Reckoning: Tour-testing a Surly Big Dummy

The Big Dummy as an urban hauling and carting machine is well noted.  There are also a few others who’ve taken it along ways less smooth.  These latter caught my attention a while before the Americas trip, aiding the genesis thereof.  Although I’m aware that many will consider detail excessive, I thought a few might like to see what 28,000km does to a bicycle and how it performed.  Apologies to the masses!

The immediate progenitor – a Specialized Rockhopper based Xtracycle. Here carting an amplifier for a Fremantle La Tropicana cafe gig, but sporting Schwalbe touring tyres and the suspension fork and handlebars that would eventually make it onto the Big Dummy.
and in an even earlier guise, set ready for Darwin surf-kayak action. This unfortunately falsely implies that there’s a lot of surf in Darwin – there isn’t and when there is you watch out very carefully for salt-water crocs!

The Xtracycle didn’t go on the Americas Trip as I was concerned that the attachment points between the main bike frame and the Xtracycle extension wouldn’t stand up to the hammering I intended to put the bike through.  In the end, the Big Dummy did me proud, though I do agree with Sarah’s main objection – it’s not the easiest bike to get over a fence to a promising campsite…

To get the technical stuff out early, here’s the build/kit list that I had latterly:

Frame 18″ Surly Big Dummy (pre 2011 style)  Military Green
Fork Rockshox Tora 302 85-130mm U-turn  (firm coil)
Canecreek S3 headset
Front Wheel Velocity 26″ Cliffhanger rim (36H, milled for rim brakes)
Kenda 2.35″ all-mountain tyre
Hope Pro-2 36H hub
Cockpit Easton EA70 Monkey-bars
Ergon GR2 grips
Ritchey 30degree MTB Comp 90mm stem
Cateye Enduro8 cycle computer
2006 Ortlieb Classic bar bag
Seat Brook England Flyer saddle
Pro PLT Alloy Seat Post ( 27.2mm x 350mm)
Drivechain Shimano XT crankset (44/32/22) and bottom bracket
Shimano pedals
Shimano HG53 chain (1.5ish chains)
Shimano XT shadow rear mech. M772 SGS Long cage
Shimano SLX M661 front mech.
Shimano XT 11-34 9 speed cassette
Goodridge cable housing
Shimano Deore 2011 model shifters
Brakes Avid BB7 cable disc brakes (185mm rotor Front-160mm Back)
Avid Speed dial 7 brake levers
Avid Single Digit 5 V-Brake (front) as spare
Rear Wheel Velocity 26″ Cliffhanger rim (36H)
Schwalbe Marathon Extreme 26×2.25″ tyre
Hope Pro-2 36H hub
Carrying and Accessories Xtracycle V-racks with 2011 Freeloader bags and girth strap
Xtracycle teck-dek
Porcelain rocket BD chainstay pack
2 x Ortlieb X-plorer kit bag (59L each)
Old Man Mountain Sherpa (pre 2011) front rack with own make rack-pack
Topeak Modula XL bottle cage with Nalgene 48oz bottle and drinking tube
Specialized MTB Air Tool pump
Cateye 610 rear light

While in the end I feel I probably didn’t carry enough stuff to justify using the Big Dummy, as I had a lot of spare carrying capacity, it did prove to be a pretty capable ‘go anywhere’ touring machine.

It takes all sorts – the Big Dummy in Perú, accompanied by a Pugsley fat-bike and a more conventional hard-tail
A nearly naked Big Dummy – a much needed overhaul in La Paz, Bolivia after 21,000km and 16 months on the road. For those who didn’t realise what was underneath the bags, the extended-stretched frame becomes more obvious. In comparison to the Xtracycle it’s more robust, but less de-constructible
A chief concern about the extended frame-length is getting it on a ‘plane. I’ve managed it 3 times without incurring additional charges for weight or size. The time pictured was flying Taca from Panamá to Bogotá. We also did fine getting from Punta Arenas to Santiago, Chile and onwards home to Australia. In order to get things this size I completely removed the pedals, fork, handlebars, front wheel, non-drive-side crank arm, seat-post/saddle and V-racks; and zip-tied them onto the up-side-down frame. The photo above gives you an idea how the end result compares with a standard shop-obtained mtb bike box.

You can also see my main packs – 2 x 59L Ortlieb Xplorer dry bags.  These come with rucksac shoulder straps.  Our idea was to use them for side-treks.  They proved ok for this as long as you took time to pack softer clothing to pad the ‘back’ and didn’t try to carry too much weight.

I started the trip with my existing ‘old model’ black Xtracycle Freeloader bags (see kayak-toting photo).  They were already pretty bashed up, so when we were gearing up for México in Silver City, NM I splashed out on the new versions.  With both I used a Cinchstrap/girth-strap to keep everything in place.

Fitting up the new Freeloader bags while hanging out in Grants, New Mexico. You can also see my stove-fuel carrying capacity. Interestingly the smaller/front bottle cage had to be moved up the tubing in order not to interfere with the chain. Surly hadn’t come across this problem before when I let them know. I don’t know whether the current BD model still has this incompatibility
While I’m finding flaws with a system that actually works pretty well, my other ongoing complaint about the new, souped-up FreeLoader bags is that when you run decently big tyres (26×2″ Schwalbe Marathon XR here) the buckles at the back coincide rather badly with the edge of the tread. This isn’t a problem if the bags are dry and not tightly loaded, but leads to lots of rubbing if it’s wet and you’ve got plenty of stuff in the bags and you’ve strapped everything down to stop it moving around too much. I ended up cutting the buckles out and re-sewing things. That meant I could run up to 26×2.35″ tyres without a problem.
After 23,000km and 18 months this is what they look like. You can see the imprint of the BD frame, the modifications to the rear tensioning straps and that I needed to resew some other attachment points. It’s also worth noting that the single drainage hole isn’t enough and water tends to collect at either end – an improvement would be extra holes there too.
Another ‘after’ shot. My Porcelain Rocket seat-stay pack – after 20,000km and a central american wet season the zips still work. I used it for tools, spares and regular access stuff such as sunscreen.
A place you’d rather be :-) Dawn light in the Wyoming Great Basin. The hydration system stayed pretty much like this the whole way down the Americas. I fangled a drinking hose long enough to use while riding with a 48oz (1.5L to the non-Americans) Nalgene bottle mounted in a Topeak Modula XL cage. Water to keep this full came from a larger water bag strapped along the back deck of the BD.
Probably the most major departure from the ‘standard’ BD build was to use a suspension fork. This 85-130mm adjustable travel Rockshox Tora coil fork hung in there pretty much the length of the trip despite a Bolivian Salar onslaught that destroyed Sarah’s bottom bracket and started the decline on mine. Having the fork fully extended helped the chainset clear pretty much anything I wanted to ride over. I ran Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes, but had a pair of V-brakes set up on the fork just in case I couldn’t get disc brake pads. This proved really quite handy a couple of times and was justification aplenty to having a fork with v-brake mounts for extended touring.
Although it didn’t get used much, the front rack did come in handy for carrying Sarah’s rear panniers when her bike was stolen in Mendoza. We then swapped it onto her replacement bike. I was un-used to the handling with loaded panniers and wouldn’t choose to do it again
Sarah was quite keen for us to ride the last 2000km or so like this. Probably quite possible, and a good use of the BD, but not to be :-)
One casualty of the abuse meted out on the BD was the kickstand. Here the frame-plate is being welded back into place after breaking away (the only structural frame problem I had with the BD and apparently a valid warranty issue if I wanted to swap my BD frame for a new one).
After a few more broken central american kickstands I gave up, and learnt to load the bike without one. The process wasn’t without profanities as Sarah can attest – when the whole system keeled over leaving me less than happy…
Overall – the BD kept up with pretty much all I asked of it
Once I got used to the length, there wasn’t much I couldn’t ride. The long wheelbase meant that uphill with less than good traction was much easier to just ‘ride’ than a normal bike.
The longer wheelbase keeping the front mech. away from the back wheel meant that mud didn’t stop play gear-wise (even with a conventional, non-Rohloff drivechain), though I wasn’t moving much faster than Sarah at this point.
Mind you, when I couldn’t ride something it took a fair amount of brute strength and willpower to get it past some obstacles


  • Carries lots of stuff – in as many ways as you can think to pack it.
  • Performs pretty well off and on road – especially uphill on sketchy ground
  • The frame takes a good and proper beating
  • A conventional drive-chain works fine


  • Carries too much stuff – harder to rationalise and not just carry it because you can!
  • If you can’t ride something, pushing is pretty hard work.  And don’t try to carry it fully loaded if you can help it…
  • Kickstands may not be the way forward if you want them to be abuse-proof
  • Hopping fences and other nimble antics aren’t strong points.


  1. The last picture of you is brilliant! I know this isn’t the point of the post, but do you know the brand of that yellow jacket you’re wearing? Are those side zips for ventilation?

    In general, your kit basically seemed to hold up great, given the circumstances, so it seems like you made a series of good calls!

    • Jacob
      We made a grand total of 13km that day! A big day of bike pushing and hauling. It was along one of the Inca trails heading for Macchu Picchu. The jacket – is rip stop pertex and yes the side openings are for ventilation. It is brand Walwyn! I made it a few years ago as an amalgamation of a couple of different designs from others that I’d had and didn’t quite do the trick…. Hopefully I’ll catch up with you in October when I’m staying in London for a conference and you can see it then.

      • That’s a very impressive self-made jacket. Have you thought about going into business? I’d happily be your first customer. As for “cycling” over that terrain, rather you than me!
        When in October are you in London? Cause unless it’s after about the 24th/25th, I’ll be in Nepal doing my elective (in a children’s hospital, you may be pleased to hear) so we may well miss each other, which is pretty terrible luck, given the circumstances.

      • Jacob
        I’m only in London 4-8th October, so we’ll miss each other unfortunately :-( Good to hear about the paediatrics, and would have been good to catch up in person.

        Riding that terrain is where it’s at :-)

        I’ll see how ‘mark II’ of the jacket goes when I finally wear this one out; and maybe then….

  2. I’m a proud BD owner, Gen 1 like you, currently residing on long term loan with a friend. I was really tempted to bring it on this trip, but I also realised that although it’s a bike that can do pretty anything, I have more fun on singletrack – unladen at least – with a standard frame. This won out, as I always knew I’d be wanting to do lots of day rides.

    But I love the stability of this beast, loaded to the gills, tearing down a rough and tumble dirt road. I also felt the length of the bike inherently gives it a little flex, and extra comfort – not as much as an Xtracycle, but enough to take the sting out of the ride. And the monster tyre clearances are very cool.

    Transport-wise, I had issues in the UK when travelling on the train, as it’s just that bit long – like a tandem – to squeeze into the bike alcoves – on the line I used. But that’s crappy UK bike policy for you too.

    I’m looking forward to (one day) getting it back. I love how much fun it injects to every day chores – going shopping, picking up a parcel from the post office, borrowing a ladder. Picking friends up from the train station was always a favourite, and at one point, it became the Electric Dummy when I hooked it up to a front wheel drive motor. It flew!

    Too bad about the kickstand. That’s something I really like about it, and very useful. I guess for utility uses, Xtracycle do that monster stand that should take some heft.

  3. Thank you for the review, what a great time. I’ve been torn between the Big Dummy and a dedicated tour bike for touring. I think I just decided to buy the Big Dummy.

    Thank you,


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