Full disclosure: I test-rode a Disc Trucker on temporary loan from Surly’s UK distributor for the purposes of this review. It was returned to them after the test-riding period was over. I’m not affiliated with Surly or their distributor in any way.
The Surly 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 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 and expedition cycling experience.
If there was ever a contender for the prize of ‘Most Well-Travelled Touring Bike’, the Surly Long Haul Trucker (the V-brake version of this bike) would be it.
They’ve been ridden round the world countless times. 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.
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.
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.
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 touring frame with disc mounts. The lack of brand-name tubing might put a few potential buyers off, but 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 touring 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, and this allows for the kind of frame stiffness that makes a big difference when a bike is really loaded up.
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. Clearance is generous too; the frame and fork have been designed for compatibility with fat tyres (2 inches and up).
What the tyre clearance means is that the Disc Trucker – while being supplied as a fairly road-oriented tourer in its stock specification – can also be configured with large-volume expedition tyres (the Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour or Mondial come to mind) to take you off the beaten track for extended periods of time, or with mountain-biking knobbly tyres for shorter and lighter off-road excursions.
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 category of bikes.
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 3 bottle cage mounts are present, as they should be on any world tourer; the seatstay-mounted spare spoke holders are a really nice touch and a nod to the generations of tourers who’ve been Gaffa-Taping spare spokes to their seatstays for decades.
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; pretty much any rack can be installed on the Disc Trucker. (I installed a Tubus Logo for the test-ride, but it turned out the extra heel clearance of the Logo wasn’t really necessary – the classic Cargo would have been an equally suitable choice.)
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. The abundance of mounting options here 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.)
Component Specification & Build
The 9-speed chainset 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. Shimano’s ubiquitous, interchangeable parts from the Deore LX, Deore XT and Sora ranges take care of shifting, and the chain is a standard SRAM 9-speed model with a ‘Powerlink’ (something I highly recommend for ease of chain removal).
The bottom bracket is a Shimano 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 the Shimano-enforced option of a proprietary Hollowtech crankset as part of a groupset deal with the component maker, so Surly gets a brownie point here.
The wheels are 36-spoke models, with the Alex Adventurer 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 incorrectly 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, forgettable stuff.
Shifters are of the bar-end variety; some folk with racing backgrounds 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, of which modern integrated road levers/shifters are just the opposite. 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 the only cable disc brakes with a true record of reliability on tour over the few years they’ve been adopted for such use. Assuming you’re reading this because you’re happy with the idea of disc brakes on tour in general, these are the best bet. 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.
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, unlike the poorly-sealed cage bearing headsets seen on some similarly-expensive touring bikes.
One thing that really needs mentioning is that the Disc Trucker – like the Long Haul Trucker – has been thought out 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 expensive touring bikes) shouldn’t seriously be considered the one you’ll take touring with you. The first thing I did on setting up the Disc Trucker was put my Brooks B17 on it – and most serious tourers will be expected to do the same with their own favourite saddles.
Likewise, the standard tyres on the 26-inch model I rode come in the form of Continental Tour RIDE 1.5″ or 1.75″, depending on the frame size you choose. 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 more dirt roads in mind might opt for the Marathon Plus Tour or Mondial. (The fattest versions of all of these tyres will fit nicely within the Surly’s spacious frame and fork.)
Neither racks nor mudguards are supplied as standard, and again Surly’s rationale is that there are different tools for different jobs. What this does do, however, is exclude a lot of people who might not want to think about rack and mudguard choice (though those wisely test-riding and buying a Disc Trucker from a local bike shop, as opposed to on the internet, could easily get their bikes configured thus at the point of purchase).
I do feel that part of the Disc Trucker and Long Haul Trucker’s cult status comes from the fact that Surly, as a bike manufacturer, are trying hard to meet their customers halfway, specifying parts of the bike that should be a no-brainer (drivetrain, wheels, etc) and leaving room to choose where there’s real potential for a significant difference in preference or relevance of the various parts available to the tour in mind.
(I, for example, would fit a bomb-proof Tubus rear rack and an Ortlieb handlebar bag, then travel light and not bother with front panniers. Fenders bend and break and are a pain to transport; I much prefer a Crud Catcher-style mudguard up front and a homemade equivalent for the rear. I use flat pedals exclusively on tour, and – for me – my Brooks B17 is the most comfortable saddle in the world.)
When comparing the cost of this bike to other options, don’t forget to factor in the cost of whatever racks and mudguards you’re planning to fit.
How Does It Feel To Ride?
Though fitted with dropped 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 lightweightness, and this is just as it should be, as a continuing series of long-distance tourers 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.
26-inch or 700c?
Unusually, this is a bike that is made in both the 26-inch (mountain bike) and 700c (road bike) wheel sizes. I would ride the 26-inch version for the simple reason that this wheel size is by far and away the most commonly-found wheel size in the world, and I tend to travel more in strange and faraway lands. If you’re planning an adventurous tour outside the realm of sport cycling (typically developed Western nations), you’ll have a hell of a lot easier a time finding spare tyres, tubes, spokes and rims for a 26-inch wheeled bike than a 700c one.
This should not really matter to some buyers who intend to tour exclusively closer to home, and who might just prefer the slight increase in comfort and speed of the 700c size over the potential availability of spares elsewhere.
The other main reason you’d choose the 26-inch version is if you’re going off-road, in which case the choice of suitable tyres will be far broader at this wheel size. I’ve written in more detail about the 26-inch vs 700C debate here.
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.
I’ll continue to recommend the Disc Trucker and Long Haul Trucker to those in the market for a mid-range expedition-worthy touring bike, simply because it has the potential to tick the boxes for such a broad spectrum of touring needs in a way that other touring 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.
Finally, it’ll appeal to someone looking for a bike that can be adapted to serve several purposes, rather than just one, for versatility is one of the Disc Trucker’s biggest strengths of all.
From a personal perspective, there are plenty of modifications I’d make to the stock Disc Trucker before setting off round the planet. I’d replace the wheels or have them hand-tensioned, and fit a variety of Schwalbe’s Marathon tyres suited to where I was planning to ride. I’d ditch the drops and rebuilt the cockpit with riser bars, and remount the bar-end shifters as thumbshifters. I’d fit a Tubus Cargo rack and Tara lowrider, as well as a decent pair of mudguards. In an ideal world, I’d also fit an 8-speed drivetrain and ramp up the gear ratio yet further with a 11-34T cassette and a 22T granny ring.
(In other words, I’d edge the specification closer to that of my own custom-built expedition touring bike.)
Whatever you decide, remember to 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 Surly Disc Trucker is right at the intersection of many common concerns for the adventurous cyclist willing (or wanting) to fit some of their own finishing kit. It’s uncompromising in simplicity and durability, and offers enough scope for adaptation to be turned into a machine that will tackle pretty much any terrain you’d expect to encounter on a full-blown round-the-world ride. It’s also competitively priced when compared with similar competing expedition touring bikes.
In other words, if you suspect that the Disc Trucker might be the bike for you, I enormously doubt you’ll be disappointed with it.
Check out full specifications and find local dealers on Surly’s website.