The bicycle you choose to ride on a long journey is always an important matter, worthy of much pondering, head-scratching and debate. After all, we’re talking about your mechanical soul mate, the companion with whom you’ll be sharing the best of times, and the worst of times…
I’ve now clocked up a few thousand kilometres on the Surly Troll, in several guises – traditional front and rear panniers, framebag, suspension and rigid. The Troll and I have journeyed together fully laden, and often on dirt roads, from Costa Rica to Ecuador. More recently, it’s reintroduced me to my local Bristolian singletrack, and I’ve now tried it in bikepacking getup on the beautiful but distinctly un-Latin American Devon Coast to Coast.
I prefer the path less travelled and the Troll fulfills almost everything I seek in a mountain bike tourer. It ticks a lot of boxes: a burly chromo frame, suspension corrected geometry, 26in wheels, a choice of V brakes or discs, front and rear racks eyelets, room for large volume tyres and provision to run derailleurs or a Rohloff Speedhub. All this is great for both practical reasons and peace of mind, particularly if your travels veer you beyond Europe or North America. Blown a tyre sidewall? Even a Colombian hardware store will unearth you a 26in replacement to get you riding again. Problem with your discs? V brakes will tied you through and scrub speed down the steepest Andean descents. Worried about issues with the Rohloff? Cheap derailleurs can always be sourced for those infamously cobbled Ecuadorian climbs. Top tube taken a ding during transport on the roof of a Bolivian bus? It’s chromo, so nothing to be unduly worried about.
The Troll has carried my four overstuffed panniers with confidence – a bloated 35kgs worth of gear – be it on or off road. In fact, I was surprised by how well it does ride as a fully ladden machine, seeing as its tubeset is no beefier than Surly’s singlespeed frame, the 1×1. It feels reassuringly overbuilt, yet strip it down to its barebones again, and it’s also fun to ride on singletrack and technical trails.
You can read the full manufacturer blurb here, along with all the spec and geometry details.
To those unversed in Surly’s range of inspiringly idiosyncratic bicycles, the Troll is basically a mountain bike frame built around 26in wheels, brazed and drilled with all the bits you need to load up and go touring – whether that be a night in the local woods, riding the Great Divide, or an epic journey across a continent.
This said, the Troll doesn’t aim to be a full-on expedition machine. Geometry and tubing wise, it’s effectively a 1×1 – Surly’s cult singlespeed – with the addition of front and rear rack mounts, plus a nifty dropout that allows detailleur, Rohloff hub or singlespeed use. But given how well it rides, I see it more as the unruly mountain biking cousin – ie massive tyre clearances and a suspension-ready geometry – of the Long Haul Trucker, their tried and tested touring frame. From what I’ve experienced, the Troll is just as capable for long distance travel.
Troll v LHT
So which is best for what? If paved roads and gravel tracks are your staple diet on tour, you’re probably better off with a Trucker. It’s built for the heaviest of loads and from what I’ve seen, has become to go-to bike for those tackling the Panamerican Highway. But if you hanker after more challenging trails, envisage battling through muck and mud, and ride singletrack on your days off before visiting the local museum, then Troll is where it’s at. The fact that it isn’t designed to handle as much cargo shouldn’t be an issue, as by default, those heading offroad tend to pare down their kitlist.
Wheels: 26 v 29
I’m tall, and back home I ride a 29er mountain bike for a whole bunch of reasons, including the noticeably smoother ride – so much so that I rarely miss a suspension fork. But on a long tour, beyond Europe and North America, I still reluctantly stick to 26in wheels.
As much as anything, this is because I’ve struggled to find comparable wide volume 29er tyres that will last as long, or are built with loaded touring in mind. Everything I’ve tried to far has worn out too quick.
Added to this is the reassuring fact that traditional mountain bike inner tubes, tyres and rims can be found almost everywhere in the world. Even the smallest settlement, in the most remote folds of the Andes, can track down enough spares to keep you rolling. Conversely, touring-worthy 29er/700c hoops and tyres are all but impossible to come across in the majority of places.
Unless you rely on getting spares shipped out – which takes logistical organisation, and can end up as an import tax nightmare – 26in wheels still seem to be the way to go.
But… if you still want to take the 29er route – either you’re too hooked on their benefits, or you’re particularly long limbed and 26in bikes just feel ‘wrong’ – it looks like the Troll’s bigger wheeled brother, the Ogre, could be a good option. If you’re carrying a lot of weight, I’d recommend super tough Rigida Sputniks, Sun Rhyno Lites or Alesa Endeavour rims, even if you’re fitting disc brakes. Perhaps Schwalbe will release the new Marathon Mondial in a 29er flavour (update: a 29×2 is due out in 2013), in which case big wheels could become a real option for dirt road travel. I’d also add that if you can travel light enough – in a ‘bikepacking’ style – you’ll save a lot of wear and tear on your wheels and tyres, making a 29er more viable.
Ok, so nothing’s perfect, and there’s a few changes I’d like to have seen to suit the kind of travelling I do. You can never carry enough water, so bottle eyelets below the downtube would have been welcome. Likewise, punching a few in the fork, a la Salsa Fargo, would have been great. And in a similar vein, a set of triple eyelets on top side of the downtube would allow adjustability in the placement of the bottle cage, including the ability to carry 1.5 litre bottles – as with Topeak’s Modula XL – or even one of Salsa’s Anything Cages. Long cages are incredibly popular amongst long distance tourers; unfortunately the position of the bottle mounts at the moment means most will interrupt the one on the seat tube. (update: the purple 2013 Trolls have all these modifications!)
The good news is that Surly’s 4130 chromo is easy renough to tinker with, and getting your local framebuilder to drill in some extra eyelets is a relatively quick and straightforward job. It’s one I eventually ended up getting done, thanks kindly to Robin Mather – more on this in the next post.
So, here’s what I like:
The rear disc tab is positioned between the seat and the chain stay, so you can run a standard rack and a mechanical disc brake. I’m using Avid BB7s with a Tubus rack on a 20in frame. There are no issues, other than the rack sitting relatively high.
Massive tyre clearances – I’ve been running 26×2.25 tyres with ample room to spare for tacky mud/donkey shit. Or even with mudguards. The Troll is rated to goliath 2.7s.
Highly adaptable frame thanks to slot dropout – derailleurs, singlespeed, Rohoff, whatever suits your preference or pocket.
Resilient – the tubing feels like it could take a knock or too, which is handy if you’re strapping it aboard a Guatemalan Chicken Bus.
‘Agent Orange’ may not be low key for stealth touring, but I like it. Certainly pops out in photos.
Reasonably priced – $495 gets you the frame and fork, though Brits might have to pay as much as £430.
And here’s what I’d like to have seen:
More eyelets! Even though the Troll doesn’t aim to be a true expedition machine, a couple on the underside of the downtube would really add to its long distance credentials. Bottle eyelets on the fork would be welcome too for bikepacking-style jaunts. (update: 2013 models have all this, and they’re purple too!)
I’d have liked a slightly higher position of the bottle cage eyelets on the top side of the downtube, to be able to run one of Topeak or Minoura’s extra long cages with a standard bottle too on the seat tube.
The LHT now comes with the option of S&S couplings for air travel. Could the Troll be next?
The Troll’s currently only available as a frameset, though a complete bike might be available at some point. Being the thoughtful people that they are, Surly have kept everything standard – no awkward seat post sizes to track down – which made for easy transfer of existing kit. In my case, I’m running one of Rohloff’s excellent, low maintenance Speedhubs, which has travelled with me from frame to frame over the last seven years. Hoops are courtesy of Rigida’s super tough Andras, specifically drilled for the Rohloff. Mine are also CSS coated, a process I’d highly recommend if you’re running V brakes. They simply refuse to wear, though now that I’ve shifted to mechanical disc brakes, the extra expense is no longer necessary. Other than that, I have fairly standard kit. A square taper bottom braket, basic Shimano cranks, an FSA headset and Avid BB7 brakes. I favour a handlebar with a more swept back position than most, and chanced upon Fatbacks’s titanium offering while in Anchorage, Alaska. I recently tried the cheaper Ragley Carnegie, also highly recommended. More on putting the bike together can be found here and in the gear section.
The Troll has hungrily gulped down everything I’ve thrown at it. It suits the kind of touring I live for: offroad, following the unbeaten path. If this is also your style, it’s a beast that’s sure to befriend you.
Update – want to see a list of the complete build? Click here.