Update: How the Surly Big Dummy Rides

Surly Big Dummy

I’ve been riding the Surly Big Dummy on a daily basis for a month now and am reading to give my thoughts on how it works from a commuting standpoint. This first segment will focus on how it rides.

One of the regular question of longtail bikes is how it rides. In general, it feels like a normal bike. When going straight down the road nothing feels much different. However there are several idiosyncrasies that are important to point out.

The first, and most disconcerting, was the slight give in the frame when going over potholes, bumps and other obstacles. Because the wheelbase is so long, you can feel a slight bow underneath you. It’s nothing bad and is completely safe, however when you aren’t used to it, this difference in ride can take you by surprise.

If you regularly hop curbs or go over bigger obstacles, you’ll want to remember that all of your timing instincts will be off with the longer wheelbase. The first time I pull it over the curb I got knocked off the pedals because the wheel hit a split second later than I was used to due to the longer wheelbase. What I foundis to just stay seated through the whole thing. Since the wheel is so far back you don’t feel the impact as hard and you don’t have to worry about your timing. Not to mention, if you’re used to unweighting the rear wheel this won’t do you much good on a longtail

The final big question is how it climbs. This is where you will feel the extra rear weight more than anywhere else. The feeling that kept coming to me was that I had a bag of sand on a skateboard tied behind me. It obviously climbs better than that scenario, however I could distinctly feel that heavy load behind me. I also feel like it gets increasingly difficult to climb the slower I go. I’m sure there’s somebody reading with a degree in physics that could explain this, but I feel like it’s easier to pull the bike up the hill, especially with a heavier load, when I keep the bike in a harder gear and stand to pedal. When I shift down to an easy gear and try to hamster wheel up the hill I feel like the rear end of the bike is much heavier and it’s harder to get up the hills.

Last weekend I headed to my childhood home and put my father on the bike for a ten mile ride. He only rides a bike a couple times a year when he’s with me, however he’s in good shape due to his job. So during and after the ride I questioned him on what he thought of it. It was interesting that he mentioned a lot of the same things I had already noticed. He liked how it rode and said it felt more comfortable and stable than other bikes I’d put him on. He also could feel the heavier weight of the bike behind him. Like he was “pulling a sack of potatoes” in his words.

The last thing I would point out is the turning radius. Since the bike is so long you’ll catch corners if you cut them to close. This hasn’t caused me much of a problem though, just takes some getting used to.

After a month of riding the Big Dummy I feel completely comfortable zooming around town. Dropping on and off curbs, riding in traffic, ducking between cars, etc all feels very natural now.

I point that out because this bike took me longer than any other to get used to riding. The idiosyncrasies of riding a longtail bike can be very disconcerting at first. So if you’re looking to buy one and get a chance to do a test ride, don’t be quick to judge. I’ve heard more than one report of people disliking a longtail at first and then growing to love it as they got used to riding it.

Ed. This is part of my ongoing review of the Surly Big Dummy. You can click here to view all of the articles from this review.

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0 thoughts on “Update: How the Surly Big Dummy Rides”

  1. JoelGuelph says:

    Do you not worry about bashing that rear wheel into a curb, especially when loaded? I assume the Schwalbe Big Apples help. What kind of wheels are you running?

  2. Tacticus says:

    the hill climbing question is all about where the forces involved end up
    and my very dodgy mspaint skills should hopefully explain what is happening a bit better

    (note very dodgy skills)

    Edited by admin to add the image. You should still click through to Flickr for the explanation.

  3. Tim Grahl says:

    JoelGuelph: To be honest, I do very little worrying about the bike when I’m reviewing one that belongs to the company and not myself. I want to see how much abuse it can take.

    That said, I don’t hit curbs as fast as I can but I do take them a pretty good clip and have no problems whatsoever with the Schwalbes holding up. I’m sure as the weight load gets bigger it will get more and more likely that I’ll bust one at some point.

  4. welshcyclist says:

    Where can I test ride a Surly Big Dummy in the UK?

  5. Renee says:

    The comments on the feeling of dragging something is interesting. Because that was exactly my feeling of test riding a Surly Long Haul Trucker. Maybe it is not so much that it is a long tail and is a design Idiosyncrasy of Surly bikes.

  6. Surly Andy says:

    Andy from Surly here. I wanted to clarify a couple things briefly.
    Joel, you had asked about bashing the wheel into curbs. The larger subject isn’t bashing a curb, it’s overall wheel strength, and it does become more and more important as the load gets heavier and the roads become less road-like. It is important for people to understand the relationship between weight, speed, and equipment strength, at least in a fundamental way. While you don’t need to understand the finer points of wheel building or metalurgy in order to use and enjoy any bike, you should know that bashing into anything hard enough, fast enough, with enough weight can result in a flat tire, broken spokes, and in extreme cases wheel failure. The wheels on Tim’s test bike are about as tough as you’d ever need, but you’ll flat a tire before you destroy your wheel, and a flat tire on a Big Dummy, especially one loaded with weight, is not all that much fun to deal with. Roll over curbs and other obstacles when necessary, but avoid bashing them. And check your stuff once in a while, before something goes wrong.
    I also wanted to address Renee’s comment about the slow, dragging feel of the LHT and BD perhaps being a Surly design signature. Interesting, but this would require us to bend the laws of physics. In the case of the Long Haul Trucker, I’ll say that although it looks more like other bikes than the Big Dummy, it is also not your average sport racer or comfort bike. It has a long wheel base, low BB, and is spec’d with parts chosen for their durability and function as part of a true touring bike, as well as how they look. This means more spokes per wheel, heavier tires, rims, etc. More material and a different-than-comfort-bike-geometry mean it will not feel as spry as a cookie cutter sport racing bike. This is not a design flaw any more than the bounce of the BD. Some bikes feel noticably different than others. This is not necessarily bad. Slow feel can mean a lot of things, from overall bike weight to rider fitness. A Lamborghini doesn’t drive like a pick up truck, but you wouldn’t haul lumber, bags of cement, or much else in a Lamborghini.

    Oh, and one more thing: Tim, generally speaking you expend roughly the same amount of energy in lower gears as in higher gears to get to the top of a hill. You spend it either spinning or straining. With cargo weight the low gears are necessary for mechanical advantage, but do not make it ‘easier’ to get to the top of the hill. This simply requires muscles. After hauling a few loads on the Big Dummy, the hills will still be hills but you won’t hate them as much.


    P/S/ Welshcyclist: Probably no where yet. Our UK distributor chose not to bring any BDs in with the first production. Hearing from folks would help. Write to them at sales@ison-distribution.com

  7. Fritz says:

    Tim, do you have any idea how the “feel” compares against pulling a trailer?

  8. Renee says:

    The thing about my comment that I should have stated is that I WAS looking for a touring bike and rode several different bikes that were were in the ‘touring’ category such as a Trek 520 and a Kogswell.
    The stiffness and weight of a touring bike was fully factored into my desire for a bike.
    Before the ride I was leaning heavily towards the Surly for price and components. But after riding I ended up getting the Trek. I know someone that built up both a LHT and a Koswell and agreed with the feel of the LHT.

  9. Coelecanth says:

    If you have the chance you should try the Big Dummy in the snow. Not that that’s likely now. I’ve used an Xtracycle equipped Rockhopper for years and it climbs slick snowcovered hills better than any bike I’ve tried.

    Fritz: I used a Bob trailer before getting the Xtracycle. The riding feel seemed the same to me. It was more a matter of getting used to how that particular load felt regardless of hauling system. The real difference is in when the bike’s at rest. The Bob became an instrument of torture when still, constantly pulling the bike over. The Xtracyle is much more stable. Now mind you, the Big Dummy could very well be different.

  10. Coelecanth says:

    Tatcitus: Brilliant, thanks! God I love it when smart people share.

  11. nat says:

    Re: various ‘touring’ bikes

    That sounds like a difference of bottom bracket height and/or chainstay length. Compare (Trek 520) and (Surly LHT). Notice how much closer the wheel of the Trek is to the seatpost. It’s harder to tell, but it looks to me like the BBs are about the same height. However, both look higher to me than on a Co-Motion Americano or Cannondale Touring: (Co-Motion Americano), (Cannondale Touring). Oh, and also compare to (Bruce Gordon R&R) and (RBD Sakkit).

    Anyway, the point of this: what you feel could well be true, but IMHO that’s because the Surly is a more purpose-built touring design, while the Trek is a bit more of a compromise–probably livelier when unloaded, but less stable when loaded. The geometry of the LHT looks much closer to that of a Bruce Gordon or Robert Beckman, a couple of the premier bikes in fully-loaded long-distance on-road touring. [n.b.: i’m hypothesizing; i’ve ridden a Trek 520, and found it too skittish even without a load; i’ve never ridden a LHT, RBD, or Bruce Gordon] The only reason i’m aware of it is because i just got my new custom-built tourer, and it has chainstays that might even be longer than those on the LHT, as well as the lowest BB i’ve ever encountered–i managed to strike a pedal with 165mm cranks on my first ride (while i was getting used to it). I knew the ride i wanted, but not necessarily the geometry details to get me there, so i left it to my experienced framebuilder. And what i ended up with looks a lot like a Bruce Gordon or LHT. And the first thing i noticed when i got on the bike was the very different feel from anything i’d ever ridden before–much more, um, sedate? I’m not sure how to characterize it. I am sure that i absolutely love it. Oh, and it’s different from the Co-Motion Americano in roughly the same way that you describe the difference between the 520 and LHT. [Oh, and the difference between the 520 and the Americano that i can see from pictures is that the Americano looks like it has a lower BB.]

    So, in summary, i think that the difference probably isn’t in your head, but it’s there because the LHT is a bit better designed for heavy loads. Which tends to make it a little less ‘sporty’, which is apparently what you prefer. Also, these differences are as much due to preferences as geometries: i *really* noticed the differences in feel between a Fuji Touring, Bianchi Volpe, Trek 520, and Cannondale Touring, when i was first shopping for a touring bike (and therefore had no preconceptions or experiences to compare with), yet they all have similar geometries, all obviously make good commuting/touring machines, and generate differing opinions of their relative feels. So, obviously, some of us more notice certain aspects of geometry than other aspects, otherwise we’d all be able to agree that thus-n-such is stabler/less-sporty than such-n-such, and just disagree over which we prefer. That doesn’t seem to be the case on the touring mailing list.

  12. Anthony says:

    FWIW, I just finished building up my Big Dummy this past Friday, and after a couple hundred miles on it now, some of it towing a couple hundred pounds around and a fair bit riding solo with lighter loads. Regarding speed, I can’t speak for others but so far, my commute times after 3 days is pretty much the same or a hair faster than the basic commuter I was riding before. Both were on the same tires and pretty much the same body position, so those factors being the same it still seems to be a touch faster.

    Being able to take a load of 200lbs and ride no hands comfortably and without much if any ado is pretty sweet, and considering it isn’t any slower than a city bike with rack and panniers, I couldn’t be happier.

    On a side note, I built mine up using a Nuvinci hub, and that might just have been the best decision I made in building this. Being able to always choose the “perfect” gear for the situation and to change gears at a stop with a heavy load is pretty sweet as well.

  13. I’ll second nat’s sporty vs. stable observation when comparing an LHT to a Trek 520. Unlike the 520, the LHT really is designed as a full-on touring bike. The 520, the Fuji and the Volpe are fine bikes lightly loaded, but for fully-loaded rides, I’d opt for the LHT or an Atlantis. I own an LHT and a Cross Check, and there is indeed a noticeable difference in handling and feel between the two that has a lot more to do with their intended purpose than with who designed them.

    As for comparing the LHT to the Big Dummy, sort of like apples and oranges, no? Yes, they both have longer chainstays than the average bike, but the Dummy’s are a lot longer. They’re really in two different classes of bikes.

  14. Surly Bee-anchi Lady says:

    My BD is being built as I write this. Can’t wait til its finished on Friday. I currently ride my Volpe but can’t haul home the dog food and charcoal with my panniers on my Volpe.

    I love my Volpe and will use it more as a “road” bike once my BD is on the road. This is the first longtail and xtracycle bike my LBS has seen and the folks there are amazed by the curiosity and interest being expressed by their other customers. Hopefully we’ll see more commuter bikes and more bike-friendly attitudes as a result.

  15. meaculpa says:

    This is regarding Nat’s hypothesis & subsequent comments: the Volpe is my first new bike purchase and so, I have a subjective view. The livelier handling in these commuter/touring bike compromises should be regarded as such…
    I understand the limitations of my chosen nodel. 42mm means I can hit panniers and am less stable under +40 loads. But for my light touring and daily (365) commuting, it delivers consistently. I haul 15-30lbs daily. The bike is 30lbs with the minimum gear but mostly stable. I plan on building a 44mm chainstay big tour bike eventually, but for me, the comprimise between super-race ready and superutility is this ‘holysh*t-its-fun-to-commute’ bike….which I think I managed to find! This model may not be the ultimate, but I AM happy with the 900 bucks I laid down.

  16. Rideold says:

    I’ve been riding a free radical for a couple of years now (on a Trek 950 frame). Not my dedicated daily commuter but I’ve carried some good weight and ridden it around unloaded a bunch. One thing I always notice is the afore mentioned “sack of potatoes” drag. I always attributed it to the funky build I have (small frame with big handle bars) but now I’m wondering what the reason is for the drag. Is it the longer chain? Is it frame flex? I can see why the heavier overall bike weight contributes but my daily commuter with backpack and full panniers doesn’t feel as draggy (not that I commuter that way very much but it happens on occasion).

    What I’m really wondering now is if the Big Dummy exhibits less of this personality trait than the free radical conversion. Anybody have any ideas?

  17. Anthony says:

    I’m still having a hard time seeing the correlation between this frame configuration and the drag some mention. I wonder if its more a function of the tires and pressures some people are running on these builds.

    Thus far after about 600 miles on mine, my 24mi. RT commutes are at least as fast if not generally a touch faster than the rigid mtb turned commuter, using the same tires on both bikes (schwalbe marathon supremes).

    The weight comparison between a sturdy commuter bike with rack, panniers is within a pound or two of an xtracycle/big dummy counterpart, the aerodynamic frontal profile doesn’t seem substantially different either way assuming same/similar wheels and tires.

    Like I said earlier, on my build at least from day one doing the same commute I do every day of the year and have for years now, I was actually 1-2 minutes faster than the previous commuter with same tires, fenders, riding position.

  18. Surly Bee-anchi Lady says:

    After riding my Big Dummy daily for the past week, I am very impressed with the ease in riding. For some reason it is much easier for me to climb out of the saddle than on my Volpe and I find myself doing this. I went on a “ladies’ ride” the other day, unloaded, and easily kept up with the ride leader who was riding a high-end road bike with a compact double. While San Antonio is not the hilliest place around, the ride did manage to cover all the neighborhood “hills.”

    My biggest problem with the BD, being a small, 118-lb person, is getting it in and out of doorways, backing it into the garage, etc. It is a heavy bike and no way will I be lifting it off the ground to attempt a bus rack or anything like that. However, once it is rolling, I am quite pleased with it.

    And my favorite thing, when I go grocery shopping I no longer have to think “I can’t get that now, I’m on my bike.” I am enjoying unrestricted grocery shopping and other errands as well. So far, I am mighty pleased with the BD.

  19. urbino says:

    I have a new Volpe and have been riding an Xtracycle-equipped Electra Townie as my daily commute bike and grocery-getter for the past 6 mos. You just can’t beat the X (or BD) for utility, but an X-equipped bike (or BD) really is a truck, and trucks need big, strong motors to do what they do. Based on my experience, at least, an X isn’t quick and it is a load to haul up a hill, even when unloaded; it’s also a load to get started.

    OTOH, like a truck, it’s unbelievably stable even when loaded. Also, the amount of weight you can load on it without it feeling ANY different is pretty remarkable. On my normal grocery runs, the ride home feels exactly like the ride to the store. And, of course, can you just grab a handful of bungees and go pick up 100 lbs. of groceries and dry goods of all shapes and sizes on your quickity-quick bike? No, you cannot. For that, you need a truck.

    The Townie-X was the first bike I’d been on in 15 yrs. So when I got the Volpe a few weeks ago (which I pulled home with the X, btw), I couldn’t believe the difference. I mean, intellectually, I kinda knew what the difference would be, but I didn’t really get it until I was on the Volpe. It’s not coincidental that I’ve dubbed it “The Rocket.” I LOVE that thing.

    Anyway, I hope some of that helps flesh out what the X/BD is like.

  20. flatboarder says:

    One more Big Dummy here, built up myself with strong wheels from Sapim Force spokes and Spank Subrosa rims, equipped with Schwalbe Fat Frank tires. No chain shifting, just an Alfine internal gear hub with 34/20 cogs. LED lights, dynamo hub. Sports bicycles parts. 19.5kg without the snap deck, that I will only mount to carry our kid.
    I was surprised how easy and efficiently it rides, giving much riding fun while always feeling relaxed on it.
    It is an everyday bicycle for me without any limits in usage. Commuting, carrying groceries, light mountain touring with kid and stuff, just riding around, touring. In the next months we will start for a several day trip through the mountains.
    Check homepage for technical details in case. One thing I would like to recommend: if you are using disk brakes, be sure to cover the inner side of freeloader bag where it touches brake caliper, since at long downhills it would probably make the nylon melt otherwise.

    BTW I do not feel some bow of frame when riding bumps mentioned in original post. Also there is no remarkable frame bending when riding uphill out of saddle in my opinion. Maybe the thick tires just absorb or hide it all, since they give quite a comfortable ride, although running lightly.

  21. Franklin says:

    Xtracycle is too heavy. Give me a trailer any day. I may get one, But I only own one bike right now.

  22. Dave Ornee says:

    I am thinking of building a Big Dummy to act as a delivery bicycle. I need to deliver 26″, 650B, and 700C wheels from the Western Suburbs to Chicago.
    Is there a good/secure way to carry a pair (or 4) wheels on the BD?
    I have been using the METRA train, but schedules are not convenient and often need to coordinate with CTA + spend time wating for trains & busses.
    Anyone out there every carried wheels as cargo???

  23. Chris says:

    Dave, I’d think a set of sideloaders on either the Big Dummy or an Xtracycle Free Radical-equipped ride should easily handle a couple wheelsets. Rope or bungees would probably do fine, depending on your roads.

    I bet you could get three or four sets of wheels in one load if you built up a jig for them.

    I carried my kid’s MTB wheels half-stuffed in the panniers, a bungee at the top to keep them from flopping around. 😉

  24. Allie says:

    All very interesting, and I like the design illustration – nice touch.

  25. Rick Riley says:

    Added the Big Dummy in December and now it’s my primary ride. It’s sturdy and compliant. I get a large measure of what I put into the bike readily converted to speed. I have fun going fast on the Big Dummy. It’s maneuverable even with the long wheelbase — it rides like my hardtail mountain bike but with a wider and longer back end. I don’t know about “dropping on and off curbs” and “ducking between cars” as mentioned in the article. I can handle a lot of different bikes on roads and trails but I never have seen the need to provide a dicey look to motorists while riding a bike in town — no profit in that. That said, I take the Big Dummy on easy trails and have no trouble at all. With the right tread, it will take many of the challenging trails here in Mendocino County as it rides like a tandem and those are not a big deal to manage either.
    I have the Volpe but I will tour this year with the Big Dummy. I have racing bikes as well but they come out only for the special occasion now. I’m a working rider on Lamont, the Big Dummy!

  26. Andy ANDRESEN says:

    Rick, I saw your comments and agree 100%. I am a paramedic and work 24 hour shifts. I carry more stuff to one of these shifts than most moderate tour bikes. I have a full blown touring Puch which I rarely ride and a converted GT Outpost that I do ride 95% of the time. I ride the GT because I leave for most shifts between 4 to 5 in the mornings It is super dark in the upper counties and the roads here in Michigan are some of the worst in the country. So the mountain bike road tires are very forgiving. I have riden that GT for 5 years and some coummutes are 26 miles each way. 2 years ago after battling a heavy and typical head wind home and wishing I rode the Puch that day, I opted to try Nitto Randoneau drop handle bar setup with bar end shifters on the GT. The instant difference in comfort, head wind effeciency, and comfort on my tail was remarkable. The handling was even improved maybe because all my other bikes are drop bars and that’s what I’m used to and actually feels much more secure. I have an extra cross brake levers mounted to the inside of the drop bars for upright riding but can count on one hand how many times I’ve used them. I kept the high stem configuration to compromise on the amount of drop with about 120 mm extension at about 40 degrees rise. This configuration literally knocked 10 minutes off commutes with identical gear, bike, rider. The longest commute usually takes me 1 hour 50 minutes and now typically is 1-40 to 1-35. Anyway I am almost done building a BD so I can more easily carry more gear. I could use front panniers on the GT but have used them in the past and hate them for many reasons. I without hesitation configured this the same as my GT with 45cm drop bars, bar end shifters, road brake levers (*long pull capibles) linked to 180 mm disks. I am a drop bar rider for 40 years and just find the upright position of mountain types very comfortable for 5 miles but agony thereafter. The straight bars are better on trails but I do not ride on trails and 90% of my riding is practical utility. Also I did all I could to keep the BD as road kindly as posible with 1.6 inch Geax road tires, light tubes but Mr Tuffy liners and light parts wherever possible except wheels that are world class hurky. I do not ever plan to haul cinder blocks or house building materials although I do part time build houses and custom cabinetry but do want to be able to carry more bulk and numerous bags of groceries over varying road surfaces so the BD build is tempered to that. To be honest hauling 200 pounds on any bicycle despite the fact it could take it would take the son of Hercules to pedal it unless you only had a mile to go or had nothing to do that week. I am 205 pounds retired military guy avid weight lifter and would not want to try it. If there is away to forward pictures and you are interested after the build let me know. Also will give unbiased reports of the BD with the road bike configuration. If the BD is like pedaling a T48 medium battle tank I will be honest and probably sell it. I love my expedition rigged GT but I just would like to carry a little more and have tried and hate front panniers and trailers.

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