Big Bike, Little Person: Touring on the 29+ platform.
Ok, so Nancy is 5’5”. So not so little. But the bike, shod as it is with 29+ tires, is certainly big. So how did the two get on? Read on to find out… and glean a few tips for bikepacking with a similar setup.
There’s definitely sense to the notion that wheel size should be proportional to a rider’s height. This was one of the arguments cited in the debate over 29ers, when they were first introduced amongst their 26in brethren. And it’s an argument that could be extended to Plus size wheels too – after all, the 29+ size represents a big wheel to push up to speed and manoeuvre around, especially so for a small rider.
But as the both 29er and 29+ standards have established themselves, there are clearly plenty of mountain bikers, of all heights, who enjoy riding big wheels. And what’s the allure? A combination of factors: confidence-inspiring prowess on trails, their velcro-like traction, and the undeniable comfort that comes from low tire pressures and a decreased angle of attack. This is especially true for suspension-free, backcountry bikepacking. When kicked up to speed, 29+ wheels keep their momentum. And once rolling, they do a great job at ironing out the chunkiest of terrain.
First though, the backstory.
Nancy wanted a companion to her trusty, 26in Surly Troll, a bike she planned to dedicate to commuting and toddler-hauling around town. Initially, we considered modifying it to take 26+ wheels – but clearances are tight and the range of tires remains very limited. We also pondered investing in a frame built around 27+ rubber. But we ruled out that avenue for now too, due to the lack of availability of replacement 27.5in tires and rims in South America, where our touring sights were set. Given that I was also riding a 29+ bike – a Tumbleweed – we decided it was more important to be able to share spares between bikes, especially to a destination such as the one we were headed – Bolivia. In a pinch, pretty much any 2.3/2.4in 29er tire will fit on a Plus sized rim too.
Still, I wasn’t convinced by the idea of her rolling such a big, heavy tire until Nancy test rode a Surly Krampus and really enjoyed it, immediately feeling more confident on our local desert singletrack. Ultimately, she opted for the ECR – size Small – largely because of the double chainring that comes as standard, along with the collection of brazes on that riddle the frame and fork. Given that her interests lie more in more dirt road touring than singletrack slaying, the ECR made the better fit.
Few adjustments were needed to the stock build. With its 36/22T double, the gearing is suitably broad. BB7 mechanical disc brakes are reliable, as are Microshift thumbshifters. We considered replacing the wider Jones H-Bar Loop 710 with the 650mm ones she already owned, but ended up leaving them as they were. In fact, all we did was replace a few parts of the finishing kit: a set of Ergon grips – her favourites – along with her inline Thomson seatpost (rather than the layback post provided), a comfy Terry perch and adjustable, 90mm Specialized stem to replace the 100mm one that the ECR is shipped with. Keeping to a Surly frame meant replicating her Troll’s setup was relatively easy.
Perhaps most importantly, we swapped out the ECR’s heavy, standard issue Knards (1240g) with WTB’s new Ranger+. Listed at just 902g, these tires are extremely light, offsetting some of the extra rotational weight inherent to the 29+ platform. They’re fast rolling too, adding a noticeable pep to the ride and helping pavement miles go faster. Their long term durability remains untested; this was a risk worth taking, especially given a light rider, with a streamlined setup, subjects less wear and tear to gear. As for rims, we didn’t feel any need to replace the Rabbit Holes that come as stock. Given how their tough they’ve proved to be on my own rides, the ECR’s 700g Rabbit Hole rims weigh in very respectably too – though a tubeless ready wheelset, like WTB’s Scrapers, would make for both a slightly lighter tubeless setup, and one that’s completely painless to install – even with just a mini pump.
(As a sidenote… if we’re to compare this wheelset with the more traditional, heavy duty touring setup that remains most popular amongst overseas travellers – using Marathon Mondials 26×2.15 (865g) and Rigida Sputniks (630g) as an example – the difference in wheel weight isn’t all that great. The Ranger+ won’t be as long lasting, but promises far improved performance off road. And even though Rabbit Holes are single walled, the increased tire cushion offers a massive amount of protection.)
Most of our attention in prepping the bike went towards the how we clothed it, given the small frame size, and the associated cap on saddle to tire real estate.
Not wanting to add further to the ECR’s weight, and to encourage minimal packing, we decided to keep the bike rack-free. To make the best use of the Jones H-bars, we ran one of Carsick Designs Handee Randee front rolls. Not only is this system extremely capacious and very stable, it’s also easy to pack, as well as being quick to fit and remove. A length of elasticated cord was added across the loop of the bars themselves, to provide extra space for layers and sundries. Two additional bags – an Andrew the Maker Lens Sack and Carsick Designs Goodie Bag – offered useful space for trail mix and a bottle of water, along with an Oveja Negra Snack Pack… for snacks. Meanwhile, a Randi Jo Big MUT and one a Porcelain Rocket’s Anything Bags put the Anything Cages to good use.
For the guts of the bike, we went opted for Revelate’s Ranger framebag; its flared design makes the best use of small triangle. Plus, there’s plenty of compartments for organisition, and the new version feature a zip that’s far burlier than anything else we’ve tried. Ideal for Bolivian dust.
Porcelain Rocket’s Mr Fusion proved an effective solution to the limited space between tire and saddle. Thanks to its elegant supporting struts, there’s no sag to worry about; all we had to do was lift up its seatpost collar a touch to squeeze in the bag and create the required clearance. Note the we have the older non waterproof v1, but the concept is the same.
So, did the benefits of running a 29+ bike outweigh the disadvantages – namely weight? It seems so. Nancy reports that riding sections of deep sand we encountered felt easier than she’d previously experienced. The rockier backroads felt more comfortable, and the long, paved Andean climbs we faced at one point in the ride seemed to go by just fine. She didn’t find the big wheels obtrusive in any way, though granted our riding was largely non-technical in nature. The ability to share parts also ended up proving advantageous. At one point my dynamo hub failed and I was able to borrow her wheel to do a side trip. In fact, packing the ECR into a bike bag for travel proved to be the main inconvenience, and occasionally cramming its big wheels into the back of an overloaded local minibus. Similarly, if your ride entails hike-a-bikes, big wheels and a small stature can make for some awkward moments when shouldering your steed.
With the ever growing popularity of the 27+ platform, would we run the same setup again? There’s certainly an argument to opting for a wheel size that’s both lighter and more in proportion to Nancy’s height and build. It’s a wheelsize we’d like to try and would seem to strike a great middle ground. But when it comes to unsuspended touring, it’s hard to beat the comfort of a low pressure, 29+ tire, however tall you are. On medium and small size frames, a high front end – and ensuing upright riding position – can really suit expedition bikepacking too. The caveat is that XS frames will have even greater clearance issues. At this point a smaller Plus tire may be a necessity for rackless bikepacking with a seatpack – or at least one that’s voluminous enough for carrying all that you need on a long distance trip.
Thanks to our local shop, The Broken Spoke in Santa Fe, for helping set the bike up.