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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 11.29.04 AM

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.

surlytravelcheck

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 11.29.21 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 11.29.12 AM

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

Print

Review: Ritchey Break-Away Ascent

We all enjoy a good escape on peaceful back roads where dilapidated farm houses often outnumber the passing cars. Maybe there is no set route, and each intersection allows for that last-second decision with only the falling sun as our guide. Perhaps your route rolls on by a park with some dirt paths or maybe even some singletrack. Regardless of the destination, the points between A and B will provide an adventure themselves with endless possibilities, assuming your bike is up to the task.

I want to be able to jump on my bike and go as I please. I want to escape the busy roads as quickly as I can, leaving careless drivers far behind. If I see that sweet little doubletrack path through the green space, I want the ability to take it without hesitation. I want my equipment to be up for anything it may encounter, including plenty of rough terrain. What I want is complete freedom to roam. The answer to that freedom is none other than the Ritchey Break-Away Ascent. It’s exactly what a bike should be: a do-all, go-anywhere means for adventure. This steel-framed beauty relegates both one-trick ponies and niche categories.

ritchey-breakaway-ascent-complete-review

Most cycling enthusiasts, regardless of which bike-nerd level they have achieved, are familiar enough to know that the Ritchey brand is of a finer quality. Ritchey has a long history, starting with production road frames made for Palo Alto, a Bay Area bike shop in 1974. Soon after, a partnership formed between Tom Ritchey, Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher to produce the first production mountain bikes. Once that partnership dissolved in the early ‘80s, Ritchey rebuilt the brand into Ritchey Bikes. Eventually, as more and more of the pro peloton made the switch from steel to aluminum bicycles, Ritchey shifted his focus to working with other companies (such as Shimano) designing specific components, creating what we know today as Ritchey Designs. Almost 40 years later, Ritchey continues to lead by example, instilling the “relentless innovation” mantra at Ritchey Designs, striving to improve and perfect the products we all love to push to the limits on a daily basis.

Going back to 1985, Ritchey released the Ascent, which replaced the Timber Wolf as the company’s entry-level off -road bicycle. After a few years, Ritchey updated the Ascent’s geometry, shortening the chainstays and creating steeper head and seat angles. As stated in the 1988 Ritchey catalog, “as a result, the bikes retain their stable handling characteristics while positioning the rider further forward for more efficient pedaling.” Almost 30 years later, today’s Ascent mirrors the 1988 Ascent Comp with the exception of a few small upgrades. Those upgrades include Ritchey’s custom internal headset cups, Ritchey Logic steel tubing, disc brake compatibility, 100 and 135 mm quick-release hub spacing and fender and rack mounts for all your touring and commuting needs.

Speaking of wheels and disc brakes, that’s probably my favorite feature of this frameset, it has the ability to run up to 700×40 mm or 27.5×2.1 inch tires. Sure, it may not roll the fastest with all that rubber, but it’s going to fit wide, puncture-resistant commuting tires or even some nice mountain bike tread for singletrack action. Or, you could always throw some road slicks in there to get your speed jollies off. That’s the beauty of it; it all works!

20161214-RitcheySeatStays

While the versatility of the tires is certainly awesome, what makes this frameset the ultimate adventure seeker’s bike is the Break-Away frame design. Tom Ritchey built the first Break-Away model in 1999, and the first production run soon followed in 2001. Interestingly enough, Ritchey still rides the first Break-Away model today.

The Ritchey Break-Away design implements a locking compression system to achieve a travel frame without sacrificing ride quality or needing any special tools for disassembly. The frame can be assembled with 4 mm and 5 mm Allen wrenches and a few simple thumb turns for the derailleur cables. Personally, I prefer the aesthetics of the Ritchey Break-Away design over S&S couplers as it maintains the smooth lines of the TIG welded tubing. As far as the breakdown and assembly, even though no special tools are required, this is no speedy task and is not for those that lack the ability to perform intermediate-level maintenance on their bikes. You are essentially taking most of the bike apart in order to make it fit in the travel bag and then reassembling. Make sure you perform a dry run, or three, before you travel. Once you figure out how to successfully pack the bike in its bag, I would suggest taking photos of the step-by-step process so you can more easily replicate it again.

20161214-RitcheySeatPost

The included Break-Away soft-sided travel bag measures 8.5 x 26.5 x 31 inches, or 66 linear inches. Yes, that’s correct, that’s 4 inches over the 62 inch oversized airline baggage policy. Based on internet forum discussions, I found that travelers typically were not paying oversize fees. However, I would not rely on that always being the norm.

Although the Break-Away Ascent is only offered as a frameset, the awesome team at Ritchey sent ours as a complete bike. The frame was accented with Ritchey’s top-of-the-line WCS components, a SRAM Force 2×11 compact road drivetrain and BB7 mechanical disc brakes. This build features the company’s new VentureMax off-road drop bar, which offers a 6 degree sweep on top and an ergonomic bio-bend with 24-degree flare in the drops. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a flat bar kind of rider, and although the VentureMax was comfortable, I still prefer the leverage of a flat bar when climbing out of the saddle. Thankfully, the Ascent’s geometry is versatile enough to accommodate either flat or drop bar builds. The tubeless-ready Vantage II wheels and 27.5×2.1 Shield tires provide a surprising amount of traction for the dual-purpose, low-profile tread design, rolling well on the pavement and offering just enough side knob to stay confident on the dirt. Although the bike handled singletrack quite well, I was quickly reminded of its low (in terms of mountain bike standards) bottom bracket when taking on log overs. However, that same bottom bracket height was appreciated when letting the bike flow through gravel descents earlier in the ride.

20161214-RitcheyBottomBracket

As a whole, this is one hell of a bike. The smooth Ritchey Logic steel tubing rides like a dream, and the mountain-bike-esque geometry provides all-day comfort. I am confident that any adventure seeker would love this bike and the ability to fine-tune the build to their liking. The Ritchey Break-Away provides ample possibilities to discover the world on two wheels.


Tester: Scott Williams
Sizes: XS, S, M (tested), L, XL
Price: $1,650 (frameset and travel bag)
Weight: 23 lbs. (as tested)
Find out more at ritcheylogic.com


Editor’s Note: When we originally published this review in Bicycle Times 46, we mistakenly printed that this frame was fillet brazed, not TIG welded. Our sincerest apologies for that error. 

 

Print

Review: Felt V85

Felt V84-1

Tester: Eric McKeegan
Price: $1,500
Weight: 22.4 pounds
Sizes: 43, 45, 51, 54, 56, 58 (tested), 61
More info: Felt Bicycles V85

Felt makes a lot of drop-bar bikes: race, endurance, aero, cyclocross, track and women’s. This V85 is the middle child of the adventure branch of the Felt drop-bar family. What makes this bike adventurous? “With a slightly longer wheelbase, rugged components and wheels, the V is the perfect bike for anyone searching for an exciting new experience. Be it an epic tour or simply continuing to ride beyond the road’s end, the V is made to last,” Felt says.

Felt V84-3

To tackle adventure, Felt starts with an aluminum frame, carbon fork, disc brakes and tire clearance for up to 38 mm tires. Shimano’s excellent 105 group provides the shifters, 50/34 crankset, derailleurs and 11-32 cassette. Discs are de rigueur for adventure, and TRP’s Spyres take care of stopping duties with 160/140 mm rotors. All good stuff.

Felt V84-2

I took a particular shine to a few items. The tubeless rims are a nice touch for future tire upgrades, but even with tubes, the stock Challenge Strada Bianca 33 mm tires provide a stellar ride. I wasn’t a fan of the big, gel-padded Selle Royal Look In saddle—it seems out of place on an otherwise sporty bike.

Overall it is a nice group of parts for the money, but how does it ride? In a word, refined.

Taking the best of cyclocross and endurance road DNA, the V85 goes down the road with more panache than the average aluminum-framed road bike. Some of the credit for that goes the those Challange tires. This isn’t my first time on these tires, and every time I get back on them I’m reminded they are some of the finest clinchers I’ve ever ridden. For a bigger tire they never felt slow and took the edge off harsh roads and off-road shenanigans.

Felt V84-5

Handling was not razor sharp, but it is a very sporty feeling bike. While it handles itself well when the pavement turns to dirt, it shouldn’t be mistaken for a true rough-and-tumble adventure bike like a Specialized AWOL or Trek 920. The V85 likes to get dirty, but starts to feel out of its element on anything that starts to look mountain-bikey.

As a tool for fun and fitness, the V85 should keep a lot of people very happy. Fast enough for group rides and sturdy enough for dirt road exploring, the V85 also has rack and fender mounts. This could also make it great for long-distance commutes, or even short tours. The easily adjustable stem makes it simple to change handlebar height for a more comfortable or more sporty position on the bike, so going from weekday commuter to weekend speedster is easy.

Felt V84-4

With some sturdier tires this could make for a solid gravel race bike. It handles all types of unpaved roads and responds well to aggressive riding, both sprinting up hills and attacking the corners on the way down. A little more tire clearance would help, as some of the rougher courses would be better suited to 40 mm tires.

Felt is known as a racing company, and that racing spirit was always in the back of my mind while riding this bike. The V85 is a versatile drop-bar bike that took me all over on all kinds of adventures: five hour rainy slogs to my parents for Thanksgiving, back road exploring, fumbly attempts at “training” rides and plenty of off-road detours.

Not much to complain about here, Felt did a great job creating what I would call an “adventure-lite” bike for riders looking for plenty of on-road speed with some dirt aptitude.

 

Print
Back to Top