Surly Travelers Check Update: the Gravelers Check

Surly Travelers Gravelers Check
The Surly Gravelers Check at Power Lines, Mission Canyon Catway in Santa Barbara, CA

[Image gallery at the end of the article.]

I spent a considerable amount of time building my Surly Travelers Check. I completed the initial build last April. Since then I have ridden it on the roads in two countries. I amassed quite the trove of feedback on the original build. This mostly came in the form of teeth-clenching gripes I kept muttering to myself while climbing the steep hills in Okinawa. I realized that I would like to not only make some improvements to the drivetrain, but I also wanted to expand the bike’s overall use…meaning dirt and gravel.

I wanted to keep the bike as simple as possible when I bought the frame. Being a travel bike, I needed to make sure that I could get it repaired in foreign countries. The original build featured a simple 2×9 drivetrain featuring a Shimano XT RD-M772 rear derailleur and a Shimano Sora FD-3300 front derailleur over an FSA Vero 2x square-taper crankset. Using a pair of Dura Ace barcon shifters, the friction front actuation worked out well. It was simple to adjust, and I had endless trim. However, I found the need for a little more finesse on the rear. Nine speeds is fine on flatter roads, however, when faced with super steep hills, it makes for less efficient climbing. Plus, the Sunrace 9-speed 11-40t cassette never really got along with the indexed rear shifter. They spoke different languages, I guess.

Overall, the bike did its job and got me where I needed to go on that trip. Okinawa is mostly asphalt and has beautiful flats along the coast and some very challenging climbs inland. When I returned, I decided to upgrade to an 11-speed drivetrain. This required replacing the rear derailleur with a Shimano XT RD786 11-speed rear derailleur (with a Shimano XT 11-40t cassette), new FSA N10/11-speed chainrings (46/34t), Microshift SL-M11 shifters, and chain. Expanding the bike’s use on gravel and dirt necessitated the need for larger tires. I also wanted a bit more effective diameter and a softer ride. I ended up choosing the Panaracer Graveling 700×38 over the Panaracer 700x32s that I used in Okinawa.

Always expecting the unexpected, I also added a Kinekt 2.1 Body Float seat post. It is a light, parallelogram-actuated, coil-spring saddle solution that a colleague of mine uses on his hardtail mountain bike. Rather than suspending the bike, it suspends the rider, offering equivalent ride comfort in a smaller travel range.

To test the newly-christened Surly Gravelers Check, I thought I might try to ride it on some fire roads behind Santa Barbara. So I chose the Mission Canyon Catway (see map below).

Not the best idea…

It was a gnarly ride that, based on more feedback acquired from more teeth-clenching gripes, required a much different bike. I made the mistake of starting via the Tunnel Connector Trail, which was very steep and full of loose rock and fine dirt. However, when I got to the catway, the ride was much easier. I had fun, took some pictures, survived the descent, and learned a lot. Here are my takeaways from this adventure:

  1. The trails behind Santa Barbara are very steep in some places and have a lot of loose rock. The 700×38 Gravelkings, even at 25 psi were not aggressive enough for the loose, rocky conditions. More aggressive tubeless tires would have been better.
  2. The geometry of the Traveler’s check is not suited for the the steepness of the descents. It was difficult to get my weight over the back tire enough to keep myself from pitching forward. A slacker head tube angle would have been safer.
  3. My gear ratio was definitely not suited for all the climbing. My lowest being 34-40. It was a struggle, and I had to dismount a few times, but I made it. I think if I had a wider low-end range on a 1x setup, I would have been fine. I also had trouble getting out of the saddle, if I did, the rear wheel lost traction.
  4. On the flatter parts, the bike performed well. If I found the right line, I could clip along at a decent speed. The bike was a bit wobbly, and a lower bottom bracket would have helped stabilize the bike. The Gravelers Check has a 62mm bottom bracket drop. For this type of riding, a drop of 85mm like that of the Specialized Diverge would be better.

I have a good feeling that the Gravelers Check will eventually live up to its name. It’s a good, solid bike that looks pretty dank and goes just about anywhere. I just have to remind myself that it has its limitations. For travel, it will continue to be amazing. For gravel, dirt, and small climbs, I think it will do fine. For heavier trail work, I will build another bike. The upgrade to 11 speeds was a good decision. I have yet to find the true do-everything bicycle. This one comes close. I can travel with it. I can ride dirt trails with it, provided they are no too gnarly.

Riding in Circles: a Pilgrimage to Nagoya

Facade of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Facade of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

It’s been almost three months since my visit to Nagoya. I have been letting a lot of memories from the trip sink in deeper so that I may better process them for writing this post. I had a good time there. I need to get it on paper. It’s time…

I was over in Japan on what some may call business. It was a vacation from my regular job but I was traveling for a specific reasons completely unrelated to cycling. Japan is a great place to visit. It’s so different from the States and there’s lots of awesome stuff to see. But I had been there for a while and none of what I was doing was keeping me near a bicycle. I decided that a dedicated side trip to a particular bike shop was in order. After all, I have been following some of these shops for years now on social media, and through the travels and articles of others.

One such shop was Circles in Nagoya. I had finally been able to set aside a full day to travel from Kyoto where I was staying to Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. I had a rental car and it took us about 2 hours to travel the 130 km (about 80 miles) to make the journey. Travel by car in Japan is a lot slower than here in the US. The speed limits on the highways are a lot lower (80km/h or about 50mph), and there are toll booths everywhere. The drive was beautiful but expensive. But it was a pilgrimage of sorts. After about 30 dollars’ worth of tolls, we made it to Nagoya hungry and excited.

Let me  take a moment to explain something here: For a lot of people, there are always places that they feel drawn to. For some, there are religious destinations, for others, national parks or mountains to climb. In all cases, the importance of the destination is relative to the person’s personal experience. Cycling is a lifestyle, in all the forms and disciplines that it manifests itself. For me, it’s visiting other bike shops. Whether I stumble across one, or make it a point to go, it’s a compulsion.

So we arrived in Nagoya. A few minutes of finding the shop and parking a few blocks away, we arrived at a place that, honestly, I never thought I would get to.
Before we ventured inside, I took a few pictures of the facade. As I pressed the shutter button on my phone for the tenth or twentieth time, I realized that I should eat. I didn’t want to go into Circles on an empty stomach, risking passing out from all the excitement. So we went to Early Birds Breakfast which occupies the opposite corner and adjoins Circles’ repair shop. The small cafe and Circles have a mutually beneficial relationship with both businesses promoting each other. Cyclists love for coffee and breakfast food helps too, of course. Having had nothing but Japanese food (big surprise) for two weeks, it was an easy decision to set upon some western-style breakfast food. After loading up on coffee and sausages, we went into the bike shop.

Display window of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Display window of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Upon first impression, Circles is like many bike shops in Japan. Specializing in road, bikepacking, adventure cycling and commuting, it is stuffed with bikes and accessories, with every corner being used to effectively draw your eye towards whatever is there. The shelving and racks are all wood and done in sort of a DIY style that makes you feel like you are in your best friend’s very well-organized garage. The atmosphere is warm and friendly. Even though the space is filled with things I have seen before, I can’t help moving from shelf to shelf, staring and taking everything in. The ceiling was crammed with all sorts of frames from Surly, Fairdale, and All-City. And that was just the bottom floor.

Circles is organized into two floors, each with a separate purpose. The street level has complete bikes, frames and components. The repair shop and most bike sales take place there. Even though it is awesome, it is the regular shop. The [place where if you were stopping in for tubes, tires, a rack, or even a complete bike. The upstairs, on the other hand, is the high-end custom shop. There you can get your premium bike builds and all the primo kit you could ever want. The ceiling in there was crammed full of Chris King Cielo frames (more than I have ever seen in one place). There, the shelves were stocked with messenger bags, bike packing supplies and winter cycling apparel.

It was upstairs that I met one of the store managers, Shige. Being the only foreigners in the shop at the time, he walked right up and greeted us in English. Unlike some other bike shops I have been to in the past, you could tell that the staffers at Circles really love bicycles. They seem to treat everyone, no matter what kind of cycling they are into, exactly the same. As I looked around, I noticed that every staff member was really into the conversations they were having with their customers. I could chalk that up to Japanese retail culture (sometimes a breath of fresh air compared to the States), but I think it was more than that. These folks really enjoyed their jobs.

Since I was a little different (my glorious mustache tends to set me apart in Asia), Shige didn’t hesitate to make me feel like I belonged. I think he genuinely wanted to know why I chose Circles as a destination as if he had no idea that this shop wasn’t at all popular. He seemed very happy that after I told him I came to Nagoya just to see his shop. Just as I was about to ask him if there was more to all of this, he suggested I stop for lunch at the Pine Fields Market in another part of the city. I paid for the only thing I could think to buy there, a Circles 10th Anniversary edition Chris King headset and we said our goodbyes to Shige and his crew.

Front of Culture Club, Nagoya, Japan

Front of Culture Club, Nagoya, Japan

We arrived at Circles’ other operation, a DIY bike shop called Culture Club. It shares a space with the market and, interestingly enough, SimWorks headquarters, which is a smaller office on the upper floor. This shop was something that I wish we had here in Santa Barbara. Imagine a space where you can get new and used bike parts to build your dream bike. It is not a warehouse full of a bunch of dirty old frames and parts. It is a well-organized bike shop where a person can get excited about building something that they could never get off the shelf. Used parts were sorted and labeled in a way that made them look new. If I wanted a 9-speed Ultegra rear derailleur, I would find it it a bin, close to the 9-speed STI shifters. The staff at Culture Club, like Circles, was very friendly and seemed very interested in the projects of their customers.

Pine Fields Market, Nagoya, Japan

Pine Fields Market, Nagoya, Japan

It was about that time where we had to leave to get back to Kyoto. Before we did, we went around the back of the shop to have a bite to eat at the Pine Fields Market. The coffee was good and the baked goods were even better. Like at the main store, these two businesses are mutually beneficial. It’s a sort of co-op atmosphere. The staff, again no surprise, was awesome. But it was winter and there were reports that it may snow. Being from Southern California, I was worried about driving back to Kyoto without snow tires on the rental car. So we left Nagoya 3 p.m. to hit the road.

The drive back was filled with my friends and I talking about nothing but bikes. There was talk of starting my own shop with a similar style to Circles. But it soon became clear that Circles couldn’t exist anywhere else. Other bikes shops can try, but it the people that work there and the customers who buy there define that shop. One cannot exist without the other. But that doesn’t mean I cannot apply some of the things I learned from my short visit should I ever try. If you want a genuinely awesome bike shop experience, I urge you to do the same and look up Circles next time you find yourself within a hundred miles of Nagoya. It’s worth the 30 bucks in highway tolls.