There’s an enduring love for the type of bike that’s become popular recently under the heading ‘Gravel Bike’…distant cousin to the ‘Touring Bike’…influenced by European cyclocross and road bikes. Hell, Trek made their bones in that now-famous barn in Waterloo Wisconsin making steel touring bikes that allowed cyclists to roam the vast American landscape. A bike that goes comfortably from pavement to gravel and beyond. This is a story about one such bike. My Black Surly Crosscheck is in its third life and still going strong. Here’s a short history of the bike with no name.
2006 – Black Surly Crosscheck v1.0 – Singlespeed – Flared Drops – Boner Stem – Parts drawer build – Diacomp Canti’s – Hand Built Wheels with Phil Wood Hubs
Somewhere back during the fixed gear hipster days of the early two-thousands, (2006 to be exact) I bought a black Surly Crosscheck frame and fork from the CRC Cycle Garage and Coffee Shop up in the Twin Cities and built it up as a singlespeed. I wanted to run flared drop bars so I ordered a Salsa Bar and filled in the gaps with an assortment of parts that I had laying around. I’d won a pair of Salsa rims at the Big Wheel Ballyhoo in Decorah, that I had a friend lace to set of Phil Wood hubs for a bit of bling, but this build was purposefully guided by a utilitarian creed. The idea was to have a bike to ride my local Westosha rail trail and blast around the mean streets of Milwaukee. This was my first black Surly and it turned out that it would not be my last. My buds, Cale & Andy helped me with the build. Andy worked at Ben’s Cycles in MKE at the time. The stem that got put on v1.0 came out of a box of ‘take-off’ stems. I wanted a hi-rise stem for the bike because I wanted access to the drops.
2008 – Black Surly Crosscheck v2.0 – Used Parts from a friend’s cyclocross race bike like a 2 x 10 Sram drive train and an FSA Crank. Upgrades include a new ergo roadie bar, lower stem – Fenders, Racks, Trailers – Lots of Gravel Miles in 1 to 2-hour increments.
(Read in the voice of Wayne from Letter Kenny) Somewhere around the time that my fixed-gear hipster pals discovered the rich European traditions of cyclocross I decided it was time to add gear choices to my gravel machine. Everything was going along fine until I made a wrong turn with the stem. V2.0 looked prettier than a fresh coat of snow but I lost touch with the drop bars for the most part so one step forward and two steps back. (pitter-patter)
V2.0 might work for some folks and I put a ton of miles in riding the black Surly this way. I did gravel tours, booze cruises, grocery runs and saw these rides as some sort of penance for any number of sins. V2.0 worked for a twenty mile rip and that’s the way that I rolled back then. Gravel riding was just something that I did between what I really loved to do, which was mountain biking. As I’ve gotten a little older the balance between MTB and Groadie is starting to lean more towards gravel and my rides have been getting longer and more frequent. I rode a gravel metric last month which was about five hours in the saddle.
Over the past few months, I’ve put time in on a variety of new gravel machines from Framed, Kona, Salsa, along with my Surly Crosscheck I spend more than 50% of my saddle time riding drop-bar bikes these days. Riding the new crop of g-bikes made me start to think about how I could modify my current v2.0 Crosscheck and make it more to my liking with a focus on getting a higher hand position.
2020 – Black Surly Crosscheck v3.0 – Wider Ritchey Venturemax Bars – Velo Orange Stem – Taco Bar Tape – Bontrager GR1 Tires – Seeking 3+ hour comfort and mobility.
I was looking at some old photos that I’d taken back when this black Surly was built (top photo) and I noticed that the stem on v1.0 was considerable more erect than the stem chosen for v2.0. I remembered that Velo Orange sells an inch and an eighth hi-rise stem. It’s called the Happy Stem. (mmm hmmm) I likes to call it a boner stem. (Read that last part in the voice of Billy Bob Thornton’s character, Carl from the movie Slingblade)
This Spring, Ritchey came out with their Venturemax 46 cm wide drop bar. The bars also feature a shortish 102 mm drop for enhanced access to that hand position. I really dig these bars! When I’m riding v3.0 and I’m in the drops my wrists rest against the bar’s shoulders and that makes me feel like I have a really stable base to guide the bike along. When my hands are up on the flats, it feels like I’m riding a legacy mountain bike. (A feeling that I get with new generation gravel bikes as well) Drop bars are now available that are wide enough to make them more off-road worthy and a better fit for riders with wider shoulders.
Let’s address the elephant in the room…the stem. Aesthetically, it’s a goddamn train wreck, however functionally, it’s a work of art. It’s some really greasy geriatric bike sorcery that just fucking works! The tops of the bars are just above my seat level and the drops are just below seat level. My hope is that a higher hand position will translate into more comfort for long days in the saddle. V2.0 was comfortable for a two-hour ride. The goal of the new v3.0 is to enhance that metric into the hundred-mile ride territory.
V3.0 retains the same used 2×10 drivetrain from v2.0 and the original v1.0 parts bin Diacomp Cantilevers but I switched to a set of Bontrager GR2 700×40 tires and I wrapped the new Ritchey bars with two layers of tape. The bottom layer is some padded tape that I won in a raffle somewhere (the green & black stuff in a few of the pictures) and some new Woven handlebar tape from Portland Design Works. Double tape works well for me – YMMV.
I’ve been using v3.0 primarily as my rain bike. When you ride every day, there’s just no getting around the fact that about once a week, you’ll run into some weather. I actually like to ride in the rain. I’ve got a nice set of Planet Bike Fenders that provide a snug fit for the forties, but keep most of the road spray off of me. I’ve been riding in Gore’s new line of bibs and shells in 2020 and I’d recommend their apparel to anyone looking for solid awesome ride clothing. (but I digress)
The Crosscheck v3.0 rides like black velvet. I regularly take this bike into a hot zone, where radicalized factions of red-winged blackbirds take shots at my helmet along route twenty-six. The tinkering side of my brain wonders what ten more milometers of reach would feel like and the pragmatic side tells me to just ride the snot out of it and see how that goes. I have to say that it rides a lot better than it looks. The more upright position means that I spend a lot more time in the drops, which was one of the key things that I wanted to achieve when we built it up originally back in ’06. It feels right, even though it doesn’t look right. (c’est la vie)
I’m getting ready to do a weekend bikepacking trip on the very first Rail Trail in the US with some pals at the end of the month. I could ride the Crosscheck v3.0 or the Framed Basswood. I guess we’ll see which bike gets the nod for the trip. (winner gets a free set of steak knives)
Surly is fond of the hashtag #makeityourown. v3.0 is how one of my black Surly bikes has turned out. You should see my Krampus…it’s sofa king dialed. We’ll be sharing some of what our crew rides for gravel bikes. Hell, one day soon we’ll have another gravel bike review up in here. But seriously, you have to see some of the flashback Luddite contraptions that these guys ride on gravel. #gnomesane Plus there’s a couple of slick, dialed groadies in the group too. More fun on bikes soon!