Surly Disc Trucker — An Informal First-Look Review

This weekend, I threw rocks at a fox trying to steal my socks. This is not a Seussian riddle. It is literally true.

Some context: Having finally gotten the main elements of my new(ish) Surly Disc Trucker together (56cm with 26-inch wheels, modded with flat bars, MicroShift thumbies, a Tubus Logo rear rack and Ergon GP5 grips/barends) I decided it was time to take my inaugural shakeout ride. This is to say, an overnight tour, packed light(ish) with food, bivvy bag, camping mat and sleeping bag in a set of Crosso Twist 52L panniers (not quite full, but with all water stowed therein as well, for lack of bottle cages as yet!).

Having never actually properly loaded up my trusty steed before, I think my outlook as I steered the bike down across the Pyrmont Bridge over Darling Harbour and thru the streets of Sydney to Circular Quay could pretty accurately be described as ‘shitting myself’. The fear, however, quickly subsided as I made a happy discovery: a touch twitchy though the steering was with all the weight in the back (especially when out of the saddle), the Surly overall was rock solid — so stable that, even in traffic, I very quickly forgot that I was hauling around a significant amount of weight in my back end.

On the fast ferry leaving the inner harbour and Harbour Brudge behind for Manly on the north shore.

On the fast ferry leaving the inner harbour and Harbour Bridge behind for Manly on the north shore.

Wanting to avoid central Sydney’s murderous weekend gridlock, I popped onto the fast ferry across the harbour to Manly — a wonderful sense of travel-freedom — and headed off with my phone’s GPS speaking to me thru my pocket towards Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park thirty or so klicks north, rolling through backstreets, along bike paths and onto the shoulder of the occasional major road (unavoidable in these parts, unfortunately). The bike remained, in all circumstances, admirably stable. That legendary stability when loaded up is a characteristic of the frame geometry that’s earned it its informal title as the world’s most popular touring bike, and indeed is a major reason that I ended up going with one myself, but it’s still something that truly has to be felt to be appreciated.

That stability would get an even better test once I entered the national park itself. I’d scoped out a remote little rock outcropping overlooking the delightfully-named Coal and Candle Creek at the far end of a 4km firetrail called the Waratah Track (Google Earth is marvellous for just this sort of thing). Within a few hundred metres of the turnoff from the main road, however, it became clear that this wasn’t just a dirt road, but a full-on 4WD track, with steep, legs-churning-in-lowest-gear climbs thru heavy crud and fast, flowy descents strewn with big rocks and deep boggy spots. I hadn’t biked a proper trail requiring anything technical in years and yet, even loaded up, the Trucker was cutting confidently through all of it. Everything is more fun when you’re muddy.

A gnarlier-than-reckoned-on descent on the Waratah Track.

A gnarlier-than-reckoned-on descent on the Waratah Track.

My drivetrain and brake rotors were gritting with sand and mud by the time I reached the end of the track, making the guiltily-consumerist part of my mind reflect on the eventual possibility of an expensive but maintenance-free Rohloff Speedhub. As the dirt track ended, it narrowed to a trail of bare rock that curved around towards an open spot with waving eucalypts and picture-perfect views of the boats moored down in the river far below me. No one would be coming this way in the hour before sunset. So: remove shoes. Remove socks. Fluff out bag. Eat peanut M&Ms and watch the world soften as it is gilded by its nearest star. In the gathering twilight I cooked a simple meal and watched the sky above the ridgeline opposite delaminate into fuzzy pastels, bending the light of the vanished sun as it rose orange-peach to yellow-green to deeper and deeper indigo, airplanes blinking like fireflies amongst the stars as they burned out from the darkness.

There are far, far worse places to go to sleep.

There are far, far worse places to go to sleep.

At length I slept. And then came the fox.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I am not concerned that my socks obviously smelled like food — because what else, really, could a fox be after in stealing them? But to wake to a rustling in the leaves less than two metres to my right and see a pair of glowing, obviously-non-wallaby eyes, was a thing significantly more alarming.

“Aaaaaaaaaaah!” I said with considerable dignity and composure, turning on my headlamp and weakly chucking a handful of pebbles in the fox’s direction.

Foxes, it should be said, do not attack people. Much less do they attempt to eat them. But I was not entirely convinced of either of these things at that moment. I tossed pebbles into the underbrush, following the sound of scuttling until it went away, and then bravely burned my camp stove high for a few minutes — a nod to some kind of atavistic impulse to frighten away nighttime beasties with a dramatic display of fire.

It was only when I woke in the morning that it became apparent what the fox was after: my socks, which I had cycled in wearing the night before, were up on the rock ledge where I had spotted the fox, intact but still (it bears mentioning) a bit ripe. The merino-wool-everything cycle tourist mindset, with its draw of natural odourlessness, now seems increasingly persuasive.

As for the ride out, post-morning-coffee: it was lovely, bright sun and cool air and chirping rainbow lorikeets in the branches. My Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes performed admirably as I barrelled down the long, steep curves of Liberator General San Martin Drive past the river I’d slept perched above the night before; and the stock Shimano drivetrain complained mercifully little as I pushed it up the 300+ metres of hard climbing on the other side. Eventually, unhappily, I hit the Sydney suburbs again, and thus began the frustrating but entirely un-noteworthy hours of fighting past strip malls and petrol stations amongst aggressive, smoggy walls of traffic.

You can see that this review, though (if it can honestly even be called that), is only peripherally about this or that bicycle component, about this or that piece of gear. More, it’s a review about what that bicycle, that gear, have allowed me to do, where they’ve allowed me to go, and how effectively and unobtrusively they’ve done so. If you’re thinking about a Disc Trucker as an all-purpose utility tourer — do it. It’s a marvellous machine and I’m sure I’ll write more on it as my relationship with the bike (and other gear) progresses. But the real takeaway for me is where the bike took me — alone in the wilderness with a fox at arm’s reach and the moon silvering the quiet water of the river down below me. More than counting grams or arguing headtube angles, that’s what touring is all about.

Cooking dinner at twilight.

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