Michael Dammer’s Karate Monkey & leather framebag

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In the latest Rider and Rig, we check out Michael Dammer’s Surly Karate Monkey bikepacking rig as used on the Colorado Trail, plus its awesome farm-made leather framebag…

Additional photos by Michael Dammer

As both an acclaimed alpinist and an organic farmer, Michael Dammer is something of a local legend in Ecuador. Living on a farm with his two equally adventurous brothers, their wives, and all their beautiful kids, there’s not a lot Michael doesn’t ride, climb, make, or grow. From the gear he sews for his trips, the off grid home he built and lives in, the CSA boxes his family distributes across Quito, the adventure races and events they organize, or the various alpine ascents he and his brothers are noted for… he’s rarely less than busy. And let’s not forget the bulk of the work the family do: running multi-week courses for visiting teenagers, teaching them the art of wilderness living, and imbuing in them an understanding of our environment that goes far beyond the thin veneer of a simple campout. At their farm in Palugo, they learn to build rafts to float rivers, dehydrate their own food to sustain themselves, and sew their own bikepacking gear.

Recently, Michael Dammer has penned some of the most challenging rides on this website, such as the epic Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (a route that certainly deserves such an adjective) and the remote, pioneering Tres Cordilleras in Peru. Indeed, despite a reputation as an accomplished climber, mountain biking in all its forms has long been in his blood:

I’ve ridden bikes since I was a little kid. As a consequence of growing up on a farm, all bikes, no matter what kind, eventually turn into ‘mountain bikes’. So that is what happened to my Mongoose BMX, it was ridden and used as an MTB… In 1987, when I was 9 years old, my uncle brought the first ‘proper’ Mountain Bike to Ecuador back from Colorado, where he was studying. It was a white Marin. A few rides on it where enough for my parents to see that those were the bikes needed for us on the farm, and managed to import 3 brand new ones for us. Soon after my father started getting us involved in sporadic small MTB races that were happening, and I raced in Ecuador for 12 years. Bike expeditions followed shortly after.”

  • Surly Dirt Wizard on Karate Monkey
  • Surly Karate Monkey
  • Surly Karate Monkey, Leather Frame Bag
  • Surly Karate Monkey framebag
  • Surly Karate Monkey, Leather Frame Bag

Michael uses a combination of homemade and purchased bikepacking gear. His cousin runs a bike shop in Quito, which now imports Revelate gear, makers of the Gas Tank and Terrapin seatbag he uses. Both feedbags, the frame bag and the handlebar bag are homemade. Michael either buys the leather from a friend or the family or tan his own on their dairy farm, which happens to be the first organic dairy farm in the Ecuador. “I prefer to use medium weight leather that holds its shape a bit. All the sewing is done by hand with a very simple hand tool, the Speedy Stitcher.” Michael has bikepacked on various steeds over the last few years, including a Surly Pugsley, a Salsa El Mariachi, and a Salsa Timberjack, making leather framebags for each. Additionally, farm chores and family bikepacks are carried out on a Surly Big Fat Dummy.

  • Surly Pugsley Leather framebag
  • Surly Big Fat Dummy

Michael Dammer Leather Framebag

More recently, he’s settled on a Surly Karate Monkey, finding its 27.5+ tires ideal for the challenging Ecuadorian terrain – tufty paramo, long cobbled descents, and raw, natural singletrack – while still affording sufficient space within its frame for gear. Given the vagaries of Ecuadorian transportation – whether this be in the bowels of a bus or the back of a truck – its burly steel construction suits the area well.

“I find the geometry of the KM is a nice blend between an aggressive trail ripping machine and some features of a long distance bikepacking hardtail. This combination makes for a very versatile mountain bike,” says Michael. In a country where spares can be hard to come by, or need to be brought over from the states by a visiting friend, its well worth speccing reliable parts that can handle the heavy rains and muddy conditions synonymous with riding in Ecuador. “A 11-42 Sunrace cassette a SRAM NX derailleur and a single 28T chainring wrap up the drivetrain equation, a relatively low cost combination that in my perspective make up for a great, durable, easy to maintain setup.” Given how steep and protracted the climbs can be, a low gearing is also crucial.

Surly Karate Monkey, Leather Frame Bag

  • Surly Karate Monkey
  • Surly Karate Monkey, Leather Frame Bag

I’ve now joined Michael on three long distance bikepacking journeys, as well as various family outings. It would be no exaggeration to say I glean valuable lessons from him every time we ride together. For the Colorado Trail, this was how his bike was set up.


  • Frame: Surly Karate Monkey
  • Fork: Manitou Machete, 140mm
  • Headset: Cane Creek
  • Handlebar: Answer Expert
  • Stem: Promax 31.8mm
  • Seatpost: Promax 30.9mm
  • Saddle: WTB Pure V
  • Grips: Good Ones
  • Crank Arm Set: Surly OD
  • Pedals: Shimano XT SPD
  • Bottom Bracket: SRAM Powerspline
  • Chainring: Surly Steel Narrow-Wide 28T
  • Chain: KMC
  • Cassette: Sunrace 11/42
  • Shifter: Sram GX
  • Rear Derailleur: SRAM NX
  • Brakes: Shimano SLX
  • Brake Levers: Shimano SLX
  • Rear Wheel: Salsa 110mm, 15mm thru-axle on Alex MD40 rim
  • Front Wheel: Salsa 148mm, 12mm thru-axle, 32h on Alex MD40 rim
  • Tires: Surly Dirt Wizard 27.5×3
  • Michael Dammer Surly Karate Monkey
  • Surly Karate Monkey
Michael Dammer

More info on Michael and the Dammers

To find out more about Nahual – the permaculture farm the Dammers work, the wilderness courses they run, and the vision they aspire to, visit their website. For stories on their various bikepacking adventures, both with and without their families, check out their incredible blog. Also, be sure to follow Michael on Instagram @el_taraumara.

A big thank you from Michael Dammer to the companies and individuals who have helped out, including Paul Zeigle at Surly Bikes and Eric Parsons at Revelate Designs, both of whom have been very supportive of the work carried out on the farm. Also, stay tuned for “A Bikepacker’s Meal, Ecuadorian Style” with a couple simple recipes that sustained us on the Colorado Trail… all made from the ingredients Michael brought from the farm.

  • Randal GoingHAM

    Awesome, beautiful bag!

    Thats an interesting comment re: the KM having sufficient space within the frame for gear because thats basically the ONLY knock I have on mine–the geometry doesn’t allow ample space for a frame bag. Granted I have the small model, but my biggest frustration with the bike is that it can only fit a negligible frame bag.

  • I think the point was that instead of an aluminum or carbon frame (where the larger tubes eat up a lot of the space) a straight-tubed steel bike maximizes room. A small frame will always be especially challenging for a frame bag, unfortunately… unless you are looking at more of a gravel/road bike with a horizontal top tube…

  • Mike Gurnham

    Nice bike Michael! I will be on the Trans Ecuador in January with my purple Monkey. I’ll stop in at the farm!

  • Nice Mike, the Karate Monkey it’s a great choice for the Trans Ecuador. Come by the farm, happy to host you… cheers

  • Randal, additional to what Logan pointed out, which I agree, the homemade leather framebag does provide a lot more space than most commercial bags and it’s a great option for smaller frames for that reason in particular. I tend to maximize the width and have a prominent flare towards the front on the bags I make. The leather bag shown on this bike can carry almost double the amount that my Revelate Designs bag (that also fits the KM)…

  • Mark Reyes

    How do you find the Karate Monkey vs Timberjack? I am trying to decide between these two for bikepacking and general riding duties.

  • The Timberjack it’s a more playful bike, the aluminum frame makes it a bit lighter and the overall feeling of the bike gives you a sense of
    –I want to fly–, I also find the Rock Shox Recon 120mm that comes on the Timberjack a bit more responsive than the Manitou Machete 140mm that I have on the KM. On the other hand , the KM seems to be a much better all arounder and specially for heavy duty bikepacking it’s the bike to go. I also like that the KM can mutate easily into different bikes. Leave the rigid fork, throw some 29 x 2.10 wheels and add a combination of bikepacking bags and racks (or a basket) to have a great long distance touring bike. Add a suspension fork and a dropper post to the 27+ and you have a trail ripping machine, or make a combination of both to have the bike you see here for more technical bikepacking. Hope that helps…

  • Mark Reyes

    Thanks for the response, really nice to hear your opinions and feel about the two bikes. Was sort of how I imagined them to be, so nice to hear that hows they play in the real world. Will definitely have to think carefully about which one is going to suit me best.
    Do you notice the extra weight of the KM whilst climbing / riding (I am not the best climber)?

  • Maybe a bit, but dont let weight be your determining factor. Legs will get used to it. For me, geometry, components, frame material, intended use seem to be more crucial factors when comparing these two…

  • Claude

    What convinced you to choose a 27.5+ bike and not a 29+ bike?
    The wheel diameter plays for you a primary or rather secondary role?

  • …the terrain of the Colorado Trail was probably the main factor. For a less technical ride with less hike’a bikes the 29+ would be ideal, but for a ride that has narrow turns and longer periods of pushing bikes I think the smaller wheel diameter can help a bit.
    More than the wheel size I was looking for higher volume tires to smoothen the ride, so I guess for me the primary role was tire volume. I would have taken a 29+ rather than a 27.5 with 2.2 tires.
    Hope this answers your question

  • Hi, thanks this is a great answer. In our bike shop we are expanding our bike packing / trekking sale. Therefore it is very important for us to know the use arguments of plus bicycles of the scouting, many cordial thanks

  • Scott

    Nice frame bags. Very simple yet very effective. The picture of the parts before sewing are very nice to show just what it is composed of. How long is your flare towards the head tube? It also looks like you have two different bags attached to the KM. Are you attaching the bags via the bottle bolts? If so, are you using a stiffener or is the leather acting alone? Thanks,

  • Chase Rosenberg

    I bought a Timberjack last winter to use as a bikepacking rig with trail capability and liked the feel, but ended up selling the frame and getting a KM because I couldn’t get low enough in the front on the TJ to get into a comfortable touring position without inverting a stem. My 2 cents on the difference: KM is a very responsive, very comfortable bike. I forgot about the weight difference promptly. The triangle is a bit smaller but doesn’t seem abnormally small to me (I also ride an XL). Length/reach seem equivalent, but the KM can accomodate a lower, more XC-stule stem position with a suspension fork on, which makes a huge difference in touring comfort for me. I just returned from a 3-week trans-Pyrenees ride on the KM and loved it.

  • Thanks Scott. The flare goes for 15cm on both tubes (top tube and bottom tube). The band is 6 cm all around and finishes at 10 cm on the head tube. (Sometimes I make the band just a bit narrower at the BB area to avoid any potential rubbing).
    If I’am working with thicker leather I use the water bottle mounts with washers on both sides of the leather to prevent any ripping (unlikely it will rip with out them, but gives me peace of mind). With thinner leather I prefer velcro…
    Baseball stitch with sinew thread (or leather thread) to put the parts together.

  • Alain Brunet

    Hello Michael,
    how do you make this stitching on your bag? Is it a kind of cross stitching? Could you make a short video on Utube? We plan to do the baja divide in november and I will need to make custom bag as my wife’s bike is a xs ICT, just impossible to find frame bag that fits from the market. Thanks

  • Alain,
    I use the baseball stitch (look at it on a baseball). Its pretty simple and very efficient to put to pieces together without creating a big seam. Make sure that all the holes on all the different leather pieces are at equal distances ( I use my industrial sewing machine without thread, on it’s longest stitch setting to mark all the holes) before sewing.

  • eleanor

    Hi Michael! I was planning on riding the Trans Ecuador dirt road edition in November, but just saw another persons post about the muddy conditions when they went in the rainy season. Since you’re a local, how do you think the trails will be?

  • Hi Eleanor,
    Last year the rainy season was unusually wet, specially February to May. November was not bad. If the post you saw is the Tales on Tires, they got the worst of it…
    Its hard to predict what this year is gonna bring, but I will think that it should be OK to ride it in November, specially by the end of the month. (Note: with OK I mean blue skies, sun, rainy days, and maybe some hail and thunder too, which is normal for Ecuadorian mountain weather so come prepared)
    Hope that helps a bit…

  • RandomRouleur

    Hi Michael, just building up my own KM and hope to be hitting up the TEMBR in about July next year! Lots of details to sort but is there any particular reason you went specifically for 40mm rims? I’ve been looking at Easton Arc Plus 45s and intend to run 3″ Chronicles or Ranger Toughs. Was it a clearance thing or just what you had available? I’ve seen a couple of comments of people going for 40mm rims with KMs, which is why I ask! Cheers.

  • Hi there,
    I think the KM its a great bike for the TEMBR and July is our dry season which is certainly better for riding.
    Regarding rims and tires: For the TEMBR 40 or 45 mm will be my choice, they can be a bit lighter than 50mm and they keep the profile of most tires a bit better. I think the 45mm rims with Chronicles will make a great combination. On other tires, like the Dirt Wizard 3.0 or any WTB 2.8 I will probably go with 40mm as the profile becomes to “flat” for my taste on a wider rim.
    Clearance should not be a problem on the KM frame, I tried 50mm rims with Dirt Wizards on it and clearance was not a problem. Again, in this case the problem was that the Dirt W is not a real 3.0 so on the wide rim it didnt look good. Cheers. Michael

  • RandomRouleur

    Thanks – that’s really useful. Literally just found an incredible bargain on Arc 45s, so am going with them for my girlfriend’s and my KMs! I’ll perhaps drop you a line nearer the time but would love to stop by the farm and say hi if all goes to plan! Cheers, Campbell

  • Nice. Pair them up with Chronicles, they are great all-arounders…
    Sure, drop me a line when you are ready, you guys are welcome to come to the farm to get set up for your adventure…

  • Oohh, also make sure to check the TEMBR page on the coming days because a bunch of information is getting updated after some work that Cass and us did on it…

  • RandomRouleur

    Great – thanks, will do!

  • John KP

    Are you a bodybuilder?

  • I like that setup. The Karate Monkey is a great looking ride. I hope to demo ride one soon.

  • Chirag Raman


    I was wondering if you have thoughts about how the KM compares against the 27.5 ECR? I’ve read accounts of how the KM feels slightly more sprightly on singletrack, but looking at the geometry, the KM has a BB drop of 55mm and a BB height of 307.5mm while the ECR 27.5 has a BB drop of 60mm and a BB height of 308mm. I’m not sure how those numbers translate into ride experience, but they don’t seem that different, so I was curious about any thoughts regarding the matter. Thanks!

  • Correct, the differences when you see the numbers are minimum, but the way both bikes ride get affected by those small changes, the chainstays are also much shorter on the KM, adding to its playfulness. The ECR is a great off road touring machine, the KM is a more playful bike, probably better suited for technical bikepacking, Additional, the ECR is not suspension corrected and cannot be used with a dropper post, it also has more options for fixing racks and adapting different transmissions making it more versatile for longer trips.
    Hope it helps…

  • Eric Hightower

    Did you do single needle baseball stitching or double needle? Any thoughts on which might be better? I’m tempted to make a frame bag using the baseball stitch.

  • I use single needle and double (thick) thread. It is crucial that the distance of the holes on the side panels and the center belt are the same. I use my industrial sewing machine (without thread) on its longer stitch setting to poke little guide holes…
    Good luck on your project…

  • Xavier Montezuma

    Chevere articulo mi Brother , ya estamos haciendo unas rutas por la llacta , caeras !!un abrazo

  • Gracias pana… como me encantaria poder visitarles mas por sus tierras. Si voy pal Sur te llamo a que me hagas dar una vuelta…

  • Xavier Montezuma

    De una!!!!

  • Angel Herrera

    Does he pedal with his arms? He’s ripped!