Skip to content

From the Vault: Ross Shafer’s Trusty 1984 Salsa Custom

In a scramble to get a bike built for a big race, Ross Shafer created an instant classic. And, he inadvertently discovered a new framebuilding technique that would become one of his signature details.

Written by: Tasshi Dennis

Published on:

Posted in:Vintage

Photos by John Watson | The Radavist

In 1982, while working a gig at Santana Cycles, Ross Shafer constructed what he would describe at the time as “the only five mountain bikes I will ever build.” Since these bikes were a distinct departure from the road, 'cross, and tandem bikes he was building under his own Red Bush label, he would give the novel knobby tire bikes a new “Salsa Cycles” name.

As we now know, 40 years down the road, this would turn into something much bigger. Today, you can select from a wide spectrum of Salsa bike models, still primarily catering to a knobby tire or dirt-oriented ride.

Salsa down tube

Shafer’s first personal mountain bike, known by the serial number “SCOBO” as short for his Italian-styled nickname Scoboni, was ridden hard for a couple years. While examining the bike in preparation for the Whiskeytown Off-Road race to be held near Redding, California, Shafer noticed that the down tube was cracked. Although the bike was eventually repaired and used as a shop bike, loaner, and test mule for a long time, Shafer was without a working bike with little time before the race. Dejected, he rallied and spent a sleepless night building an entirely new frame with lighter weight tubing and unicrown fork blades that had recently become available in 1984.


Having just a day left to drive up to the venue, there was no time to fully finish the frame, so Shafer built it up with parts and took it to the event without filing down the bronze fillets joining the frame tubes. Finishing the fillets with files and sanding gives smooth transitions but is painstaking work. Of course, there was no time to paint the frame either, so it had a raw appearance that has only more recently become an aesthetic of its own.

Salsa Scoboni seat cluster

While at the campground during the race weekend, Shafer was talking with aluminum mountain bike pioneer Charlie Cunningham and dreading the fact that he had to go back to his shop and clean up the fillets to make it look nice after getting home. However, Cunningham told Shafer that his fillets looked great; the worst fillets can be filed to look great, and he should show off his workmanship instead of cleaning them up. From that point forward, Shafer only sold one more brazed frame with fully finished fillets, by special request at an extra "con todo" up-charge of $300. He upped his brazing game and soon mastered the “no-file-fillet” technique, to the degree that it can be difficult to tell that a joint hasn't been fully finished.

With a serial number of 37, this second bike was beloved by Shafer and ridden hard for more than 10 years, seeing various changes in configuration and components to adapt to evolving needs and preferences.

Bontrager fork

The original unicrown fork was replaced with a Bontrager Race triple clamp, serving as a test subject before becoming standard equipment on production Salsa Ala Carte frames. The Race fork has remained on the bike ever since, although the unicrown fork with original paint still exists, as pictured. The original stem pre-dated the design of the iconic Salsa Moto with roller cable guide and features instead a simple vertical hole through which the brake cable passes. At one point, this bike also sported a curved "LD” stem for drop bars, later to be replaced with a more conventional Salsa P7 model as shown on the bike now. The Specialized RM-3 bars have a relatively small amount of flare for an off-road bar. However, the tops of the bars have a “criterium style” or track-bike bend to provide more wrist clearance, which in turn reduces the ergonomics of riding on the tops. With the plethora of modern gravel bikes today, there has been an explosion in handlebar options pushing the extremes of both width and flare. Looking back, it’s clear that the design of off-road drop bars is far from settled.

Salsa handlebars

The components are an eclectic mix of Shimano, Suntour, and Specialized spanning several model years. Prototype brakes from Paul Component Engineering grace the rear of the bike and XTR M900 chainrings found their way onto the crankset at some later date. Shafer’s preferred saddle, the bare plastic Cinelli Unicanitor, was used along with a Breeze-Angel Hite-Rite. The shoulder strap was made by Mike Pfotenhauer, the founder of Osprey Packs, just as he was getting started.

For rims, the hot ticket in the mid-‘80s was the Bontrager “cut down” in which the circumference of a 700c Super Champion or Mavic road rim was cleverly reduced and re-rolled into a 26” size. These narrow rims saved weight but also gave a rounded tire profile and opened the tread pattern. That said, the rear of the bike was designed to fit the small 1.7-inch version of the IRC X-1 Racer tire. In the front, Shafer preferred the big 2.125-inch version of the X-1 Racer. At some point, it became difficult to source the X-1 tires, and Shafer settled on the high-volume Ritchey Z-Max 2.35-inch. Before front- and rear-specific tread patterns had been developed, it was common to use a small rear tire for pedaling efficiency and a large front tire for cornering traction and rudimentary suspension.

Salsa Bikes Rasta paint

The bike started out painted with a red oxide epoxy primer with a blue pearlescent clear coat, as seen on the original unicrown fork and stem. Later, the bike was repainted white with large Rasta stripes, consistent with the ska and reggae music that played often at the Petaluma frame shop. When it came time to paint the Salsa racing team bikes in the late ‘80s, Shafer went with this same paint scheme to great effect. Topping it all off is spicy Salsa chili pepper bar tape.

Although the last event the bike was entered in was The Alleycats Scramble in 1992, it remained Shafer’s primary mountain bike for years. As it rolls today, the bike represents a collective history of influential people, significant events, technology trends, cycling culture, and dedicated service.

Ross Shafer at Punk Bike Enduro

A scene from the 1985 Bike Punk Enduro race held at Annadel State Park near Santa Rosa with (L to R) Wes Williams, unknown, Gordon Burns, Joe Breeze, and Ross Shafer on Salsa Cycles #37. Photo: Maury Cohen

The Build

Year: 1984
S/N: SM037
Frame: Salsa Custom
Fork: Bontrager Race
Stem: Salsa P7
Headset: Shimano Deore XT M730
Bottom Bracket: Shimano Deore XT M730
Handlebar: Specialized RM-3
Shifters: Shimano Ultegra Barend SIS

Salsa cockpit

Front Derailleur: Shimano Deore XT M735
Rear Derailleur: Shimano Deore XT M732
Brake Levers: Dia Compe 287 Aero
Front Brake: Suntour XC 9000
Rear Brake: Paul Component Prototype
Crankset: Shimano Deore XT M730
Chainrings: Shimano XTR M900 26-36-46

Salsa crankset

Pedals: Suntour BMX MP-1000, Fisher Double Clips, WTB Toe Flips, Binda Straps
Hubs: Specialized / Shimano Deore XT M732
Rims: Bontrager Cut Down
Tires: Ritchey Z-Max HardDrive K 2.1 / Ritchey Z-Max HardDrive K 2.35
Wheel QR: Salsa Flip-Off
Seatpost: Deore XT M730
Saddle: Cinelli Unicanitor
Seatpost QR: Modified Campagnolo

Salsa seat stays

Bar Tape: Salsa Rasta Pepper
Chain: Shimano HG
Cogs: Shimano Hyperglide M732
Bottle Cage: Specialized
Brake Booster: DKG
Portage Strap: Pfotenhauer Custom
Extras: Breeze-Angel Hite-Rite