Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Surly Midnight Special is... Something Special

A quick backstory on how this bike came about...as I have no doubt there's at least one person wondering why on earth I would get another bike when I've been trying to pare down. We have a relative who had interest in picking up a Surly Midnight Special. We also have a connection to a local bike shop that could fairly easily order the frame, so we mentioned that if he took care of obtaining the parts, we'd get the frame for him. Long story short, after making the purchase, he changed his mind and we found ourselves with a Midnight Special frame. Fortunately for me, I ride the same size so how could I not build this up and give it a try?

A few months prior to this Midnight Special arriving, I had picked up a road bike frame (and I promise, a review of some sort on that will come), so I really had no need to move forward with building this frame up, but I'd read so many great things about the Midnight Special that curiosity simply got the better of me. Plus, a fat tire road bike is something that has been on my list of wants for a very long time, and although I've been highly unsuccessful with finding a good one for me, I cannot seem to contain my curiosity when something piques my interest -- particularly when it falls right into my lap.
Surly calls this color "hot mayonnaise." Sam doesn't see any yellow in the white, I do, but I'd still classify the color as white.
The MS frame arrived as a frame/fork combination, but wanting to lighten the Surly up a bit (I've had a fair amount of experience with the steel forks on Surly's in the past, and I know they are not lightweight - though they do serve their purpose and are pretty darn bullet-proof), I opted to go with a carbon fork. I've also really enjoyed the gearing on my mountain bike, so I figured why not give the 1x12 setup a try on this bike too? Not wanting to have drop bars on this bike, the trigger shifter would be fine, so it all seemed to be coming together with ease.

Ultimately, the bike is built up with:
> 46 cm Surly Midnight Special frame
> Whisky No 9 carbon fork
> SRAM Eagle 1x12 group with a 10-50 cassette
> 40t SLX crank (because we had it sitting around)
> Avid disc brakes (again, we had them, so it was easy to use them)
> A custom set of 650b tubeless ready wheels
> WTB Horizon 47mm tires
> Jones H Bars (I've been wanting to put these on something since the fat bike departed)
> VP Vice pedals
> Brooks B-17 saddle

As a general rule, we tend to use whatever parts are sitting around (as was still somewhat the case with this build), and they tend to generally not be the lightest or most expensive parts, though still functional. However, this one turned into a fairly "fancy" build for us. Ultimately, this bike came in pretty light, particularly for a 4130 chromoly Surly option (as an unofficial weight, the bathroom scale puts it at just about 22 lbs, including the leather saddle, pedals and bottle cages). Though being the lightest bike was not really the goal, I did want it to be light enough to get around without feeling as though I was weightlifting, but had no real desire for it to be a race bike either.
My favorite southbound route photo op.
I did not pick the best first-ride day to venture out. It was January, it was cold, and unfortunately for me, it was a very, very windy day. Most of the ride was contending with quite strong crosswinds that were knocking me all over the roads and had me fighting just to keep upright. Frankly, I'm not sure why I kept riding. Actually, I do know why - I was having fun on the Midnight Special and I wanted to keep enjoying. After about 30 miles (48km) that day, I had to call it and figured I'd try again another time.

What stood out to me (even fighting the wind) on this inaugural ride was how comfortable and easy this bike is to ride. I found myself thinking that if this is where road bikes are heading in the future, I am completely on board. I never once felt as though I was in a weird pedaling position, the fat, cushy tires provided comfort over even the bumpiest, chip-sealed roads and the bike seemed as though it was made for me. The best way I could describe it was like a fast, light mountain bike that could be positioned to ride paved roads. Even that isn't an accurate description of this bike though - it's definitely a road bike, but it has an incredible combination of comfort and speed, unlike any road bike I've ridden to date.
Testing out a small frame bag.
But, it's easy to get caught up in new bike syndrome. Initial impressions can be a nice thing to have, but more time in the saddle was an absolute necessity to know where this relationship was heading, or even if there was a relationship to be had at all.

There is a bit of history for me with Surly. I had a Pacer that was set up a few different ways, a Cross-Check that I rode like a fiend, and then, of course, the Wednesday fat bike that provided a path for me to get more comfortable with the idea of mountain biking, or at least riding terrain I typically avoided prior. Two of those three bikes I found not to be the best for me geometry-wise. The Pacer and the CC both "fit" theoretically, but in practice, I always struggled to find a good position to be in while riding. Still, I rode them both quite a few miles and though I enjoyed them, ultimately, I let each go for various reasons.

There have been comparisons made between the Pacer and the Midnight Special, so I wasn't sure how I would ultimately feel about this particular model after getting a few rides under my belt. I have always had good initial impressions of Surly's. Even test rides on the Long Haul Trucker almost a decade ago nearly had me convinced to go with that instead of the  Rivendell Samuel Hillborne. My Sam ended up purchasing a Long Haul Trucker a year or so after and he rode it everywhere - club rides, commuting, errands - for quite some time before ultimately deciding on a lighter weight road bike. He also had a Surly 1x1 that he pretty well beat to (close to) death, so I think it's safe to say that we have some experience with the brand. It was just a matter of figuring out if this particular model was going to work well for me personally.

This may be a good point to actually talk about what it is I was hoping to get out of this bike, as it's not necessarily what someone else may hope to find. I was looking for a road-ish bike, but not a race bike. I wanted to be able to move at swifter speeds when I have the desire, but also to be comfortable enough to take it on longer distance rides than my narrow-tired road bike, which can cause me problems after too much time riding (and it's not a dig at my current road bike, but rather that any thin-tired road bike tends to give me problems over distance).

I have particular issues that I have to contend with too such as severe hand/wrist problems that get aggravated over distance, particularly when I can't (or don't) change hand positions, or I'm in a bad position for my body.

Additionally, I wanted a bike that could easily transition from paved roads to mild dirt/gravel roads without rattling me to death (see hand issues above) and still allow me to feel in control of the bike. While I have bikes that are capable of transitioning from road to dirt (and I suppose really any bike is capable of this, depending on what one is willing to endure), bringing all of the above together in one bike was the ultimate goal for the Midnight Special in my mind.

So, I continued to ride it as often as I could being in the depths of winter, trying to test the limits of distance and terrain, as well as listening to my body and what it was telling me while riding.
Testing out a handlebar bag.
After some riding, I wanted to experiment with a slightly shorter stem because it felt a bit stretched when using the outer position of the Jones bars, and wanted to lower the handlebars a bit as the steering felt a tad on the twitchy side, particularly on descents. I suppose the handlebar choice is not ideal for a road bike, but it was my choice, at least for trial purposes, and it was working fairly well early on, so it seemed reasonable to continue to work with these bars.

There were several windy (and cold) rides that followed. Some went better than others, but I really enjoyed the Midnight Special, even when conditions were not putting me in the best of moods and/or I was fighting to keep the rubber side down with powerful winds blowing - which seems to be nearly every ride this time of year. Although I'm not a fan of riding in strong winds, it has been a good way to test out this bike (and my resolve to push through anyway).

What I have discovered over the miles of riding the MS is that it seems to be that bike I have searched for years to find. It has the right combination of speed and weight to make it viable as a road bike that can handle a bit of those off-paved-surfaces too. I am most certainly quicker on my dedicated, thinner-tired road bike (which is also lighter), but the difference in speed is not nearly as great as one might expect; and frankly, I'm willing to give up a bit of speed for the cushion I have riding this bike. Although I don't intend to give up my road bike (as it has its purpose too), the Midnight Special offers a decent shot at a comfortable and relatively swift road option. I am reminded that the vast majority of my solo riding on roads is done alone, so I don't have the pressure of keeping up with a group of other riders, so others may feel differently.

The geometry, at least with this particular set up, seems to suit me well, giving enough ability to lean over when needed/wanted and still be able to enjoy an upright position too. The Jones bars may play a bigger role in this comfort than I anticipated, but I believe the MS could be just as comfortable (for the right person) with drop bars as well. Given my particular idiosyncrasies and physical limitations, these handlebars are more than likely the right choice for me though.
The 47mm tires are my first attempt at going tubeless on a bike, and I have to say, I quite like it. Although I still carry a tube and patch kit in case of emergency, after my first quick pedal around the neighborhood, I picked up a goat head and realized that the sealant is fantastic at getting these spots filled in quickly without much (if any) air loss. Being able to ride at lower pressure is also likely a big factor in the comfort of the MS. Now, if/when I have to deal with my first tire blow-out, I may not feel the same, but thus far, I've enjoyed the tubeless ride and don't expect to have problems.

Disc brakes can be a hot topic and have both big fans and those who insist discs are inferior to rim brakes. As I've stated in the past, I see uses for both and don't have the strong opinions of some, but in the case of this bike, the discs work well for allowing a much wider tire (up to 60mm with the 650b size and 42mm with 700c - though I'd note that with this particular carbon fork I wouldn't go too much wider than the current 650x47mm size) than a typical road bike can handle, and if the bike is going to be utilized for any off-road purposes or in inclement weather, I think there is a benefit to having disc brakes.
The gearing for my build on the Midnight Special is... unconventional, let's say. There probably aren't a ton of these being built with 1x mountain bike gearing, but I've fallen in love with SRAM's Eagle group on my mountain bike and it just seemed like it would be an interesting route to go with this build. Is it perfect? I'd say, no (but really, what is if one rides over super varied terrain/conditions). For some people, it may not be the way to go at all. I can spin out in the right circumstances and I have struggled to get up a few hills, but overall, it has worked decently for my needs thus far, and I've had the same issues with 2x11 road gearing, so I don't know that having road-specific gearing would've made a huge difference for me. In summary, I'm not dissatisfied with the gear range, but depending on the rider's strength and terrain, there may be better options for gearing.
The bottom line is that this bike makes me smile and I want to ride it, and that's all I can ask for in any bike. Being able to get some speed and having the benefit of comfort is something I've searched to find for years and I think the Midnight Special has met my expectations.

Despite winter taking hold just about the time this bike arrived, I've been able to ride it more than I anticipated, though even I have to admit our relationship is still on the new side and I haven't been able to get in a ride longer than about 40 miles (64km).  I do think I've had enough rides to get through the honeymoon period and I've experienced plenty of challenging (mentally and physically) rides. I won't say that every ride has been ideal or that I've arrived home feeling my best each time, but I know that much of this has to do with the season and weather conditions so I'm not ready to blame the bike for those tougher days, especially knowing that there have been more good rides than bad.

By no means have I had the opportunity to ride every bike that is available on the market, but this one feels like it's different, special. Perhaps it is the wave of the future and more manufacturers will be (or are) creating similar bikes. I certainly hope so because I think this sort of bike could appeal to many different riders. I'm excited to have this in my stable and I'm looking forward to riding it more and farther as the weather warms.


  1. Awesome Midnight Special! I also have an unusual drivetrain on my MS: 41T front, 20T rear single speed :) Maxxis ardent 2.25's and a Surly 1x1 fork to top off a "weird" but awesome build.

    1. I think it's one of the great things about Surly's... you can pretty much do with them whatever you like! :) Hope you're enjoying your MS!