It felt like going on a blind date without a safety net. I’d never met my companion before and apart from what I’d read, had no first hand experience of their personality. Yet I’d already agreed to nearly three months intimately connected with virtually every hour spent in each others’ company. The strength of the relationship would make or break the challenge of crossing the United States.
So it was with some trepidation that I went into Richardsons to meet my Surly. I took a friend, Chris, with me for support. Maybe he’d spot something I hadn’t thought through properly, identify an early character flaw and it would all be off, flights cancelled, maps returned. My current cycling partner, a seven year old Trek 1200 SL had many flaws, but over the years I’d got used to her little foibles. We plugged along together just fine. Why was I risking so much on something new?
I did initially consider taking the Trek across America. It’s very easy to think you must have an expensive bike to complete an extensive journey. Yet it’s quite clear people make the crossing on all kinds of machines, some of them pretty basic. But if you are going to ride virtually every day for two and a half months you’ve got to be realistic.
The Trek is a perfectly good bike, but it’s a basic racing bike, not a tourer. So although it has taken a heavily-loaded rack on the back before (from Land’s End to John O’Groats) it’s putting a strain on the bike it’s not designed for. I’ve already broken two rear wheels, most probably from over-loading, and the frame will only allow a maximum of 28mm tyres – not a great surface area to spread the weight – and another pressure on the bike. To fit from panniers I’d also have to change the carbon front forks.
Given that the headset is still the original and has covered more than 8,000 miles that would also need replacing and onceI got back from the States virtually all components would be shot to pieces. So I’d be looking at probably having to spend around £700 even if the Trek made it across without a major problem. So going for a new bike seemed to make sound financial sense – at least that’s what I told the wife. And using the formulae for the right number of bikes to own (n + 1, where n is the number of bikes you currently own) it all added up. Plus it means buying a new bike means the Trek will be already to go for some late summer rides on my return, rather than collapsing in a pile of bits rather like the Blues-mobile at the end of the Blues Brothers film.
Fortunately first impressions were good, Martin at Richardsons had done a great job on the build and with the addition of some spare spokes (three sizes, two different lengths for the back wheel and one for the front) and three water bottle cages, the Surly looked ready to start the journey straight out of the shop.
The next morning I joined a group of my regular cycling friends and headed out for a loop to Southend and back – a round trip of about 27 miles. Having ridden the same bike for the last seven years I was rather apprehensive, but within a few miles was already feeling comfortable (despite the new Brooks saddle which will take a while to bed in).
It’s immediately clear that the Surly is a heavy bike, even without panniers, but what comes across from the very start is how steady and sure-footed it feels. There is none of the skittish-ness associated with lighter bikes, the steel frame and the 35mm Schwalbe tyres soak up the drain covers and even smallish potholes. If riding a racing bike is akin to driving a sport car then the Surly is a Volvo – or I should say a modern Volvo, where solidity and comfort are now combined with decent handling and good looks.
It wasn’t long before I was able to keep pace with the others, who were on much lighter machines, and even on the hills, where the weight does come into play, the excellent gear ratios meant although I climbed slower than on the Trek, it seemed to take far less effort and puff to get to the top.
At the end of the ride although my legs knew they had worked harder, I still felt fresh with not the slightest tinge of backache I often suffer. The start of a beautiful relationship? I think so. Although the Brooks and my backside will need to get better acquainted!