Review: Surly Travelers Check

Before I talk about the Travelers Check, I need to talk about the Cross-Check.

And before I talk about the Cross-Check, I’ll talk about the KLR650.

In 1987 Kawasaki introduced the KLR650, a 650 cc, single-cylinder, dual-sport motorcycle. Even for the time, it was a simple tool that could do almost any motorcycle task one could ask of it. Commuting, touring, off-road, around-the-world trips or even Paris Dakar race bike, it does many things. It remained in production, almost completely unchanged, until 2008, when it received some updates, although it remains a no-nonsense option for a do-it-all moto.

It has its limitations. It is heavy and tall. The brakes are less than stellar; the engine produces less power than a modern 450 cc motocross bike, and the suspension is crude by any measure. But it is easily repaired, and with a few exceptions it is reliable as a garden tractor, it sounds like one too.

The Cross-Check fills a similar spot in the cycling world. First introduced in 1999, the Cross-Check was an inexpensive option for a “utility” steel cyclocross bike. Some might say it is the godfather of the modern adventure bike. It fits big tires and can be built up to suit a huge range of uses. Winter fixie beater, cyclocross race bike, Tour Divide cruiser, gravel bike, this thing can do it all. Rapidly closing in on 20 years of production, the Cross- Check is also mostly unchanged from the first ones that showed up in the last years of the 20th century

Much like the KLR, the Cross-Check is a jack-of-all-trades, which is both its strongest and weakest point. You’ll see what I mean by that shortly.

So back to the Travelers Check. Based on the geometry of the Cross-Check, the Travelers Check uses the well-regarded S&S couplers to create a take-down travel frame. Longer butting profiles on the top and down tube are used to keep the tubing thickness uniform on both sides of the couplers. Other than that, there are no real differences between the CC and TC, even down to the full-size run between 42 and 62 cm.

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The Travelers Check doesn’t have a complete bike option, so I built this one up out of mostly used parts that were sitting around at home and at Bicycle Times HQ. I decided to go with a flat bar build and keep it simple with a single-ring drivetrain, using a Shimano Deore 10-speed derailleur with a GoatLink adaptor to shift an 11-42 SunRace cassette. Plenty of range for almost anything, one less cable to mess with when taking it apart. The horizontal dropouts open up the possibility of single-speed or internally geared hubs for those who lean one of those ways.

The handlebars are Fouriers alt-bars, brakes are from BOX and the seat is a generic- looking but comfortable Fyxation Pilot. The wheels are older Bontrager Race TLRs. These wheels would not normally be my choice for an all-around build, but all of the all- around wheels I had at hand were disc-only. Since I had the option, I saved my tubes for flat repairs and ran a set of 35 mm Kenda Flintridge Pro tires sans-tubes. I spent most of the test period with a Surly 24-Pack rack and Porteur House bag on the front of the bike.

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The Ride

For better or worse, the ride of an all-purpose steel bike hasn’t changed much in a long time. I’ve owned a few bikes of this type in my riding career, including a Cross-Check, and the best way I can find to describe the general demeanor is neutral with a subtle hint of flex.

Even with oversized tubing, compared to modern aluminum or carbon bikes the Travelers Check displays some twisting in the front end. I am sure some of this is related to the porteur rack setup, but even unloaded I noticed it while cranking up hills or getting more rad than 35 mm tires are designed for. Also, 740 mm wide bars are going to torque things up more than the drop bars, or the 660 mm bars that come stock on the flat-bar Cross-Check. And finally, I ride a lot of very stiff, very modern mountain bikes, so my stiffness calibration may be different than yours.

With the lightweight wheels and tubeless tires, I was highly impressed with how speedy this bike felt on the road while still being able to hit the dirt with authority. While it isn’t as pronounced as on some higher-end steel frames I’ve ridden, this bike still has some of the “good flex” that gives steel frames their zippy feel, which made me want to get after it more than I expected on a bike with a not terribly aggressive riding position.

I know I am spoiled, but I haven’t ridden a bike with rim brakes in a long time. My own sizeable collection of bikes has only one without discs, and that bike lives on a trainer. I can’t say I had any issues with the brakes on this bike, but it was a mild winter for the most part, not the type we used to have where wearing through the braking surface on rims in a single winter was common. As a travel bike, the rim brakes keep things much simpler than cable-actuacted discs and rotors can’t get bent in transit.

The brake pads for V-brakes are a universal fit for almost every brand out there, so it should be simple to source a set almost anywhere.

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For a true touring bike, most people would want closer ratios between gears than what is found with an 11-42, 10-speed cassette. But for everything else, it is fine, and maybe the best all-around drivetrain setup I’ve used on an all-around bike. It also means one less cable and derailleur to deal with when packing. S&S recommends checking the coupler’s tightness before every ride and during the ride on very long and rough days. The coupler tool is a simple hook spanner with a 15 mm pedal wrench on the other side. I didn’t notice the instructions on daily tightening until about two weeks into the review, and both couplers where at least 3⁄4 of a turn loose.

I didn’t pack this bike up, as it doesn’t come with a case, but just like all coupled bikes it isn’t easy and takes some practice. S&S sells a variety of cases, both soft- and hard- sided, including a backpack that can fold up and store on the bike. Look for a review of the backpack at a later date. All S&S cases are designed to meet airlines’ maximum size rules, so flying should not involve an upcharge.

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Conclusion

If you don’t need a travel bike, there is little reason to buy this bike. For $875 you can get a very similar complete build in the flat-bar Cross-Check. But if you do plan to fly even a few times a year, it could easily pay for itself in just a few flights.

As an all-around bike it is hard to beat the Cross-Check, and by extension, the Travelers Check, even almost two decades after it first hit the market. While it is easy to criticize its performance in any one, and in some ways every single, criteria, it really doesn’t matter. To me, the key to a good travel bike is being up for almost anything. Short of riding very technical mountain bike trails or hopping in a group ride with really fit roadies, this bike can get me into all kinds of trouble all over the globe.


 

Tester: Eric McKeegan
Sizes available: 42, 46, 50, 52, 54, 56 (tested), 60, 62 cm
Price: $1,099 (frame and fork)

Weight: 23.4 lbs

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Surly hauls the fat with new Big Fat Dummy

No one does weird as well as Surly, and the latest creation to emerge from the frozen plains of Minnesota wears the word with pride. A combination of cargo and fat bikes, this new mashup takes the best attributes of both and smooshes them together like that hydraulic press guy.

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So you probably think the Big Fat Dummy is kind of like a Big Dummy, but with fat tires. But it’s not. Surly couldn’t just make the thing wider and expect it to work, so it started with a clean slate (or at least a clean bar napkin) and redesigned the frame to be stiffer and handle better.

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Surly shared these cool comparisons of the Big Fat Dummy (dark green) and the Big Dummy (Kawasaki green). 

Surly says the new bike can fit a 26 by 5.25 tire, which is bigger than anything on the market so far (Hmmmmmm…..) but if you want to go wider than the stock 3.8 inch Nates you will have to get creative with the chainline. To fit those monster meats it stretches the rear axle to use a 190 x 10 QR or 197 x 12 thru axle. The bottom bracket is widened to match, at 100 mm, just like an Ice Cream Truck and many other fat bikes. The bike can swallow 29plus easily as well.

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Compared to the Big Dummy, the BFD also has a slacker head tube angle and higher bottom bracket for more trail crushing capability. Ultimate trail work bike anyone?

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It will come as no surprise that the bike is big (more than 7 feet long) and heavy (more than 50 pounds), but that’s not really the point, is it? But you can weigh it down with up to 400 pounds of rider and cargo, so good luck with that!

Head on over to Surlyville for some more details.

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Frostbike Report: New and updated bikes from All City, Civia, Surly

Frostbike is one of the annual dealer gatherings hosted by Quality Bicycle Products (QBP), the parent brand behind All City, Foundry, Salsa, Surly and others. The event takes place at QBP headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in late February and allows shop owners and media types to gather and drink beer and talk shop. 

With the Taipei International Cycle Show and Sea Otter looming, not to mention the countless company-specific product launch events now usurping big trade shows, there was not a glut of new product to be explored. Here are the few new and noteworthy bicycles we stumbled upon. 

All City Pony Express – $1,149

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All City’s new rigid singlespeed mountain bike—the Log Lady—soaked up the media attention prior to Frostbike, allowing another new offering to quietly sneak into the lineup. To create the Pony Express, All City started with its highly popular Space Horse frame, doused it in bright red paint, hung it with simple 1×10 road gearing and loaded it up with a straightforward parts kit including flat bars and V-brakes. The Pony Express is fender- and rack-friendly, can accept up to 700×42 tires (38 mm with fenders), features internal cable routing on the top tube and sports a bottom bracket lower than the usual road bike.

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Since the Space Horse is All City’s light touring bike, the frame’s load capacity is a combined 50 pounds of gear and is designed to handle well under that load. On the Pony Express, All City maintains its use of beautiful lugged crown forks, signature dropouts and the company’s proprietary blend of smooth-riding steel tubing. This bike doesn’t so much answer “Why?” as it answers “Why not?”

More info: allcitycycles.com

All City Macho King Limited – $3,400

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Behold the newest edition of All City’s short-run Macho King Limited. The cyclocross racer’s frame is made from Reynolds 853 steel and features a tapered, thru-axle Whisky carbon fork, SRAM 1×11 setup and extra-classy green fade paint job. If you want one, go talk to your local bike shop now before they’re available since few are produced and they sell out fast.

More info: allcitycycles.com

Civia Lowry – $399 (singlespeed), $469 (7-speed)

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After going quiet for a few years to re-tool and conduct extensive body geometry studies, Civia is back with an all-new aluminum model (no more steel) designed to be carried by your local bike shop and to compete with direct-sale online dealers of sub-$500 neighborhood bikes.

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To begin its rebirth, Civia launched the Lowry in two styles of top tubes and with either one or seven gears. The aluminum tubing was kept narrower to mimic the look of steel tubing but was used to lighten the weight of the bikes. The frames feature rack and fender mounts as well as integrated chain guards and kickstands.

Each Lowry is available in five sizes to accommodate riders from 5’0” to 6’4”. The smallest two sizes use 26-inch wheels (with 1.5-inch tires) for better fit and handling, while the rest get standard 700c road wheels with 38 mm tires. More models are slated to roll out in the future.

More info: civiacycles.com

Surly Big Dummy – $2,100

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The venerable cargo hauler from Surly got a refresh for Frostbike. New this year is a bright green paint job with matching cargo deck, Surly’s Extra Terrestrial tires and a new SRAM drivetrain. The updated model will be available in July or August.

More info: surlybikes.com

Fuji Custom – Priceless

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We saw this in the QBP parking lot—locked up, no less. We unfortunately couldn’t find the owner, and are therefore unable to bring you a test ride report.

Foundry Cycles also showcased its new titanium cyclocross racer and updated titanium gravel road bike, which we reported on earlier. See photos and details, here.

 

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Shop Window: new toys from Surly

Surly just announced three new products for the touring and commuting crowd: a 26-inch (not dead yet!) touring tire and two racks.

Surly Extraterrestrial Tire

The Extra Terrestrial tire is a 26 x 2.5” heavy-duty off-road touring tire with a 60tpi casing, Kevlar flat protection and tubeless readiness. It is intended for dry hard-pack trails or even on-road touring, with traction for corners and off-camber stuff. Suggested rim width: 24-50mm. MSRP is $60 per tire.

Surly 24-Pack Rac

On the front-mount rack front, Surly is now offering the 8-Pack ($110 MSRP) and 24-Pack ($150 MSRP). They are less “intense” than Surly’s touring racks (though still the same heavy-duty construction) and intended for in-town utility. The racks are made of CroMoly steel with stainless hardware. They are designed to attach to forks that use mid-blade and fork crown eyelets, or uni-crown barrel bosses (like on most Surly forks). They are height adjustable for a wide range of wheel sizes and, clearly, will happily play porter for the choicest case of beverages.

Surly 8-Pack Rack

The 8-Pack platform measures 160mm x 270mm (6.2in x 10.6in) and the 24-Pack platform measures 400mm x 270mm (19.2in x 10.6in).

More info from Surly.

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Shop Window: Surly unveils new fat bike model, the Wednesday

My how things have changed. When the Surly Pugsley rolled onto the scene nearly 10 years ago no one could have predicted (well, some probably did) that fat bikes would be as common as they are today. Riders are using them not just for Arctic exploration, but also for straight up mountain biking, which has shaped development of wheels, tires and frame geometries.

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The latest Surly model builds on that experience with geometry that more closely models that of the popular Ice Cream Truck: slacker head tube angle, lower bottom bracket and shorter chainstays than the Pugsley. It’s also built around a 177 mm symmetrical rear end unlike the offset hubs on a Pugsley.

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The fork is also a thru-axle, and spaced at 150 mm so it is an easy swap for a RockShox Bluto fork. Even the seat tube has routing for an internal dropper post. This is a mountain bike, through and through, but present are all the mounts and braze-ons your little heart can desire, so it would make an excellent expedition rig too.

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Unlike the Ice Cream Truck the tubeset is lighter for a more forgiving ride, and the dropouts are fixed rather than using the interchangeable MDS system. The bottom bracket is 100 mm threaded, and the bike can fit “only” a 4.6-inch tire on 80 mm rim. Speaking of rims, Surly has a new tubeless-compatible rim dubbed “My Other Brother Darryl,” which comes in a few different versions, depending on OE spec or aftermarket.

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Surly says the new bike should go on sale later this fall for about $1,500.

 

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How We Roll: Maurice’s Monkey stories

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Ahhhh Surly’s Karate Monkey. Released at the Interbike trade show in 2002, it was the first 29er to come through the doors of our sister magazine, Dirt Rag. I reviewed it for issue #103 and later purchased it for my own use and abuse. I’ve had many life-changing experiences on this bike, and some near-death ones as well. My Monkey has done it all. It’s been geared and singlespeed. It’s been a hardtail and it’s been rigid. Today it is my go-to urban assault vehicle—ready to take on the post-apocalyptic urban jungle, as well as any dirt I find along the way.

I was looking at’er on the train platform the other day and thought I’d mention a few things you may or may not find interesting. And in the process maybe call out a few folks who have help make this bike what it is.

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My original idea was to write about Ergon’s new GC-1 grips, which I was given recently, so I will do that first. Thanks Ergon! They are designed specifically for swept-back handlebars. Yes, I like swept bars in the 20-25 degrees range and I like Ergon grips cuz they keep my hands happy. If you have not tried either you might consider.

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Speaking of bars, these are the second-newest part on the bike. The Spacebar Carbon OR which I purchased from Origin8. Ok, maybe the carbon is overkill but what the heck. I bought them because I like the sweep.  My sweet spot. Not too much, not too little. Just right.

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You’ll probably notice the brakes as well. Avid Juicy Carbon’s they are. Shwag given to yours-truly some time ago, and proof of occasional—I say occasional—rock-star treatment received for being in the media. Anyway they are killer, as they stop the bike and I have not had a problem with them, and they’ve been around a while. When they do go away, I will replace them with the original road-pull Avid BB7’s that used to be on there.

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Paul Component’s Thumbies provide shifting prowess. Can’t go wrong there. These will work forever.

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The Chris King headset has been there since birth, while the Surly head badge has seen better days.

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The Big Kitty sticker was made just for me by Courtney Papke. Some people think I am a cat.

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The “Get Rad” Sticker was installed by Hurl over at Cars R Coffins when I was in Minneapolis one time. Top tube cover thanks to Green Guru.

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And that Schwalbe Big Apple 2.35″ monster truck tire has provided good shock absorption and long life.

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The front wheel is a Sun/Ringle Rhyno Lite-rimmed monster that’s been around since around the time Geoff sold the company to Sun around 1996. It has been the bomb. I have only had to press in new cartridge bearings once. It’s taken everything I could throw at it. The back wheel is another story. It was taken out by a curb in Seattle, that was one of the near-death experiences I remember well.

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Pedals by VP are big and flat and sticky. The Truvative Stylo cranks have fresh bearings so they work like new.

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Hydration handling thanks to my good friend Robert over at Two Fish Unlimited. They make strap-on bottle cages to fit a wide variety of bottles, even full-size growlers.

So there you have it my friends. Thanks for looking!

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First Impression: Surly ECR

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Let me answer this question first: no, this is not a Krampus with holes drilled in it. While ECR closely resembles its 29+ brethren, it is a completely different beast. The frame is different, the geometry is different, the build kit is different and the fork is different.

Built for loaded touring, exploring and “Escaping Common Reality”, Surly designed the ECR from the ground up with versatility and cargo capacity in mind. It has eyelets for pretty much anything you can imagine: Up to five bottle cages, three sets of Salsa Anything Cage mounts, mounts a cargo rack out back, fenders (if you can find some wide enough), lowrider or cargo racks on the fork, a Rohloff hub, even a Surly trailer mount. All of this is made possible with Surly’s stout 4130 steel tubing (‘natch) and unique rearward-facing dropouts shared with the Ogre and Troll models.

Read more about this monster here.

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Surly teases limited-edition Pugsley

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One of the coolest trends in the fat bike scene is how owners find crazy and creative ways to build them up. Surly is offering the “lazy-man’s” approach with this limited-edition Pugsley. Here’s what they’ve got to say about it:

Last year we had this crazy idea (right around Frostbike) that we would create a limited run Pugsley for our friends who came to Frostbike. So that’s what we did. We ordered a very small number of these (around 500 world wide). The bike has an Surly OD crankset, SLX shifters, front derailleur and hydraulic brakes, with an LX rear derailleur. Also it’s got polished silver Holy Darryl rims and shiny bits all over the place. Plus those snazzy two-tone 60tpi Nates (baby!). Many of these were presold to dealers who wanted them, and we have a few on hand for everyone else. If you want one, you better hurry. The bikes aren’t in stock just yet, but they should be soon. So line up. Read the full story

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