I have been looking for a bike as an everyday commuter and multi-day/week tourer. I found it in the Surly Straggler – the best overall bike I’ve ever owned.
WHY THE STRAGGLER?
Before deciding on the Straggler, I looked at and rode a lot of bikes in this category – what some might call “adventure bikes.” That moniker is a little cornball, but it does capture a general group of bicycles that (1) mostly have steel frames; (2) have something other than pure racing geometry; (3) are equipped with mounts for racks, bags, etc.; and (4) have clearance for tires wider than the standard 700 x 28c maximum for road bikes. If there were a definition for so-called adventure bikes, it is probably something like this: bikes that can be ridden well on both pavement and dirt/gravel roads. In other words, these are the types of bikes many of us rode as kids.
The most maddening thing about choosing bikes in this category is that they are all really cool. I rode Salsa’s Vaya and Marrakesh, which were fantastic. The Vaya is an adventure bike proper and the Marrakesh is billed as a heavy duty world tourer. Both were interesting but there were little things that I didn’t like as much on each: the geometry on the Vaya was a little too upright for my taste, and the Marrakesh was a little cumbersome for the type of city-street commuting I do – plus it is built with a touring groupset. Surly’s Long Haul Trucker was another contender. From what I could gather trolling the internet, the LHT is the standard touring bike for serious world travelers. Even so, it was not quite as nimble as I wanted, and also tends to come built with traditional touring components, not the roadie components I wanted. Other bikes in the running were Specialized’s AWOL (geometry too upright) and Sequoia (not available at the time), Masi’s Giramondo (could never find one in stock), Trek’s 520 (comes built with touring components), and the Kona Sutra (didn’t like the upright geometry). Don’t get me wrong: all of these are great bikes. It’s just that none of them were the bike I was looking for.
This is what I was looking for: a steel bike with disc brakes that was quick and easy to handle on city streets, ready to take racks and fatter tires, with more aggressive and somewhat racy geometry, and having a set of road bike components. Plus, I kind of wanted to get away from the more mainstream bike brands and try something different.
For some reason I had overlooked Surly’s Straggler. Not sure why. Maybe because it is hardly mentioned in blogs and online articles discussing touring bikes. In any case, eventually the Straggler became a consideration; then as it appeared to be the bike I was looking for, it became a kind of obsession – an obsession that was exacerbated when I did a test ride. There it was: exactly what I was looking for. Within two weeks I ordered one from Two Wheel Drive, one of the better bike shops here in Albuquerque, NM.
Maybe a few words about Surly Bikes are in order. One of the reasons that the Straggler was appealing is that it was not made by one of the Big Three bike companies, Giant, Specialized, and Trek. After owning bikes by all three, it was time to try something a little off the beaten path. Even though Surly is owned by the corporate behemoth Quality Bicycle Products, their design team turns out interesting and unusual bikes. All of their bikes are steel and you won’t find a typical racer in the bunch. Their niche is in eccentric, purpose-built bikes, none of which fit any generic category.
The Straggler is sort of a cross between a vintage steel racing bike and an old school mountain bike (think Trek 830 & 930). The geometry is closer to a racing bike, but the fork and stays have clearance allowing fatter, knobbier tires for off-road riding. Surly based the Straggler on the Cross Check, their version of a cyclocross bike (kind of . . .) with the main difference being that the Straggler has disc brakes and horizontal rear dropouts (more about that below).
The Straggler is fantastic. It is, by far, the most fun bike I have owned. Right now it is my commuter, so I spend at least an hour a day on it, Monday through Friday – more if I have errands to run. The bike benefits from the set of 700 x 32c Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires I put on to replace the stock Surly 700 x 41c Knard tires. Between the steel frameset and the tires, this bike’s ride is very smooth and stable – even at 30-35 mph on the downhill part of my morning commute. Other than the tire change and removing half of the headset spacers, the bike is stock off-the-shelf. The pedals are Shimano A530 SPDs that have a platform on one side for easy commuting.
Even though this bike is steel, it is very responsive and quick. At the same time, there is no worry about drain grates or potholes catching a tire and popping the bike to one side or the other. It is solid enough to climb curbs, roll through dirt alleys, and light enough to be maneuverable. The commute home includes 4 miles of uphill riding and the weight is not an issue.
The 2016 Straggler comes stock with a SRAM Apex road groupset that gets the job done. An 11 speed would have been preferable (like Shimano 105) and the “Double Tap” is not as smooth as the Shimano system in my view (at least at the Apex level), but this is a minor criticism. The 10 speed Apex group is functional without any issues.
One of the cool things about this bike is the Salsa Cowbell drop bars. The 12 degree flare in the drops makes it a little more comfortable to grab them in the middle of city traffic, particularly when carrying a backpack.
Having never owned a bike with disc brakes, this has been a new experience. It is a different feeling, one that takes some getting used to. But, there is greater stopping power, and my morning commute has a long descent down a busy street. It does seem a little safer given that a car could dart out of a side street on a dark winter morning necessitating a quick stop.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THAT REAR DROPOUT?
The rear dropouts are horizontal, not vertical as on most contemporary bikes. The main reason for this is to enable a quick conversion from geared to single speed while maintaining proper chain tension. If there are any other uses for it, they are unknown to me. I haven’t made use of it and have just tightened the adjuster bolts to the quick release skewers. If the dropouts are causing you to pause on getting a Straggler, don’t worry about it. You can set the screws to make the dropouts effectively “vertical,” and keep the option of a single speed if you get the bug. There are no safety issues. It works just like any road bike with vertical dropouts and quick release wheels.
The Straggler is the coolest and most fun bike I have owned – my ideal commuter. Everyday I look forward to riding it even though my morning and evening commutes this time of year are often below freezing and entirely in the dark. The bike is very stable at higher speeds, even when riding with a heavy back pack. I haven’t made use of the braze-ons yet, but there are plenty available for rear and front racks and fenders – or anything else you want. It seems that this bike will have a long and useful life. In Spring 2017 I have a week-long tour planned, so as I rack up the miles I will post 1,000 and 5,000 mile reviews to see if the love affair lasts. Hopefully I can do a 10,000 mile review.