A lot has been written on the comparison of Surly’s two 29+ bikes (like this, or this) – that is, its two frames designed around plus-sized, 29 x 3” tires – the Krampus and the ECR. A year ago, I join this cult of alt-cyclists when, on a whim, I purchased an ECR. After riding the trails around Smithers, British Columbia, I shared some early impressions.
I enjoyed my ECR for some 7000km in 2014. But, one fateful afternoon, while riding down from Lorna Pass on day two of a three day trip in the South Chilcotins, the ECR frame broke. I don’t mean to share this as some inherent, detrimental feature of the ECR, so much as part of the story.
The weld at the joint of the non-driveside chainstay to the dropout broke clean through. I don’t think anyone wants to pedal around a bike that no one could break. It would be an over-engineered monster. That I broke it without crashing – a fatigue failure if I’ve ever seen one – might be more concerning. These being blue-collar steel bikes, had anything like this happened on long tour, I would have had it repaired. That is, after pushing those same 30km to the nearest road, and talking a hunter (the only people out there) into driving me a few hours to the nearest town with a welder.
After that gruelling day of pushing, I brought the ECR into Mighty Riders, whence I purchased it, and was offered an exciting opportunity: replacement with any Surly frame. I’d already been exploring the possibility of adding front suspension to my ECR, but finding a straight-steerered, 90mm 29er fork is difficult at best. For this reason, and others, I already suspected that I belong on a Krampus. Two days later it arrived. (I also upped sizes to XL.)
I’m now in the somewhat unique position of having ridden an ECR and Krampus, with identical component set-ups on the same trails. We already know from Surly that the Krampus was designed to be a trail bike, and the ECR to be a touring bike. They were never intended to compete with each other. But, due to their common wheel size, they’ve been thrown into the same division. And for those who share my affinity for bikepacking, which lies somewhere on the spectrum between trail riding and touring, hashing out how Surly’s designs compare might help choosing which bike will suit you better.
On Bicycle Geometry
The differences in geometry between the two frames are obvious by just looking at the numbers: the Krampus has a longer top tube than the ECR, a high bottom bracket, and shorter chainstays. These differences are largely what makes one a trail bike and the other a touring bike. But I didn’t really know why or how these bikes would ride differently.
Bottom Bracket Height
I’ll start with the most obvious. The BB is 20 mm higher (assuming identical wheels/tires) on the Krampus. Low bottom brackets make it feel like you’re riding in the bike rather than on it, higher BBs give more pedal clearance. I love the low, stable feel of the ECR on smooth bermed corners, and could usually time my pedalling to avoid pedal-striking while riding the bike unloaded. With any sort of overnight load, handling is always at least a little bit slower, and it takes more pedalling to keep rolling. At these times, I felt the lowness of the ECR BB would negatively impact my riding. I’d pedal-strike and often walk rough sections that I’d ride while unloaded for this reason alone. On the faint alpine horse trails I rode as part of my Coast Mountains Bikepacking Route, pedal-strikes became a major nuisance. Keep in mind that the ECR’s 80mm BB drop mostly rules out the option of using regular (2.0″ – 2.4″) tires for any off road riding.
I’ve not yet ridden the Krampus with an overnight load, but on the same trails where I had 4 or 5 pedal-strikes in as many hours, a year ago, I can now ride without any pedal-strikes at all. In fact, I’ve pedalled hard through the same cobble-strewn trail sections that afforded me those few pedal-strikes last year on my ECR, without paying a thought the location of my pedals.
The Krampus does ride higher, and feel different in corners. But, there are other factors that affect its cornering that confuse a clear comparison of BB height. My Krampus, being of a larger size and having a longer frame design, has a monstrous wheel base. This also lends it a certain stability, while making it a little difficult to coax around switchbacks at low speeds. (The key to descending switchbacks seems to be to go in hot, lean hard, and hold on. The Krampus as a way of rewarding this riding style in general.)
Top Tube and Chainstay Length
Rider weight is balanced more heavily on the rear wheel of the Krampus, and more equally front-to-back on the ECR. Long top tubes and short stems are a considered the latest trend in geometry (though for some reason Gary Fisher’s original Genesis geometry wasn’t cool when they tried this in the late ’90s). It gives a nice backseat security while bombing steep descents, but it needs to be carefully balanced with climbing ability. Get that stem too short, and weight to far back, and you’ll find your front wheel lifting off the ground on steep climbs. But get too far forward, and you lose weight and therefore traction on the rear wheel.
For me, it was not so much about finding cutting edge, gravity-oriented geometry as finding that sweet spot for climbing, while still being a competent descender. (Both bikes clearly aim to hit this balance with their medium-slack 69.5° headangles). Nonetheless, I went for the XL to get that long top-tube/shorter stem combo, and perhaps more importantly for my kinds of adventure, to maximize frame bag space.
My ‘short stem’, at 80mm, is actually considered monstrously long by modern gravity riding standards. Set up with a set-back Ritchey seat post and my bars level with my saddle, I am right on the cusp of having my front wheel lift off the ground while climbing seated. Having a light front end while climbing is great for lifting the front wheel over obstacles, but I am still a bit too close to losing all steering with my front wheel in the air. I can either drop my handlebar lower, or move my saddle forward (perhaps with a straight-pin seatpost) and switch to a 90mm stem to shift my weight a hair farther forward. Either way, my current set up is very close to that sweet spot of maximum rear wheel traction, and a front end that stays light, but on the ground.
My ECR, by comparison, with the same set-back seat post and a 100mm stem (corresponding to a top tube 20mm shorter), was set up for a very similar riding position, but had a very different weight balance on the wheels. With its 5mm longer chainstays, and a shorter wheelbase, my weight sat in the middle of the frame. This made for a front end that was harder to lift over obstacles, and less rear-wheel traction while climbing. I found myself getting out of the saddle earlier on climbs because the heavier front end was harder to manhandle over obstacles while seated. I also think the heavier front was also partly responsible for a harsher ride when rolling over roots. But, only partly responsible. More on that later…
In theory, the front wheel may tend to wash out more while cornering in loose stuff when the rider’s weight is further back. But, since I am usually out of the saddle on any serious corner, my seated weight balance isn’t relevant. Besides, out of the saddle, I usually have my weight further forward on either bike, and I haven’t noticed a difference, on this point, between the two frames.
On Butts and Tubes
The geometric differences between the Krampus and ECR can all be seen and understood on paper. It was eye opening to feel how these differences played out on the trail, but nothing about it was particularly surprising. What I didn’t expect – I hadn’t even considered it beforehand – was that the different tubesets, the actual construction of the frames, would give each bike a very different feel on the trail.
The Krampus feels like a lighter bike than the ECR. I haven’t weighed either, so I can’t say for sure, but I highly doubt that is the case. My ECR was a smaller frame size, but its drop-outs are made with a massive amount of metal. At best, the frames come in pretty close to each other in weight. But the Krampus feels lighter.
The heavy feel of the ECR probably has more to do with the stiffness of the frame than its actual mass. Overly stiff frames can feel hard to accelerate and a bit dead. The ECR, as Surly promises, is built for touring – for carrying a lot of stuff. It has longer butt lengths, and in some places, larger tube diameters. This is a good thing if you’ve got a traditional touring load – four bursting panniers, a handlebar bag, and maybe a small mountain of stuff piled on top of the rear rack. Unloaded, however, it makes for a harsh ride.
When I first got the ECR, I was used to 26x 2.3″ tires. The 29+ wheel/tire format made everything feel soft and smooth. Now I’m used to the wagon wheels, and now I can really feel the harshness of an unloaded ECR compared to a Krampus. The Krampus feels livelier and dampens bumps better, when unloaded. Put 30kg of gear on both bikes, and the ECR will feel comfy, the Krampus like a wet noodle. For bikepacking loads, rarely greater than 15kg, the Krampus is a going to be the clear winner. Though I haven’t ridden the Krampus with any sort of load yet, I know that it was the ECR’s stiffness, especially in the fork, that had me wishing for suspension on the horse trails of the South and West Chilcotins. While part of my inspiration for the frame switch was to be able to use a suspension fork (a 1 1/8″ steerer, 90mm 29er fork that can clear 3″ tires doesn’t exist), I already find the suspension afforded by the Krampus’ lighter tubeset gets me most of the way there.
Which One For Bikepacking?
Having realized how beefy Surly went for the ECR’s tubeset, I can’t help but think they went a bit too far. The people I’ve met who tour with the kind of load the ECR seems to be designed for are the same people who will generally avoid bumpy, unpaved roads to begin with. Light travellers seek rough roads. This makes the ECR an odd sort of niche bike. The Krampus however, lacks the braze-ons to that make the ECR so desirable for bikepacking. It’s a trail bike, and has holes for two water bottles and fenders, and no more.
In many ways the ECR is a bike destined for any sort of adventure. Whether day rides, bikepacking trips, fully loaded cross-continent tours, or as a trailer-towing pedal powered family vehicle, it has enough braze-ons, and versatile dropouts, to allow it to don any mask at a moments notice. But, now that I’ve felt how perfect the stiffness of the Krampus is for riding hard on singletrack, I can’t forgive the ECR for how sore I was, and how much pushing I did, on the singletrack sections of the Coast Mountains trip. Despite its lack of braze-ons – a problem that can be solved by installing riv-nuts or using hose clamps – the Krampus is a clear winner on singletrack, and no worse on gravel roads than the ECR.
On the Carretera Austral, riding with a large front handlebar pack, an frame bag, and small (“front”) panniers on a rear rack, the ECR was the perfect bike. Even so, I think using a Krampus on that sort of trip would only open up opportunities for more bikepacking side trips.
I’m likely to tour with small rear panniers again at some point, and I think the Krampus will remain a capable bike with that sort of load. But, with anything more, an ECR or an Ogre would be a better choice. In the end, the ECR is much more similar to an Ogre than a Krampus. Only tire clearance really distinguish these two. If you’re carrying a full, four-pannier touring load, and sticking mostly to maintained roads (dirt or otherwise), are 3″ tires really needed? I loved them in Patagonia, but 99% of the time, they didn’t really provide a performance advantage over a 2.4″ tire.
All things considered, I find the differences in geometry to be of less consequence to how these bikes behave as bikepacking rigs than the tubesets. Sure, on rough trails, the higher BB of the Krampus does become an advantage. On hard descents, its long top tube and wheelbase inspire confidence even if on multi-day trips, I tend to descend quite conservatively.
Despite Surly’s best attempts to be transparent in their marketing of these bikes, I was convinced the ECR was a bikepacking bike. A bikepacking bike is by definition a mountain bike, and the ECR is not. It is a touring bike. I’d rather tour on a mountain bike, than mountain bike on a touring bike. And so, since if I have to choose just one (and I do), it’ll be a Krampus for everything.