24 July 2016

Just about a bike: Surly Cross-Check [UPDATED]

Early in the summer of 2001, about six months after I bought my first Surly, a Steamroller, I bought my second, a Cross-Check.

I had visions in my head back then of trying my hand at cyclocross racing.  At the time I thought I might excel in the format.  But to this day, I've yet to enter such a race and don't think I ever will.  That ship has surely sailed.

Click images to embiggen
Nevertheless, while never having been raced, my Cross-Check, as the dings in its paintjob will attest, has seen thousands of miles of trails and roads, both dirt and paved, over the years.  It's that much fun to ride.  I consider it a kind of lifeboat bicycle... as in it's commonly been my response to the question I often get when folks visit my garage, "If you had to sell all your bikes and could only keep one, which one do you think you would save?"   For a long, long time, my answer was this simple, inexpensive, utilitarian bike, my Surly Cross-Check. Though frankly, in the last year-and-a-half, my answer's certainly changed to my Coconino, just because it's truly my bike and plays especially beautiful music for me.

But why keep the Cross-Check rather than one of the others?

Well, it's kinda surprising, but, despite the fact that the Cross-Check, with it's rigid fork, dropbars, and 700x34 tires pumped to 55psi, is almost always a bike somewhat less than ideally suited to whatever ride you're on (ie: the wrong bike), it's also almost always an adequate bike for any given situation.  It's not a cross country mountain bike, or a svelte road bike, or a long stable touring bike.  But it can do all of these things.  It won't always keep up with other bikes designed specifically for any of these aforementioned purposes, but it can handle just about anything you throw at it.  It might be a little scary, or sketchy, or slow in doing it.  But it can do it.  As long as you've got the cojones to ask it to.

I know this from 15+ years of experience with this bike: If all you had in your quiver was a Surly Cross-Check, you'd be okay for doing most bike rides, at least the kinds of bike rides I like to do: swoopy singletrack shredding, lengthy gravel grinders, and longish road rides.

Back in 2001, when this bike arrived as a frameset at the shop where I worked, I was still pretty fixated on old school parts and accessories, the whole Rivendell aesthetic really.  So, as with my Steamroller, I did my best to outfit the Cross-Check with a few cool pieces of old spec, like Mafac brakes and levers, a WTB Dirtdrop handebar, WTB shifter mounts, Shimano XT thumbies, a Suntour MicroDrive crankset, and a gun-metal blue and silver XTR M900 rear derailleur, which is, hands down, the most beautiful derailleur Shimano ever made.

Also of note is the fact that it's a bean-green Reynolds 631 Cross-Check, of which only a few hundred were made.  They were only available for a short period of time in 2000-2001.  Surly bikes are usually made of 4130 chromo, you see, so I think the boutique-y butted tubeset makes this particular bike somewhat uncommon.

Update: April 2022

A good friend moved away a few months back and left me a ton of amazing cast-off parts, among them a now nearly-vintage Rock Shox suspension post, which quickly found a new home on the Cross-Check.

20 July 2016

Just about a bike: Surly Steamroller [UPDATED]

4.8 gain ratio, 65.6 gear inches
Long before I got my Pugsley, which of all my Surly bikes I hands-down ride the most these days, I got a Steamroller (and a little later, a Cross Check).  A mud brown, first-generation Steamroller, in fact, sold then (as now) as a frame-set only.  I like to imagine that I was an early-adopter of the whole fixed-gear thing.  Not true by a century or two, I know.  But still, in these parts, when I bought it back in 2000, there weren't very many of us riding fixed, that's for sure.

I built the bike from the ground up, including the wheels, doing what I could to emulate Rivendell's whole older-is-often-better ideal wherever I could along the way.  So I've procured a few choice parts for it over the years: high flange silver Suzue track hubs, silver Nitto B115 bars, black cotton Velox bar tape and end-plugs, a black Suntour XC stem, a black IRD seatpost, a black Chris King 1" 2-nut headset, non-aero Dura Ace brakes and levers, and a set of purple Cook Bros. cranks (a gift from an old friend).  I also plus-nutted a second bottle cage mount into the downtube, just because we had the jig and template for doing so at the bike shop where I was working that summer.

The rear singlespeed hub flip-flops, but I usually run it fixed, even though I always keep two brakes on it, because if I ride it I'm probably going to ride it in the woods.  And, trust me, two brakes are better than one when you're riding a fixed gear bike on slick road tires out in the woods.

I rode the Steamroller a lot back in the day, when it was pretty much my only "road" bike.  Centuried on it a couple times, and took it on some pretty fun, gnarly, long forest road-and-trail rides, too.  We call them gravel grinders now.  Back then they were just rides where we took the wrong bike out on a long ride and had a blast.

Sad thing is, I hardly ever ride the Steamroller anymore.  It tends to get forgotten, gathering dust as it hangs from the ceiling in the garage. In fact, just the other night, when posting to a thread in an online forum, Post Your Steel Singlespeed, I put up pictures of my Coconino and my Rock Lobster singlespeeds and forgot all about my classic Surly Steamroller.  That is until the poster who posted after me put up a picture of his Steamroller, inspiring me to: A) write this blog entry and then B) go and amend my post in the forum to include my Steamroller, too.

In order to do so, I rode the Steamroller out into the woods this afternoon, on a quick jaunt just after the rain stopped.  'Twas lovely out and the bike was a good and solid ride on the soft wet trails.  A nice reminder of why I've always enjoyed riding it and why I should do so more often.

I intend to.

Update below...

UPDATE: 19 May 2021

A buddy of mine knocked-off some rad classic Surly decals, from Surly's "Eat less dirt" era.  I've affixed a set of white ones to the downtube of my Steamroller and, while I never would have believed it possible, I think the bike looks even cooler now.

Also, between back-then and now, I removed the Conti Top Tours and replaced them with a set of Panaracer RiBMo 700x32 tires that I got on spec for a review that I wrote for a friend's website years ago.  I wasn't crazy about the RiBMos back when I first reviewed them, but they've grown on me over the years. As tires go, they're pretty cool, I guess. Definitely much bigger, lots taller anyway, than the Contis were, but, still, they're shaped kinda funny, which is hard to get used to. They come to sort of a point on the tops. This is okay when you're riding on smooth pavement, they roll really fast with minimal drag due to the smallish contact patch.  They corner pretty well, too, I think, not that fixies take a lot of corners super hot, ya know. At the end of the day it's fair to say, I like them for their bigishness. I figure: there's lots of air in there, and that's good, 'cause in my world, I believe bigger is always better. Try to prove me wrong.  You can't.

As far as the off-piste performance of the RiBMos (stands for Ride Bicycles More, by the way, sidewall says so) on the dirt where I usually still end up riding my Steamroller, well, ya know, they're roadish tires, so they're sketchy, they drift and dive, they wander and haphazardly careen.  But, as all Paris-Roubaix racers are fond of saying, "When you have come off the cobbles, and you are trying like the Hell to stay on top of your wheels in deep gravel, so, you know, how do you say in English, you do not end up on your ass in a cornfield, which tires you are running is very much down the list of important things you are thinking about." And they say this a lot. I'm pretty sure.

So do I.

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey