Surly ECR, 29"+ bikepacker
UPDATE: Just so I don't lead anyone astray, let me highlight that I bought my ECR in late 2016 (if I remember), and around early 2017 Surly came out with a new model ECR. I have not read up on the newer version as I'm happy with what I've got. So - if you are taking any advice from the review below (much of which, such as thoughts on a 29er, may still be relevant), please ensure you also GET AN UPDATE on any changes Surly made for the early 2017 (thereabouts) newer ECR model.
I decided I'd best get myself a 29er with some fatter tires and give proper bikepacking a try, out on the rougher backroads. After research, I settled on a Surly ECR, no suspension, that'll take up to 3" plus sized tires. When one runs the bigger tires at lower pressure, this really softens the ride, one reason many riders these days are not going for shocks (though there are lots of hardtail or full suspension bikepackers).
I also bought a full set up of painfully expensive bikes bags. For more on the bikepacking gear set up, see this page on panniers and bike bags.
I've taken my new ECR around the block on a good number and variety of rides now. The bottom line is that it has been VERY disruptive. I enjoy the riding so much that I'm taking it on every ride where I'm getting off the pavement. It's even forcing me to change some long set packing habits for heading off camping, trying to shed gear and weight, though old habits die hard.
This darn ECR is making me feel a little disloyal to my older, much-loved Thorn Nomad.
The pic above is from Loveland Bay Main, NW of Campbell River. You can see I've rigged a way to put water bottles on the front forks, along with the Salsa Anything cages and bags - this seems to be working well. This is necessary, of course, as the traditional water bottle holders within the main frame triangle are no longer an option when one uses a frame bag.
The ECR has mechanical disc brakes. It has 2 front chain rings. Because the width of the plus sized tires extends outwards as well as upwards, the smallest chain ring needs to be set a little further out to ensure your chain has clearance from the tire.
As noted above, you can check out the pannniers & frame bags page, but as this is pretty integral to the whole bikepacker experience, let me share a few thoughts. Bikepacking grew mostly out of the mountain biking movement. The core focus is on a minimalist approach to carrying gear so you can bomb along more technical routes. I've come at my ECR from a touring and camping background, longer trips, more food to carry, more kick back time at great outdoors spots. So, although I'm totally loving riding the ECR, I may not go the full minimalist packing route, except for specific trips. On long cold, or rainy trips, I prefer a 2 person tent and some other creature comforts, and am willing to carry along the weight.
I started with 3" tires, and trialed some trips at only 10 to 20 pounds pressure. Just wonderful riding. I think, though, that I'm settling on a set of 2.5" (still plus size) Extra Terrestrial tires, riding at 15-20 lbs. These work real well, as I mix rough riding with some well maintained hard pack dirt roads, and occasional pavement.
The Surly ECR was designed specifically with loaded touring (bikepacking style) in mind, so has lots of mounting bosses, longer stays and a relatively low BB for stability. I've put a Selle Anatomica X series saddle on - my first non-Brooks touring saddle in long years: it's working out well.
UPDATE IMPRESSION (October 2017): I'm quite taken by my ECR. This has led me to want to take the bike on some pavement rides. This made me think about smaller tires than my 2.5" XTs. As tires gets narrower, BB clearance drops. The ECR is designed with a bit lower BB clearance than most bikepacking bikes, fine for 2.5 to 3" plus tires. I expect 2.35" would be fine, but, particularly if you have 175mm crank arms, your ground clearance might get tight. I'm still digesting this. I'll plan to just use my 2.5" tires, but that has some downside on pure pavement rides, so I'll likely use a different touring bike.
Morning break along Wolf Lake, NW of Courtenay
The ECR complete build from Surly used to come with a Jones H-Bar handlebar (they now come with a Surly bar). I'd been hearing and reading good things about the H-Bar, so decided I'd best try one out. I expected I might muck around with things some to try for a sweet spot. See the pic below for a top view of the H-Bar.
Well - I like it. Lots. And I'm not going to change anything. It's partly because you can work with a few hand positions for variety. But mostly it's because the wide, angled, default rest position for the hands just feels comfortable.
A common question about the ECR, particularly with the fatter 3 inch "plus" tires, is whether the big, heavier tires slow things down and make riding harder. I really understand this question, and can still recall that the first time I met a bikepacking set-up with plus tires, my impression was that I wouldn't want to go that route as it would be just too inefficient.
Let me answer in a round-about way. The modern family of fat tire (3.8" to 5") bikes was introduced in 2005 with the Surly Pugsley. It was marketed and bought for snow riding and sand. Other models soon started to appear. But a funny thing happened, and today one sees countless mountain bikers and down hillers who choose to use a fat bike for their regular riding - often with no suspension, simply relying on the cushioning and incredible grip from the wide pawprint of the big tires at low pressure.
One common reason why the fat bikes have found a place in more mainstream riding is that fatter tires really aren't that much of a drag when riding. Surprise! This, too, has been my experience. I simply don't notice much of a difference. I assume I'm a little bit slower, but also look at the ECR tires as yet another progression driven by the type of rough road riding I do: years back, I started touring on 28mm or 1.25" tires, thinking like a road biker that thinner and higher pressure was always better. Over time, I changed bikes and slowly moved to do backroads riding on wider tires (up to 2.25" before I got the ECR).
I've done a number of ECR rides on 3" and 2.5" plus sized tires. I simply do not feel like I'm paying much of a penalty. Other riders I talk to who are using plus sized tires invariably share this sentiment.
One other thing I looked into when researching the ECR was the impact of the larger 29" tires on gearing ratio. On the one hand, you'll hear riders say the 29" wheels make climbing easier as they roll up and over stones or sticks more readily. That's true, but only if one has momentum, and bikes lose momentum real fast on long hard climbs.
You use the same size chain rings and rear cassettes on a 29er as a 26er. But for every full turn of the cranks, with whatever comparable pairing of gears, the bigger 29" tire actually moves you forward a little further - the circumference is longer than the circumference of a 26". On top of that, the 29er bikes are also naturally a little heavier due to the bigger frame and bigger wheels. So you have to work a little harder. If, like me, you're getting older but still like to do a lot of mountain climbs on your bike with gear, this means you need to ensure you can get a pretty low gear ratio set up.
Photo above: taking a pause before hauling bike and gear through a rough stretch where the logging company has decommissioned an old bridge - on a backroads climb up to Mount Washington near Courtaney.
A final word on my new Surly ECR 29er. I'm loving it. There's no doubt it's now my bike of choice for local backroads riding. I'm already upgrading to put a schmidt dynohub lighting/recharge system on the front end; in time, I expect I'll also get a rohloff hub for the back.
If you haven't checked a 29er out yet yourself, give it some thought.