This review was originally published in April 2014 and is based on the specification of the Surly Disc Trucker at that time. The platform has been substantially updated for 2021, as explained in this blog post on the Surly website. This post will remain online for posterity and for those buying second-hand.
The Disc Trucker is a mid-range, disc brake-equipped steel touring bike from American bicycle manufacturer Surly, with a great deal of built-in customisation potential, a wide range of adventure touring applications, and enough versatility to be adapted for secondary uses.
In this review I’ll be looking at the bike primarily from an adventure cycle touring and bikepacking standpoint, as this is the bike’s designed purpose and the focus of my blog in general. After looking at the broad perspective, I’ll cover the frame features and the stock specification in detail, followed by taking a look at the ride quality both loaded and unloaded.
Finally, I’ll make buying and customisation recommendations based on my own extensive touring, bikepacking and expedition cycling experience.
The Surly Disc Trucker: Overview
If there was ever a contender for the prize of ‘Most Well-Travelled Touring Bike Of All Time’, the Surly Long Haul Trucker (that is, the rim-brake version of this bike) would be it.
The LHT, as it’s affectionately know, has been ridden round the world countless times since its launch in 2007. I’ve seen more of these in the middle of nowhere than any other long-distance touring bike — including intrepid riders in Ethiopia, Jordan and Iran, amongst other memorable encounters.
I’ve also noticed, however, that they are ridden almost exclusively by American and Canadian bicycle travellers. They’re ubiquitous for domestic touring in these countries, as I noticed when travelling down the U.S. West Coast in 2012. It was on that trip that I first had the chance to try out a fully-loaded Long Haul Trucker, and I understood immediately what has made it one of the most popular adventure touring bikes Stateside.
Surly bikes are distributed in the UK by Ison, and though you won’t find the bikes as widely available as old-school British brands like Dawes, you’ll find that a lot of the country’s touring specialists do indeed carry the bike, or can order them in on request.
Surly Disc Trucker Frameset
Built of Surly’s own-brand 4130 double-butted steel tubing and with a specially-designed cromo touring fork, the Disc Trucker looks – at a glance – like a fairly standard mixed-terrain touring or gravel frame with disc mounts.
The lack of brand-name tubing might swing some potential buyers over to other bikes, but for no good reason: there are many factors besides tubing that affect frame quality, as this article on Surly’s blog explains.
One of these factors is frame design. And a closer glance at the frame and fork speaks for Surly’s understanding of the needs and concerns of the adventurous cyclist who’s in it for the long run, and who anticipates taking their bike into the back of beyond.
The geometry is spacious: a relatively long head tube together with the traditional top tube geometry (as opposed to the current vogue for sloping top-tubes) means that the main triangle is substantially-proportioned. This allows for one of two things, depending on how you’re riding it: either the kind of frame stiffness that only becomes noticeable when a bike is fully loaded up with panniers, and in bikepacking mode the fitting of a very spacious full frame bag.
The rear triangle and fork also feel nice and roomy. That’s partly because the wheelbase of the bike is longer than you’d find on a road racer or hybrid, which is a common mark of a touring bike, making for maximum stability, comfort and responsive handling under load.
Tyre clearance is generous too; the frame and fork have been designed for tyres up to 2.1″ on the 26″ frame (with or without fenders) and 45mm on the 700C frame (without fenders), so dirt-road riders can take their pick from a decent range of knobblies. This is notably generous when compared to the Disc Trucker’s traditional competitors in the mid-range touring bike market.
This is a huge plus-point in the versatility stakes, and one of the many features that puts the Disc Trucker well and truly in the round-the-world expedition category of bikes, as well as in the crossover zone for fast & light dirt-road bikepacking.
Being built of steel, minor frame breakages (such as braze-ons snapping off) become much more repairable ‘in the field’ than aluminium frames. (I’ve written in detail elsewhere about the never-ending steel vs aluminium debate.)
Detailed frame features are where some real thought has been applied. The three bottle cage mounts are present, as they should be on any serious adventure bike; the seatstay-mounted spare spoke holders are a really nice touch and a nod to the generations of travellers who’ve been taping spare spokes to their seatstays for decades; and there’s a mounting plate for a kickstand, should you choose to fit one.
Braze-ons and bolt holes for mounting racks and mudguards are present and correct, and the rear rack seatstay mounts are oversized for added peace of mind.
The positioning of the disc brake caliper eliminates the need for a ‘disc-specific’ rack, so pretty much any rack can be installed on the Disc Trucker.
The front fork’s rack and lowrider mounts are plentiful, with bolts available for mounting to the fork crown, the mid-blades (inside and outside) and the dropouts – a very welcome feature, given the plethora of ways in which people botch front racks onto forks in ways they weren’t designed for – which again opens up the choice of front racks and lowriders considerably.
Consideration will still be required to ensure that the front disc caliper doesn’t interfere with the rack when it’s installed. This is a weakness of pretty much all disc forks when racks are involved. Surly make a front rack themselves, which of course fits perfectly, but personally I’d go with the more minimal Tara or Duo lowriders from Tubus, both of which will fit with additional spacers and carry small front panniers very happily.
Cable routing lugs are of the traditional variety. Personally I’d like to be able to install shifter cables with full-length uncut housings to prolong the life of the inner cables, but that’s a minor point and something I say about pretty much every touring bike I ride. (If I really wanted to, I would drill out the stops and repaint them myself.)
Surly Disc Trucker Specification & Build
The 10-speed drivetrain is pretty much exactly what I’d expect to find on a do-everything tourer at this price point, though I’d use an 8‑speed drivetrain if I was doing my own custom-build (as I’ve done for my own expedition bike – full specs here).
Mountain-biking components abound, as they should for a bike that’s designed to be ridden up steep hills all over the world with a full complement of luggage. The triple chainset is a 26/36/48t setup, which together with the 11–36t cassette provides as wide a range of gear ratios as you’d ever need. Ubiquitous, interchangeable derailleur parts from Shimano’s Deore, XT and Sora ranges take care of shifting, and the chain is a standard KMC 10-speed model (I highly recommend installing a quick-link for ease of chain removal).
The bottom bracket is a Shimano UN-55 square-taper model; very welcome indeed given that square-taper bottom brackets still rule most of the developing world. Most manufacturers in this market go with Shimano 3‑piece cranksets as part of a groupset deal with the component maker, so Surly gets a brownie point here. The Andel cranks vary in length from 165–175cm depending on frame size – just as they should.
The wheels are 36-spoke models, with the Alex DH19 rims Surly have used for years on this bike built onto Shimano XT 6‑bolt disc hubs. It’s great to see that good quality DT Swiss spokes have been used for the build. Many manufacturers skimp on spoke quality to save money, but this is a mistake given that the largest proportion of wheel breakages on tour are to do with broken spokes — either because they’re poor quality, or because they’re badly tensioned (or both).
There’s no substitute for well-thought-out hand-built wheels when it comes to the ultimate in strength and reliability. But assuming the spokes of a new Disc Trucker’s wheels are brought in for tensioning after a few hundred miles, there’s no reason they shouldn’t see off several continents’ worth of fully-loaded touring. (And if a spoke does break, you’ve got your replacement right there on the seatstay.)
The hubs are high quality Shimano XT with easily-serviceable cup & cone bearings and good part compatibility with Shimano hubs from other ranges and generations. This is all sensible stuff.
Shifters are of the Microshift bar-end variety; some riders coming from other disciplines don’t like this, but on a long tour where ease of maintenance and repair are more important than so-called ‘efficiency’, it makes perfect sense to separate shifting and braking systems and to keep both simple. A friction shifter for the front derailleur allows precise adjustment to avoid the chain rubbing so common with even the most finely-tuned index shifting systems.
Brake levers are simple and dependable Tektro models with adjustable reach – nothing unnecessarily fancy.
Avid’s BB7 cable disc brakes have been chosen for braking both front and rear, and rightly so: these are one of the few examples of cable disc brakes with a true record of reliability on worldwide, long-distance rides over the years. Stopping power is second only to hydraulics, and they feature a fine-grained level of adjustability, as well as using the same cables and brake levers as V‑brakes do, so you’ll not have a problem finding spares in this department.
(Bikepackers heading for the dirt roads will almost certainly choose the Disc Trucker over its V‑brake sibling, the LHT, because of disc brakes’ better modulation in technical terrain and higher resistance to mud and grit.)
The headset is from long-standing manufacturer Cane Creek, and is a premium sealed cartridge bearing model (a la Hope and Chris King). Like spokes, this is something many manufacturers will skimp on to bring overall cost down; no such compromise has been made with the Surly, and a good quality headset like this should last for years with zero maintenance.
Customising The Surly Disc Trucker
The Disc Trucker – like the Long Haul Trucker – has been designed by Surly with customisation in mind. They come out of the factory without racks or fenders or pedals, and the saddle (like almost all stock saddles on touring bikes) shouldn’t seriously be considered for touring.
(The first thing I did on setting up the Disc Trucker was put my Brooks B17 on it – and most experienced tourers will do the same with their own favourite saddles.)
Likewise, the stock tyres on the 26-inch model I rode were Continental Tour RIDE 1.75″. These are good all-rounders and will get you going, but there’s little more to say than that. Those on long-haul road rides will probably be fitting the Schwalbe Marathon Plus or Supreme; those with dirt roads in mind might opt for the fattest version of the lighter, grippier Mondial – or something even knobblier.
Neither racks nor fenders (mudguards) are supplied as standard; Surly’s rationale in these departments (with which I wholeheartedly agree) is that there are different tools for different jobs. Bikepackers likely won’t want racks at all, and some tourers will only fit a rear rack.
But since you’re most likely going to buy your Disc Trucker from an independent local bike shop, as opposed to online (right?), all this means is that you’ll choose any such additions at the point of purchase and your mechanic will fit them for you.
I do feel that part of the Disc Trucker and Long Haul Trucker’s cult status comes from the fact that Surly have done such a great job of meeting their riders halfway, specifying parts of the bike that need little discussion (drivetrain, wheels, etc) and leaving room to choose where there’s potential for meaningful differences in preference or what’s appropriate to a particular rider and the trip they have in mind.
What this does mean is that when you’re comparing the cost of this bike to other options, don’t forget to factor in the cost of whatever racks and/or fenders you’re planning to fit.
How Does It Feel To Ride?
Few bikes have quite the same ability to inject such a feeling of fun into the act of fully-loaded riding, and to do so with admirable effortlessness. Everything about the bike’s handling under load feels natural — almost happy. It’s a bike that can inspire you to ride long and far.
Though fitted with drop handlebars, which aren’t my preference for touring, the steep-angled stem and spacers together with the frame geometry make for a bike that feels comfortably breezy and upright to ride; nothing like the cramped, tucked position of a road racer.
The cork grip tape is… well, it’s there, and you’re unlikely to notice it.
Unloaded, the bike zips away from a standstill, despite its relatively heavy weight, and while it feels solid and quite unforgiving without luggage, that’s what you’d expect from a touring bike. Yet I’d happily ride it unloaded or lightly loaded as a commuter or on a day-ride, because it’s just so much damn fun to be on.
Loaded up is when it comes into its own, of course, and the same solid and reassuring feeling is still right there when there’s 20kg of gear in a pair of tightly-packed rear panniers and a tent on top. Don’t take my word for it after just a few hundred miles of test-riding, though; take it from the countless folk who’ve ridden (and continue to ride) this bike across continents.
The bottom line is that it’s been designed for an adventurous and aware style of travel, comfort over speed, reassurance and stability over lightness, and this is just as it should be, as a continuing series of long-distance tourers and bikepackers can attest to.
Like any bike, whether it feels right to ride is mainly a function of whether you’ve had it sized and set up properly by someone who knows what they’re doing.
Should I Buy The 26-inch Or 700C Disc Trucker?
This is one of few adventure bikes that are made for both the 26-inch (mountain bike) and 700C (road bike) traditional wheel sizes.
I’ve written in more detail about the 26-inch vs 700C debate here, but there are a few things to consider when deciding which is more appropriate to you.
The first is your own size. If you are very tall (much over 6 foot 2) or very small (below 5 foot 4), you’ll probably be better suited to the respectively large or small wheel size, because frame geometry gets a bit weird when trying to put small wheels into big frames and the vice versa (though you can get away with it).
If you’re planning an adventurous tour outside the realm of leisure cycling (typically developed Western nations, though increasingly in middle-income countries), you’ll have an easier a time finding spare tyres, tubes, spokes and rims for a 26-inch wheeled bike than a 700C one.
Consider also the type of tyres you want to fit, if you intend to change the stock tyres. Bikepackers might find a greater variety of knobblies within the 26-inch market, though this is increasingly less the case.
For average-sized people touring close to home with no special tyre requirements, and all else being equal, I’d suggest the 700C version for a little extra comfort and rolling efficiency
In any case, it’s a rather unique feature of the Disc Trucker (and Long Haul Trucker) to actually be able to choose your wheel size, rather than having to choose a different bike altogether. Nice one, Surly.
I’ll continue to recommend the Surly Disc Trucker to those in the market to buy and customise a single, do-everything adventure bike for a wide range of mixed-surface touring and bikepacking all over the world and for indefinite lengths of time. This is because the Disc Trucker is adaptable to so many applications in a way that most other bikes at this price point cannot claim.
It’ll appeal to someone who puts thoughtful, functional, versatile, foolproof design above looks or latest technological trends. It’ll be particularly attractive to someone who wants to be left with a few degrees of choice when it comes to setting a bike up for their particular way of doing things, and who isn’t necessarily afraid to get their hands a bit dirty doing so. Because this represents a minority of people, it’s possibly one of the reasons the bike still has a relatively modest representation in the UK — not that this is necessarily a bad thing.
Whatever you decide, do yourself a favour and get your bike sized, fitted and customised by a touring bike specialist – it’s more than worth the potential savings of ordering a bike online, which I’ll continue to advise against for many reasons.
The 2019 Surly Disc Trucker sits right at the intersection of many adventurous cycle touring and bikepacking applications, striking a formidable balance of utility and adaptability.
It’s uncompromising in simplicity and durability, and rolls out of the factory offering enough scope for customisation to be turned into a machine that will tackle pretty much any terrain you’d expect to encounter on either a full-blown round-the-world ride or a shorter mixed-terrain adventure closer to home. It’s also competitively priced when compared with similar competing touring bikes, though don’t forget to budget for racks, fenders and a decent saddle.
In other words, if you suspect that the Disc Trucker might be the touring bike for you, it probably is.
Check out full specifications and find local dealers on Surly’s website.