Bike Talk

R.I.P, Wu-Tang.

Currently my ride here in the Middle East is a Surly Pugsley I picked up when I saw it going for cheap on Craigslist. A 38-pound swine of a bike, it has no real call to be ridden in much of the Philly area, but I needed something to replace my stolen Troll (pictured above). Soon, there'll be photos of it up here, packed up for a multi-day trip, but for the moment I've just taken it on some day rides, letting my legs recover from several months of not riding.

More interested in gear reviews?

Below, I've kept the original rambles I wrote about why I picked the Troll, as a tribute to a bike I rode many happy miles on:

I ride a Surly Troll named Wu-Tang. I bought the complete bike from Trophy Bikes' 2nd and Fairmount location in Philly, and have made only a few changes: Surly Torsion handlebars, Ergon GR2 grips (essential for all-day hand comfort), a Brooks B17 saddle was added, a King Cage water bottle holder mount atop the head tube, and a bike computer and sometimes a rear rack, fenders, and/or knobby tires.

Why the Troll? Once I had my first full-time job out of college, and hence, actual money, I knew I wanted to buy myself a solid bike. Despite the myriad possibilities, there were narrowing criteria: It had to be a bike that could keep working for me as close to forever as possible; it had to be versatile - capable of touring as well as handy around town; it had to be within a certain price range (so no Silk Road or Moots or custom-built rides) and it had to just be a cool bike, something I liked on a gut level.

Touring bikes were high on my list. They're built to be sturdy and take lots of abuse, not like the sleek racers of Bicycling magazine, and are meant to carry loads and be comfortable over long distances. Of course they'd serve perfectly well as commuters. And many of them (Novara Safari, Salsa Fargo and Vaya, and the most popular of the lot, the iconic Surly Long Haul Trucker) were able to take fairly fat tires, making it possible to ride with a degree of comfort on dirt roads and even, perhaps, trails.

Even the selection of touring bikes, though, can be overwhelming, as they've grown from a small niche market into a more and more popular category. So I set out to define other necessary characteristics. I soon concluded that disc brakes, despite their added weight, were a feature I wanted, due to their overall better performance and especially their reliability in wet conditions.

I also decided that if I were to invest in a touring bike, I wanted to be able to use that bike indefinitely without needing a change or upgrade, which meant 26-inch wheels rather than 29er/700c. That's because countries outside the developed world universally use 26-inch, meaning parts and spares will be obtainable if you're in the middle of the Andes or the Gobi Desert (in theory at least) whereas a 700c-equipped cyclist who cracks a rim will be stuck paying outrageous fees to get things slowly and unreliably shipped to them. Touring forums occasionally host heated discussions of this subject, with some arguing that 26-inch is the only way to go (some telling their own horror stories of being stranded for weeks in the boonies of Bolivia, waiting for a shipment) and some insisting that a well-built wheel won't break anyway, that spares aren't that hard to find, or that the advantages of a larger wheel make the risk worth it.

So while larger wheels appealed to me (though I don't have too many convincing reasons why I should necessarily pick them - after all, 26er vs. 29er is a whole other category of overly-venomous division in the mountain bike world), a 26er seemed to be the way to go, in case I should ever end up traveling through the third world. Someday I do want to ride from one end of Asia to the other, though whether this dream was worth basing whole bike decisions on is up for debate.

With the designation of a 26-inch-wheeled, disc-brake-equipped touring bike, I'd ruled out lots of options - seemingly all of them, actually! The Novara Safari had seemed like a winner, as it was a few hundred dollars cheaper than other bikes I was looking at, and could take disc brakes, but the wheel size issue took it off the list. Surly had recently begun offering Long Haul Truckers with both wheel sizes, but the new Disc Truckers weren't going to come out until the next spring at the very earliest, and I was too damn impatient to be waiting for that! The Salsa Fargo seemed like the perfect bike - a disc-ed mountain/touring rig, ideal since my aspirations were beginning to include off-road exploration as a component or even focus of dreamed-of bike travels; but it only came as a 29er. And every other bike that fit the bill was at least a thousand dollars too expensive.

Somewhere along the line, somebody on a forum brought to my attention the Surly Troll. Basically, Surly/QBP had taken their single-speed 26er frame, painted the thing bright honkin' orange, and added a bizarre contraption of a rear dropout, such that any combination of fenders, racks, trailers, brakes, fixie hubs, Rohloffs, and other doodads could be attached to the bike without issue.

The result was a versatile mountain bike-plus, which, though it didn't have the traditional touring bike geometry (long chainstays, etc.) was supposed to perform with excellence as an expedition tourer, and ride singletrack like a boss as well. As a bonus, larger wheel sizes could fit into the frame - 29er wheels reportedly affect the handling for the worse, but the resurgent 650b size, about halfway between 26 and 29, is said to be just groovy.

I liked the versatility of the bike and the fact that it would enable me to go mountain biking - not something I'd had a huge amount of interest in, but I thought, why not give it a shot? As well, the bike certainly was cool - the dark side of my nature (that is to say, the hipster side) knew that its weird-ass rear dropouts alone would make it a curiosity. What sealed the deal was someone providing a link to the blog of Cass Gilbert, a veteran adventure cyclist who was riding a Troll at the time and who thought very highly of it. Well, said I, if this guy can ride that bike through the gnarliest conditions the Andes have to offer, it can certainly do whatever I ask of it. So a test ride later, it was settled - I was to have a Troll.

I have yet to regret that decision, and I think this bike will be everything I need it to be. I've become a mountain biker (certainly not replete with skills, though) and love how the bike rides, not that I have ridden enough others to compare it in any way. It's supremely comfortable on lengthy road and off-road rides, smooths out bumpy terrain, and has yet to cause me any mechanical issues - the Avid BB7 brakes in particular are much higher-performing and easier to work with than any rim brakes I've ever had. And the bike just gives a feeling of reliable nigh-invulnerability, as I wanted. I haven't pushed it to many far extremes yet, but I trust it, not least because others have and it's passed their tests.

The new version of the bike comes in a rather horrible purple color, but the new fork has extra bosses for a Salsa Anything Cage, sort of a bottle-cage variant for much more voluminous items. You can still find orange frames for sale, I'm sure. There's also a 29er from Surly with the same dropouts and unique features, the Ogre. If everything about the Troll appeals to you but the wheel size, check it out.