Building a Surly Cross-Check as a Dream Commuter
In need of a new daily driver, Lucas recently built up a humble Surly Cross-Check frameset into the commuter of his dreams. Learn about his one of a kind Cross-Check here, which features internal dynamo wire routing, custom paint, an eclectic parts kit, and more…
One evening about a decade ago, I was talking with a friend I’d bumped into outside of a restaurant when just behind me someone ran up, jumped on my 2007 Surly Cross-Check, and furiously pedaled away. It was a hell of a bold move, and I chased them on foot for blocks and blocks until I nearly collapsed, but they ultimately got away. My Cross-Check was the bike I depended on for everything for years, from touring to commuting to work and campus, so losing it was a tough blow. I spent the next couple of years eyeing up every single grey bike I saw around the streets of Minneapolis, but unfortunately it was never recovered.
I’ve had a variety of commuter bikes in the years since it was stolen, but building up another Cross-Check has always been on the top of my mind. After my unexpected move from Germany back to the United States last year—where I didn’t have a bike of any kind—I figured it was finally time. And having had years to think about my replacement Cross-Check, I had a pretty specific vision for what it’d look like, including some unique modifications to the frame, fresh paint, and other touches.
Here’s an overview of the process of building up a dream commuter around a humble Surly Cross-Check frame, along with a complete built kit, some impressions from my first few months of riding it, and lots of photos.
Surly Cross-Check in 2020?
The Surly Cross-Check doesn’t need a lengthy introduction, of course. They’re everywhere, and by now someone has built one up into literally every permutation you could possibly imagine. Drop bars or flats, gears or not, chunky tires or slicks, it’s all been done. It’s a super versatile platform, which is surely what’s helped it persist as a mainstay in the cycling world for so long. As Surly puts it, “There is no such thing as one bike that can do it all, but Cross-Check comes pretty damn close. It’s a dyed-in-the-wool commuter and utility rig. It was a ‘gravel crusher’ long before ‘gravel bikes’ existed.”
No doubt, the Cross-Check has never been the overall best bike for any single purpose, but for a $525 frameset, it’s a pretty nice place to start. To be clear, it comes with its share of trade-offs, and there’s been substantial innovation in the bicycle industry since it was released. If you want the latest and greatest anything, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But the burly steel frame/fork, rim brakes, quick release axles, too short head tube and too long top tube are all part of the Cross-Check’s idiosyncratic magic that still makes it the most loved bike in many a rider’s stable.
This isn’t going to be a review, but is the Surly Cross-Check worth buying in 2020? I think so, assuming you prioritize value and fun over modern standards and aren’t looking for a bike to perfectly fill an ultra-specific niche.
Custom Frame Mods
To help realize my vision for this a one of a kind Cross-Check, I enlisted the help of Jeremy Shlachter of Gallus Cycles, a Denver, Colorado-based framebuilder who made some unique modifications that gave my dream commuter a few custom frame touches on production frame budget.
Frame Modification Wishlist:
- Remove downtube shifter bosses, add simple stop for 1x drivetrain
- Fabricate rear light bracket on seatstay
- Add internal routing for rear dynamo lighting cables
- Add guides on fork for front dynamo lighting cables
Jeremy was able to help me with everything on my wishlist over a couple of quick visits to his workshop, and working with him was really enjoyable. I have a slightly irrational distaste for unused downtube shifter bosses, and since I had plans to build this up as a dedicated 1x rig, those were the first to go. In place of the clunky bosses, Jeremy added a simple housing stop on the driveside. Knowing I’d be running a Supernova E3 Tail Light 2 rear light off of my dynamo hub, he also fabricated a custom bracket for it on the rear left seatstay. Lastly, I had him drill the frame for internal dynamo cable routing in four positions, and add a couple of simple cable guides in the rear triangle, as well as on the fork.
Getting to spend time hanging out with and learning from talented folks like Jeremy who helped get this build together—from frame mods, to wheels, to powder coating, to assembly—was one of the many reasons building something from a frameset up was more rewarding than just picking up an off-the-shelf complete bike.
Save The Rim Brake
While I wouldn’t want rim brakes on my expedition bikepacking rig, I’ll always have a soft spot for them. I love a good rim brake, and I hope to always have at least one rim-brake-equipped bike, as long as parts are available. They’re simple, lightweight, and powerful, at least when set up correctly.
As they’ve long since fallen out of fashion in the bike world, finding quality rim-brake-compatible wheels is becoming increasingly difficult, unless you’re okay with buying something used. Knowing it’d be impossible to source readymade wheels that perfectly matched my vision for this 11-speed commuter, I got in touch with Ryan Santoski at Totem Cyclery—also in Denver—to see if he could help me build up a set of wheels for the Cross-Check.
Ryan is more passionate about building wheels by hand than anyone I know, and he does some incredible work out of his small shop. Regular readers of the site might remember the Rider and Rig feature I put together on Ryan and his Kona Rove a couple of years ago, in which he shared some of his philosophy on running a small brick and mortar shop. I also asked him to put together some thoughts on building wheels to accompany this post, and here’s what he had to say:
On Handbuilt Wheels
Ryan Santoski, Totem Cyclery
At its most utilitarian, wheelbuilding is glorified assembly work, exemplified daily in the same factories where most of the world’s bicycles are mass produced as factory workers lace a wheel in a matter of seconds before sending it down the line where it’s finished by machine. A similar process occurred at a Midwest-based wheel company I worked for when we fulfilled the occasional contract order for larger brands, building thousands of wheels within a week’s time. With a motor-assisted jig that used sensors to line up the spoke holes, the average time to lace a 32-spoke wheel was just 39 seconds. While I can appreciate the efficiency of such a process, in my opinion there’s something missing.
In cooking, it’s said that a recipe has no soul, that the chef must bring it to life using their own deft hands and sensory awareness. If one can allow that a well-functioning bicycle is the result of a specific recipe, then the wheel is certainly an integral part of the feast. In today’s era of fast-food-style commerce and consumption thereof, it’s a pleasure to sit down with intention and attention to bring a wheel to life. Rolling threads into spokes, prepping the ingredients, and finding a balance between opposing forces holds a certain ritualistic space. The high-end blingy wheels are of course fun, but the most satisfying thing is when a recreational rider who commissions a modest hand-built wheelset comments on how “alive” their bike feels—truth that everyone can appreciate a good slow-cooked meal.
After researching my options for 32h rims with machined sidewalls, I landed on Easton’s R90 SLs. A tiny Shutter Precision PV-8 dynamo hub up front powers my lights, and the beautifully machined and mega loud Nineteen rear hub from Acros—one of my favorite smaller German companies—means my bell is rarely necessary on the trails. Everything is laced together with Sapim’s CX-Ray J-Bend spokes, which I’ve used on a handful of commuter wheel builds before and have always been more than happy with. I managed to barely squeeze in a set of WTB Venture 700c x 50mm tires, much to my surprise, though I can’t officially recommended them on the Cross-Check, and Surly certainly wouldn’t (though I suspect it wasn’t the tire choice that voided my frame’s warranty…). Clearance in the rear is super tight, but they’re supremely comfortable tires and I plan to keep them mounted, at least through the drier months. All in all, I’m loving these wheels.
I was spending the spring in Tucson, Arizona, when I was finally ready to get the Cross-Check put together, and Greg and Josh at Campfire Cycling helped me problem solve and build it up. Finding a way to mount the Supernova E3 Pro 3 headlight in the lower position on the Surly 8-Pack Rack proved to be one of the more interesting complications, and I quite like the solution Greg came up with, using a spare strut from another Surly front rack.
Because someone will do the math, I’ll admit straight away that this is quite an expensive Cross-Check build when totaled up. It certainly cost more than you’d need to spend to build a rock solid commuter that’d get you from A to B for years to come. A number of the components came from my parts bin, or off of other bikes, but there are also a fair number of objectively expensive bits that could easily be swapped out with something from the used bin at your local bike shop to drastically reduce the price of putting a great Cross-Check together. That said, I couldn’t be happier with how everything pairs together and performs, and I don’t have plans to make any changes to the build, beyond adding a set of Hexlox locking skewers for the wheels, and possibly a set of Ergon grips.
- Frame/Fork Surly Cross-Check (60cm)
- Headset Cane Creek 110
- Rims Easton R90 SL
- Hubs Shutter Precision PV-8 (front) / Acros Nineteen (rear)
- Spokes Sapim CX-Ray J-Bend
- Tires WTB Venture 700 x 50mm
- Handlebar Ahearne+MAP (25.4)
- Grips Race Face Grippler Lock-On
- Brakes Paul MotoLite
- Brake Levers Avid Speed Dial 7
- Crankset Easton EA90 (175mm) / 38T Easton Direct Mount Chainring
- Pedals Shimano XT
- Derailleur Shimano XT, 11-Speed
- Cassette Shimano XT, 11-42
- Shifter microSHIFT Thumb Shifter, 11-speed
- Saddle Brooks Cambium C17 Special Black Copper
- Seatpost Paul Tall and Handsome
- Seatpost ClampWolf Tooth Components, Nickel
- Stem Thomson Elite X4 (25.4)
- Front Rack Surly 8-Pack Rack
- Basket Wald 139
- Basket Bag Hungry 139 Tote Bag
- Lights Supernova E3 Pure 3 (front), Supernova E3 Tail Light 2 (rear)
- Accessories Spurcycle Bell, 2x Salsa Nick Less Cages
Here’s a rundown of a few standout components that have impressed me in one way or another:
Hungry 139 Tote Bag
If you caught our recent Gear Index of Handmade Basket Bags, you’ll know that I tested several bags over the spring, and the Hungry 139 was my favorite of the bunch. It’s incredibly well made and has exactly the features I want out of a basket bag. Plus, the strap and buckles stay attached to the basket, so it doubles as a duffel bag when I’m off the bike.
I’ve tried a ton of swept back bars over the years, from On-One Marys to Soma Oxfords, but haven’t found anything as for long rides comfortable as the Ahearne+MAPs. Their ergonomic bend suits my wrists perfectly and they put me in a neutral riding position that feels equally well suited to slow cruises or hauling ass when I’m running late. I spent far too much time deliberating over handlebars and I’m really glad I went with these.
Paul MotoLite Brakes
Finding quality rim brakes with generous tire clearance is getting trickier, but thankfully companies like Paul are committed to machining a variety of classic parts, and doing so beautifully. The MotoLites are simple, powerful, and look awesome.
Shutter Precision PV-8 Hub
Shutter Precision’s PV-8 dynamo hub is tiny, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive compared to offerings from the likes of SON. To date, mine has been flawless. That said, it’s worth noting that Shutter Precision’s warranty period is just two years, compared to SON’s five-year period.
It’s been a while since I’ve ridden with dynamo lights, and it’s already hard to imagine going back to anything else. The minimal Supernova E3 Pure 3 headlight casts a generously wide and tall beam, and the E3 Tail Light 2 is nice and bright without being blinding.
Brooks Cambium C17 Saddle
I’ve written elsewhere on the site about the fact that the Brooks Cambium C17 is my favorite saddle. I’ve been running them on every bike I own for years, from this commuter to my all-road racer. The special Black Copper version caught my eye when it was released earlier this year and I think it fits in perfectly on this build.
Out and About
A few months into riding the Cross-Check, my initial impressions are almost entirely positive. Despite the fact that commuting is a thing of the past due to COVID-19—at least for now—I’m still thankful to have such a comfortable and dependable rig that can take me around the city and off the beaten path when the mood strikes, too. The capacious Wald 139 front basket has been perfect for hauling groceries and take-out, and the Surly 8-Pack Rack it’s sitting on top of provides a stable platform for hauling just about anything.
Because I’m someone who forgets to pack or charge lights all too often, the dynamo lighting is one of my favorite features of this build. As lights approved for use on German roads, the Supernova headlight and tailight provide plenty of front and rear illumination without blinding or distracting anyone. I also appreciate that the internal cable routing means I don’t need to have wires wrapped or zip tied all around my frame and fork to make it all work.
I set out to build a commuter that would be ultra practical and utilitarian while still being a blast to ride. This Cross-Check certainly accomplishes those goals. It’s far from the lightest commuter out there and it’s hardly on the cutting edge in terms of its technical specifications, but I find myself reaching for the Cross-Check for all kinds of rides, even with other bikes at my disposal, which I think says it all. Riding it puts a smile on my face and reminds me to slow down and soak in the unique perspective afforded by the bicycle. Surly is all about encouraging people to use their frames as a blank canvas to “make it your own,” and thanks to the creative problem solving and help from of a group of skilled makers and mechanics, I was able to do exactly that.