The Surly Disc Trucker, and its rim-brake sibling the “Long Haul Trucker”, are touring bikes so classic that on many popular long distance cycle routes — The PanAm Highway, for example — they’re practically the default choice for many riders.
Solidly built of 4130 chromoly steel and boasting a heap of mounting points for racks and cages, it’s a bike meant for carrying big loads across vast swathes of territory, and actually feels better loaded up than naked thanks to its stability-imparting long chainstays and wheelbase, and low bottom bracket.
The bike is most commonly seen in the wild on pavement, sporting four bulging Ortleib panniers on racks both front and rear, but in its 26-inch-wheeled version especially it can also do passable duty as a fully functional rigid mountain bike, aided by relatively wide 2-inch rubber. And though it can hardly be considered ‘nimble’, it certainly is tough: I’ve ridden it through highly technical sections of rock garden in which the only serious complaint was the inability to keep the rear tyre from spinning when climbing out of the saddle on steep, loose terrain. Even stock components like the Alex Adventurer rims have held up to a heavy bashing. It’s worth noting, of course, that while the low bottom bracket on the Trucker makes it feel super-stable at speed or when descending, it also means you’re going to pedal strike a lot on rough, rooty, rocky terrain.
Never having been comfortable on drop bars I swapped them out for a a flat bar conversion with low-maintenance Microshift thumbies and Ergon GP5 grips, which give a host of potential hand positions for climbing, cruising and grinding during long days in the saddle. The *actual* saddle itself, an economy WTB number, was comfortable enough for shorter rides, but for day-long or multi-day rides it’s likely that you’ll want to swap it out for something a little more comfortable, as I did for a Selle Anatomica Watershed X. Appropriately, it’s a bike that is meant to be adapted to taste, and does a good job in a wide variety of configurations (some more idiosyncratic than others!).
Surly has generally built the bike up around solid, no-flash components like the Cane Creek 40 headset and a Shimano XT rear derailleur, with the upshot being that the Trucker tends to run happily in tough conditions without experiencing frustrating mechanical issues. My only major complaint would be the stock Shimano UN-55 square taper bottom bracket, which has tended to develop creaking in gritty, dirty or sandy conditions, having to be serviced after at least once. Square taper, of course, has the benefit that you can find replacement parts even in out-of-the-way corners of the world, and a replacement UN-55 unit is cheap as chips, but I’d consider something more robust if I were building the bike up from scratch.
Another standard bit of the stock bike-touring ‘uniform’ is Schwalbe Marathon or Mondial tyres, and in keeping with that orthodoxy I’ve ridden 26×2.0 Marathon Plus Tours for more than a year. They’re plenty stiff, and heavy as hell at more than 1000g each, but there’s a lot of wisdom to the choice: I haven’t had a single flat, either pinch or puncture, since I installed them (and this over both gnarly offroad and debris-scattered city riding). The ‘Tour’ variant carries a bit of tread to it, but not much, and while I’ve certainly ridden them plenty on loose surfaces, they struggle to bite much on them, being much more at home on asphalt or hardpack. Needless to say, if you hit a patch of sand, you’ll also be ‘riding the snake’ for a moment until you can get something firmer under your wheels. But for the relatively low rolling resistance and robustness of these tyres, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them for either pavement or dirt roads in reasonable condition.
As for the choice between the four variants of the Trucker — rim brake / disc brake and 26″ / 700c, I’d say that the wheel choice is probably less critical than people would lead you to believe. Both wheel sizes are perfectly functional and robust in their 36-hole variants, and you’ll get more longevity by not loading the living hell out of your bicycle than you will simply thru choosing one wheel size or the other. Common wisdom, of course, states that 26″ wheels are stronger, and that replacement spokes and rims are easier to find in the backwaters of the world, and there is certainly something to that, but I wouldn’t get too caught up in it overall. People tour on both wheel sizes all over the world all the time (plus on 29″, 27.5″ and 16″ Brompton wheels to boot!) and for the most part (with the occasional delay) manage to get where they’re going.
For me, though, the Avid BB7 mechanical discs are a clear and easy choice over rim brakes, not only because they hugely reduce wear on your rim’s sidewalls, but also because wheel trueness becomes vastly less critical when running discs: whack a wheel with BB7s and odds are you can still roll on with a bit of a wobble without rubbing. I’ve found the Avids easy to maintain and adjust, and though I haven’t had to change out the pads yet, it’s generally reported as being reasonably painless, even in the field (a benefit of mechanical discs over hydraulics). Disc brake pads are rare in many corners of the globe, but given that they’re both incredibly small and incredibly light, they’re also a very easy item to simply carry spares for. Stopping power on the BB7s I’ve never had a complaint about, even loaded, downhill, and in the wet (though they *do* tend to squeal more than a bit in this instance).
The bike, of course, isn’t any kind of lightweight, but I’ve never felt that it was a slug unloaded either. Many people, of course, will opine that for the sake of repairability steel is the *only* material for extended cycle touring, but as Tom Allen observes, few frames of any kind tend to have fatigue failures, and in the event of a crash, “a frame structurally compromised in an accident will either need replacing or attended to by a professional framebuilder, regardless of frame material.” Accordingly, I see the benefits of the steel frame as fork less as being ‘field-repairable’ and more that they’re comfy, forgiving and pleasant to ride. The frame issue, like the wheel-size issue, is one of the countless ideological tempests that people are fond of getting caught up in in the internet research rabbit hole, but in reality it all matters far less than people think. Get a bike. Get on the bike. Ride it. Stop for the night, then get up in the morning and ride it again. You can’t forestall or foresee disaster, so when disaster happens, deal with it with good humour and then get back on the bike.
Which brings us back to the point of this review: The Trucker. In my final reckoning, it’s a bike that’s a true jack-of-all-trades, but also — importantly — a master of one. It’ll chew up pavement miles with the best of them, but also does dirt roads and even serves for genuine mountain bike territory if you’re not too concerned about shredding it. Doing all these things admirably, it also distinguishes itself most in doing exactly what its name suggests: getting all loaded up and hauling.
That it ticks so many boxes (in addition to being one of the more affordable out-of-the-box touring options on the market) makes it an excellent choice for people who want a tourer or commuter that, properly attired, will serve in most non-specialised circumstances you can throw at it. It holds the mantle of an ‘expedition’ touring bike, and while there’s a shift afoot in the bike world to burlier ‘plus’ and ‘fat’ options, none of them boast the same on-pavement smoothness or fully-loaded-up pedigree of the Trucker.
And though it’s easy, again, to get caught up in the tech of what makes the *ideal* touring bike, what I return to again and again are not the Trucker’s specs, but the gorgeous places I’ve ridden on it and camped out under the sky. And all those days and roads and tracks and miles, the Surly Disc Trucker has been the technician’s dream: an excellent and capable tool which seldom gets in the way.