Big Bike, Little Person: Touring on the 29+ platform.

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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.

  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+
  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+

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.

  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+
  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+
  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+

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.

touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+

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.)

  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+
  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+
  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+

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.

  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+
  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+

touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+

  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+
  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+
  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+

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.

  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+
  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+

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.

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Final thoughts

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.

  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+
  • touring on the 29+ platform, Surly ECR, WTB Ranger+

Thanks to our local shop, The Broken Spoke in Santa Fe, for helping set the bike up.

  • Vin Cent

    Cool review! My girlfriend and I went to south America during 6 months with ecr. Great bike indeed! I was riding the xl size and she was on the xs size. She was so happy to cross the Andes with confidence! Have a look at: http://www.vincentcouedic.tumblr.com
    Tribulations andines. Cheers, Vince, bike mechanic, France.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks for sharing, Vince. Many people (and I include myself here) have a habit of over-theorising about what is right and wrong for other people. But if it works, it works!

    Looks like you had a great trip!

    Cass

  • Cass Gilbert

    Oh, and out of curiosity – what rear rack did you get to fit on her XS frame?

  • mikeetheviking

    Super interesting…. Thanks Cass n’ Nancy! Was recently helping a friend hone in on a new bike. He is 5′ 5” also, perfect timing for this!!!!

  • http://asphoto.co.nz/ Andrew

    Nice insight and nice setup!

  • Vin Cent

    Cass, you inspired me so much before this trip! You are a kind of pope for bikepacking here (With the pikes on bikes :-) Rear rack is tubus logo evo 29. Good fit with extra long stays (spare parts at tubus).
    Before theorising, I do experiences. And only then I can tell if it’s right or not. Otherwise I say: I don’t know! ?

  • Michael

    Nice! Physical and/or hardware/gear limitations notwithstanding I would for sure recommend going as big as possible. I’m barely north of 5’7″ and I feel like a super hero on my medium Krampus! The bike and platform continue to surprise me with its overall versatility and omni terra capabilities. Heck even my nine year old can ride it (with his eyes closed) ;)

  • Chris Orr

    Bikepack with and ECR also and it’s incredible…

    Check out this 27.5+ Steve Potts trail bike at Nebraska’s Monkey Wrench Bikes. Might go back and give it a ride one of these days.
    http://monkeywrenchcycles.com/steve-potts-trail-bike-the-prototype/

  • Pedalling slow

    Interesting. I’m even shorter(5’4″) and I’m riding the ECR currently here in South Am and I’ve been using it since we left Alaska. I have longer than normal legs but my wife always tell me I look small on my ECR. It’s a burly bike during stints of hike-a-bikes. And that’s the only drawback I can think of with riding the ECR. My wife rides a Troll and I wish I have that at times especially on some of the sections of the Trans-Ecuador.

  • Cass Gilbert

    It’s true – the big wheels do tend to get in the way when hike a biking. I’m 6’1″ and I find that too. But Nancy (sensibly) tends to avoid that kind of riding…

  • Wakatel Lu’um

    I’ve been told that 26″ are still more suitable for people under 5’10”?

  • Michael

    See this just proves how different we all are. It was a stint of hike a bike where my friend Vikapproved swapped bikes with me (my 29er for his Krampus; I got to ride it too of course) I was floored with how much easier it was to push the bike up the hill despite my bike being several pounds lighter. :)

  • Cass Gilbert

    It’s certainly an opinion (hard for me to say, being 6’1″)… but there are plenty of shorter people who think otherwise! I expect there are pros and cons to each, depending on the kind of riding you do. In any case, there are less and less production 26in bikes being manufactured, so the options are getting thinner.

  • Kyle

    Hey Cass, a bit of a tangent here. What kind of training/riding does Nancy do in order to get ready for extended tours? My wife has expressed interest in joining me and taking our young family tykepacking. She is very much a beginner rider level and has no interest in riding single track. We have plenty of training grounds here in Grand Junction. My wife was stoked to see some of your features with your family and friends.

  • Cass Gilbert

    To be honest, Nancy doesn’t get much of a chance to ride day to day, as she’s busy with work and Sage. But she’s a yoga teacher, so is naturally pretty strong. And she also leads a very healthy lifestyle. More recently, she’s been focusing on cardio (she does a 20 minute high intensity routine each morning and afternoon), which I think could really help for the next trip.

    If it’s within a reasonable distance, I always think commuting to work/around town is the best ‘training’.

    I hope you guys have a fun trip, when it happens. As I’m sure you know, keep it mellow and within the comfort zone the first few times!!

  • Mark S Vincett

    A cool extension of this article would be bag/packing options for small riders/frames. If you’re riding a small (or smaller) frame then tire clearance suffers for seatpacks & handlebar rolls and frame bags capacities are really restricted…i feel like i’m about 10L down on available bag capacity versus a larger rider.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Funnily enough, I was just thinking something along those lines. It would be nice to have a list of more compact front rolls and seat packs available, that would fit S and XS frames.

  • Mike Tatreau

    Being that I’m only five and a half feet tall, I steered away from 29ers for many years ~ and rightly so. They felt big and unwieldy to us shorter riders, and our feet would contact the front wheel under the right circumstances.

    But things have changed. Bike geometry has evolved, and manufacturers have done a great job of making 29ers work for us wee folk. I recently made the leap from my old 26″ hardtail to a 29+ size bike, and I have no regrets.

    I got a small (15.5) 2016 Trek Stache 7, and it is so much fun to ride. Initially my spacial awareness told me that I was sitting higher than I did on my old bike, but that quickly went away. I was expecting the bike to be less nimble, but to be honest, I really haven’t noticed. Perhaps a more skilled rider could detect those ride characteristics.

    What I did notice is that the Stache climbs better, corners faster, and descends WAY better than my old bike ever could. And, it serves me well on my XC / Trail ride / hike-a-bike / “push-whacking” adventures.

  • Brian Atkins

    I can’t picture a better platform than my Chumba Ursa for trail touring.

  • Dave

    Hi Cass, I’m same size as Nancy, and have a Small ECR but find it just a smidge too tall, I have Schwalbe Super Moto’s 2.35 on it. What size are the Rangers?

  • Cass Gilbert

    Compared to your Super Motos, the Rangers will lift the bike a bit, as they are a proper Plus tyre – 3in. It looks to me like they measure close to that. I’m now trying them out on my bike and I’m really impressed. Roll nicely and very grippy. Given their lean weight, I expect longevity/durability may be an issue in some situations. Still, the price is reasonable too, so well worth a go!

  • Christian

    I noted that your dynamo hub had failed. Was it a SON hub or another brand? My SON hub failed out of the blue after just a few hundred kilometres. The manufacturer stood by the guaranty and repaired it free of charge, but I was still surprised that the apparently best dynamo hub failed so easily. Sort of had the impression that SON hubs were unbreakable…

  • Dave

    I’m with you, I have a Revelate Pika and it’s hard to make it fit on my Small ECR, it will work but it takes a bit of effort.

  • Dave

    Thanks, I’d love to put them on but I’m high enough already, plus I have a triple crank so can’t go above 2.5. I might resort to 2″ although I suspect the bike will look a bit silly with such small tyres on it..

  • Cass Gilbert

    Yes, it was a SON 28. I actually have two. One is the 135mm model, and I’ve used it on my Pugsley for thousands of kilometres all around South America without issue. My 100mm version was almost new, and the bearing failed after just a couple of thousand miles – both surprising and disappointing. Schmidt immediately offered a replacement – luckily Nancy arrived after me, so was able to bring it out. So far, so good!

  • Christian

    Mine is the 135mm model. It just stopped charging, but otherwise running smoothly, so not the bearing in my case. Luckily I’m from Denmark, so not far from the factory, and as mentioned they were very helpful. The Danish importer sent the entire wheel to the factory for repair, so no shipping costs on my side (they have to take the wheel apart for repair and then rebuild the wheel afterwards). No drama, but I’m rethinking the idea of buying a USB charged steripen vs. an external battery model (or try solar charging instead).

  • Kevin Klasman

    Nice write-up. I ride an XS Fargo and have similar issues. I’m 5’4″. Haven’t made it out on a bikepack yet but am looking forward to doing so.

    Who makes that bottle cage under the down tube?

  • Mark B

    Sorry to be off topic But I was wondering where you got the down tube water bottle that looks great

  • Mary Veit

    If Nancy ever decides to sell her ECR, please give me a shout. I’d be interested. I plan to do the Great Divide in 2017 and right now the ECR is my bike of choice though I’m still investigating options. Thanks for the great post – this 5’3″, phat newbie found it to be super informative.

  • https://poweredbyadobo.wordpress.com Dean Cunanan

    Ha! That’s one advantage of riding with a sensible, thinking person Cass. I always thank my wife for steering me away on some routes that look sketchy but I’ll otherwise do on my own.

  • http://www.brianmcgloin.com/ Brian McGloin

    I’m all of 2″ taller than Nancy and I sort of clung to the older notion that 26″ would be better for my size (and I was being stubborn, since I’ve been riding 26″ since I broke away from BMX bikes in the late 90s). I still have “shoulder width” handlebars of around 55 cm, instead of the modern standard of 65 – 90.

    It seems like most reviews of gear are by people double my height and half my width, so this article is refreshing and relatable. For a comparison, I decided to try out the Endura shorts you reviewed, but I had to go with large (I have a 30″ inseam), and while they’re OK, they suffer from the typical bike clothes fit: giant waist, snug thighs. Reading reviews and ride reports and the like, I often think I’m some sort of crazy outlier.

    Those first 29″ I rode 10 years ago seemed clumsy, but at the time I only had a 700c fixed gear track bike, which I was riding every day as a NYC bike messenger. (I still ride that bike, sans brakes, often pretty far off road) so perhaps that wasn’t the best comparison to make. Anything feels clumsy compared to that bike, and bike design has rocketed upward since then.

    So, present day, I have a small Surly Troll with 26″ 2.5 Surly Extra Terrestrial mounted tubeless on DT Swiss FR 570 rims. I did my Great Divide run on this set up, single speed, from Banff to Seely Lake, Montana. (I paused the ride and diverted to Missoula, MT, and then Portland, OR.)

    I found two Revelate feedbags, a Surly/Revelate frame bag, a Revelate top tube bag, two 5-liter dry bags on Salsa Anything Cage HD on the fork and a pair of Arkel Dri-Lite panniers (on a Salsa Wanderlust rack) and a large Wald basket attached to a Surly 8-Pack Rack carried everything I needed with room to spare. I thought of ditching the rack/panniers in favor of a Revelate Pika, but I thought I may not be able to carry supplies or extra layers. In warmer weather and/or a shorter planned distance (I really planned to do the whole Great Divide) I could easily go with just the seat pack and no panniers.

    You and Nicolas Carman gave me a bit of shit/advice about my waffling over set-up.

    And, like Nancy, I typically prefer dirt roads and less-technical singletrack than bombing Red Bull Challenge-worthy singletrack. A few times on the Divide I had to do a little pushing, and the panniers were in my way. During those times, I had plenty of time to ponder “maybe I should have gone with the red Rolhoff instead of red Phil Wood SS,” and all of the ways I could have packed differently, and maybe what I could send home. The few days I had company we would discuss the giant hill or burgers or anything else.

    Ultimately during the ride I whittled down to what I used and needed and my reasons for pausing the ride were unrelated to pedaling — including finding that basket seriously on sale in Whitefish (I left my smaller basket home because I couldn’t figure out how to pack it).

    Like other commenters said, we shorter riders have less capacity to carry shit. I ended up using my Osprey Talon 22, which worked out well, especially with the extra 2 liters of water capacity in the bladder and the bottle/Monster can pouches on the side.

    If I knew someone my size who had a 29+ I’d try to borrow it for a ride. I’m curious about how it compares to the Troll.

    [I really meant this to be a concise comment, but I started rambling and … I just decided to keep it]

    Oh yea, I have some writing and pictures here: http://www.alwaysthewronggear.com

  • PC

    Ya know, I have to say that part about “toddler hauling” really caught my eye, as we usually expect for folks on bikepacking trips in Bolivia to be childless vagabond types. I think there are a lot of parents who would be interested to know more about this rare breed of bikepacker and how they manage to both work, plan, and attempt big trips with and without youngsters in tow.

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