May 09 2009

My Surly Long Haul Trucker—One Year Evaluation

Early last April I bought my Surly Long Haul Trucker. I called her Petra, and I’ve introduced her to a fair bit of the territory of far northern New York. In the process I’ve put about 2,500 miles on the odometer. Now that winter has given way to better riding conditions, I’ve been getting out more and remembering all over again why I love my LHT. But when the time came to add another bike to the fleet,…

Why a Long Haul Trucker?  I wanted a reliable touring bike which I could also use for practical and recreational road cycling. The bike had to be capable of hauling heavy loads in all weathers, while at the same time being a pleasure when riding unencumbered on the hilly terrain where I live. Most importantly, it had to fit me.

Bike shopping wasn’t easy. The local bike shop is a dud, and the next nearest shop is a two hour drive away with a limited selection of the kinds of bikes I was interested in. This meant I’d have to buy my new bike from a mail-order retailer. I read reviews, scoured the ‘net, and drew up a very short list of two contenders—the LHT and the Trek 520. I guess there was never any real doubt which bike I’d choose. The first time I saw the Surly LHT in a catalog years ago, I was taken with its relaxed geometry, understated good looks, and reasonable price. And it could be ordered through the mail, something that Trek doesn’t do and won’t permit its dealers to do, either. With the decision made to buy the LHT, the next thing on the list was…

Choosing a Frame Size  In short, I’m short, and Surly accommodates shorter cyclists by offering the LHT (and other bikes in its line-up) in sizes built with us in mind. In addition to stand-over height, the top tube length was critical for me. Too long a reach causes back, shoulder, neck, and hand strain and pain. After studying the LHT’s frame specs on the Surly site, I chose the 42cm frame. I knew it would be possible to fine-tune the fit with a different stem and handlebars if that was necessary. Once I’d decided on the frame size, the next question was where to buy the bike. I couldn’t beat the deal JensonUSA offered, so ordered the complete stock-built LHT from them.

On JensonUSA and UPS  I was pleased with JensonUSA’s service. Before placing my order, I had a few minor questions to ask, and my emails were promptly and accurately answered. I was nervous ordering a good bike through mail-order, and particularly concerned that I might receive a large box rattling with broken bike parts. The LHT was shipped UPS Ground, and I anxiously watched its progress through the UPS tracking website. I need not have worried. My LHT arrived at the time predicted by JensonUSA and UPS, and it was in fine shape.

JensonUSA did a fine job with the pro-build. The drivetrain needed no tweaking, the wheels were true, and all I had to do was put on the handlebars, wheels, and pedals. All in all I was pleased with…

The Stock Build  Surly made intelligent choices for components on the stock build, and I can’t fault any of their decisions. All that I had to do was clamp the front wheel in place and pump up the tires, install the handlebars, slide the seatpost into the seat tube, add pedals (not included in the build), fine-tune the fit, and ride away. Here’s a run-down of the components which Surly included on my stock-built bike:

  • Ritchey Logic Comp headset
  • Kalloy 1-1/8″ stem
  • Zoom drop handlebars, silver
  • R100A Small Hand brake levers
  • Tektro Oryx cantilever
  • Kalloy 27.2 x 300mm seatpost
  • Velo Endzone saddle
  • Shimano 9-speed Bar-end shifters
  • Shimano Tiagra front derailleur
  • Shimano XT rear derailleur
  • Sugino XD600 48-36-26t crankset
  • Shimano Deore 9-speed 11-34t cassette
  • Shimano UN53 bottom bracket, 68x110mm
  • Shimano XT 36h hubs
  • DT Swiss 14g stainless spokes
  • Alex Adventurer 36h w/eyelets, black
  • WTB Slickasaurus 26×1.5” tires

Making the LHT MINE  Like most cyclists, I had a few ideas about how to customize my bike right away. I swapped the included seatpost for a black one with a different clamp, because I don’t particularly like the Laprade clamp on the Kalloy post—I find it to be fussy to adjust. And I swapped the Velo saddle for a WTB saddle I had used on another bike. But that’s all I did to customize my LHT in those first weeks.

Now, after a year of riding, what do I think of my ride? Read on…

Drivetrain  I was impressed right away with how smoothly the drivetrain shifted, and I’ve remained happy with the components. The drivetrain is crisp and flawless, and the range of gears is terrific for hauling loads in hilly country. I had never used barcons before buying the LHT, and was concerned I’d find them clumsy, but the reverse is true. I quickly learned to shift, and swiftly developed a feel for what gear was selected. If I ever buy other road bikes, I’ll outfit them with bar-end shifters. They’re simple to use, simple to service (not that they’ve needed any servicing), and can be turned into downtube shifters on the LHT should that be desired. If, say, a cable broke while on tour, the shortened cable could be put into use by moving the effected shifter onto the downtube boss.

Wheels and Tires  The Alex wheels are sturdy enough to endure rough roads without being knocked into pretzels, and they look good, too. The Slickasaurus tires were quite good, as well. They cornered well at speed, and rolled smoothly. But they weren’t very grippy on unconsolidated surfaces.

Handling and Fit  Both are superb. The 42cm size fits me perfectly. Standover height is adequate, and more importantly, the reach is comfortable. I’ve experienced no pain in my neck, back, or shoulders, even on all-day rides. The LHT is a steady bike that absorbs shocks, anticipates my demands like an intelligent horse, and hunkers down solidly at high speeds down steep hills. I never feel as if the bike wants to get away from me, and even in the strongest, gustiest crosswinds the LHT holds the road and I never have to struggle for control. When carrying heavy loads (up to 50 pounds on the stern) the LHT seems to hold the ground even better, whether descending hills or climbing them, in calm weather and in rotten or windy conditions.

Braking  Sufficient under all conditions, though not quite the equal of the linear brakes on my utility mountain bike. The canti brakes on my LHT do not squeal, and I have not changed the brake pads yet. I’m conservative when braking, but have had to brake hard several times—the Tektro Onyx cantis coped well. My small hands have no difficulty reaching the levers, either from the hoods or from the drops, and while I originally thought about putting interrupter brake levers into the cable lines, I quickly realized that I didn’t need them.

Load Carrying  I fitted a handlebar bag and rear rack as soon as I got my LHT, and ran the bike through its paces with utility grocery runs. The heaviest load I carried on the rear rack was 50 pounds. The bike handled the load very well. I never felt unbalanced with such a heavy load, and even though I broke no speed records, that’s not the bike’s fault. I recommend using a bike trailer instead of panniers with very heavy loads, not because the bike can’t handle it, but because I think there’s less danger of toppling when parking. The weak points when packing heavy weights onto the bike rack are the fasteners, I’d think—use high quality stainless steel fasteners, not cheap pot metal ones. The bike’s rack eyelets are hefty affairs, and show no signs of metal fatique. A hint when mounting fenders or racks on the bike: Chase the eyelet threads with a screw set aside for that purpose. This clears out any paint which might make threading the rack’s screw bolts difficult.

Modifications Made to the Build  I’m largely satisfied with the stock build, but wanted a different type of handlebar. I installed wide Nitto Noodles, and described how to do it here at Outside Up North. Because the Noodles had a different clamp size (26.0 mm) than the stock stem (25.4 mm), I also had to replace that, but chose one quite close to the original in design. The only difference is that the new Dimension stem is a glossy black, not silver.

I also changed the tires at about 1,000 miles, replacing the original WTB Slickasaurus tires (the rear was flatted once) with the basic Schwalbe Marathons. They’ve proven to be a good choice. I’ve ridden them for about 1,500 miles now, in snow and rain, on gravel and sand and rough pavement, and have had no flats, cuts, or cracks. The reflective sidewalls alert drivers I’m sharing the road, and there’s no speed penalty for the more aggressive tread than the Slickasaurus’.

One last modification I’ve made is to go back to the original seatpost. The Nashbar seatpost I swapped out for the original Kalloy one was attractive enough, but the clamp is large and peeks out from the edge of my narrow Sella SMP Extra saddle (another alteration to my original set-up). The clamp’s rough alloy edges wore the fabric on my shorts and knickers. The original seatpost clamp is better finished and has a smaller profile, and should avoid scouring my shorts.

Accessories Added and Taken Away  I described the accessories I originally added to my LHT in this article. Since then, I became disenchanted with the Pletscher two-legged kickstand, and described why in another article. Just last week I ordered a Greenfield basic one-legged kickstand, and as soon as it arrived swapped it for the two-legger. It’s a pound lighter, at 10 ounces, and is much more reliable.

One question which often arises when cyclists consider buying a complete LHT is how hard it is…

Adjusting to Bar-End Shifters  Bar-end shifters (aka “barcons”) were new to me with the LHT, and I was uncertain I’d like them. I need not have worried. I practiced shifting the bike when it was up on the stand after assembling the bike. Then when I rode for the first time, I practiced shifting through all the gears on quiet roads near home. That’s all. A few minutes’ practice was enough to familiarize myself to the system. Because I returned to a road bike after riding a gripshift-outfitted mountain bike for several years, I appreciated having shifters right there on the handlebars, and it’s easy to push down on the barcon levers with the palm of my hand, or lift the lever with my pinkie and ring fingers. If you’re chewing your lip in anxiety about barcons, don’t worry, you’ll be fine.

Future Modifications  There’s very little I anticipate doing to modify my ride. I might move from the raised stem to a less radical angle, possible moving to a level stem. I might also add a front rack where I can rest my handlebar bag, mount more powerful lights, and carry a small pannier where I’ll stow maps.

Overall Impression  Surly has made a number of very good decisions in their design and outfitting of the LHT, including equipping the bike with a fork that has an uncut steerer tube. This allows the cyclist to adjust the cockpit perfectly by moving the stem up or down the steerer. Cut the steerer when you discover the perfect fit, or leave it uncut just in case you change your mind later. I’ll stick with the uncut steerer.

Using 26″ wheels on smaller frames makes a lot of sense, too. I like this size wheel. Not only does the smaller diameter reduce the risk of clipping the toe when turning, but the size is widely found around the country, and indeed throughout the world. Stop in any hardware store which sells bike accessories, or pull into any Wal-Mart, and chances are you’ll find 26″ tubes and even tires. That’s an asset when touring. They might not be the best quality tubes and tires, but try finding 700c tubes or tires in these places. The only gripe I have about the tubes is a minor one—why use Presta valves? The rims are wide enough to accept Schrader valve holes, and they’re a lot easier to find than Presta valves. I could drill out the rims but probable won’t. The Alex rims with 36 spokes are great choices, too. Strong wheels can cope with jarring surfaces and heavy loads. A rugged bike like the LHT isn’t the place for racing wheels with a minimum number of spokes. The other components are all well-chosen. Routine maintenance has been trouble-free, and everything works smoothly.

The Bottom Line  So, would I change anything in the stock build? Nope. Surly has gone to a different crankset since I bought mine, but by all accounts I’ve read, the Andel is the equal in quality to the Sugino XD. They also include a different saddle, a WTB, which reports suggest is quite satisfactory for many cyclists. Would I modify the frame in any way? Yes, in one small way—I’d ask that Surly outfit the frame with a kickstand plate.

I appreciate it that Surly sticks with proven designs and doesn’t feel the need to tart up their bikes with every new year. I even like the color choices. Would I buy the LHT again? You bet! Would I buy another Surly bike? Sure would! But I doubt I’ll ever find another bike which I’ll love as much as my LHT.


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