Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Riding with the Surly Cross-Check

Several weeks ago, I stumbled upon a write up from a bicycle shop in the northwest that was expecting delivery of their first Surly Straggler's any day. At that moment, I wasn't even aware that Surly was preparing to launch a couple of new bikes/frames into their lineup, but I very quickly fell for the metallic violet/purple color of the Straggler. I'm no stranger to Surly, as I've had two rounds with the Pacer, test rode the Long Haul Trucker at length (and Sam owned one for quite awhile), and the LHT was a close second choice when I ultimately purchased the Rivendell Hillborne a few years ago. Did I need another bike? Probably not, but I was finding the desire to do more dirt/trail/gravel riding, and didn't want to beat the crap out of my Riv (well, anymore than I already do), nor did I want to change the set up to be used appropriately for these sorts of rides.

One evening as we were chatting I said, "You know, I'm really thinking about that new Surly. I think I could make good use of it." Sam didn't even begin put up a fight, and so I resumed obsessing over obtaining a Straggler. Not too long afterward, we were wandering around a bike shop when we came across a Surly Cross-Check. It happened to be the right size and Sam suggested I take it out for a spin if I had my sights set on the Straggler, which is supposed to be very similar to the Cross-Check with a few modifications. Not being one to turn down a test ride, I was very quickly off to find some bumpy paths to see how it would handle.
*Image found here - Stock Cross-Check set up
The Cross-Check did amazingly well - really, better than I'd anticipated. I very intentionally set out to ride steep hills, rough roads, and hopefully some dirt. It wasn't hard to find what I was seeking, and the gearing on the stock ride was more than adequate to get me through all of it. I had concerns about the tires, but I'd gone over a goat head that stuck in the tire, and the tires/tube seemed to hold up just fine. At the end of my test ride, we discussed what it is I liked or would want in the Straggler over this Cross-Check, and it seemed like the Cross-Check was a good fit for my needs. We also chatted about picking up a frame and building it up ourselves, but in the end, the whole bike was a decent deal and, impatient child that I am, I could ride it now. Ah, instant gratification.

After riding the bike a bit when I got home, I wasn't loving the handlebars (I will note here that Sam actually really liked the handlebars and ended up taking them for a bike he rides regularly, so perhaps this is more a matter of preference, as I am used to a much smaller handlebar), nor the bar end shifters. The bar ends work extremely well on my Rivendell because of the set up, but with drop bars I was finding them more frustrating than anything. Because the handlebars felt gigantic to me, we did a quick switch out to some smaller drops we had in the pack of random bike parts and switched out the bar ends for STI shifters while we were at it. I was immediately more comfortable and at ease with the set up and enjoyed the bike that much more.

At the time of purchase, I didn't realize just how handy this bike would be in the coming weeks. The storm that flooded our area took out a lot of roads/bridges, and those that were still usable were littered with random garbage, mud and rocks, lost belongings, and so on, so riding any sort of skinny-tired bike seemed like an unnecessary and easily avoidable risk. Sure, I could've stayed indoors, but that's not how I deal with life and the lemons it sometimes chooses to provide. Instead, I got to ride every day through the storm and (unfortunately) see the damage that was taking place as well.
On one of the rides toward the end of the storm, I ran over a piece of glass that punctured the rear tire. Perhaps it was an over reaction, but I decided to pick up a set of tires with more puncture resistance and since then, I've had no trouble (knock on wood) with flats. I opted for Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, and while they are heavier than others, on this sort of bike I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of weight for ease of mind on rougher terrain. Honestly, I haven't noticed a difference in speed, and I think it was well worth the effort for peace of mind when riding.

Despite being a heavier ride (it's no lightweight, but it's not the heaviest bike I own either), it moves easily and smoothly. It doesn't pedal as sprightly as a lighter road bike, but that isn't its purpose, and it performs well on many surfaces. It feels solid and is comfortable for many hours of riding and I could see this bike easily transforming into a commuter, single-speed city rider, or a trail bike. After several days of riding a lighter road bike (which I do love, but it has its place), I was able to get back on the Cross-Check and was quickly reminded why it's such a joy. It really is smooth, and rolls nicely even over the dreaded chip-seal.
In many ways, I'm surprised by how long it's taken me to purchase the Cross-Check because it's just so functional and easy to use. It doesn't get the long stares from strangers like some other bikes receive, but it's definitely special in its own right. Once in awhile, I even get a "Hey, Surly... Cool!" out of a random passer-by. I think if a person were going to have only one bike, I could see this as an ideal option because of its ease of use on so many different types of roads and in a variety of situations. While I'm not ready to give up other options in the mix, I am grateful to have such a solid bike along for the sometimes hairy, but always fun ride.

18 comments:

  1. Does this mean you'll be getting rid of the Hillborne? They seem like very similar bikes.

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    1. Cecily, they are similar bikes. In fact, in theory they could be set up exactly the same or used for the same purpose(s). For me, the Hillborne is set up as my city bike (with fenders and in a more upright manner with the handlebars) and to haul a trailer when needed. I can use it for other types of rides, but I was in search of something set up specifically for longer dirt/gravel rides. In fact, I have taken the Hillborne on dirt road/trail rides and it does just fine. For me, the top tube has always been too long though (even with the shortest stem), so it's extremely uncomfortable to ride with drop bars for any sort of longer distance. In its current form, it works very well and I prefer to keep it set up as it is. In short answer, I will be keeping the Hillborne.

      Speaking of Riv... how's your Betty coming along?

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    2. Betty and I are coming along very well! I haven't had much opportunity to do any really long rides lately, but I did get to take her on some single track a couple of weekends ago.

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    3. Sounds fun! :O) Hope to see pics of your lovely new ride soon.

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  2. Hmm, I'm not so sure about the horizontal rear dropouts. Those are needed for a fixed gear bike, unless you have an elliptical bottom bracket or similar accommodation. But for a derailleur-equipped bike, wouldn't vertical drop outs make it easier to fix flats? The Marathons were probably a good choice.

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    1. I think part of Surly's pull is that their bikes are easily used for a multitude of purposes, so having the horizontal rear dropouts makes it easier to convert the bike to a single speed/fixed gear ride (if one desires). I (even as inept as I can be) have not had issue with getting the rear wheel off the bike - at least not any more than what I normally do with any bike. :O)

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    2. Apart from being a bit of a problem with larger tires, the horizontal dropouts are pretty wonderful. My 1999 Cross Check has been single, fixed, internally geared and multi-speeded. With dropout adjuster screws and an internal-cam quick release, there really isn't any downside.

      I've done a lot of different types of riding with mine.

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    3. I bought a black Cross Check a year ago as my winter/rain bike, to complement the aluminum road bike that I had at the time. I ended up liking it better than my road bike, and it prompted me to sell the road bike and get a steel road bike. The CC is sturdy and smooth. Not light, but I'm not racing on it. I have so much confidence riding it in any kind of weather, on any kind of road. It's stock except for Planet Bike fenders and Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires (700 x 35). I now covet other Surlys.

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    4. Mauricio... love the photos! Thanks for the link. Nice to see you've owned yours for awhile and used it in so many different ways too.

      Chris...I understand the coveting of others bikes. The Surly really is such a smooth ride. I think I noticed it so much because (like you) I'd been riding an aluminum road bike and the differences are unbelievable. Yes, it's slower, but it still moves along quite nicely (and comfortably) and is so functional.

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  3. So true. My 2011 cross-check is an absolute joy. I bought it when I moved to the UK from Australia, fully expecting to use it just for a couple of years and then sell it before I moved back. After touring through Ireland, the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands I couldn't bring myself to part with it and shipped it home with me!

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  4. She's a beauty. I absolutely love mine. I'm considering changing the handle bars to something closer to a city bike setup. In your experience, does this dramatically effect the ride? I've never changed a handle bar on a bike before so I have no idea. I love the way my Surly rides now, so I wouldn't want to go through the expense only to decrement the experience.

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    1. Lisa, For me, sometimes the most minute changes seem to create dramatic shifts in my feelings about a bike (but this is me, and I am a "micro-adjuster," so I tend to be ultra sensitive to even tiny changes). Sometimes it's for the better, other times not. The handlebars that were on this Surly were gigantic, so switching to shallower and smaller drops definitely helped. With my Riv... initially I had Noodle drop bars on it, but when I changed to the Albatross bars, it really felt better (likely because that bike is just a smidge large for me, and it allowed me to be more upright with the Albatross bars). You might see if one of the local shops would be willing to let you try out a different style before investing in a purchase (unless you already have them), or possibly check out CL to see if someone is getting rid of something you have interest in trying without having to fork out too much for an experiment. I think the Cross-Check would be ideal for lots of different set ups though, so I wouldn't worry that it would dramatically change the way it rides. Would love to know if you do this though and how you feel about the change.

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    2. Thanks for the great ideas. I think that I will try the bike shop one to see if they would be agreeable to that.

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    3. G.E. - thanks for a very encouraging review. Your review, coupled with several others, confirmed that I am buying the right bike fo rme.I own an old Bianchi Axis cyclocross rig - circa early 90's. I really like it, but it isn't designed for super-big tires. Found a heckuva deal on a CC on C-list near me, and decided to purchase it. Mine is an earlier one - 06 or 07 the seller says. It's kind of a leaf green - middle of the road green. It is exactly the size I need and is coming to me with less than 500 miles on it. It was just a little too big for it's current owner, so I get to benefit. Thanks again for the good review.

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    4. Glad to help confirm your own thoughts. :O) I'm still loving it and think it was a great decision to buy.

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  5. Nice write up. And I love the colour combination!

    I'm a bit surprised actually that, months later, you're still just as happy with the CC given that its top tube is longer than the Pacer's, which you had trouble with. Unless the basic frame size is different?

    I have the Pacer and the CC, both in size 50. The reach on the CC is definitely too long for rides longer than, say, 20 miles. I was able to get a decent fit on the Pacer with a very short, upsloping stem and short reach bars, but that wasn't possible on the CC so I've changed the build and use it for commuting/work: short rides on all types of surfaces in all weathers. It's a tank! And utterly dependable.

    Anyway. Was just searching out some Surly love today and discovered your blog. :)

    Rebecca
    velovoice.blogspot.co.uk

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    1. Rebecca, the CC was a smaller frame than the Pacer (It was a 42cm CC and a 46cm Pacer), so that helped with the reach issues I was having. The CC is definitely more tank-like as you describe, but it's extremely steady for windy/snowy/rainy days or, as you mention, commuting. I know there are people who build these up as more road-ish bikes, but I have a difficult time imagining that it would ever feel the way the Pacer did (which felt fast and light).

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  6. That makes sense! Yes, I did try at first to set the CC up for longer road rides and light touring. Fit issues aside, it's just too heavy. Great as the daily beast, though. It's indestructible feeling. I've got wide tyres too which feel great.

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