Review: Early trail test of my new Surly ECR

That a moose? Oh yah. That's a moose.

That a moose? Oh yah. That’s a moose.

I always dreamed of owning a nice touring bike with a Rohloff 14 speed internally geared hub. This project finally got going a few months ago when I bought a second hand Rohloff. Then, I started agonizing over which frame I would pair it with. It had to be steel, it had to have some form of Rohloff compatibility (i.e. some way to tension a single speed chain without an add-on chain tensioner), and it had to be within a certain budget. I’ve always ridden on bikes with 26″ wheels (except for one old italian road bike I once owned), and I leaned toward this wheel size because of the availability of tires and tubes all over the world. This was to be an international traveler, after all.  So I ordered a Surly Troll from my favourite bike shop, Mighty Riders, which is few blocks from where I grew up in Vancouver.

The Surly ECR came into my life the day I went to pick up my new frame in early September. I walked into the shop and there sat this ridiculous-looking fat-tired beast, rolling on 3″ wide tires on 50mm wide 29″ rims. Ed told me to take it for a ride. In a heartbeat I forgot all about 26″ wheels. I came back and told him I wanted one. I didn’t even look at my new frame.

But this bike isn’t technically released to the world yet. The bike in Mighty Riders was from a bike show in Whistler or something. Ed called Surly to get permission to sell it to me. Somehow, a couple weeks later, I managed to get a different one, in a bigger size. In my size.

The stock build spec is solid, but given the number if things that I wanted to change, not to mention the Rohloff gearing, it made most sense to for to buy the frame only.  Now that I finally have it rolling with almost all my parts on it, and I’ve spent the last few days riding the fantastic trails around my new locale in Smithers, which is 1000km away from my local bike shop, I guess its time to share my feelings about the ECR. I might have to talk about my build choice later.

Surly ECR

Surly ECR

The review, or something.

The ECR is like the Surly Krampus, with its 29×3″ wheels (a.k.a. 29+), but has way more braze-ons so that you can mount every conceivable type of rack, bottle cage, or novelty accessory, the same Rohloff-compatible drop-outs as the Troll and Ogre, and more touring specific geometry. It’s designed for off-road touring, which is everything I ever wanted in a bike. Notably the bottom bracket height is lower, and the chainstays are longer than on the Krampus, or pretty much any other mountain bike out there. The top tube is also shorter than on the Krampus, but given stems come in all different lengths, I’m not sure why this matters at all, really.

Since lots of people within the very small bracket of society who are likely to have read this far into this blog post have likely ridden a Krampus (i.e. basically no one), I figure everyone wants to know about these differences, and how they work out on the trails. I’m guessing no one cares that I’ve never ridden a Krampus. But I’ve read almost the entire internet.

The bottom bracket height is very low on the ECR. It makes the bike feel awesomely stable, but smashing pedals into rocks and roots becomes more of a concern. In about 6 hrs spent riding on proper bike trails so far, I’ve hit my pedals on rocks or roots about 4 or 6 times. I’m running low-profile N.R.G. pedals, which helps for clearance, and I generally plan where my pedals will be when I’m going over obstacles. Most importantly, a half dozen pedal strikes in as many hours is probably about how many I’d have on many other mountain bikes I’ve ridden, given the trails involved. So these few gentle pedal-rock/root interactions are entirely made up for by the benefits of a low bottom bracket while cornering or loaded up with gear. I didn’t find it a hindrance to my riding, so to me this element of the geometry is worth the trade-offs.

The chainstays are long at 451mm or more, if the wheel is slid back in the drop-out. This is a very desirable feature on touring bikes, since it makes the bike way less twitchy with heavy panniers on the back. It wants to go in a straight line more. While climbing technical trails, you want the opposite. A shorter bike can be steered around obstacles at low speed more easily. The long chainstays were noticeable on steep, bumpy climbs. The bike is also pretty heavy, and I’m currently missing some low gears while I wait for a larger rear cog to arrive. Eventually I’ll be running a 34/16 chainring/cog which will give me a super low gear of 17.5 gear inches. I pushed up a few hills, due to the lack of low-speed maneuverability and/or lack of fitness. So, it doesn’t climb as well as a dedicated xc race bike. Who’d of thunk? It’s a touring bike. It’s still a remarkably competent trail climber, but it’s more at home on the up-trails that downhill riders shuttle up. I will undoubtedly continue to ride the ECR as an all-mountain machine at any chance. Again, the geometry is worth the trade-offs to me.

So, what about those giant wheels? The 29+ is what makes the bike. Especially on the descent. The diameter of the wheel (about 31″ with those huge tires) makes for a super smooth rolling machine despite the lack of suspension. The volume of the 3″ tires also adds a lot of suspension. I’d compare the suspension of the tires to low-travel dual suspension on a smaller wheeled bike. Except that tire deflection behaves a bit differently than shocks. My downhill speed on flowy singletrack is about the same as on my old hardtail mountain bike with 120mm of travel up front. The suspension effect is less than on that bike, but the extra traction of the wide tires inspire confidence to make up for it. Perhaps a more obvious comparison is with my rigid Rocky Mountain Hammer with 26×2.25″ tires that I’ve been riding trails on until recently. On that bike, I’d quickly feel completely out of control when trying to bomb down rocky tracks. I’d get bone-rattled, which is exhilarating in its own way. That doesn’t happen to ECR. I get somewhat bone-rattled, no doubt, but at the speeds I’ve gone so far, I still feel under control. It probably has something to do with the 777mm wide FSA downhill bar I’ve got on the ECR. I love the control of wide bars on the trail but I’m going to have to cut them down if I’m touring long distances. That can wait though.

I was enjoying the cush of the tires so much that I kept letting air out of my front tire. I’m not sure how low it got, but I could depress the tire more than half its height with my hands. The bike felt awesome like that. But then, about 2 minutes into my descent from the very top of the trail network, I hit a cobble and pinch-flatted my damn front tire. Naturally I wasn’t carrying a spare tube. So I walked an hour and half out of there. It was hard to be upset though, given I was in the woods pushing a beautiful bike. I got cocky with the low-pressure, I guess. Lesson learned. The Surly Rabbithole rims are on loan until my Velocity Dually 29 rims come in, at which point I’ll go tubeless to prevent more pinch-flatting.  Further forays into dangerously low suratmospheric pressures will have to wait until then.

On that note, the Velocity Duallys are 45mm wide, as opposed to 50mm of the Rabbit Holes, so I’ll be able to safely run 29×2.0″ tires. A wide variety of touring tires are available in 2″, which will make the ECR all the more versatile, while still having a wide rime to support the 3″ Surly Knard tires.

The realest test will have to come after spending 4 months touring around Patagonia this winter, avoiding motorized traffic wherever possible, and travelling on obscure back roads and horse trails as often as possible.

This big tree wasn't on the trail on my way up, 25 minutes before. I guess I shouldn't ride when it's windy.

This big tree wasn’t on the trail on my way up, 25 minutes before. I guess I shouldn’t ride when it’s windy.

Awkward staged biking shot taken with a 10 second timer.

Awkward staged biking shot taken with a 10 second timer.

The Bulkley Valley from the lookout.

The Bulkley Valley from the lookout.

21 thoughts on “Review: Early trail test of my new Surly ECR

  1. Hey what size is that frame? And how tall are you / what’s your inseam?

    I have ordered an ECR frame myself and just want to make sure I got the numbers right!

    Love this bike!

    • It’s a 20″ (size L) frame. I’m 6’2″/187cm, and my inseam is 34.6″/88cm. I rode the 18″, and I think it would have worked well for more technical trail riding, but especially with the Jones bar, the cockpit felt cramped. That was with a 100 or 110mm stem. I guess I would have needed a 120mm stem, which I don’t want. On the 20″, I’ve got a 100mm stem and a set-back seatpost. The length is perfect. The standover height is adequate for me, but on harder trails 1″ more would be nice I guess. I haven’t sacked myself yet, and I think I would have regretted going with the 18″ for less technical riding.

      I really, really like the fit of this bike. I love that I’ve been able to ride fast all-mountain trails without lowering my seat from road-riding height. I think the low bottom bracket height is the secret there.

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  3. Sweet ride! Have fun in Patagonia and consider me jealous about that! 😉
    Maybe think twice about the Dually. Haven’t held them in my hands but the web is full of cracked ones coming straight out of production .. Also the weight makes me think a little if there’s enough stability for a loaded touring rig. If my concerns are unsubstantiated, this rim would be killer. Light and wide. Speaking of .. going to weight it soon? Would be interesting.

    • I have the Duallys in hand — crack free. That said, now that I’ve had the chance to compare the two rims side by side, and I’ve got some experience building wheels with each rim, I might agree that Surly makes the superior rim. The bead shelf on the “tubeless-ready” Velocity rim is actually far less secure at locking tires in place than that on the Rabbit Hole. So, once you get around the problem of taping over the gaping holes in the Rabbit Hole, it probably makes a better tubeless wheel. The weight difference is negligible, and in the truing stand the Surly also seems like it’s slightly stiffer. Take that with a grain of salt though. Otherwise, the ability to run 2.0″ tires on the Dually gives it a big leg up in the versatility department.

      I’ll probably make a new post once I finish building my rear wheel, and hash out the details a bit more. And I’ll weigh the beast once I get the new wheels on — hopefully tubeless.

  4. Thanks for such a comprehensive and useful blog post.

    Would mind following up with a list of the other components you chose for your new ECR – i.e., handlebar, grips, stem, brakes, chainring(s), seat, post, etc.?

  5. Great write up. I think your machine is beautiful. I have a surly troll that I bought in July and was built by Bikes and More in Gainesville Fl and they did a super job. I do one day would love to get a rig like your and travel of the beaten pad. Thank you for the review and have fun in Patagonia.

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  7. Very interesting review! We’ve done a few Krampus belt drive/Roloff builds for customers here at Cycle Monkey, but we’ve been itching to do an ECR build and see how they ride with a Rohloff. Mind if we post a link to your review on our FB page?

    Enjoy that ride!

    • Go ahead, that would be great! My wheels, seen better in subsequent posts, are Velocity Dually rims, Sapim straight gauge spokes, Rohloff and Velocity “light” ATB (Novatec) front hub. And a somewhat elaborate use of Gorilla tape to go tubeless.

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  9. Hey, quick question. Do you have any problems with the low bottom bracket when you are running 29×2″ tires? I’m looking for a bike that I could ride through the winter, do some xc with and also some touring, and don’t think I will always want to ride with the 3″ tires.


  10. Hey, thanks for the great post. I built up an Ogre/Rohloff a couple of years ago (before the ECR was out) and my only complaint is that the rear is to short to hang my full-size panniers on. You have me thinking I may do a frame swap. My use is almost all city commuting, so the low BB is not an issue at all.

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