Cargo Machines, Gear

Surly Big Fat Dummy Review: the Monster Truck of Cargo Bikes

Surly’s Big Fat Dummy is, without doubt, the burliest of all cargo bikes. Cass shares his experiences using one to shuttle his son to school, haul gear, and ride local dirt roads…

Surly Big Fat Dummy Review

I’m a longtime fan of the Xtracycle, longtail concept, having owned both the original, bolt-on FreeRadical and the newer, much improved Leap.

In true Surly style, The Big Fat Dummy takes the Xtracycle-derived-but-built-for-purpose Big Dummy, and gives it a steroid injection in the rump. In a nutshell, this is both a good and a bad thing. The good? The frame is noticeably wider, stiffer, and sports simply massive tire clearances for comfortable, family toting backcounty touring and local exploration. The bad? Few of the wide range of Xtracycle accessories are compatible, like the kickstand – a particularly important ingredient for #cargobikelife – which means you’ll need to reinvest if you’re an existing longtail owner.

Still, this didn’t stop me enviously eyeing the BFD that’s been put to such inspiring farming use by my compadres over in Ecuador, the Dammer Brothers, and Mike with his Cornish surf-toting setup. So, when the opportunity arose to buy one, I decided to bite the bullet and replace my Surly ECR/Leap combo. Initially, I also considered Salsa’s Blackborrow, as it’s lighter and a little shorter, making it more practical for both storage and transportation on a train (or in a car). But for my needs, I settled on the BFD because it’s officially rated for human transportation, unlike the Salsa, which means there are a growing number optional extras like the Kid Corral ($325) available. The side bags are also provided.

The current model sports a 29+ wheelset and white livery. I went for the full fat model from the year before, which was still in stock at the time of purchase. In all honesty, this was mainly because I preferred the colour (so vain, I know) and because I figured I’d recycle the wheelset on a separate solo fat bike.

Here’s mine as it came:

And here it is, as I’ve since set it up:

We nicknamed the old ECR/Leap combo The Truck, as it’s the closest I’ve ever come to owning a Ford F150… We’ve yet to think up anything suitable for the Big Fat Dummy, partly because it has such a wonderful title to start with.

In fact, my intention was always to run the BFD with 29+ wheels, which are more practical for my everyday uses; an 8-mile paved school run, local off-road explorations, occasional dirt road overnighters, and day to day cargo hauling around town.

In hindsight, I probably should have gone with the 29+ spec straight away, because 1/ it turns out that a second custom wheelset on fatbike hubs is expensive to build and 2/ I didn’t realise it at the time, but the 29+ version comes with narrower q-factor fat bike cranks, with less of a ‘straddling a horse’ feel to riding the bike. Although I much prefer riding it with big hoops (I currently have WTB Ranger Toughs set up on mine), I probably should have tried a set of faster rolling full fat tyres first, as they might have suited my needs.

Note that the narrower crankset on 2019 bikes does limit the tyre options that can be fitted, due to knock-on chainline issues; the current cranks have clearances for up to 26×4.3in, rather than 26x5in, which the frame can fit. But unless your needs are particularly wintry or sandy, I don’t think you’ll find this a realworld limitation, especially for family riding. As it is, I can tackle all kinds of sandy arroyos with the stock 4.3in wheelset and the bike performs extremely well.

Surly Big Fat Dummy Review

We nicknamed the old ECR/Leap combo The Truck, as it’s the closest I’ve ever come to owning a Ford F150… We’ve yet to think up anything suitable for the Big Fat Dummy, partly because it has such a wonderful title to start with.

Comparing the two, the increased stiffness over the still capable Xtracycle Leap stands out most. It’s not that I wasn’t happy with the Leap and it’s certainly a big improvement over the Freeradical design of yesteryea – it’s just that the Big Dummy feels incredibly surefooted. This difference is particularly noticeable when honking out of the saddle up a climb with a wiggly human payload. The benefits are noticeable on off-road descents too. Even with Sage on board, they’re a breeze: my fingers are off the brakes and we’re both yipping and yelling out with joy. Steering-wise, I think the built-for-purpose Big Fat Dummy feels surprisingly precise, too.

Other than that, I moved over the parts I could; bottle cages, a more comfortable Jones H-bar Loop (with Randi Jo’s wonderful Jeff and Joe bag), along with Brooks saddle. My buddy Rusty lent me a rear 29+ wheel he’d already built for his Ice Cream Truck, and I matched it with a front I owned. So all good there. Hydro disc brakes are by Sram; I’ve not had the best of luck with this brand in the past, but Surly claim the synthetic oil they use is more resilient to the cold than Shimano’s more natural, mineral oil, which I’d normally prefer. As the brand hails from icy Minneapolis, I’ll believe them. They’re powerful and I’ve had no issues so far, despite a cold and snowy winter.

I also fitted Surly’s new accessory, the Deck Bar and Pad ($90+$30). I don’t have the full Kid Corral, as Sage no longer needs it (we had the equivalent Hooptie on the Xtracycle). Instead, he puts his feet in the side pockets for support and hangs onto the handlebars bars, which are placed sufficiently behind me to give him room to admire more than just my backside. We added in a feedbag for him, useful for trail finds or a water bottle. I’d like to have seen some footplates, as technically I guess his feet are a little trapped in the side bags and they’d make clambering on and off the bike easier. Note that compared to a cargo bike with wheels of a smaller diameter – 24 or 26in, for instance – the increased height adds to the challenge of climbing onto it too.

But it’s the lack of solid kickstand which is more of an issue for me, as the simple but sturdy Xtracycle Kickback 2 isn’t cross-compatible. Instead, the bike comes fitted with a lamentable one-legged excuse for a support. Harsh words directed towards a poor kickstand, maybe, but seeing as it can barely hold the bike’s bare weight, justified I think.

Surly Big Fat Dummy Review

In the absence of a suitable kickstand, I’ll use Sage…

Luckily, Sage is at the age where he can climb aboard by himself easily enough. If he wasn’t, I imagine balancing the bike and lifting a child into a seat (the board is compatible with the Thule Yepp Childseat) would be something of a frustrating act. This metal top deck is pre-drilled with a variety of holes that serve as excellent attachment points, as well as opening it up to potential customisation. I’d definitely look at investing in a Rolling Jackass Center Stand, despite the $380 cost. It looks incredible.

I do have another, more minor gripe. The bike only comes complete with two rail clamps, which help fix the side rails to the bike’s steel frame and stabilise the deck. When I need to move the bike around, I tend to lift the bike using the Deck Bar – the lack of extra clamps means lifting the bike like this feels less secure than it should. Sure, extras are available from your local bike shop. But you’ll need to order them separately, before you actually fit the bags, as doing so is a relatively complicated procedure. At $3025 retail price, throwing in an extra couple of clamps don’t seem like too much to ask for, does it?!

Aside from that, I absolutely adore this bike. I love the daily adventures it encourages me to go on with my son. I don’t own a car and with the BFD, I rarely miss not having one. I leave a selection of Surly Junk Straps and Voile straps on the bike at all times, to cater to all my needs. I enjoy the reaction it incites from those around me. I can almost see the cerebral cogs turning as drivers see us going about town: “Can bikes really do that kind of stuff?” Hopefully, there’s even a ripple effect.

All in all, this makes it a very capable ‘everything-including-the-kitchen-sink’ touring bike too, if that’s the way you like to roll.

I’ve added two Wald wire baskets, for day to day convenience. The front takes care of my own needs, whilst the rear one cups Sage’s school rucksack and other sundries. And of course, there are two big flaps on either side for plenty more besides; the bags themselves are versatile and when needed, largely waterproof. If I require more capacity still, I can fit cargo cages on the front fork or behind and below the seattube. Plus, there are two water bottles at the very back. All in all, this makes it a very capable ‘everything-including-the-kitchen-sink’ touring bike too, if that’s the way you like to roll.

The most important modification I’ve made is to attach an old bicycle/car roof rack mount, strapping it to the back of the bike. Eventually, I’ll drill a couple of holes and attach it with bolts, as I did with the Big Dummy I own in the UK. This allows me to pull Sage’s bike, strapping the wheel to the side, on stretches of city roads along which I simply don’t trust absent-minded/just plain dangerous drivers. When we hit the bike path, it’s quick and easy for Sage to detach the bike, pop in the front wheel, connect the brakes… and shoot off. Cue glow of paternal pride. See step by step pictures below…

Granted, a Dutch-style, front-loading cargo bike like a Larry v Harry Bullet is more stable for purely pavement riding, and may make more sense if you’re an urban jungle dweller. But the versatility of longtails has always appealed to me more, especially when it comes to riding off road. Both kinds of bikes are inconvenient to transport, especially on public buses and trains, though perhaps a longtail is the easier of the two. As it is, I rarely intend to travel with it aside from when it’s actually being pedalled. Arguably, that’s where an Extracycle Leap/donor bike combo scores over a dedicated longtail, even if detaching it is a relatively time-consuming affair.

Surly Big Fat Dummy Review

Future upgrades? A faster-rolling set of tyres, most likely WTB’s Ranger 29x3in models, or maybe even Surly’s 2.5in ETs. I’d also like a set of narrower q-factor cranks. An electric assist front wheel? Maybe! There are certainly days that I’d appreciate it. Finding a worthy kickstand is high on the agenda… various homemade options are floating around the internet, or there’s the ultra-beefy (but expensive) Rolling Kickass.

Here’s the two of use in action:

Right now, my Big Fat Dummy is on loan to a friend in Southern New Mexico – a fellow cargo-biking enthusiast, backyard adventure-seeker, and father. I look forward to seeing what he gets up to with it, and eventually, I’ll update this review with his comments.

Fact and Stats

  • Product nameSurly Big Fat Dummy (2018)
  • Price$3025/£3200
  • Sizes availableSmall, Medium, Large (tested)
  • Weight54lbs (estimated)
  • ContactSurly

Elsewhere on the net

Check out Lee’s thoughts here, which helped me make my decision.

Cut To The Chase

There’s a wide range of fantastic, family-friendly cargo bikes on the market, many of which excel for city riding. But there’s nothing quite like the Big Fat Dummy. If you’re after a dedicated, versatile machine for both on and off-road duties, I can’t imagine anything better.

It’s a noticeable notch up, in terms of the stiffness in its frame, from the Xtracycle Leap – though if I already had a suitable donor bike to hand, I’d still be tempted by the latter, given the wide range of accessories that are currently available. Whilst clearances for full-fat tires aren’t a necessity for me and do result in a q-factor that’s wider than I’d like, I can see their value for sandy or snowy backcountry family outings, both in terms of where you can ride, and the added comfort for your passengers. If I didn’t have access to a 29+ wheelset, I’d likely fit a faster rolling tyre for day to day duties, as the ones supplied take some muscle to roll around in town.

Ultimately, a few more Surly-endorsed accessories would make a real difference for day to day #cargobikelife with the Big Fat Dummy, top on the list being a proper kickstand. This feels to me like a gaping omission in the jigsaw for both cargo-toting and offroad adventure nirvana, especially when it comes to family outings. Still, as it stands, the Big Fat Dummy is a super capable cargo bike that encourages me to do it all: car-free school runs, cargo-hauling town duties, and most enjoyably, character-defining family trips into the backcountry.

1 Comment

  1. elliott says

    Hey Cass! I love reading your blog. I am a big dummy owner and thinking about selling to buy a big fat dummy. I am curious what your thoughts are about the 29+ version. Ideally I will eventually buy a 26fat set but I want to know if you like the 29+ version for commuting on road and gravel. I use a bike for everything fro getting to work, groceries and work on the farm here. I also take it on occasional trail rides. I wanted to hear your thoughts about the different options.

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