Surly Cross Check: A Commuter’s Dream

surly cross check hipster tire clearance

The Surly Cross Check may just be the perfect commuting bike, especially when you’ve built it with the ideal set up. The frame and complete bike are affordable, with frames around $450 and completes around $1,200. The build spec on the complete tends towards functions over flash, with components that will do their job, take a licking and keep on ticking. It can be a fast club rider, light tourer or commuter. I’ve used mine as all of those. The Cross Check is an incredibly versatile, practical machine.

My commuter. Fatties are fitting fine, complete with plenty of chrome bits and a Carradice Longflap Camper.
My commuter. Fatties are indeed fitting fine, with fenders, plenty of chrome bits, and a Carradice Longflap Camper.

Cross Check Frame Highlights

Versatility is the name of the game when it comes to the Cross Check. The rear triangle is spaced at 132.5, meaning you can use a 130 or 135 mm rear hub depending on your preferred type of riding. The dropouts are semi horizontal, meaning you can run a single speed, fixed or internally geared hub without any chain tensioner. There are rack and fender mounts and mid blade eyelets on the fork for any combination you may want. Downtube bosses for shifters, standard BB shell and headtube. Yea, it’s all there. The frame geometry strikes a nice balance as well. Built with road parts, it can be a lively road rider, or handle rough roads and even single track. Want to load it up for touring? No problem. It is a jack of all trades, but a master of none. If you’re looking for one bike that could everything well, this is it.

There are two nits that I have to pick. First is the confoundingly short headtube. For a bike that is not really a race, but more of a do-it-all frame, I don’t understand the decision to make the headtube so short. On my 54″, it is only 102mm, where I wouldn’t ideally have it in the 150mm range, meaning I’ve got to stack up a whole nerdy stack of spacers and run an upright stem, which mostly just an aesthetic complaint. I prefer to avoid running a ton of spacers; I’m far too young to have 60mm of spacers and an upright stem. This is exacerbated by the long top tube, making it even harder to get in an ideal position (for me at least) . It is odd that the bike is so long and low given that almost exclusively, this bike will not be raced. But, it is possible to make it work just fine, I just need to age up a bit faster.

Second is that there is a significant amount of toe overlap, especially when using large volume tires and fenders (which you should). This doesn’t really come into play except for slow speed sharp turns, but it is worth noting and is a bit disconcerting when it happens. Other than that, I’ve no complaints whatsoever about the bike.

On my day to day commute, I was getting tired of feeling beat up using 32mm tires. The streets around DC can be torn up and I wanted something a bit more supple and compliant. I had heard lots of good things about the Schwalbe Big Apple and really wanted to try them out. It seemed like an ideal tire for commuting, with a thick casing, and robust sidewalls, as well as the fact that it is a balloon tire, meaning it can be run at low pressures for added comfort. This combines for a smooth rolling, long lasting, puncture resistant tire that behaves almost like a full suspension bike on city streets. Bumps, potholes and cracks in the road disappear, even when loaded up, and I can run through glass shards with impunity. These tires seem an ideal candidate for a Cross Check built for commuting on the streets of DC. So why not just toss them on and shut up about it? Well, math, I suppose.

Surly claims that the widest tire the Cross Check can accept is 42mm, 40mm with fenders. The narrowest that the Big Apples come in are 2 inches, which is about 50mm. The wrong number is bigger in that equation. However, even with a 41mm Knard (which the bike currently comes specc’d with), there appears to be plenty of excess clearance. I decided to push the limits of Surly’s motto, Fatties Fit Fine (FFF) to see how Fat the Cross Check could get. (Spoiler Alert: It can get seriously fat.)

Maximizing the Cross Check Tire Clearance

Now, I know what you are thinking, aren’t really wide tires going to be horribly slow? And I have two responses to that. First, who cares? I’m commuting, I’d much rather be comfortable than 4% faster. Secondly, no, not really. The prevailing wisdom for a long time has been that narrower tires are faster, but that is rapidly changing. Rims have gotten wider over the past few years. A wider rim gives more lateral support to the tire, as well as putting more of the tire in contact with the road surface. This results in more traction, and allows for a lighter weight tire as the extra lateral support from the rim means the tire needs a less robust sidewall. The wider contact patch gives a better overall profile for the tire, more grip, and a more comfortable ride. Fatigue from riding a narrow tire is a real thing, after spending time on wider tires, riding a 23mm tire feels like a form of masochism. Even the pro peloton is adopting the wider rim and tire trend, so it has to count for something!

I have been commuting on a pair of Velocity Dyad rims laced to XT hubs, which is an excellent, bomb proof wheelset, and an integral part of the ideal bike commuter. The Dyad has an internal width of 18.6mm, a bit wider than the standard 13-15mm of most road rims. The smallest tire I would consider running on a Dyad is a 28mm, and they are plenty wide for the Big Apple, which Schwalbe states as being a 50mm (2″) tire. The Dyads have been ridden hard, often under large loads, and have handled the abuse with aplomb, begging for more and more. They are a truly bombproof rim, and when laced to the equally bombproof XT hubs, you’ve got a, well….a bombproof wheelset!

I mounted up a Big Apple to see what they would measure at, and they came in at a paltry 45mm wide. When mounted to the bike, there is still plenty of excess clearance in the frame. Is it possible? Could fenders actually fit?

“I do declare, the very notion of Fatties and Fenders has me feeling faint!”

Let’s do a quick eyeball check of how much excess clearance we’re talking.

cross check tire clearance
Tire clearance in the fork. Still plenty of space!
cross check tire clearance
Clearance at the chainstay is a little tight.
cross check tire clearance
Clearance at the brake bridge. Plenty.

The eyeball test says: “Hmm, probably enough?”

When mounted to a Velocity Dyad, the Big Apple measures in at a hair over 45mm, a good bit narrower than Schwalbe claims, when pumped to around 25 PSI.

The next step is finding a set of fenders that will fit around the Big Apples. There are a number of options that fit the bill, but the Velo Orange Zeppelin fender at 52 mm wide has a certain aesthetic je ne sais quoi.

The fit is definitely tight, especially where the chainstays and seat tube meet, but it works. Getting the rear tire in and out is a bit of a pain in the neck, but it does fit. The semi horizontal dropouts are handy in this instance. I have the wheel all the way back in the dropout, both to maximize tire clearance, but also to lengthen the wheelbase and effective chainstay length. This gives a more stable ride, as well as minimized heel strike on my panniers loaded up with Perrier, baguettes, and cartons of cigarettes. I prefer having fenders 10mm wider than the tire, but I don’t think a 55mm or 60mm fender would fit (if it did, it would be even more of a pain the neck to get set up, which I’m not interested in experiencing). Ideally, the fenders would be bent out a little to allow for better coverage of the tire, as there is still some spray from the sides, but it works well enough.

Finishing the Ideal Commuter Build

To complete the ultimate Euro style commuter, I added some Nitto Albastache bars, with a stubby stem pointing sky high. The Albastache is a mash up of their popular Albatross and Mustache bars, and are great for cruising around the city. The swept back bars put you in an upright position, and the forward position is good for when you need to drop the hammer on some fools on a Bikeshare bike. With the Albastache and mustache bars: non aero brake levers are going to provide for better cable routing for superior braking performance, as well as an aesthetic appeal. I used the Dia Compe 204 Non Aero levers, which work perfectly well and are relatively cheap. I’ve heard people complain about the ride quality of Mustache bars, saying they did not find them comfortable. I firmly believe this comes down to a set up issue. With the design of the mustache bars, to really be comfortable, you need a very short and upright stem. The brake levers are mounted further forward than on road drops, so to make them usable, the bar needs to be brought in from a normal road drop. There is also a small amount of drop on the albastache bars, so getting them up higher negates that effect. Plus, I just wanted to feel like I was cruising around the city, so was after a more upright position. I can still get further forward in the hooks of the bars and be in a reasonably aggressive position. The real drops on this bike are the rack struts on the front.

Dia compe non aero lever nitto albastache
The non aero lever, with looping cable routing.

Next up, a shiny porteur front rack and a shiny, light weight rear rack (both from VO). The porteur style rack is great for tossing things on the front of the bike, and helps balance out the weight load. It is a bit of a hassle getting a front fender and front rack mounted as they have to be mounted to the same eyelet. To prevent excessive rattle and chatter from the fender, I would recommend drilling a hole in the fender, and mounting the rack to the fender. The rear install is super simple, there is ample clearance and dedicated rack eyelets. Add in the venerable B17 Brooks saddle, and you’ve got a super comfortable, practical and stylish bike that eats up city streets for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This is the fourth or fifth set up of this bike and by far my favorite. Eventually, I would love to set this up as a single speed Monster Cross bike with some 45mm tires and dirt drops. Always dreaming on the next thing.


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