7,500 Kilometer Review: Surly Knard 27tpi & Velocity Blunt 35
A week before finishing up our tour, I looked down at my tires and smiled. Luckily I made the right choice just one day before we left six months ago.
At that point, a fleet of freshly powder-coated ECRs had recently shipped to the US. I found out that mine would be delivered only three days before we were flying out of the country. There really wasn’t too much information out there about 29+ bikes on big international tours, especially in a harsh and isolated place like east Africa. The fact that I would be riding a 29er alone was enough to draw several guffaws from seasoned touring diehards. On the evening before we flew out I was tinkering in the garage and putting some finishing touches on my new army green steed. I mounted a pair of Schwalbe Smart Sam Plus tires on Velocity Blunt 35s while simultaneously keeping the corner of my eye out for the UPS driver. He would soon hand over a pair of Knards, for which I had paid a hefty overnight fee, and they were a day late. We had planned an off road tour through the Dark Continent and the Schwalbes were the conventional choice of rubber. They had all of the off-road touring tire keywords covered: a solid tire that would roll well on pavement but was still tough enough to outlast a rocky, thorny, unforgiving, and remote landscape. The ECR would have ridden just fine with them. The BB might have been a little lowish, but it would’ve been OK.
The UPS truck crept through the neighborhood after dusk, a little later than usual. I was nervous and had sucked down a couple IPAs as I finished the cabling job. After mounting the Knards I was torn. Earlier that day I emailed a friend at Surly to get his opinion. He said, ‘Knards.’ I called a couple of buddies and got mixed recommendations. In the end, I decided to go with what makes the ECR’s geometry more than ‘OK’, and, of course, what looked the coolest.
So after 7,500 kilometers, eight countries, very rocky off-road tracks, long stretches of tarmac, thorns, broken glass, mud, stream crossings, and the Sahara Desert, here are my thoughts on the metal and rubber circles that carried me this far:
Surly Knard 27tpi – A Proven Touring Tire
I mused a bit about Knards in a previous post after the initial 1,000 kilometers, but tire pondering is pretty important. My current position could probably be summed up with one sentence: for off-road, mixed terrain and gravel touring, the 27tpi Knard 29 is perfect. Of course, the churning machine of the bike industry might spawn something else that will change my mind, but right now I am not sure if there could be a better option. My original concerns fell in the three categories below, and here are my thoughts:
On initial impression, when compared to a purpose made Schwalbe, the Knards felt a little thin at the tread bottom. It might be a sensory illusion based on the largeness of the tire as a whole. This fueled speculation that a plague of flats might set in through places such as South Africa’s Klein Karoo, a thorny desert punctuated with rocky ranges that cut across the landscape. Ultimately there were more thorny places in Africa than I ever imagined. All in all I had 5 flats in 6 months. That’s fewer than I had on my last tour while running the proven Marathon Mondials. Of course I used a few squirts of Stan’s in each tube this time, which I am sure helped.
I had anticipated going well over 8,000 kilometers in six months, but going off-road is naturally slower than the pan-American roadway. I was fairly convinced that a dirt specific tire would wear out well before I reached 4,000 kilometers, especially since we’d have to resort to our fair share of tarmac. In order to prolong the tread I rotated the tires after 2,500 kilometers. In hindsight, I think this would have been better done at 3,500. As it stands now, the front tire probably still has 1,000 kilometers of life on it. The rear has maybe 400, if I pushed it. So if I would have delayed, I could have rolled these tires for a lifespan of maybe 8,500 kilometers. To me that’s pretty impressive, and surprising. I carried a spare on this trip thinking that I may either suffer a sidewall tear or they would just wear out; I’ll be leaving that spare at home next time.
This is my favorite part. We spent at least half of these kilometers offroad, on gravel, pisté, primitive tracks, single track, rock, and sand. These conditions, in my opinion, are home for Knards and the ECR. The tires eat up the vibrations that this sort of terrain dishes out for kilometers on end, especially at speed. I felt for Virginia. After one month we switched her Troll to the largest UST tires we could find somewhere in South Africa: 2.2” Contis. They helped, but still the lower pressure in the 26” tires did not have nearly the suspension benefit as 29×3”. The Knards completely absorbed the egg-sized rocks that seem to be strewn all over these tracks. They simply barrel over almost anything without consequence.
The closely spaced low-block tread is specced for packed dirt, gravel, and dry rocky conditions. They do fairly well in sand, and somewhat muddy environs as well (as long as it’s not sticky mud). But what about tar? No matter how much you intend on stringing together dirt and gravel roads on a long tour, these days there are always paved sections to contend with. I was immediately impressed with how well they rolled on pavement. Not the fastest, but not bad at all.
Velocity Blunt 35 29er – Swiss Army Hoops
Before leaving on this trip I took Gin’s Velocity Cliffhangers to get trued. My LBS wrenchman phoned thirty minutes after I dropped them off to tell me that they were perfect. No need for a truing. I was pretty impressed, considering that these rims had made it through our Central America tour, which consisted of 5,000 kilometers of pretty rough roads, gravel, falls, being beaten up in busses, etc. So, without hesitation, I went with Velocity rims again.
At the time I had these built by good hands at The Wheel Department, the choices included the 50mm Surly Rabbit Hole and the 35mm Velocity Blunt 35. Now there are several additional options including the 45mm Velocity Dually, 41mm Ibis carbon rim, and the 47mm Northpaw. The Blunt 35s meet Surly’s minimum width spec for running Knards, but the numbers also work well for conventional 2.2s or 2.4s. I was a bit worried about the Rabbit Holes being a bit too wide, in the case of using the Schwalbe Smart Sam. A wide rim spreads out the tire and creates more tread surface. This is great for off-road traction, but what about rolling resistance on the road? As mentioned above, the Knards perform surprisingly well on asphalt. I think the Blunts width of 35mm contribute to this performance. The narrower rim creates a rounder tire profile which may give the Knards a bit more tracking ability and straight line stability.
Although the width differences are seemingly subtle, if you want the most traction out of the Knard, a centimeter will make a difference. For a dedicated off-road trail build I would go with the 45mm Duallys or 50mm Rabbit Holes, but for mixed terrain touring the Blunt 35 is a solid choice, with the availability of 36 spokes to boot.
On the road I always here about people breaking spokes. So far I have never broken one (knock on wood). I might owe this to one bit of touring convention that I follow: 36 spoke rims. Initially, that choice was at least partly due to the Rohloff I had set up on a panzer-proof 26″ Troll. But, what do you know? The only rim listed above that is available with 36 spoke drilling is the Blunt 35.
Although comparatively minimal, I have been packing quite a load. I figured that after running slightly lower pressures off road there would be a couple of sidewall dents and dings, but, after inspection, there are none. And, after all those rough tracks, these rims are still perfectly true.
The Blunts are stiff enough to make the ECR feel sure footed on any terrain. Whether bombing a rock descent or picking through a technical climb, they feel generally solid. No doubt the Duallys or Rabbit Holes would perform slightly better off road, but as mentioned earlier, I think the Blunts are owed some credit for there on-road performance.
I am not a gram counter, but Blunts are certainly not heavy. When I first got the build back from The Wheel Department, I was surprised at how light they were, even with 36 spokes. My front wheel, with a Velocity hub and the heavy Avid rotor weighs about 1,278 grams. That’s only slightly more than the 26″ 36 spoke Cliffhanger with an XT hub, weighing in at 1,213 grams.
It’s fairly rare to hear of someone touring internationally on a tubeless setup, especially in more remote locales. Because of flight restrictions, and the danger of exploding a tire, it is required on most, if not all, airlines to deflate the tires on a boxed bike. This, of course, will break the tubeless seal. Fortunately we were able to set up Gin’s Troll tubeless in South Africa with credit to the capacity of local bike shops and the vast mountain bike scene. Otherwise, tubeless conversion could be preplanned and implemented DIY once landed, given the skills.
Velocity claims both the Blunt 35 and the Dually to be tubeless ready. There is a catch though. The claim hinges on matching the rims with ‘tubeless-ready’ or UST tires, which Knards are not. The difference in a true UST rim and a tubeless-ready rim is ridge on the inner side of each bead shelf which provide extra support to prevent seal rupture. I have heard that folks have had success using several layers of Gorilla Tape or Velocity Velotape to build up a faux bead shelf ridge. I plan on giving it a shot soon and will update this post.
A couple years ago only a handful broke the rules and rode a fatbike through technologically isolated places such as Nepal and Peru. Expedition specific fatbikes and 29+ Knards are changing this. The Pugsley created a new game, and the ECR made it accessible. More people are interested in routes that are off the beaten path, or at least off the pavement…unconventional means to discover authentic and untouched places. I am looking forward to the progression of this trend, the stories that come from its front lines, and the bikes and gear that will make it happen. But for now, I think I have the perfect setup.