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.

1994 Bridgestone MB-1: A Dank Daily Rider

1994 Bridgestone MB-1 drive side view

1994 Bridgestone MB-1 drive side view

More pictures and parts list at the end of the article!

It has been said that “steel is real.” Indeed, one can walk up to a steel bike, touch it, and feel the real steel. Many companies in the 1980s and 1990s made some pretty impressive steel frames. Those that were made in the US or Japan at that time are considered the best by some and works of art by others. There may even be one located in a garage or barn nearby just waiting to be resurrected and ridden.

For a daily rider, a bike should have a comfortable geometry and be made from a metal that is responsive, with just the right amount of stiffness. For me, nothing is better than a well-crafted, lugtastic steel bicycle frame with excellent design provenance and amazing tubing. The 1994 Bridgestone MB-1 certainly fits the bill.

Not all of the Bridgestone models from this time period were made like the MB-1 (or MB-2s and some of the 3s, for that matter). That doesn’t mean that they aren’t good bikes. Many of the lower-end models of the MB-, RB-, and XO- lines are still awesome bikes. Any frame-up build of one of those would result in a great daily rider. However the MB-1 (and for some reason, the MB-Zip) holds a special place in the hearts of riders and collectors.

1994 Bridgestone MB-1 Brooks head badge detail

1994 Bridgestone MB-1 Brooks head badge detail with lugtastic lugs!

The US division of Bridgestone Bicycle Company was run by Grant Petersen. As Sheldon Brown (rest in peace) recounts:

Bridgestone is an enormous multinational company, one of the largest tire companies in the world…and a fairly small bicycle company, with its own factory in Japan. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, its U.S. bicycle division was run by Grant Petersen, a brilliant, talented and idiosyncratic designer.

Petersen, a hard-core cyclist, marched to a “different drummer” than most of the industry. He introduced many innovations to the market, and also strongly resisted other trends and innovations that he didn’t approve of.

As a result, the Japanese-made frames of this time were beautifully constructed (lower-end models were made in Taiwan and did not use lugs and were TIG welded). Made from the highest end of Tange Prestige tubing, these frames are not only desirable, but ride extremely well. Many of the features on the -1s and -2s are evident in the construction of Petersen’s current venture, Rivendell Cycle Works. His Bridgestone legacy also continues in other bikes as well: Handsome Cycles uses the same lugged construction and geometry of the Bridgestone RB-T in their Devil model.

How one acquires such a frame through trade or favor is another story (especially the favor part). This particular build uses some of my favorite components from various bikes that I have ridden and build up a really nice-but-not-too-nice bike for my daily rider-slash-errand-slash-bar bike.

The wheels are my own creation, using an old but smooth Shimano Parallax 100 (LX) hub for the front and a Shimano XT 9-speed hub in the rear. I laced them using DT-Swiss Champion 2.0 spokes on 26-inch Sun Ringle Rhyno Lite rims. Though not entirely period correct, they look great and are super stiff. Wrapping them with classic-look Kenda K-Rad gumwalls, (yes – they exist!) completes the road contact with style.

1994 Bridgestone MB-1 shifter detail

1994 Bridgestone MB-1 shifter detail

The drivetrain is a Shimano XT 3×9 with a Deore triple that came stock on my 2017 Kona Sutra. I realize that a lot of folks are leaving triple chain rings to history these days, but I am using Shimano Dura Ace bar-end shifters mounted on Paul Components Thumbies to give me that slightly-updated classic feel to my shifting. It works great and a friction-front shifter is not only nostalgic for me, it allows for more accurate trim adjustment.

For the connection points, I chose SimWorks Fun 3 bar with Paul Components Canti Levers (connected to their Neo-Retro cantilever brakes), held by the SimWorks Gettin’ Hungry quill stem. I managed to salvage an older Shimano XT headset to use as well. The saddle is a Brooks B-17 that is older than the frame itself, connected to a classic Race Face XY seat post. Pedals are the awesome VP-001 in a fitting, and no longer available Rivendell gray.

Now that I am done patting myself on the back for building one of the dankest rides ever, I just want to say that I am humbled by the history of these older bike frames. It has been a while since we have seen a company put a lot of money and materials into such care and precision on a mass-market scale. Remember though, there are many frame builders out there who are running amazing businesses and creating phenomenal bikes. They have learned from these old frames and their designers and are building on their legacy. I would love it if I could ride them all. Alas, with my curious lack of thousands of dollars for a new frame, riding a classic will do just fine.

Parts List (prices are at the time of this writing):

Shimano XT-M772 rear derailleur – $64.99 (from various dealers)
Shimano XT-M781 front derailluer – approx. $25.00 (if in stock anywhere)
Shimano SL-BS77 9-speed bar-end shifters – $90.00 (from various dealers)
Paul Components Thumbies – $95.00
Paul Components Canti Levers – $146.00
Paul Components Neo-retro cantilever brakes (x2) – $121.00
SimWorks Fun 3 bar – $55.00
SimWorks Gettin’ Hungry Stem – $88.00
Brooks B-17 Standard Saddle – $145.00
Raceface XY seat post – between $12.00-$77.00 (!) on eBay
VP Pedals 001 – $65.00 (from various dealers)
Shimano Parallax 100 front hub – approx. $30.00 on eBay
Shimano XT FH-RM70 rear hub – Approx $20.00 on eBay
Rhyno Lite 32-hole, 26-inch rims (x2) – $45.00 f(rom various dealers)
Kenda K-Rad tires – $34.99 (from various dealers)

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):

Overreaction to Winter: a Birthright of the Santa Barbarian

studded tires

Studded tires outside the Presidio in Santa Barbara. Sign of subtropical Winter.

Back when I was in college, I met a girl from Oregon. She grew up outside of Eugene and moved down here to go to college. Her first impression of Santa Barbara was what giant pussies we all are when it comes to the weather. She was surprised, for example, that when the temperature dipped below 60 degrees Farenheit, Santa Barbarians would don huge jackets, top boots and scarves. Cyclists around here tend to wear multiple layers of lycra kit on top of arm warmers, knee warmers and the occasional balaclava if they can see their breath.

I guess people from outside Southern California (yes, Santa Barbara is in Southern California) are made of stronger stuff than we are. For example, when it rains, cycling for the most part stops. You might see the occasional Rufus out on his K-mart special going to wherever, but all the serious cyclists tend to hide. I mean, it’s just water, right? How do they take a shower if they are so afraid of water?

I guess it’s all relative. Our perspective is skewed. That girl from Oregon? She kept complaining that it was always too hot. And me? I just spotted a bike outside with studded tires. It doesn’t even snow here. The overreactions are astonishing.

End of line.

Quick Review: 2015 Specialized Roubaix SL4 Comp Disc

2015 Specialized Roubaix SL4 Comp Disc

2015 Specialized Roubaix SL4 Comp Disc

Gallery below!

I am slowly getting to like Specialized. I mean, if you’re going to purchase a crabon bike to shed grams and pretend like you’re on a team, then Specialized, I think, is one of the better big-company bike companies out there.  I am not doing this review here to claim that Specialized is the best. Far from it. I am merely giving you a run-down of what I would choose if I were in the market for a crabon endurance bike. That said:

The 2015 Specialized Roubaix SL4 Comp Disc

Since I have made the conscious choice not to race anymore, I have resigned myself to near-Fred status. Yes. Expensive bicycles capture my attention. The only differences between me and an actual Fred is that I cannot afford to purchase the above-pictured bike and I possess the intellectual capacity to realize that I don’t really need it. I can, however, borrow one for a whiles to assess its potential for actual Freds who can afford one.

The extremely long and exhaustive name of the Roubaix Comp Disc gives away its most noticeable attribute: the Shimano 785 hydraulic road disc brakes. Finally,  a really heavy person (I don’t discriminate based on gender, but some of you dudes are huge) can ride a really light crabon bike and be able to stop on a dime. And though I am pushing a hefty 160 pounds, I found the brakes to be extremely responsive and quick to get used to. And when I say “get used to” I mean it takes a couple of stops at a slower speed to master not falling down (the bike is really light and the stoppage is immediate). Not only that, but the calipers have fins on them for those people who love good heat dissipation.

Moving on to the drivetrain, I found the Shimano Ultegra 11-speed setup quite nice. No Di2 needed here (especially at this price point). The Ultegra shift levers are quite responsive and almost Fred-proof. The PraxisWorks 50/34 compact-double chainrings were a nice addition and a good way for Specialized to keep the build cost down. Not to mention, it’s kind of cool having a crankset named after an exploded Klingon moon. A full Ultegra drivetrain is not necessary unless you are looking to brag about having a crankset that is overly expensive. And I wouldn’t bother bragging about anything less than Dura Ace or SRAM Red anyway. My only gripe is that I would rather have an external bottom bracket rather than the press-fit BB30 that comes on this frame. I can see lots of loosening and noise in the future especially if a climber buys this bike.

Speaking of climbing: there is a noticeable frame flex when climbing. Out of the saddle, it started to feel a little noodly on the long climbs we have around here.

The geometry is awesome. I am 5′ 10″ and I tested the 54cm. I felt relaxed and not too aero. For a long-distance ride, I think this bike would be perfect. I also had my reservations about the effectiveness of the Zertz inserts on the fork, seat stays and seat post However, they proved to be quite effective. The bike certainly lived up to its cobblestone-inspired name as it did a really great job of dampening vibration. The bike does glide, people.

For the 54cm  model, the 72-degree headtube angle was just slack enough to give me a comfortable ride. The steering was extremely responsive and smooth. At slower speeds (read: in a footdown contest), it was great. However, I don’t think I will be playing bike polo with it anytime soon. The wheels are another story. The Axis wheels are good, but I found them to be a little heavy to match with this frame. If I were suffering from chronic Fredness, I would definitely upgrade to a set of Mavic Kysirium SLS. But if you’re actually looking at the price of this bike, those would set you back at least another six large on a swap with your LBS, bringing this beast to over four grand.

Conclusion

If you have enough cabbage and want an effective crabon endurance ride, I would recommend, nay, advocate for the Specialized Roubaix Comp Disc.  It’s just at the bottom end of Fredness while still being pretty awesome. In fact, I would say that the only thing holding this thing back from complete Fredability is the fact that it doesn’t say “S-Works” on the downtube. And, like all of the SL4 road bikes that Specialized puts out, it makes a great platform for future upgrades.

*End of line*

 

 

 

Light Action: A Lesson in Patience

Shimano Light Action Bar End Shifter

Shimano Light Action Bar End Shifter on Paul Components Thumbie

If you’ve read any of my posts you would probably infer that I hold bicycles pretty high in the hierarchy of super important things that humans have invented. Indeed, the bicycle as we know it evolved from a long history of rich people’s toys and false starts. I find it rather unfortunate that the modern bicycle finally began to be taken seriously about the same time cars and airplanes were invented. Indeed, if horses didn’t poop so much and weren’t so damn skittish, maybe we wouldn’t have bothered with the automobile. Imagine a world where people went places by bicycles and horses. Nope. Too easy. Humans would rather go to great expense to suck oil out of the ground to make a vehicle so energy inefficient that the only plus side is that it makes it easier for teenagers to make out in private.

So what does this have to do with the picture above? It’s to illustrate my point at how awesome bikes are. There’s beauty in simplicity and patience. How such dysfunctional race of beings that infest a planet they don’t care about can make such a simple machine that, despite its drawbacks (it’s not as fast as a car) can get us where we need to go just blows my mind. Seriously: we can ride a bike anywhere given enough time. Not only that, bicycles have a low cost of entry (pretty much anyone can afford one), they are cheaper to fuel (burritos give the best milage per unit), and they can be stunning examples of simplistic beauty. No matter what kind of bike you ride, they are all beautiful not only because some can be aesthetically so. But even the cheapest POS from REI still does the same thing as a Rivendell or S-Works Tarmac Disc…it has two wheels and moves you forward. You need at least one leg and a lot of patience to operate one.

<nonconformist_view>
         Patience, Dear Reader, is something that cars have destroyed — a hundred years ago. They have literally sucked it out of the earth as if they drank our milkshake.
</nonconformist_view>

I’m not saying that we should all hate the automobile. I just think that, deep down inside, they are ugly and dirty.

End of line.

Cyclocross Films: For the Love of Mud

I am going to try something new here. Usually I don’t feature work that is not my own, but I just saw the teaser for a new cyclocross video and I am so excited about it. It is called For the Love of Mud by Benedict Campbell.

I am excited about it for two reasons: First, because it is about cyclocross, a sport that I have been following for a while now. But because there are so few ways to explain it to people. I think this film, will do that. Second, the videography is amazing. The feel of the visuals and the music mixed in with the pain of the riders just gives me goosebumps.

When the full film drops, I will get back to you all here for a review.

I’m famous…

So I have been dabbling in video lately. The bank that I work for wanted to put together a series of social media videos about their new mobile app. There was no budget so I just raised my hand and did it. The only catch was, it would have to star yours truly. So check it out. It has very little to do with bicycles, but they’re in there somewhere.

George Gets Surly and Rides Again

George and his Surly Disc Trucker

George and his Surly Disc Trucker

A little while back we met George and his old Trek. It was his only form of transportation and he really loved that old bike. Then, a few weeks back, a drunk driver crashed into his bike while it was locked up on the sidewalk. That’s what happens when you combine enabling, alcohol and really large, metal vehicles that weigh more than 150 pounds. But that’s another story and one of my main problems with cars in general.

As you may have guessed, the bike was totaled. I mean, now the frame is hanging on his wall like a broken guitar. Sort of a weird but beautiful piece of art that reminds him of a different time.

In order to move past his old Trek, George came in an bought himself a Surly Disc Trucker. Talk about an upgrade. In my opinion, the geometry and versatility of tire sizes and rack mounts make this the perfect bike to fill the slot as George’s one and only mode of transportation. He rounded out the purchase with a nice Brooks B-17 Imperial saddle and a bitchin Kryptonite lock. And now that Surly is equipping the LHTs with a Shimano XT drivetrain, his new bike will be super reliable and able to tackle more varieties of roads and hills.

It’s almost as if the drunk driver enabled George to go further on his bike than before. Bicycles, my dear reader, are huge enablers. Enablers of awesome. See gallery below of George’s new bike: