First some history. I first got a Surly Long Haul Trucker in 2009 and rode it on a bunch of short tours, and one long tour. I wrote a review of it here. That bike was stolen in June of 2011. In April of 2012 I replaced it with a Surly Disc Trucker. The main difference, besides the disc brakes, was that the new bike had 26 inch wheels while the old one ad 700c. I really wanted 700c wheels but the 56 cm frame, which is what my old bike was, now felt too big for me. Alas age has a way of reshaping our bodies and I am now shorter and wider than I used to be. Anyway the 54 cm Surly only comes with 26 inch wheels. I also test rode a Salsa Vaya 2 and I really liked it. The problem was that it had road gearing which was too high for the type of touring I would be doing. I could have payed extra and had the drive train swapped, but in the end it came down to the good relationship I was building with Cyclotopia Bike Shop here in Corvallis. They were just getting into Surly in a big way and I knew I'd be getting good service with them.
So I got the Disc Trucker and started putting a lot of miles on it including several overnight tours. I was building up to my vacation in September with the plan of a ride down the Oregon Coast. Then on the last day of July, while riding home from work, I got hit by a car. I was banged up but but not broken. The Surly had it's wheels mangled and other damage. While I was healing I started thinking about the bike I really wanted. The Surly with 26 inch wheels just felt like too much work when riding on pavement, and while I had adjusted fine to bar-end shifters, I always felt they were a limitation. About the same time Mike, the mechanic from Cyclotopia, had just built up a Surly Disc Trucker with a SRAM 2x10 mountain drive train and Apex shifters, and Russ form the Path Less Pedaled started talking about getting the same setup on the Salsa Vaya. I rode Mike's bike a few times and immediately saw the advantage of that setup. I already knew the frame I wanted was the Soma Saga which was available in a 54 cm built for 700c wheels. So rather than fix up the Surly right away ( I got back to that later) I decided to have the insurance company buy me an new Soma!
Soma Fabrications is a frame building and custom bike shop in San Francisco (South Of MArket so I'm told) that specializes in sturdy, practical bikes. Soma, Surly, and Salsa all seem to play in the same market. The Saga frame is constructed in Taiwan of Tange Prestige CrMoly Steel. I'm told that this is very high quality. The Saga is sold as a fame and fork only, meaning this would be my first custom built bike.
The fine folks at Cyclotopia helped me come up with this build;
- SRAM 2x10 drive train with 42/28 front and 11-36 rear
- SRAM X7 rear and Apex front derailleurs
- SRAM Apex brake levers/shifters
- Schmidt SON 28 front dynohub
- LumotedIQ Fly head light
- Schwalbe Marathon 700x37 tires
- Avid Shorty cantilever brakes
There is always a compromise and in this case it was the canti brakes. After riding disc brakes for a while I'm sold on them. No doubt Soma will be coming out with a disc version of the Saga at some point but I couldn't wait. Cantilever brakes are tried-and-true and I have no problems even on wet roads with heavy loads.
I know the generator hub ad lights are a luxury on a touring bike, but I knew I'd be using this bike for commuting as well so I went for them. The SON hub is really amazing as it creates no discernible drag at all. I can switch the lights on an off and not be able to tell the difference in pedaling effort. And for touring it is always good to be visible. Especially after having just been hit by a driver who claimed not to see me, I'm going all out to be visible. With this setup you leave the lights in all the time and don't have to worry about recharging batteries. The rear light does not flash (it's illegal in Germany where these are made) but it is very bright. I should write another article about my setup for commuting in the dark and rain here in Corvallis.
The bike handles as good as it looks. It is much quicker and nimbler than the Surly Truckers yet every bit as rock solid when bombing down a steep hill with 50 pounds of touring gear. Cornering is precise with no tendency to over or under steer. On my 10 day trip over to and down the coast it was a pleasure to ride and comfortable for long days in the saddle. I've been commuting on this bike in all kinds of conditions and it always feels solid and secure.
The SRAM 2x10 mountain gearing and Apex shifters are wonderful. The gearing is just a low as the touring triples I've had in the past, but not quite as high. I suppose if I had a long down hill on a gentle downgrade I might wish I had a higher gear, but so far I've been content to coast when I get much over 30 mph. Having a double really cuts down on shifting problems and makes riding more enjoyable. In fact I rarely shift to the small chain ring except on steep hills. I should explain that the difference between the Apex shifters and Shimano STI is that you don't use the brake levers to shift. Instead you use the paddle for both up and down shifting. They call it "double tap" but it's not so much that but rather you just push in further to shift the other way. It is very intuitive and much easier than using the brake levers to shift one way, and the paddles the other.
The Saga has a sloping top tube similar to the Vaya. I believe this is what allows the geometry necessary to accommodate the 700c wheels on the smaller frame. Having the extra stand over height is a bonus. I like a longer cockpit that allows me to be fairly stretched when I move back in the saddle and reach over the hoods. Even with the slopped top tube I do not feel at all cramped on the Saga.
The Saga has confirmed my belief in 700c wheels for road touring. They just seem to go down the road easier. Many people say they can't tell the difference but for me the 700s seem faster and easier on pavement. I have ridden this bike on gravel roads and even trails as well and while the 700s don't seem to be a big problem in these conditions, I can see the advantage to 26 inch wheels and wider tires for off road riding.
Of course the Saga has all of the eyelets and mount points you need on a touring bike for racks and fenders. I haven't quite caught on to the lightweight touring wave yet. I've got some decent lightweight gear, but I still prefer all four panniers and a handlebar bag, and don't mind a little more weight if it means comfort or warmth. So I have full racks front and back. The Old Man Mountain rear rack, and the Jand Extreme front rack. I've used low-rider racks but I like having the platform on the front as well as the back. With this rack, as with the Surly Nice Rack, you mount the front panniers as low as with low-riders, but you sill have the platform. I use it to mount my handlebar bag, rando style, so that the weight is lower and not on the handlebars. With this setup steering is much better than with the bag hanging on the bars and the bag is still high enough that I can reach into it while riding. It's a setup I've used on several bikes now and really like it. Plus with this setup I can mount my headlight on the front of the rack which really helps light up the road.
So I got to do my Coast Tour and since then have been riding the Saga as my everyday commuter. I really felt like I had the Cadillac of touring bikes compared to what all the people I met on the coast were riding. I know you can tour on lesser bikes but it really is more enjoyable when you have the right equipment. Even with a custom build the Soma Saga is still in the same price range as the Surly LHT and the Salsa Vaya. While they are all good bikes I really feel the Saga is a cut above in quality.
For another review of the Soma Saga you can download the PDF of the article Patrick O'Grady wrote for Adventure Cycling Magazine.
So what has become of the Surly Disc Trucker? I got some new wheels built and outfitted it with 2 inch mountain bike tires. It also has the Soma Junebug off-road drop bars on it. I've been out riding the mountain bike trails with it and really enjoying it. I'm keeping it as my off-road touring and trail bike. Next summer I hope to put it to the test on some multi-day tours on the old logging roads through the coast range. I'll keep you posted.
The Surly Disc Trucker which I called Trucker 2
The Soma Saga fresh from the shop on my first ride
At Depoe Bay on the Oregon Coast with my Soma Saga
On the North Cascades Highway