Review: Surly Travelers Check – Up for Almost Anything
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
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.
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.
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.
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 McKegans
Sizes available: 42, 46, 50, 52, 54, 56 (tested), 60, 62 cm
Price: $1,099 (frame and fork)
Weight: 23.4 lbs