Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Review: Trek Earl

bike

I love my Surly Cross Check. I would ride it everywhere if I could, but the realities of urban living put some restrictions on its usage, that is if I want to keep it in my possession.  Like most major cities in the US, bike theft is a real problem in the Oakland/SF area. Consequently, I would not leave my Cross Check unattended on a city street, even if it's locked up. For this reason, I prefer to keep a more affordable second bike as a "lock-up bike" for those situations when leaving the bike in a public area is necessary.

Of course, a great way to keep costs down is to buy used. So, I turned to craigslist. After a rather lengthy search, I came across a used Trek Earl. The Earl is designed to be a simple, reliable, and affordable city bike. It's built on a steel frame which is great for soaking up bumpy city streets. It's worth noting that the Earl's frame is built with chromoly steel tubing, which is of higher quality than the hi-ten steel found on some other Trek models like the District. The Earl comes set up as a single speed with a flip-flop hub which can easily be converted to a fixie if the rider so chooses, and front and rear caliper brakes provide adequate, if underwhelming, stopping power. The blacked out appearance makes it urban stealthy, although has been offered in other colors as well. Graphics and logos have been kept to a minimum, which I appreciate immensely. Earl's most noteworthy feature is its twin top tube, which is somewhat similar to a mixte design. This feature gives the bike a unique look and provides a handy spot to carry a u-lock. There is also a bottle opener welded between the top tubes, and I can confirm that it does work.

trek earl with u lock

trek earl bottle opener

The seller had made no modifications to the bike, so I had an opportunity to evaluate the stock setup. I took a short test ride to check the fit and to make sure everything worked properly. At 61cm, the size was right for me, but I knew right away that I would be swapping out the narrow urban riser bar which I did not care for at all. As soon as I got the bike home, I installed an Origin8 Citi Classic bar which I had on hand. Once I got back on the bike, I knew I had nailed it. Everything felt great. I had even shaved some weight since the aluminum Origin8 bar was lighter than the steel stock bar. The weight savings was a welcome side effect since Earl isn't exactly a featherweight contender. I saw another opportunity to drop some weight in the seatpost, which was also made of steel. Again, I happened to have an aluminum seatpost on hand that was fortunately the correct size, so I made the swap. Just those two component swaps made a noticeable difference in weight reduction. Next, I turned to the gearing. Since I live in a hilly area with a lot of stop-and-start urban riding, the 44/16 gear ratio was too steep for me. So, I went back to my parts bin and dug out an 18-tooth freewheel. This swap made for easier riding, although I spin out sooner on the downhills, of course.

trek earl

trek earl crank

trek earl brake

I have ridden this bike a fair amount now and am quite pleased with it. As I said before, the fit is good, and the ride quality is comfy. Much of this is due to the bike's inherent ride qualities, but my modifications had something to do with it too. If I could change one thing about this bike, it would be to add brake bosses to the frame and fork so that I could utilize V-Brakes for improved stopping power. Nevertheless, Earl is near perfect for my intended use, so I will likely be keeping it for a long time.

trek earl

Update 10/07/14: Earl continues to morph.

I've had a few more months to get acquainted with the Earl, and I am still happy with it. Although the bike still looks pretty close to its original form, I've continued to make changes and swap parts.

trek earl upgrades

A couple months after purchasing the Earl, I was zooming down a hill when I started to feel a recurring bump from the front wheel. I pulled over and saw that the tire's outer casing had split open along one of the tread grooves, and the inner tube was starting to bulge out. I think I was moments away from a blowout and potential crash. Not wanting to take any chances, I immediately replaced both of the stock Bontrager tires with a new set of Vittoria Randonneurs. As a result, the ride and handling are much improved, and the Randonneurs' reputation for durability is holding up so far.

Next I replaced the worn out brake pads with a new set of Kool-Stop salmon pads. This upgrade improved braking performance significantly, and I recommend it even if the stock pads are not yet worn out.

You may notice a different crankset as well. I had a set of vintage Shimano mountain cranks on hand that were 175mm in length, which I prefer over the 170mm stock cranks, not to mention the Shimanos are just better. Even though I had previously lowered the gearing to 44/18, I still felt like it was too steep for me. So, I installed an old Takagi 40-tooth chainring for a final ratio of 40/18, which seems right for my riding style and conditions. I then added a set of vintage Shimano XT platform pedals to replace the "just ok" stock pedals. As with my previous component swaps, these changes made for better riding and further reduced the weight of the bike. Unfortunately, the stock chainguard interfered with the new cranks, so I'm keeping it off for now. I'm not too upset about that since I could never quite make it rattle-free.

A Wald basket was added as well. I customized it by shortening the stays, adding a bungee net, and adding a light mount.

trek earl dashboard

One last detail has to do with carrying my U-lock. I like keeping it between the twin top tubes for transport, but it used to rattle over the bumpy bits. So, I found a nylon strap with double-sided velcro and sewed an end around one of the top tubes. Now I simply wrap it around the U-lock and I'm ready for silent running. If I'm not carrying the lock, I just wrap the strap around the frame.

trek earl lock strap

Be aware that carrying a U-lock this way does eventually wear down the paint on the top tubes. In fact, I'd say the paint quality is pretty low overall because this bike scratches very easily. This is not a downside in my case. Remember, this is supposed to be my lock-up bike, and it's looking a little too nice at the moment. So, I get happy when I notice new scratches. It's really kind of liberating. Those who want to carry their lock in this manner but don't want scratched top tubes could just wrap the affected area with tape. Another pro-tip: If you plan to carry a u-lock this way, be sure you have sufficient standover clearance because the lock will add some height above the top tubes.

I must reiterate how smooth riding this bike is considering it is built on a rigid frame. I'm sure this is partially due to the chromoly tubing, but I think the twin top tubes have something to do with it as well. The thinner diameter tubing running continuously from the headtube to the rear dropouts seems to act like a giant spring, providing an extra level of shock absorption. It really smooths out the bumps. By the same token, those who are interested in a stiff frame should look elsewhere.

I think I am through making changes, for the time being at least. Who knows, if we ever get any rain out here in California, I might add some fenders, and I'd really like to try adding a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub at some point. But as it is now, I am very happy with the bike. My setup makes more sense to me than the stock setup, which comes off as a bit of a jumble. My component swaps have also improved the overall quality and performance of the bike, and buying used has kept me $100 below retail, even after adding the new parts. I guess what I am getting at is the stock Trek Earl is a good bike, but some upgrades are advisable. If buying new, this may push the price up higher than a lot of people are willing to go, so people will have to find their own balance between features and price.

Update 11/14/14: One more thing...

Did I just say I was through making changes? Well, I thought I was, but an unexpected problem came up. I've been riding the Earl a lot lately, and the extended time in the stock saddle has revealed an incompatibility between it and my booty. Basically, it was giving me saddle sores. The stock saddle does have an unusual shape in that it's cut to resemble a BMX saddle, so perhaps it was never intended for extended riding. At any rate, I still wanted to keep my investments in this bike rather minimal, so I searched for a low-cost replacement. Based on the shape, appearance, and customer reviews, I ordered a Charge Spoon saddle with chromo rails. I have to say the hype is well-deserved. The Spoon is very comfortable for such a minimal looking saddle, it seems to be well-made, it comes in basic, solid colors with minimal logos, and it retails for under $30. I even shaved a bit more weight off the bike with the saddle swap. Can't really beat that. Ok, now I'm through.

completed trek earl

The finished product.

Update 1/1/17: Finished? Ha! Who am I kidding?

As I got to know Earl better, it kept reminding me of the European roadster bikes of yore: No-nonsense, utilitarian bikes that were designed to get the rider around town quickly and efficiently while wearing regular clothes. I decided to embrace this approach and make the Earl into a true grab-and-go bike.

Working from my previous build, I added fenders and re-installed the chain guard. Easier said than done. Getting these parts correctly aligned and rattle-free can be a challenging task, and this one was no exception, but I managed to complete the job through sheer persistence. Once the hard part was done, I was happy with the way things were going, but the bike was starting to look a little too slick for my purposes. I backed off the bling by replacing my affordable, yet stylish Charge Spoon saddle with an even cheaper one, the Fyxation Curve saddle. Appearance was not the only reason for this swap though. The Charge saddle had a much more race-oriented design, which was not ideal for the upright riding position I get with this frame and city bars. The wider, cushier Fyxation saddle works much better for this purpose. After experimenting with several different gear ratios, I finally settled on 42/18, which seems perfect for my riding style and conditions. At this point, the bike was feeling great. The only thing that still seemed subpar was the braking performance. Replacing the stock pads with Kool Stop salmon pads helped a lot, but I still wasn't where I wanted to be. I decided to put some leverage in my levers by replacing the stock two-finger set with a four-finger set. The Origin8 Retro Classic levers fit the bill perfectly and cost just $20. They improved performance significantly, and they added to the old school look I've been going for. The final touches were easy add-ons: I attached an old seat bag to carry a minimal tool kit, and finished off the build with a trusty Greenfield kickstand and a bell.

I think the Earl really looks and feels “right” in its current form. One day, I will add a 3-speed hub to make this bike truly reminiscent of a British roadster, but for now it serves my needs perfectly.


17 comments:

  1. This is cool. I never heard of this model. Thanks for the updates. You could make a sick hard case frame bag for that.

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    1. I hadn't heard of this model before either until I saw it on craigslist. Still happy with it. Your frame case idea has me pondering what else I can do with this unusual frame design. Thanks for commenting.

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  2. The Earl was actually on my list a few years back, but I ended up with a Steamroller (love it). However, on the hunt again; this time for a townie build, I can't help but be super jelous of this build. Nice job.

    Kudos from Sweden.

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    1. I'd say you made a great choice with the Steamroller. Thanks for the compliment on my build, and good luck finding your new wheels.

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  3. Brennan, great read. Which Kool Stop Pads did you install?http://www.koolstop.com/english/rim_pads.html

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    1. Thanks Sean! I'm glad you enjoyed it. The Kool Stop pads are Supra 2 in salmon color.
      http://www.koolstop.com/english/supra2.html

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  4. Awesome Blog Brennan! I just bought a Trek Earl and I'm loving it!

    What small Velcro strap did you buy to keep your U Lock in place?

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    1. Hi Sam. Thanks a lot for the compliment. Glad you're digging the Earl. That velcro strap actually came off a Kryptonite cable lock. Its purpose was to keep the lock together after coiling it up, but the cable was short enough that the strap was sort of unnecessary. So, I just cut the strap off and sewed it on to one of the top tubes. You might be able to find a similar velcro strap at a sewing supply store or maybe an outdoor store like REI.

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    2. Thanks Brennan, I'll look into that.

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    3. Thanks Brennan, I'll look into that.

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  5. Thanks for publishing this! I just bought a 2015 Earl and am scoping out what changes to make first. Your pointers for bars, seatpost, and brake pads are great starting points.

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    1. Hi. Glad this was useful for you. Enjoy your new Earl!

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. Weight of stock bike?
    CrMo thin enough to absorb some road vibration without being so thin as to collect dings?
    Geometry more relaxed than track bike? Handling ok?
    link for one on web?
    upgrade brake pads and tires rest ok? currently riding a 42/16 = 70 gear inch. Looking for a premium steel frame that absorb some road chatter, but want a relaxed geometry. Guess I could add carbon fork to HiTen frame I have to accomplish same thing?

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  8. I just bought one of these from a pawn shop a block away last week and I have a couple of changes in mind for mine. First, I'm changing the stem for a long reach (63mm) BMX stem and some wide BMX bars to give me more of an upright stance. Also changing the cranks (thinking of using a good 2-PC BMX crank), the pedals, the seat (probably a good comfortable cruiser seat), and the seat post.

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  9. Nice mods on the Earl. Quick question? what size Vittoria Randonneurs are you running. I'd like to go with a 700x32 but I don't think the tires would clear the brakes?

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    1. They are 700x32, although the width actually measures 28mm. This is not uncommon. I think tire manufacturers often exaggerate the width measurement so they can claim a lighter weight for the size. At any rate, there is still plenty of clearance with these tires.

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