Excuse the fuzz-tastic phone pic. This is my Surly Cross-Check, 58cm in robin’s egg blue (a 2011 colour I think) which I took for a ride early this morning.
This is kind of the bike I wish I’d bought more than 10 years ago when I started riding to work. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s designed for multiple duties on or off road, fixed or single speed, mudguards or naked, loaded or unloaded. Unlike a hybrid though it’s not designed to be boring, and it isn’t. It does look a bit goofy the way I’ve set it up, thanks to the short head tube and massive stack of spacers. For an alloy steerer that probably wouldn’t be wise but since this is steel, and the steerer is particularly heavy steel, it can take it. It seems a lot of people run their Cross Checks that way if you look on flickr.
Anyway, I won’t bore you with all the bikes I’ve owned in that time, but I would like to reflect on a few lessons I’ve learned over the years:
- A hybrid is OK as a general purpose bike, but it’s a jack of all trades and a master of none — and boring to boot. Lesson from Bike #1.
- Modern alloy and carbon fibre race bikes are stupidly designed. The saddles are too far forward, the angles are steep, the bars are too low and can’t be raised, the clearances for tyres and mudguards aren’t there. Fine if you race, but commuting in all weathers doesn’t work. Lesson from Bike #2.
- Alloy and carbon fibre bikes only look cool if you keep them clean, otherwise they just look uncared for. Another lesson from Bike #2.
- Get yourself measured for bike fit. You can pay someone or you can do it online. Yet another lesson from Bike #2.
- Try riding fixed gear, it’s great! But don’t pay over the odds for a vintage steel frame where you’ll have to throw away and replace most of the bits. Lesson from Bike #3.
- Instead, buy a proper fixed gear frame, because they’re usually cheap — like my beloved On-One Il Pompino. Or buy a complete package from a bike shop (now that the hipsters have stopped riding fixed, you could get a bargain). Lesson from Bike #4.1
- The one component where you should never, ever choose form over function is your brakes. A really important lesson from Bike #4 (now there’s a funny, but not really funny story).
- No, really, buy quality brakes. Also, don’t be put off a type of brake because you had a bad experience. My bad experience was with Empella Frogglegs.
- To cut a story short, cantilever brakes have a certain geometry which means you can adjust the power and lever travel you need just by raising and lowering the yoke.
- Now, Frogglegs are designed for actual racing in the mud — so they have a wide profile and need relatively little pull of the brake lever to travel a long way when set up like that — but if you set them up that way, you sacrifice power. Not a good thing to find out on your first road ride, and especially if you only set up the front brake because you’re riding fixed.
- Froggleg brakes can probably be set up just fine, but it’s a problem if you’re a numpty new to that braking system. There were a few other things I didn’t like about those brakes (like the need for a spanner and the traditional brake block posts) but the Cross Check is wearing Shimano BR-550 brakes and they “just work” as well as having a lot of modern conveniences like straddle wires and easy pad adjustment. The episode with the frogglegs nearly put me off cantis but now they’re my favourite — they don’t foul the mudguards and they look cool, and work with STI levers.
- You don’t really need disc brakes on a road bike. Also disc brakes are even more of a pain to set up than the frogglegs because they can rub easily. The advantage of a disc brake is it’s not affected by mud or water the way a rim brake is (and I guess it won’t overheat your rim and blow a tyre either). But they’re heavy and they need a new fork which is also heavy and a new wheel too. Instead, buy Kool Stop Salmon pads for your rim brakes, and you’re sorted for wet weather performance (as long as you don’t ride like a fool in foul weather). Lesson from Bike #4.5.2
- I really do like steel over aluminium. A lot of people wax lyrical about how Steel is Real, steel is springy and aluminium is harsh, etc. I retired the ONCE frame and bought a Ridley Triton on sale — caliper brakes so no problems setting up, and clearance for mudguards and/or fatter tyres. It’s a nice frame, but it’s obsolete. I can’t see me taking the wheelset off the Surly and putting it on the Ridley, they basically do the same thing. It’s a spare frame in case the unthinkable happens, I guess. Lesson from Bike #5.
- Also, a dirty aluminium frame just looks neglected, but a dirty Cross Check or Pompino frame looks loved.
- 10 speed is garbage. There is no need for 10 speed drivetrains, much less eleven speed, unless you’re desperate to empty your wallet. The only advantage of 10 speed is it’s current. The disadvantage is more expensive and harder to fit chains. 9 speed Campag is good for me and I even have a spare pair of shifters from ebay if these ones ever wear out beyond fixing (they probably won’t). I can still get aftermarket parts, and campy hubs are 9/10 speed compatible. However if I didn’t have the campy stuff I’d look at 8 speed shimano — cheap, cheap, cheap! Lesson from all the geared bikes.
- And that brings me to the Cross Check. The things it does for me are:
- fat tyres and mudguards, on or off road
- cantilever brakes, which I’ve grown to love
- fixed or gears (STI, bar end or even downtube if you fancy, for that retro look3)
- more relaxed geometry than the Pomp or the Ridley (or similar modern road bikes) but not too laid-back
- sort of classic styling but with modern gear
- No weird sizes for seatposts
- Still a proper road bike, looks good with drops.
Of course when I bought my first bike I did’t have a grand to drop on a new bike, so the hybrid was wallet-friendly. Still I spent too much on Bike #2. From then on I just built up my own frames.
So, yeah. The Surly Cross Check. Great frame, popular, versatile, recommended unless you’re doing proper mountain biking or proper racing. Only thing I would say is that while the frames are great the parts usually break for me (seat clamp, dropout adjusters, and an old Surly Tugnut broke in record time).
Just for fun, these are some of the bits I have on the bike that are worth mentioning:
- Stronglight Impact triple cranks (cheap, uses 110 mm bottom bracket which is also cheap, massive choice of chainrings)
- Hope headset (not cheap but fit-and-forget — used to live on the pompino)
- Surly Constrictor Seat Clamp (replaced the stainless one that came with the frame and broke. Ugly but works)
- Velo Orange seat post (important — the layback on this seat post is a lot more than most. This is good, because a Brooks Saddle will have short rails and won’t allow you to get it very far back)
- Velo Orange stem and Randonneur Bars (great bars, very comfy on the tops and in the drops, slightly longer than other drop bars so I have a relatively short stem to compensate. Not all drop bars are the same!)
- Shimano BR-550 Canti brakes
- Time ATAC clipless pedals
- Shimano QR Skewers. These are the enclosed cam type, which is not a common design these days. This is why they’re better.
The Il Pompino just inherited all the fixed bits from Bike #3, so it wasn’t a completely new bike.
This was also the Pompino, with a Road Hog fork and a new wheelset. This is probably the bike purchase I regret the most — the disc was a pain to set up, the fork looked weird and the steerer was too short, and the whole thing was heavy and robbed the Pomp of its agility, which is one of the benefits of simplifying to a road fixed in the first place. Ah well, you live and learn.
I tried downtube shifters, and I don’t recommend them. You get used to staying in a straight line as you move your hand from the bar to the downtube, but there’s a huge advantage to being able to drop several gears and brake at the same time for the lights. I don’t like bar ends much better though because I kept hitting them with my knees when stopping, inadvertently changing gear. I suppose both methods promote a different style of cycling, just like riding with no gears at all.