Surly Cross Check

It's been in the Surly Catalogue for more than 20 years, what possible relevance could the venerable Cross Check still have in a world of modern adventure and gravel bikes...? That would depend on you, here's mine.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a long time. Originally it was started in response to increasing interest in my Cross Check, both online and while out and about, so it seemed like it might be worth writing about it, a little. Doubts soon set in however, after all the Cross Check has been in the Surly catalogue, essentially unchanged, for more than 20 years now. What relevance could it possibly have in a world of modern gravel and adventure bikes that tends towards a focus on light weight, electronic shifting, and all the latest, and frequently shifting, standards in bicycle design such as through-axles, tapered head tubes, and wotnot. As such this post has been languishing for a while, but on a wet August evening, in what has felt like a deeply weird and oppressive summer here in Cornwall, with no desire to just watch telly, and with precious little else to write about, I may as well push this out. It also has relevance perhaps as I ponder what my hypothetical ideal bicycle for, say, riding from here to Central Asia might be; I’ve decided that it would look an awful lot like this.. but preferably with a little more tyre clearance.

It is probably also important to point out that this isn’t intended as a review. Having seen many reviews of the Cross Check over the years that attempt to make a definitive judgement, I’ve formed the opinion that, in the context of a modern, highly segmented cycling world, it is not a bike that is easily reviewed in an impartial way; it is oft described as a jack of many trades, master of none, and marked down as a consequence. To do so misses the point of a Cross Check entirely.

Solid rather than flashy… but super-versatile on a wide range of terrain.

Being something of a nerdy modern classic, apparently, I’ve seen some very classy examples of Cross Checks around the web. Mine isn’t like that, rather it’s just solid and reliable but with component choices based on longevity and functionality rather than weight or style, or the idea that expensive is always best. It’s a bike born of many years of riding and figuring out what’s important for the riding I like to do, whether that’s knocking around local trails, big days out, riding to a fishing spot, or months-long touring – all of which I’ve done on this bike.

in many respects I think of my Cross Check as being more like a rigid mountain bike with skinnier tyres, than a gravel or cyclocross bike with fatter tyres

It’s also not put together with even half an eye on the scales. I learned long ago, contrary to what the industry will tell you, that it doesn’t really matter a great deal how much your bike weighs. Unless you’re riding a time-trial up Alpe d’Huez, then if you haven’t got the legs the lightest bike in the world won’t help you.. and if you have got the legs then it really doesn’t make a great deal of difference what bike you’re on provided it fits well and puts a smile on your face.

The crank is a Middleburn R01 spinning on a ridiculously reliable and long-lasting Shimano UN55 BB. Inner and outer rings are stainless steel, 22T and 38T respectively, that are showing no signs of significant wear after many, many thousands of kilometres in all weathers, on all kinds of terrain. Combined with an 11-28 cassette at the rear, I have an almost straight-through set of closely-spaced ratios with minimal gear overlap in which the inner ring is really only necessary for loaded bikepacking or steep climbing on difficult terrain. The rest of the time it may as well be a single-ring setup with a top gear that’s tall enough to let me twiddle along at 30mph if I have to. I’m of the opinion that most ‘gravel bikes’ are sold over-geared when in fact “quiche-gearing” makes far more sense for tackling a variety of terrain, and long days in the saddle. (quiche-gearing = “real men don’t eat quiche”)

This is actually my second Cross Check. I first put one together in 2005 (I think, or maybe it was 2006, I can’t remember..). It was ace, I hammered it on rough tracks all across the moors, I did some touring on it, and an awful lot of just riding around. At that time I hadn’t yet learned that “stiffer, lighter, and more expensive” doesn’t always make for a better experience, so figuring that, as it was so good, a spendy, lightweight titanium version with a carbon fork would be even better. It wasn’t. It was great on smooth tracks, but on technical, rocky, lumpy stuff it was no match for my old Cross Check, so after a few years of denial I sold it. I’d missed the compliance of the Cross Check frame and fork and its ability to soak up abuse; in many respects I think of my Cross Check as being more like a rigid mountain bike with skinnier tyres, than a gravel or cyclocross bike with fatter tyres. It’s a super, confidence-inspiring frame for flying along singletrack and down rocky trails with gleeful abandon (within limits..). For this class of bike it’s a nimble climber too I find, and geared low as I have it, I can tackle quite technical climbs on it that would otherwise be a struggle on a more conventional gravel bike.

From time to time my head is turned by newer machines, for whatever reason, but I don’t have the confidence that I’d enjoy anything else, on such a variety of terrain, as much as my Cross Check. This one is seven years old now and seems to be one of those bikes that feels better and better as it ages, rather like a favourite pair of jeans. It is slowly acquiring a patina reflective of all the fun times I’ve enjoyed with it, and looks absolutely spot on with a light coating of dust from the trails. It could well outlast me.

Friction downtube shifters wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice of gear shifter, especially if used to integrated shifters on the bars, and nothing wrong with that. However… I really like them; shifts are a bit slower but in a way having these reinforces what this bike is all about. I don’t find them a handicap but I do find them a delight to use, and they do have a simple appeal. There are functional advantages in terms of simplicity and durability, and the lack of indexing means I can make do with pretty much any derailleur I can find should I need to. I have a 9 speed cassette at the moment, but I could easily use that with a 10spd mech, or vice versa, or switch to a complete 10spd transmission without having to buy new shifters (11spd setup require more cable pull; Dia-compe make a friction shifter that will pull an 11spd mech). While I’m on the topic, I do have misgivings with the trend towards electronic shifting and non-recyclable, non-repairable parts.. I get that it’s fast, and has a techy appeal but I struggle with the idea of something as elegantly simple as a bicycle being burdened with the environmental overhead* of additional supply chains and toxic issues around extraction, manufacture, and disposal of lithium batteries and electronics, all of which are likely to be in service for less than half as long as a simple mechanical setup before they’re in the garbage.
I am a fan of old-school hubs with loose bearings; I think they appeal to my “inner fettler”, needing as they do, a service from time to time (bit arbitrary but roughly every 10,000km or so seems to work provided the cones are properly adjusted). When looked after however they should last ages. They also have steel axles which I like, having seen many a broken aluminium alloy axle in a high end hubs used for touring.
My current favourite rims for this bike are Kinlin ADHN. They’re a single-eyeletted box-section rim very similar to the much more expensive H Plus Son TB14. The £25 price tag belies the quality of the rim; they’ve proven terrifically durable, and the consistent metallurgy means I find they build effortlessly into a strong, evenly-tensioned wheel. They have a nice classic look too. Every few years I need to swap a rim when the sidewalls are worn out, but it’s a quick job of the kind you can mostly do on the sofa with a mug of tea and Star Wars on the telly. Worn rims go off to be recycled, along with worn chains, cassettes and so on.

Other than those already mentioned in the captions, there isn’t much else to say about the component choices. I’ve tried a few different handlebars over the past few years and have settled on a Velo Orange Nouveau Randonneur as being just perfect. Not as radically flared as most dirt-drops, they have just enough flare to allow wrist clearance when descending off-road in the drops, but not so much as to make long days on the hoods uncomfortable. The top is slightly ovalised too which I find very nice when climbing in the saddle, especially on dirt. Surly frames tend to be proportionally long in the top tube, this is a 54cm frame and has a top tube of 56cm. Being proportionally long in the leg, short in the body, I’m generally happier with frames around 55 x 55. With the relatively short seat-tube however the Velo Orange tall-stack stem puts the bars in a good place for both touring and dirt adventures, and means I have plenty of top tube ‘knacker clearance’ for mucking about off-road.

Tektro CR 720 cantilevers definitely are not gucci, especially in light of some of the high-end offerings from the likes of Paul Components. What they are however is a very effective brake with no obvious design flaws likely to cause issues in the long term, and that are excellent value for money. Incidentally the Tektro logo polishes off easily with a drop of T-cut.. in case you’re a tart.. like me ;-)

As for whether or not I would use it for the long trek to Central Asia (once the pandemic is little more than a memory).. I could, quite easily; after all Robert Jefferson made the journey by bicycle from Catford, London, to Khiva in 1899 on his basic singlespeed of the era (look for his book “A New Ride To Khiva”).

The problem with having more choice is that we have more scope to feel we are using the wrong equipment…

Despite that, I still feel that some rubber a little fatter than the 45c-47c that fits here would be handy, especially for some of the dirt routes through the Caucasus and on to Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. That would in fact be the only thing I would change, everything else would be just perfect I think. As a wise friend recently said however, in the context of a conversation about bikes and the current vast range of wheel sizes, tyre widths, and gearing choices available, “the problem with having more choice is that we have more scope to feel we are using the wrong equipment“. Not being restricted to the tyranny of a manufacturer groupset, you can just hang all sorts of old and/or interesting bits off a Cross Check and end up with a bike that will keep a smile on your face pretty much forever. Perhaps that’s why people have been asking about mine recently; fatigued by the endless barrage of new kit and marketing spiel shoved down throats every day by the cycling media, something like this starts to look like a good way to sidestep all of that and just get back to enjoying riding. In that sense it’s kind of like a geared fixed-gear.. if that makes any sense at all.

Here’s the build list, for those that still care enough to have read this far:

  • Frame & Fork Surly Cross Check, 54cm
  • Cranks Middleburn R01 + 110/58mm BCD “Incy” spider
  • Chainrings Stainless steel 38/22T (Surly/Blackspire)
  • BB Shimano UN55
  • Rear Derailleur Shimano SLX 9spd
  • Front Derailleur Shimano Ultegra CX70
  • Shifters Rivendell
  • Cassette Shimano 9spd, 11-28T
  • Hubs Shimano LX T670
  • Rims Kinlin ADHN
  • Tyres WTB Riddler 700x45c
  • Brakes Tektro CR720 cantis with TRP levers
  • Seatpost On-One Twelfty
  • Saddle Brooks Cambium C17
  • Handlebars Velo Orange Nouveau Randonneur, 46cm
  • Stem Velo Orange Tall Stack 80mm
  • Pedals Shimano M540

* A drop in the ocean I know, and maybe I’m overthinking things, but I feel that it is important, increasingly so, to be in the habit of thinking about the buying choices we make in the context of the full lifecycle, from extraction of raw materials, to end of life disposal or probability of being recycled, not solely in terms of the immediately obvious benefit or appeal, and what the true cost of that benefit is. Gear shifting is a good example, to have the convenience of pushing a button instead of moving a lever requires lithium extraction and processing, semiconductor manufacture – and the associated toxic materials and energy involved in those processes, plus issues around disposal, and difficulty of recovering materials for re-use. It’s also depressing to see the bin-loads of unserviceable, non-repairable, non-recyclable bike parts in the corner of the workshop in my local bike shop. They do the best they can to at least recover the metal parts for scrap, but it’s not always possible or time-effective to try separate them.

13 thoughts on “Surly Cross Check

  • Ooh, do you know what chain line you’re getting with what BB length?

    I have the same crank and was considering going 2x.

    • hey, good question, from memory I fitted a BB 2mm shorter than recommended, knowing that I was going to spend most of my time in the outer ring, so it puts the outer ring ever so slightly inboard such that it aligns with the middle of the cassette, and I can happily use the whole cassette without the angles getting too much. it does mean I don’t use the smallest couple of cogs with the inner ring but it’s hardly a loss… Thing is I can’t for the life of me remember what BB length I used. I do have a vague memory of the Incy spider having a recommended length different to that of the other road spiders. ah google to the rescue, I just found this which has some advice for using that spider:

      • Nice one, thanks that’s useful.

        It goes against the spirit of this post slightly but I’m considering pairing it with a GRX drivetrain sounds like it could be possible.

        FWIW my other ‘gravel’ bike still has rim brakes!

        • haha, nothing against new stuff when it fulfils a need, and I think the other thing is.. everyone is on their own ‘journey’ and has their own needs when it comes to bikes and cycling. All am trying to do is articulate my own experiences and thoughts. I used to be pretty obsessed with lightweight, techy stuff when I was racing, but in the end realised that actually, it wasn’t giving me the happiest riding experience. The final nail in the coffin of all that, for me, I think was discovering that the thing I enjoyed riding the most of all was an old steel fixed wheel, and I ended up being quicker on that than any of the other stuff. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea however :-)

  • An excellent read. I completely agree with your slant on (disposable) electronic gadgetry on bikes – if your bike becomes “unusable” because the batteries are flat and it’s stuck in one gear (oh the horror) then you’ve really missed the point of cycling completely.

    • Really enjoyed that, although I’m probably biased as I’ve had my mustard yellow one for about 8 months now. It really is a jack of all trades and should be applauded for not pandering to trends, It feels like a quicker version of my 90’s mountain bikes and can cover the same type of terrain more or less.

  • Great post Mike, enjoyed reading this. Such a versatile platform the cross check – really like the build you’ve gone for here. Got a sage green cross check frame waiting to be built so this has given me some food for thought. Liking the quiche gearing concept and the mix of lower cost components here. Nice!

  • Hi Mike, I have followed your posts for a while now and love your thoughts and writings. As a photographer I really appreciate the beautiful images that you post.

    As for your CC I love it , and my own CC is 13 years old now and just had its third rebuild.

    And as a note for TEA, it will run GRX no problem ( well apart from actually getting the parts down here in OZ) I am running the 10 speed 46-30 with the 11-34 cassette. Its a fantastic range and should see my CC through another decade. I also changed to a SQ Lab flat bar setup and it works a lot better than I expected.

    I was going to add an image but did not figure out how to :)

    Thanks again for one of the best blogs out on the net, enjoy your riding and kayaking in a beautiful part of the world.

    • Hi Stephen, thanks for taking a moment to write, and thanks also for sharing your Cross Check details, it’s fantastic how many are around, all with different builds depending on the owner’s thoughts; such a versatile frame. Also… that’s awfully nice feedback from you, thanks, much appreciated!

    • oh p.s. – images, they have to be hosted somewhere, there isn’t a direct public upload into the comments, and then [img]…[/img] BBCode tags should work… but I best test it… !

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