro cycling teams, including Aevolo Development, Hagens Berman Supermint and top pro racer Jamey Driscoll, who debuted the G//C at Dirty Kanza. The nearly decade-old company started off producing tires before moving onto cyclocross and gravel frames. Based in Denver, Donnelly offers both ’cross and gravel bikes at mirrored price points, but the carbon frames are designed to be unique to their respective domains.
Donnelly took their time in developing the G//C. Instead of adding clearance and lowering the bottom bracket of their dedicated cyclocross bike, the G//C, Donnelly engineered a gravel-specific frame with an appropriate head tube angle, wheelbase and chainstay length.
Gloss white, curvy and carbon, the Warbird’s lines lead your eyes from the racing stripes on its fork to its flared seatstays and asymmetrical, offset chainstays. Internally routed cables and the flat-mount disc brakes keep the lines clean even when the frame isn’t. Salsa designed the tall and thin seatstays with a unique flair to increase rear-end compliance and to damp vibrations.
More than just the seatstays caught our eye on the Warbird’s rear end; the shapely, offset, asymmetrical chainstays had us pulling out the measuring tape. Although long in general, the 43cm chainstays are 5mm shorter than the Donnelly’s. The drive-side stay sits lower on the bottom bracket than the non-drive side and includes a chain guard. A long 103.8cm wheelbase paired with a 70.75-degree head tube angle and 50mm fork offset add stability and confidence.
New to the 2019 design is the Warbird’s increased tire-clearance capacity. Previous versions only accommodated 700c wheels, but with the growing trend of smaller and wider 650b wheels, Salsa adapted. The bike is now compatible with up to a 700x45mm and 650×2.1 tires.
Salsa adorned our size-56cm frame with three bottle mounts on the inner triangle and one under the downtube. There are mounts for pannier racks, as well as fenders on both ends of the bike, and an additional bag mount on the top tube.
Our 56cm G//C is built with a 72-degree head tube angle, similar to a road-specific frame. The aggressive angle creates a snappier ride over mixed-terrain compared to the Warbird’s slacker head tube. Paired with a shorter head tube length—17cm than the Salsa’s 18cm—the front end of the Donnelly is quick to respond to commands.
Interestingly, while the Donnelly’s 103.2cm wheelbase is shorter than the Salsa’s at 43.5cm, the oversized chainstays are 5mm longer than the Warbird. The longer rear end is complemented with a stack height of 58.9cm and a reach of 38cm for a more upright riding position.
The G//C frame is available in a sand color and five sizes. It has a shapely top tube with a slight angle near the head tube. A large, rectangular downtube extends towards its seemingly overbuilt bottom bracket shell. All the extra carbon reduces vibrations over mixed-surface terrain.
The Warbird’s Shimano 105 drivetrain included an 11-32 cassette and hydraulic disc brakes. The new 105 levers are wider for added leverage and ergonomics, while your fingers are on the lever.
The Salsa rolls on tubeless-ready DT Swiss C 1800 wheels that have a 22mm internal width. The affordable aluminum wheelset is reliable but could be upgraded to save a few grams. The Salsa’s tire choice fell to Maxxis Rambler 700x40mm tires. Salsa uses in-house components—a 27.2mm Guide Deluxe seatpost, a 44cm Cowbell Deluxe handlebar with a 12-degree flare, and a Guide stem to finish off the build.
Like the Warbird, the G//C uses flat-mount disc brakes and 12mm thru-axles that require a 6mm Allen key to remove. The G//C has six-bolt 160mm rotors on its Donnelly Ushuaia aluminum wheelset rather than the Center Lock rotors the Salsa uses. The Ushuaia wheels are mounted with Donnelly’s X’plor MSO
A Selle Italia Novus Boost saddle was a unique choice. Like other short-nosed saddles, it is designed to relieve pressure in the perineal area for improved blood flow. The Novus’ design is an advantage on bumpier surfaces and during ultra-distance events. The G//C uses an FSA Orbit headset, an FSA SL-K SBO carbon seatpost, and an aluminum cockpit consisting of a 90mm FSA Energy OS-99 stem, and a 44cm FSA Adventure handlebar with 12 degrees of flare.
Our first few rides on the Warbird left us wanting to ride more. As a dual-purpose bike, the Warbird performed well during our forays that included miles of both paved and dirt roads. The Warbird climbs well across all surfaces, and the bike’s power transfer was exceptional. The bike performs the best on gradual gradients, while steeper segments had us wishing there was a lower gear. The 50/34 with an 11-32 cassette left us wanting on more aggressive,
When it came to the descents, the Warbird was stable enough that we neared the limits of the dual-purpose bike. The bike tracked well through the corners, but we had to purposely hold ourselves back to avoid going beyond what a rigid frame could appropriately handle. On the pavement, the Warbird holds its own even with the 40mm Ramblers. The 50-tooth chainring allows the bike to push the pace over all surfaces. The ride left us wanting a narrower tire set-up to find the limits of the bike on the road.
We wanted to explore how the G//C handles its dual-purpose role, so we tested the G//C on asphalt and fire roads. Once in the saddle, we noticed the upright position the Donnelly set us up to was due to its 90mm stem and short front end.
Riding the local fire roads, the bike climbed efficiently and descended comfortably. The G//C has enough flex to reduce vibrations and keep the grippy 40mm X’plor tires on the ground, increasing confidence in all situations. The increased traction is often overlooked on race-oriented gravel and cyclocross bikes.
On the road, the Donnelly absorbed nearly every vibration for a smooth ride. The only drawback came on the fast descents where we found the bike a tad under-geared. The 48/11 gearing was too low during long descents our test riders couldn’t maintain top-end speeds. However, the low gearing excels on trails and on climbs. The 1:1 ratio in the smallest gear was a spec our test riders made good use of on the steep SoCal fire-road climbs.
Both of these gravel bikes excel during mixed-terrain rides. The Donnelly is better equipped for long climbs when a lower gear is necessary. The G//C has more stability and absorbs vibrations better; however, this makes the G//C ride monotonously on the road. The Salsa’s compact gearing gives the Warbird an edge on the road and on descents. Overall, the Warbird proved to be more refined and the better bike for dual-purpose riding, while the G//C performed its best on the dirt.
Less than $3500, both carbon rigs with their mid-tier hydraulic groupsets and aluminum wheels keep the bikes competitively priced while maintaining a proper level of quality.
- Salsa revamped their bird
- Dual-purpose components
- Enough mounts for the long haul
- Spec’d to climb
- Impressive traction on mixed surfaces
- Available in gun metal grey & sand
Price: $3399 (frame: $1999)
Weight: 20.31 pounds
Sizes: 49, 52.5, 54.5, 56 (tested), 57.5, 59, 61
Weight: 20.12 pounds
Price: $2999 (frame: $1999)
Sizes: 48, 51, 53, 55 (tested), 57
Helmet: Now Zappi
Jersey: Champion Systems
Bib: Wattie Ink
Shoes: Gaerne G Sincro
Socks: SCV Mtb
Glasses: Smith Touchstone
Shoes: Shimano S-Phyre
Socks: Capo Active Compression
Glasses: Oakley Jaw Breaker