Aug 22, 2023
Surly Straggler Sora review
Surly’s slim steel Straggler shines This competition is now closed
Surly's slim steel Straggler shines
This competition is now closed
By Robin Wilmott
Published: March 29, 2023 at 2:00 pm
Surly says the Straggler is based loosely on its popular, long-standing steel Cross-Check frameset, but in reality it's more of an evolution.
Up-to-date dropout spacing, braking options, practical tyre clearance and ample mounting points create bikes with modern, adventurous tendencies.
The Straggler is also sold as a frameset-only for £800, so customers can choose to configure their bike in the way that best suits their needs.
The Straggler's frame is TIG welded from Surly's proprietary, custom-butted 4130 chromoly steel Natch tubing, which is model and size-specific.
The main triangle is double-butted. The double-butted, tapered fork blades use the same tubing, and are brazed into a fork crown.
Both are festooned with multiple accessory mounting points, as well as special partially closed, horizontal rear dropouts.
These allow for a conventional geared drivetrain, or a singlespeed build, with axle stop screws that are adjustable from the rear. An opposing driveside screw, adjustable from the front, prevents the axle shifting forwards.
The size 56cm Straggler as tested is relatively long and low.
It follows classical frame lines with a 56cm seat tube and horizontal top tube, but departs from road bike measurements with relaxed 72-degree head tube and 72.5-degree seat tube angles.
These contribute to the generous 58cm effective top tube, and along with the 430mm chainstays and 44mm fork rake, it creates a lengthy 1,031.9mm wheelbase.
Horizontal top tubes always reduce head tube length, when compared to sloping top tube designs, and the Straggler's compact 121mm head tube will guarantee spacers below the stem for many who fit the 400.7mm reach.
As a bike with practical tyre clearances, it's little surprise to find the 72mm bottom bracket drop creating a little more pedalling ground clearance too.
My Straggler test bike was built by the UK importer Ison Distribution, which also offers 1x drivetrain builds, and the option of a Straggler with 650b wheels.
The drivetrain supplied is Shimano Sora R3000, with a 50/34-tooth compact crankset, and 11-32t cassette.
The brakes are TRP Spyre-C mechanical disc calipers, with 160mm rotors.
Halo supplies the Drove Line wheelset, which is fitted with the brand's own 38mm GXC gravel tyres.
The alloy finishing kit comes from Ison's own Genetic brand, which together creates an 11.64kg bike.
For a bike marketed as "a bikepacking-inspired road/gravel bike mostly at home on pavement but ready for trail duty when called", it was obvious that testing needed to encompass an array of surfaces and environments.
With plenty of rolling country lanes, bridleways, gravel roads and singletrack on my doorstep, I rode the Straggler on multiple routes in order to build a clear picture of its capabilities.
Because of its 38c gravel tyres, around half of the test mileage was covered away from tarmac, with conditions fairly dry.
Some saturated ground tested the limits of the tyres, but I kept the pressures just below 40psi throughout, which I felt was ideal for my 75kg weight.
From the first pedal strokes, two things became immediately apparent. Firstly, the Straggler has a satisfyingly refined feel, and secondly, the rotational mass of the wheels and tyres dictates the bike's acceleration.
Carbon fibre bikes are amazing to ride, but returning to a steel road bike, without a single carbon fibre anywhere is refreshing.
At 5ft 10in (178cm), a 56cm frame is usually an ideal fit for me, and the Surly conformed to expectations.
Its short head tube required 25mm of spacers, where I’d usually have no more than 10mm, but this proved more of an aesthetic than functional difference.
The horizontal top tube results in much less exposed seatpost than with a semi-compact or compact frame, and that reduces the ability of a carbon post to flex quite considerably.
I don't feel swapping the Straggler's alloy seatpost for a carbon fibre one would make a great deal of difference to the ride quality.
A good-quality steel frame and fork have a distinctive feel, and even with relatively low tyre pressures, the surface feedback was comprehensive, with every nuance transmitted like fingertips on braille.
A carbon fibre frameset can feel like a tool for transmitting power to the ground. However, the Straggler is more immersive than that, involving the rider in every watt, every direction change or weight shift.
The natural flex of slim steel tubes not only helps absorb plenty of vibrations, but keeps you informed of exactly what the bike is doing.
Of course, there's more to the Straggler than just the frameset – this one comes with Shimano's 9-speed Sora groupset.
Sora's levers share the usual Shimano ergonomic feel, and shift front and rear derailleurs with a light efficiency.
There's a 50/34T compact crankset, spinning in a threaded bottom bracket, and matched to the 11-32t cassette, the Surly has a wide gearing range.
On the road, I didn't trouble the highest gears even when descending, but on steep climbs, particularly off-road, the lowest gears were very useful.
As a bike designed to be laden and ridden anywhere, the gears seem slightly road-biased, and I occasionally found wider gaps between gears than I’d like.
A sub-compact 48/32T or smaller-ratio crankset might be more suitable for many riders. Alternative 9-speed cassette options are limited.
Because Sora's brake levers are mechanical-only, cable-operated disc brakes are the only option.
Post-mount TRP Spyre-C calipers with 160mm TRP rotors take care of stopping duties, but don't expect hydraulic disc brake performance.
Even after a bedding-in period, the TRPs always took a second or two to have any tangible effect on the bike's speed, and never possessed the sort of bite many may be accustomed to.
On a loaded bike, the effect is amplified (given the extra mass), so braking needs a little more anticipation and hand pressure than a hydraulic system.
They’re consistent in operation, though, if not outstanding performers.
Unsurprisingly, the Surly is not a bike for town sign sprints, perhaps because of the steel frame's in-built give and running lower tyre pressures than you might for a racier bike.
However, standing on the pedals induces an obvious reaction, making you feel a part of the event, even though the wheels aren't particularly zippy.
Halo's Drove Line aluminium wheelset has uncomplicated 32-hole tubeless-ready rims with a 21mm internal width, and they’re recommended for up to 45c tyres.
The hubs are Halo's Ridge Line Series II, with sealed bearings and a rear chromoly axle and freehub. This spins freely and engages positively.
Since the Straggler isn't designed for thru-axles, the wheels are secured by hex key skewers.
Halo's GXC is a gravel tyre with shallow diamond and triangular pattern tread blocks, designed to enable it to roll quickly on tarmac, but grip well on loose dirt or gravel.
It acquits itself well in soft conditions, maintaining traction until the mud becomes too slick.
I was able to hold a speed of 17 to 18mph without too much effort on tarmac, and at 38mm nominal width, the tyres are a good compromise for all-road riding with changing surfaces.
It's worth noting that on the Drove Line wheelset, the GXC tyres measured only 36mm wide, thanks to the 21mm internal width.
Should you wish to get more adventurous, Surly says the Straggler can accommodate up to 41c tyres with mudguards, and separately, states that 42c tyres will fit without mudguards.
Ison's house brand Genetic supplies the saddle, bar, stem and tape.
They’re all of decent quality, and don't clash with the frame's style. The bar is comfortable, with ergonomic drops and decent hand positions, and along with the stem, makes for an adequately stiff cockpit.
The saddle shape didn't suit me, and I found it a little firmer and more slippery than I’d prefer. However, choosing the right bike saddle for you is always a matter of personal preference, and saddles are easily swapped.
The Straggler is something of an ‘honest’ bike, with no free speed or aero assistance, but riding it feels special, no matter where, why, or how fast.
Wherever I pointed it, I always felt in control, giving confidence that I could fit bigger tyres, or a bag or two, and just explore.
It would just as easily morph into a solid commuter bike, with mudguards and fat road bike tyres, or a fun weekend bike.
I’d prefer hydraulic brakes for the obvious performance advantages, and would amend the gearing ratios to something closer. However, a 1x option is available, as well as the frameset only, so you’re free to build your own ideal specification.
As it comes, the Straggler is memorable for all the right reasons.
The Surly Straggler was tested alongside Ribble's CGR AL and Trek's Domane AL 4 Disc as part of a group test of bikes that can handle a bit of everything, from road to all-road and possibly beyond.
Robin Wilmott is a freelance writer and bike tester. He began road cycling in 1988 and, with mountain bikes in their infancy, mixed experimental off-road adventures with club time trials and road races. Cyclocross soon became a winter staple and has remained Robin's favourite form of competition. Robin has always loved the technical aspect of building and maintaining bikes, and several years working in a bike shop only amplified that. Robin was a technical writer for BikeRadar for nearly a decade, and has tested hundreds of bikes and products for the site. He has also written extensively for Cycling Plus, Velonews and Cyclingnews.❚