Wednesday, October 04, 2023

When Gravel Was Trying To Find Its Way, The Cross Check Helped It Get There

A snippet from a 2000 Surly catalog on the Cross Check.
Yesterday I saw reports that Surly Bikes had discontinued the long-running Cross Check model from its line up going forward. This cannot go unnoticed by myself, and I feel this bike deserves a few comments. It is, in my humble opinion, THE bike that helped launch the gravel cycling scene in the 2000's.

Originally the Cross Check was a bike meant to fulfill the market demand for an inexpensive bike to go ride in cyclo cross events. At that time, in the late 1990's, cyclo cross was seeing bigger numbers for events, and "bandit" cross racing was surging in popularity. The underground cyclo cross scene was a kindred spirit to the single speed scene in that both embraced the renegade stance against traditional sanctioned events. The Cross Check fit that scene as it embodied a "do-it-yourself" ethos and allowed the use of standardized parts so people who purchased the original run of frames in 1999 could "make it their own" out of whatever parts they could scrounge up. 

Single speed, geared, flat bar, drop bar, or whatever. The Surly offering was versatile and Surly found that demand was surprisingly high for the frame set. Taking cues from original Cross Check owners, Surly modified the Cross Check for 2000 slightly and, for the first time, offered a complete bike. The sales continued to be strong into the early 2000's.

From the beginnings of the "Modern Gravel Scene" here at T.I. v1 2005, the Cross Check has made its mark

That same renegade spirit and versatility in set-up served to make the Cross Check THE gravel bike of choice as the 2000's saw the dawn of what would become today's gravel scene. With bike choices ranging from 26" full suspension rigs to carbon fiber cross bikes, and back again to "rat-rod" gravel mutts, the Cross Check emerged as the gravel bike that could do it all. Single speed, 1X, multiple ring chain sets, drop or flat bar, the Cross Check was an inexpensive, durable, well-designed bike with the ability to be fitted with a wide range of current or vintage components. 

Craig Irving  (L) piloting his well-loved Cross Check in 2013 on a gravel group ride.

The reign of the Cross Check saw its zenith in the early twenty-teens as gravel cycling started to take off. By 2012, Salsa Cycles introduced the first purpose built gravel bike, and by 2014 other companies were jumping into the fray. The Cross Check's days of being probably the most common bike at many gravel events were numbered. 

Greg Gleason (L) and Walter Zitz, (R) on a Cross Check, winning the fastest ever Trans Iowa in 2016.

Still, the Cross Check remained a gravel cycling staple well into the late twenty-teens. However; the encroachment of disc brakes and riders who weren't brought up with the more renegade, underground ethos, which was a mainstay of the early gravel scene, saw the Cross Check getting passed by for more technologically advanced bikes. Turnkey gravel rigs which were lighter and designed more for rider comfort and endurance took center stage in the gravel bike stakes and consumers were smitten by the shiny, new bikes which were not anything like the Cross Check.

Should the Straggler have been the "Cross Check Disc" instead?

The Cross Check may have survived all of that, but instead of choosing to evolve the design, Surly came out with the disc brake standard Straggler in 2013. The bike that could have been the Cross Check Disc, but was not. Surly then confused matters even more with the introduction of the Bridge Club, the Midnight Special, and Preamble bikes. All bikes taking cues from the Cross Check, but none of which had that same versatility and "mojo" that the Cross Check had.

Meanwhile the Cross Check was left behind, staying largely as it had been since the year 2000. After a 24 year run, maybe it should not be surprising that Surly dropped the bike. Now that the model is no more, it is only fitting that we remember the contribution that the Surly Cross Check made in enhancing and furthering along the early gravel scene. Had there not been such an inexpensive, easy to set up, versatile and capable machine, it is not out of the realms of possibility that the gravel scene may not have been as quick to grow as it did. 

Surly put this out on social media Tuesday evening. Take from that what you will.

  So, it is time to take stock of what it was to the gravel cycling scene. The bike that once was sold as the renegade cross bike choice, or every-man's commuter rig, became the vehicle which drove gravel cycling toward its massive popularity. Showing that there was a market to be had for products specifically aimed at gravel riding, be that fast or slow. Thanks Surly and to you owners of Cross Checks, keep rolling on!

1 comment:

Doug M. said...

I've had my Cross Check since 2009, and done every conceivable type of riding on it. Strange to be sentimental about a bike model, but it enabled a lot of fun, learning, and good memories in my life (still does!) and for many others.