My 7-year love affair with a Surly Steamroller
September 2, 2017
I have been riding fixies and single-speed bikes since before some baby hipsters were born. Single speed bikes used as city bikes isn’t a new idea.
I have been living with my trusty Surly Steamroller since 2010.
Now, she’s a three-speed.
My Single Speeds: The Early Years
My first single-speed bike was a 2000 Bianchi Pista in black. I ran it with a freewheel and a front brake.
After it was stolen, I bought a 2007 SOMA Delancey frame and built it up with every single Gucci component I could think of: fat Salsa stem, a Brooks with hammered copper rivets that, fancy track cranks, chainring, and chain, flat Ritchey bars — she was a sweetheart. She also was a casualty of rampant Berlin bike theft.
So, then I bought an aluminum Specialized Langster Gangster single speed bike and brought her to Berlin with me as-is. She was a beauty.
She came with a super-smooth freewheel that also got its ratchet frozen open during punishing subzero Berlin winters.
To keep on riding through the cold, I would stop at little Turkish kiosks and order hot water or hot tea and then pour the boiling water over the freewheel.
It works–until that water freezes and there goes all the forward momentum. No ratchets, no teeth, no pedaling, no biking.
Anyone else every do that? I loved how quiet ratchetless freewheels are but hated the freezing-open thing.
So clicky freewheels from now on–they’re sort of like the pedal bike version of loud pipes.
That’s why I ended up going with the buzzbomb-sounding clicks of the red White Industries Eno Freewheel I ultimately installed on my Surly.
When I left Berlin (for good? I hope not) I left the Gangster behind (now owned by the son of my buddy Frank, in the picture from back in the day–you’ll see the SOMA Delancey in the photo to the left on the Berlin U-Bahn.
My 2010 Surly Steamroller 3-Speed City Bike
This is how she is now. After all the mods, none of which is very recent. My next mod will be adding a dynamo front hub that will allow me to replace my battery lights with serious night-splitting lumens, including a battery and a USB port. But not yet.
The build is standard. I believe I ordered the complete Steamroller bike from Surly. I didn’t want to go down the Gucci gulch again like I did with the Delancey.
So, it came with simple cloth-wrapped drop bars. I replaced the included brakes and brake levers with Shimano 105s and really shorty two-finger Cross Levers from Salsa.
I replaced the stock saddle with a classic black B17 Brooks standard leather saddle.
I replaced the pedals with chunky MTB cage pedals that accepted generic black plastic toe clips with straps.
I’ve had my original DA22 Alex rims for all seven years and I made sure I got a set of 700cx28 Schwalbe Marathon Plus bike tires–I’m on my second set–though I might go up to a 32 or more if it fits–just to try them out, see what it’s like.
Historically, I have really loved skinny tires.
But I love the Marathon Plusses so much and would never try another. Why? Here’s the marketing: “The Marathon Plus is the only tire worldwide that can be called ‘flat-less’.
This is due to its unique and patented puncture protection belt: five millimetres thick and made from highly elastic special rubber.
Even thumbtacks can’t puncture it.” And, I have never had a flat. Ever.
I’m sold on them even though they’re pretty heavy tires. I also love the reflective sidewalls that keep me visible in low light conditions.
In terms of everything else, I got caught out without my lights on a very late NoVa trail ride home from DC and felt very vulnerable.
So, I bought loads of red 3M reflective tape and taped all the bare black tubes. So, even if I don’t have lights or my batteries die, my bike bike will light up under headlights.
I also added a handmade reversible green/purple Black Star top tube pad. You’ll see some early photos in the green but now it’s purple. I might switch it up for fun some time.
Converting My Single Speed “Fixie” into a 3-Speed “Dutch Bike”
When I moved back from Berlin, Germany, I moved to Ballston, Arlington, Virginia to take care of my mom. Between DC and Ballston, I could handle the hills.
Once I moved to Columbia Heights, above Pentagon City, the short, steepish, hill between the Pentagon and Columbia Pike just kicked my butt enough that I looked into the state of the art of internal 3-speed hubs.
At least for fixies, track bikes, and single speeds, all roads led to the Sturmey Archer S3X. I bought the 3X Silver and had it installed over at local bike shop (LBS), Papillon Cycles here in Columbia Heights.
They did a great job but I quickly broke them–almost immediately. They rebuilt is gladly and gave me a hint: unlike derailleur gears that require pedaling to actuate them, internal hub gears require a pause between gear changes.
Since then it’s been blue skies. I love them. Early on, I also had troubles with my heal messing with the gear chain and loosening the cable. No more. Everything’s tight and reliable and very effective.
Mind you, the top gear is only as high as the chainwheel and rear sprocket combination. And the low gear is not as low as a granny gear.
This is no mountain goat setup. But it does surely smooth out the road. It allows my to arrive at my destinations a little less sweaty and beat up. For me, it’s a game-changer.
Right now, I am very heavy and quite out of shape so not even three speeds get me up the Air Force Memorial section of Columbia Pike or all the way up the Capitol Hill section of Independence Avenue–but I am sure the added lower-end grear-ratio will give you the extra compensation to get you up those sorts of hills if you’ve been frustrated by hills before.
The S3X is 100% durable and bulletproof once you get the gears changed but, as I said, it’s very vulnerable during gear changes.
So, you need to relearn how to shift because shifting like you do on a 12-27-speed road bike with 12-27 gears with front and rear derailleurs.
In order to properly shift the Sturmey Archer S3X, the bike needs to be in motion, the rear wheel needs to be spinning, and you need to lay off pedaling for the amount of time it takes to shift — then, you can shift one or two speeds.
So, you can safely go from highest to lowest or lowest to highest in one shift–just as long as you’re rolling and not standing still.
So, if you want to shift down before you stop at a light in order to speed up your start, think about doing that before you stop.
So, at the high gear, click right down to the low gear right before you stop for the light. Like downshifting, think of it.
I had the shifter for the Sturmey Archer S3X installed at the right bar end of the drop bars, so it’s right there. I could say it’s pretty easy to install but I had the folks from Papillon Cycles do all this work. In fact, I’ll also have them do any and all of the work associated with installing a front hub dynamo lighting system. Being loyal to the Pike!
The Canvas Tail Bag
I don’t know anything about the canvas tail bag except it was given to me by my mate Andrew Blake Curry who makes me look like an absolute pedestrian in comparison with his obsession with bikes and bicycling. It’s got a wooden dowel on top and I used hose clamps to attach the top to my standard black leather Brooks B17 saddle. On the front of the bag, which is nearest the seat tube, there’s a buckled leather strap that I affixed to the seat tube.
The bag is relatively cavernous. There’s a main compartment and a pocket at either side. Each compartment is closed with buckled leather straps and all the straps and points of stress are studded.
I have it set up that a red battery tail light lives on the bag and the way the leather straps are affixed and attached, there’s plenty enough room for me to store my U-lock on the bag at all times when I’m not locking it down.
The Surly doesn’t have wheel quick release or locking hubs but they are locked down via nuts and that seems to be annoying enough. 80% of the time, I U-lock the bike via frame and front wheel. 20% of the time, only the frame.
The time it takes to break a chain to get a fixie wheel off of the bike seems to be enough trouble.
And since the Sturmey Archer hub attaches via an additional chain to get the wheel off, I am hoping, as a former bike courier who was always hungry for unbent, unprotected, 26″ wheels, wheel crimes are almost always crimes of opportunity.
So, I definitely would consider locking hubs if that would aid to the perception that my bike is inconvenient to steal. People in greater DC are so terrible at even locking their $3,000+ Gucci bikes at all that I assume my gray man sleeper city bike, when it’s locked right next to someone who is only attached via their front wheel with the quick release hub and the other bike that’s not attached at all but leaning against the rack, the only security being that the rider is only a short distance away.
Well, that’s it! That’s my bike.
The only thing left for me to do is add a front hub dynamo, a high-lumen headlight, a fixed taillight, maybe a USB connector, possibly handlebar control of the intensity of the front lamp.
Maybe a handlebar mount for my cell phone, maybe not. And, then, of course, maybe wider tires and maybe secure-looking locking hubs for security theater.
So, that’s my love letter to my 2010 Surly Steamroller 3-speed city bike.
I would love any advice or questions you make have for me, especially when dynamo hub do you recommend, what front and rear lights do you recommend for the dynamo system, and what other must-haves should I add to the bike in order to make it the very best, coolest, city bike a boy can have for the next 7 years of proud ownership!