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.

Kona Sutra 650b : a Dank Build

2017 Kona Sutra 650b Conversion

2017 Kona Sutra 650b Conversion

This bike is now featured on Kona Cog Dream Builds!

Image gallery below at end of article.

There’s absolutely no reason to convert a perfectly good touring and adventure bike like the Kona Sutra to something other than what it is. No bicycle is perfect. People have different needs and wants. This bike happened to be a great commuter and touring bike. But I wanted something more. It is a great platform for upgrading. There wasn’t anything preventing me from doing it other than the expense. So over the course of a year, I waited: watching and comparing prices, gathering, mooching, convincing my SO of the need, nay, the destiny of my dear Kona. It must be rebuilt! I ended up with the dankest of dream builds.

I have had this particular Sutra since it debuted in early 2017. I was drawn to the metallic flake paint job and easy-going geometry. When commuting to work, I found it to be extremely comfortable. Out on the trail, it handled very well, making it not only an excellent commuter but a hardy adventure bike. With all the new categories of road/gravel/adventure bikes out there, the Sutra is like a do-it-most bike that seems perfect, albeit just a little too heavy. But that is Kona for you. Their frames are built very well. Steel, though. I will deal with the extra weight if I can have the durability!

Always on a quest to build my a better bike, stock off-the-shelf rides usually don’t last too long in my household. Even though this bike performs really, really well, I wanted to do a few things to it that required some major surgery. I agree that the bike is good the way it is, however, there is always room for improvement.

The Sutra standard (not the LTD) comes with a Shimano Deore mountain triple crankset. My relationships with the many front derailleurs in my life have been awful. Always adjusting, rejecting the new technology like SRAM Yaw and that tooth-pulling new Ultegra FD-8000 derailleur that Shimano dropped on us last year. I decided that the best place to start my Sutra upgrade was to convert the drivetrain to a 1x, and kill the FD with fire (seriously, I think i tossed in into a friends BBQ). I already had a Shimano XT M8000 crankset handy, but I wanted more teeth. I purchased a Wolftooth Components DropStop 38T chainring. Believe it or not, this part of the conversion was the easiest part.

Sutra9153

Shimano XT M8000 crankset with Wolftooth 38T DropStop chainring.

The harder part was getting the rear derailleur and cassette sussed out. I really like the way the Shimano XTR Shadow Plus rear derailleur felt. For me, Shimano has always has had the smoother-shifting feel. Believe me, I realize that something like SRAM Force 1 would have been easier. But to build the dankest, one must be a bit of a nonconformist. Problem was, in order to use the XTR with the Ultegra shifters and the 11-42 cassette, I needed some Batman-style gadgets.

Wolftooth Components, being as clever as they are, had two nifty devices that I could use. The Tanpan pull-adjuster for the Ultegra-to-XTR cable path, and the Goatlink 11 which would allow the normally 11-40 XTR compatible with 11-42. Though it sounds like overkill, it actually works really well. The shifting is smooth and accurate. When routing the inner cable through the Tanpan, it must be really tightly pulled through the pulleys and the cable bolt. Otherwise, the barrel adjusters will have too much slack to tighten the action.

2017 Kona Sutra 650b XTR Goatlink Tanpan detail 2

2017 Kona Sutra 650b XTR, Goatlink, and Tanpan detail

I also wanted wider tires and stiffer wheels. So, again, doing something completely unnecessary, I decided to build some 650b wheels. Both are 32 spokes, cross three, laced to WTB Asym i29 rims. I also put a DT Swiss 350 rear hub in the back wheel.

The handling is pretty nice. Even with the WTB Byway 650×47 tires, the effective diameter is still just short of what they were with the 700s. I need to get smaller cranks. Other than that, the bike handles like a dream. The stiffer wheel gives a great response on the road and the dirt. The wider tire certainly allows for better cornering and comfort as well.

Because I am always upgrading, eventually I want to get some Paul Components Klamper brakes and a new headset (suggestions welcome). I already have some Simworks Honjo brass Turtle 58 fenders that I need to tweak to fit as well. But that is for later. I hope you enjoyed checking out my dank bike. Build list, image gallery and comments below.

Build list (other than standard equipment):