Non-Expert Review: Surly Crosscheck

I’ve had a number of character-building opportunities over the past few months of 2011. In late May we had to euthanize our beloved dog. Over Memorial weekend we moved from our little house in a small Wyoming town to a slightly less little house the exponentially larger Denver metro area.  My dad died unexpectedly on June 10, leaving me an orphan. Almost to the day that  I turned forty (!), the band that provided the anthems of my difficult formative years announced that they are breaking up.  

The sum of these events is that I feel a bit disoriented. I’m labeling this vague, discomforting, non-serious angst Midlife Crisis. I have a friend who would dismiss it as a “first-world problem,” and I completely agree. It’s largely superficial, and I just need a little processing time to regain the calm composure that is my typical modus operandi.

My crisis coping mechanism is, as always, to focus on my own life as ethnography. I’m trying to navigate an unfamiliar reality, and figuring out how to get around on a bicycle is going to be a critical assimilation skill. Of course I need a sporty new midlife crisis bike to accomplish this.

I have a fantastic older mountain bike/cargo bike, which I love, for schlepping kiddos and groceries. I ride this bike almost every day on the school run. The long bike is actually faster than a driving in many instances, but it is a bit of a spectacle.

Now that my youngest child is in preschool, I have a five lovely hours alone each week to listen to myself churn. I wanted a faster, lighter, one-person bike for the endless hard-surface trails here. My Wyoming bike mechanic recommended the Surly Cross Check. He knows how I ride and thought this cyclocross bike would be a faster, versatile, bomb-proof bike. After researching, test riding, and talking myself into the birthday splurge, I ordered it in robin’s egg blue with the standard components from my new Denver bike shop. I added a bottle cage, rear rack, lights, and a seat bag for pump, tube, and tools. I ride most comfortably in toe clips, and the pedals are mid-priced metal road bike pedals, which is embarrassingly old-school, but possibly also hipster cool. At least that’s what I tell myself.

When the bike was ready, I rode the light rail to the station near the shop. After we adjusted and adjusted and adjusted the fit, I rode the Cherry Creek bike trail back toward my neighborhood. This is a major ten-mile off-street  bikeway that runs from downtown Denver to Cherry Creek State Park. Here’s what it was like on the Saturday I rode home.  

A very large percentage of cyclists here display the regalia of  uber-elite professionals. They hover grim-faced above their fucktillion dollar bikes and pretend they’re training for le Tour de France. I’m not sure what’s up with that. Status, of course, but what else? Perhaps the spandex restricts their ability to enjoy riding for its own sake. Maybe they’re trying to outrun all the people here.

I spent the next hundred fifty miles or so on hard-surface city trails endlessly tweaking the fit and learning how to ride in the city. I now know to keep my bike the hell out of the way of the silent packs racing past at 80mph and to always signal, but subtly. No room for visible arm signals here, or you might get tangled up with another rider.

In October we took the Surly to the Utah desert. This is one of my favorite places. Here is where I inhale the sunlight reflecting off of the pale Navajo sandstone and drink in ancient vistas. At night I love to watch the Milky Way dance across the sky to the rhythm of coyote songs.

The desert rides were a lot more variable, and I took the bike on packed dirt AWD roads through multiple creek crossings, up vertical high-clearance two-track trails, and on asphalt in Canyonlands National Park.

The Cross-Check really is a great all-around bike. It performed surprisingly well in Utah. Surly probably owes me at least one commission. A pair of ATV riders were very impressed when I crested the mesa on the Hurrah Pass trail on a drop-bar bike. The factory tires are efficient on dry hard-surface and packed dirt trails and stable in the rain. They’re too narrow to be not good on single-track, and they sink in sand. Fortunately the frame accommodates wider mountain bike tires, so it’s pretty east to adapt for different rides.

My Surly feels hyper-responsive compared to my long bike. The stiff fork and frame, along with a more compact riding position contributes to this. The hand positioning is more ergonomic and less fatiguing. If I turn my head to look at a raptor, the bike follows.

The shifters sit at the ends of the drop bars, which is also old-school and possibly hipster. It is easy to bobble the bike when shifting, which would be less of a problem with brake lever/shifter combinations. The bike is so lightweight that I don’t often miss the hill climbing granny gears of my mountain bike.

One Utah trail featured ten creek crossings in a three mile stretch. Once water splashed onto my rear derailleur, it got noisy and shifted poorly. It was fine after it dried, but I have to say that this component seems a bit delicate.

The cantilever brakes are old-school cool, but you sacrifice powerful stopping for lighter weight. I think as the professional sport of cyclocross moves to legalize disk brakes, they will become more common on consumer bikes. I’m not sure if my Cross Check has the frame mounts for disk brakes, but if so, I will probably upgrade.  

The other thing I need to replace is the saddle. The stock saddle is an inexpensive throwaway, and it chafes in a completely unfortunate and unnecessary way.

Overall the Surly Cross-Check is a quality bike that is versatile, responsive, and surprisingly fast, all qualities that I aspire to. It’s tremendous fun to ride. The gripes I described above are minor and easy to fix. As I continue to tweak the fit and function of my new bike along with my own riding and social skills, I’m sure I’ll regain my own footing in my new meatspace. Of course REM had just the song for it.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Does This Make Sense and on the Anthropologist Underground blog. 

Update 11.27.11: Bob Pavlica from Surly emailed me with the comments below. The fact that I'm posting an update has absolutely very little to do with the awesome box of Surly swag that arrived in the mail.... Thanks Bob!

 Disc brakes on the Crosscheck- we have been kicking the idea around for a couple of years now. In March of 2012 we are releasing the Disc version of the Long Haul Trucker and who knows…A Crosscheck could follow, or not. We really don’t know right now if it’s going to happen or not at this time.

The components-We do a good job of specing our complete bikes with solid, reliable parts at an honest cost. They are not the “top of the line” but they should always do what we say they will. [Many people love the saddle.] Saddles are also a very personal thing for a lot of people out there and it’s usually the first thing they like to change [on any new bike].