Surly Midnight Special

I yearn for adventure! As my world becomes more modernised, the greater my search becomes for real exploration. And, the bicycle can help to escape to these places. The evolution of adventure bikes allow me to criss-cross a mixture of terrain. And, with this, the search for routes that go beyond the tarmac beckon. I’m (slightly) obsessed with finding, mapping and riding locations that are off the grid. These locations, are often filled with native bush, broken down cars and always feature a ton of scenic roads. 

Surly, established in 98’, predominately specialises in steel frames and bikes. They are known for bucking trends and not running with conventional theories. Their extensive fleet ranges from out their fat bikes, rigid mountain bikes, touring bikes, bikepacking rigs through to The Midnight Special, which flies in the face of what one thinks is a traditional road bike. However, it can easily keep up with them with the right set of rubber. But, what really separates it from the traditional roadie, is the amount of clearance you have for tyres, and I mean massive clearance for humongous tyres. Road Plus (650b Tyres) bikes have become a thing over the last year or two. But, this one differs and keeps the chainstays short and head tube angles relatively steep, which makes for a quick-handling bike. Don’t ask me to explain where this bike fits into the market, as it simply doesn’t. It handles like a road bike, goes over gravel like a mountain bike and is pretty much capable of any terrain you can throw its way. And, you can still run a set of 700c wheels with either 42mm for the gravel or 25mm if you want to throw it back on the tarmac. Talk about versatile.  

I’ve had the bike for a while now, well, far too long if you ask the product manager! He keeps badgering me about when I’m going to be returning it. To be fair, I wanted to keep a hold of it so I could properly put it through its paces. Not only on shorter day rides, but for a multi-day bikepacking trip we did through Motu.

The Ride

 Right off the bat, something worth pointing out is that the Continental Speed King tyres we’ve been riding don’t come standard with the bike. The product manager fitted them to “encourage inappropriate behaviour”, so we’ve embraced this and behaved inappropriately aboard the Midnight Special. The bike has seen everything from singletrack mountain bike trails, to road riding, to bike packing through Motu across any-and-all terrain.

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Laden with bikepacking gear, a personal locater beacon (PLB) and a few essentials, including pub socks, we set off for a three-day trip in the eastern Bay of Plenty. The Surly Midnight Special seemed like the adequate choice for this adventure. The large Continental Speed King 27.5” x 2.2 mountain bike tyres, tight geometry and steel frame meant it could handle the terrain we’d be traversing. Which was mainly made up of road, gravel and track. Initially, the bike was a little hard to ride. The tight geometry, and larger tyres make it hard to tilt over. I’d oversteer into the corners, mostly on the longer descents. But, after the first few hours the bike got better and better and my confidence grew and as we roamed further afield. I played with the tyre pressure, and while I’m not going to delve into this in too much detail, higher pressures mean better rolling resistance. As rider weights and tyre sizes differ its best to experiment to find your preferred pressure but, in saying that I was running these Continental Speed King 2.2 at around 30psi for the road and 20psi for the gravel. This begs you to question the terrain you’ll be riding before you even head out the door. As I am mostly tackling the rougher terrain these days, I ran the rubber at 20psi. This meant it ate up the gravel and tracks. The lower pressure acted like suspension, especially as the tyres had so much volume. But, as with most things you need to have a sacrifice, and on the road the tyre seemed to balloon and roll a little. However, I was running them well on the soft side of things for road.

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The rig allowed me to take in the breath-taking scenery, as the larger tyres and steel frame allowed the bike to absorb the terrain, instead of me taking all the hits from the rougher roads. I also feel the steep angles allowed me to quickly change lines easily. This is often the case when tackling rougher terrain, such a gravel roads. I’m always searching, scanning and looking ahead for the smooth tyre lines that cars leave. Sometimes, you have to cross over the road several times just to find the smoother spot. I wouldn’t advise this when riding normal sealed roads, but often in remote places such as Motu, you don’t see many cars and can hear roaring across the gravel long before you see them. This is another advantage of searching for places that are off the grid. That’s where the agility of this rig came into play, zig zagging in and out of the lines without hesitation. And, it should be noted for this trip I was fully loaded up with backpacking gear, so the ability to manoeuvre easily was welcomed.

The Motu track took us up and down–several times. With this being the second day into the trip, the hefty amount of climbing made my legs hurt! Whilst the 2x gearing was good, I would have preferred a 1x groupset for this type of terrain. Especially when laden with luggage, I feel a wider gear range would have been better. That’s not to say the double front chainrings didn’t do their job, as the SRAM Rival did its job well, and was pretty faultless. But personally I would have preferred a smaller chainring at the front, as the 50/34 front chainring and 11/32 cassette was a bit of a grind in places. But, this is the advantage of buying a frameset, as you can pick one up for a reasonable cost and fit it out with whatever components you prefer.

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As I mentioned above, I really liked the Continental Speed King 27.5” x 2.2 mountain bike tyres on this rig. They set up tubeless easily, have good tread, and have robust, durable sidewalls well-suited for adventurous riding. There are plenty of options out there for quicker 650b tyres, and a ton of 27.5” mountain bike tyres that would work too. I particularly noticed the great contact the wider tyres had on the rough and technical descents, especially the broken up gravel sections in and around Motu. Bombing down the lanes through the tiny settlements, zooming past the wool sheds and dancing in and out of the loose gravel. There was confidence about what the bike was doing, and it made me ride the descents quickly. With this set of rubber you can basically plough through a pot-hole like a bulldozer. To get the absolute best out of the 2.2’s, a wider set of rims would help combat the occasional balloon-y feeling and provide a slightly bigger contact-patch with the ground but when all’s said and done, the big tyres look ridiculous but make sense. And, the dudes at Surly have been pretty clever to pair them with road geometry.

This isn’t to take away from the WTB Horizon 650b x 47 tyres that come standard with the bike. They’re a perfect match for the bike out-of-the-box, and will deliver plenty of fun across whatever you cross aboard the Midnight Special.

The Conclusion

I like the approach of the Surly Midnight Special. The frame is versatile, agile and it will last! As we got further into the bikepacking trip, I felt I could have stayed on the bike for several more days. Unfortunately, for me, the out of office email was expiring and the office was calling! But this showcases the bike in its best light, as they (Surly) say, Midnight Special is a Swiss Army Knife, which I tend to agree with. It’s at home on a short hit out with the local roadie bunch, grovelling with the gravel grinders, right through to riding for days on end with bearded bikepackers.

I like that these drop bar, big tyre frames buck trends and make you rethink what’s normal. They are absolutely ideal for our rugged landscapes. Allowing you to explore more of our beautiful  backcountry whilst still having the ability to be comfortable (and fast) across the tarmac.

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A few refinements can be had, such as the TRP Spyre Flat Mount Brakes. They aren’t the best, but as noted you can build it with whatever you like if you buy the frameset. The complete bike is real bang for buck, and it lets you enter the dark side of riding dirt roads without taking out another mortgage. Surly are different, and they delivered a road frame that works with big tyres. I for one, rate what they have done with this bike. And, I won’t be giving it back anytime soon! Now, I must send a message to the product manager and tell him he won’t be getting it back…

Surlybikes.com

RRP$3299 for complete bike

RRP$1299 for framesets


Words & Images: Liam Friary and Cameron Mackenzie

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