Bike Touring with the Surly ECR: 1,000 km Impressions + Build Specs

“I think they [Knards] will be too slow.” “You won’t find 29er tires or tubes in Africa.” “That thing is going to be heavy.” I pretty much ignored the aforementioned comments, among a couple other worries that were floating around in my skull, and rolled into Africa with the ECR, complete with Knards. Here are my thoughts after 1,000 KMs.

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The first thing I must mention in this quasi review is the amount of oglers and inquisitors that the ECR has left in its wake so far in South Africa. Granted, it is a sight to behold. I think it probably draws comparison to the timeless expedition-built overland vehicles that frequently roam the bush and tackle big trans-African adventures, strapped with gas-cans, spare lugged tires, gear trailers and canvas tarps that provide temporary shelter to the intrepid travelers that spend days behind the wheel in order to reach remote and rugged places.

Surly ECR - Off Road Bike Touring - Knards, Racks

I think I have found something close to a niche for this bike, although it may in fact fall into several niches. It’s not exactly the fully loadable cousin of the Krampus, or the Knardable option for the Ogre, or the fat big brother of the Troll. It’s kind of it’s own thing. It’s a playful, long-distance workhorse, and after rolling across some very diverse non-tar surfaces in the Western Cape of South Africa, and venturing to places where there aren’t many automobiles, it is my very happy home.

Surly ECR - Off Road Bike Touring - Knards, Racks

Surly ECR Geometry

For the style of riding and the terrain I prefer, I really like the geometry of the ECR, so far. It’s a somewhat of a relaxed bike. Not as playfully designed as the fun-loving Krampus, but also not as upright as the Ogre or Troll. It has enough head angle to feel comfortable, and even confident on descents, but the lower bottom bracket gives it a nice stable ride when climbing or working through technical terrain. Even though I’ve built this one a little on the heavy side (especially when loaded), the ECR begs for a flowing and a playful style of riding.

Surly ECR - Off Road Bike Touring - Knards

The ECR does have a large BB drop, and respectively low bottom bracket height, on paper. But the fatter Knards make up the distance and give it a comparable BB height to the Ogre, or my Ibis Mojo, for that matter. Over rocky climbs and toying around with obstacles, it feels like there is a generous amount of room, even with larger platform pedals. I have had some pedal strike on single-track, but I blame those on the fact that I am somewhat new to flats. The ECR could work with smaller tires, but something below a 2.5 may be pushing it if you are into riding chunky or technical surfaces. All in all, I don’t see this as an issue.

Surly ECR - Off Road Bike Touring - South Africa

The 29+ Platform for Touring

There has been lots of discussion on the web and amongst off-road enthusiasts about the 29+ platform. Such debate is justified, as this is indeed a special formula. I rode the Krampus on a slice of single track a couple of months ago and was sold on the idea that a bicycle could perform off road, and be extremely fun, without suspension. Suspension is not necessarily a bad thing, but over a long tour in a remote country, there is something to be said for the reliability, loading capabilities, and non-maintenance of a rigid setup. But, when off of the tarmac is where the adventure beckons, a rigid bike can serve up a beating. The magic of 29+ is in the marriage of a large rolling diameter, a rigid frame/fork, and the performance and suspension qualities of the hefty 3” Knards. 29+ pretty much defangs the dirt serpent.

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Bike Touring (in Africa) with Knards

It is, at the very least, a once a day occurrence to be stopped by someone who is outwardly astonished by the three inch tires. They obviously don’t have fat bikes here. Knards have actually proven to be quite a useful conversation starter. I can partially accredit at least one kind offer of accommodation to the tires. On our first night out of Cape Town, a commuter, Liesbet, stopped us and seemed slightly infatuated with the Knards. Shortly in to the conversation, she invited us to stay the night in her beautiful home in the Cape WInelands. Lucky for us, these knobby spectacles of round rubber caught the eye of a kind fellow cyclist.

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I was hesitant to roll with Knards, but I think it was one of the best gear decisions I made.

We have attacked the Western Cape by way of dirt tracks and gravel roads…routes based upon the recommendations of countless locals, Tracks4Africa, and an off-road motorcycle book called Dirt Busters. The surfaces generally range from chunky limestone gravel to shale to dirt to sand, and they come in varying levels of roughness. But we have also spent plenty of miles on very rocky off-road tracks, sandy washouts, mud, stream crossings and plenty of eroded ungelations. These conditions, in my opinion, are home for Knards, and the ECR for that matter. The tires eat up vibrations that this terrain dishes out, for kilometers on end, especially at speed. Last year, on my Troll, I would get numb-hands after long stretches of bumpiness, but that hasn’t occurred with the current setup. It may be partially due to the 29er platform, but I think I owe the Knards a salute on this. Another big plus is the ability for the tires to completely eat up egg-sized rocks that seem to be strewn all over these tracks. They simply barrel over almost anything without consequence.

Surly ECR - Off Road Bike Touring - Knards

Looking almost new after 1,000 KMs

The tires are a little sluggish on pavement, but not nearly as much as I was expecting. Considering their size and tooth, they actually move pretty well on all surfaces. The other day we rode out of Van Wyksdorp up and down some pretty big hills with two mountain bikers we met. After pausing for a photo, I shot down the hill, and Nicholas waiting at the bottom exclaimed, “I thought you were a Land Rover coming around the corner!” Fine by me. The off road performance and bump-eating characteristics make up for the slight speed penalty.

Also, you can feel the rotational weight of the tires coupled with the heavy Toobs. I plan on setting them up tubeless in the future which should remedy some of the weight penalty.

Surly ECR - Off Road Bike Touring - South Africa

My two biggest concerns about running the Knards over a long tour on foreign soil, were toughness and treadware. So far I’ve had one flat. A slow leak that was repaired by a few squirts of Stans (sold at pretty much every bike shop in South Africa) via the removable core of the Surly Toob. The puncture, which I think came from a porcupine spine on a dirt road through the Klein Karoo, quickly patched itself and I’ve been rolling over rock and dirt for two weeks since.

After 1,000 KMs, the 27TPI Knards are showing very little sign of wear; impressive considering we have also pedaled on a fair share of pavement. Only time will tell how they will hold up over the long haul, but I am confident that they will last the majority of a 4-month trip. In case of a blow out, I am carrying a spare 2.2”. Really only necessary once we go North; the 29er has definitely caught on in South Africa.

Surly ECR - Off Road Bike Touring

Pretty happy I put the 34t ring on in combo with the Rohloff, my knees are thanking me after a couple of recent passes. But, now my Salsa bash is looking a little goofy; need to find a smaller one to match.

Surly ECR (Extremely Comfy Ride)

The last thing I’ll add, on a personal note, is that this is the best fitting bicycle I have ever put together. There is something special about a bike that feels as if you fit within the cockpit, instead of sitting upon it. It’s not as simple as choosing the right stem, or having your seat adjusted correctly. It’s kind of a divine match. I have purchased all the bikes I have ever owned sight unseen; some have worked just OK, and others have become ‘my bike’. This is definitely one of the latter.

Surly ECR - Off Road Bike Touring - Knards, Racks

The Build

  • Frame: 20″ Surly ECR (large)
  • Rear Hub: Rohloff Speedhub 500/14 36 spoke
  • Front Hub: Velocity Disc 36 spoke
  • Wheels: Velocity Blunt 35 29er laced by The Wheel Department
  • Cranks: Shimano Deore LX (oldschool and bulletproof)
  • Ring: NEW: Shimano road 34t – sadly swapped out my Surly Stainless 38t
  • Chain: Wippermann 808
  • Tires: Surly Knard 27TPI
  • Bottom Bracket: SKF
  • Brakes: Avid BB7 / Avid Ultimate levers
  • Headset: Chris King Nothreadset
  • Handlebar: Crank Brothers Cobalt riser (cut to about 680mm)
  • Stem: Easton EA70 100mm
  • Saddle: Selle Anatomica Titanico X
  • Seatpost: Easton Havoc
  • Pedals: Blackspire Big Slim MKII
  • Front Rack: Salsa Minimalist
  • Rear Rack: Tubus Vega

P.S.

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A proper braai. I think I ate about 2 feet of this batch of boerewors (South African sausage) after a 4,000 ft climb today.

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