This week’s Reader’s Rig comes from John McBurney, who has been riding bikes for more than 50 years and shares his Surly Karate Monkey, a bike that’s offered him some escape while working as a physician on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about John and his bikepacking rig here…

Posted by Lucas Winzenburg

Words and photos by John McBurney

I’m John and I’m from Greenville, South Carolina, which is in the “upstate” region near the border with North Carolina, about 45 miles south of Brevard and Pisgah. I am a physician, a neurologist, and I help run a comprehensive stroke center. My grandfather got me started riding when I was 12. I got a Bottecchia 10 speed that I rode the dickens out of. I did a little bit of racing as a junior and by the time I graduated from high school I went to the US nationals road race in Pontiac, Michigan, with my training partner, who was state champion. I was a very serious distance runner for several years but when my friends started doing ultra-distance I decided to get back into biking so I could do it with my wife and our two children.

I raced bikes a lot–both road and off road–and at one point had a NORBA Expert cross-country license and was a Cat 2 cyclocrosser. I got hit on my bike about seven years ago and injured my back, herniating my L4-5 disc. I was afraid of aggravating that from crashing and so I hung up mountain bikes and ‘cross for several years. Most recently I have gotten very interested in biking for transportation, not just for sport. I gave away my car six years ago and have been a daily bike commuter ever since.

Surly Karate Monkey

My interest in bikepacking grows organically out of my interest in biking for transportation. Similarly, my building up a bikepacking mountain bike like the Karate Monkey arises from my desire to have a bike that can go as far into the wilderness as my fitness and determination can take me.

I became interested in plus bikes when I saw El Silencio. I’d built up a Soma Wolverine with a Gates/Rohloff drivetrain that I commute on, and it’s a very capable mixed surface ride, but I wanted to get a bike that could handle seriously big rubber and that had a slacker front end. I’d had a Rivendell Bombadil and knew I liked the 27.5 wheel size, and the Karate Monkey was just what I was looking for. It’s a very versatile and cost-effective bike. I kept the rigid fork and would not want to give up the utility of all those eyelets to have suspension, and besides, the tires do a remarkable job of soaking up rough terrain. The tires are not heavy and are surprisingly fast even on those inevitable paved sections.

I’ve tweaked the stock build of the KM just a bit. First, I upgraded to 12-speed GX Eagle but I use a Shimano compatible 12 speed, 11-50 tooth SunRace cassette which works with the stock rear hubs. This is a really nice part and is pretty inexpensive. It’s a great value. I was hesitant about the Moloko bars at first due to their weight but they are just about perfect for me. With Ergon Grips I never had any wrist pain or hand numbness on a recent overnighter to Pisgah. One other subtle tweak is the Cane Creek Viscoset. Dampened steering is pretty standard on motorcycles and it is really helpful on bikes with front loads too. I’ve wanted to try a dropper post and the KM was my chance as it has internal routing. I stumbled onto Logan’s long-term review of the PNW Coast and knew I had to get one. I got to try it out on the recent Pisgah trip and it’s just amazing. Being able to drop on steep gravel descents is a great advantage and greatly increases safety descending at speed.

I love my BXB Goldback bags and have splurged on them for both front and rear. Jay Ritchey made the rear a little wider so my pre-bikepacking version of the Big Agnes Fly Creek tent poles will fit. Obviously, the big challenge was how to use that big ol’ seatbag with a dropper post. I was told it couldn’t be done! The Nitto Seatbag Grip makes it possible and is extremely secure. If I’m going to be on a really rough trail I will zip tie the lower dowel loosely to the upper rails of the rear rack. All-in-all the bike does exactly what I want and is amazingly fun. My plans are to do the Appalachian Gravel Growler by summer’s end and the Green Mountain Growler if the pandemic ever settles down.

  • Frame/Fork 2019 Surly Karate Monkey
  • Rims WTB ST i40 TCS
  • Hubs Surly 32h thru axle
  • Tires Teravail Coronado light and supple, 27.5, 3” tubeless
  • Handlebars Surly Moloko
  • Headset Cane Creek Viscoset
  • Crankset SRAM NX, 30T
  • Pedals Xpedo Spry
  • Cassette SunRace 12 speed 11-50
  • Derailleur SRAM GX Eagle
  • Brakes SRAM Level
  • Saddle Ergon SM Pro
  • Seatpost PNW Coast dropper
  • Stem Surly
  • Front bags BXB Goldback XL
  • Rear bags BXB Goldback XL
  • Other bags Ortlieb Front Rollers
  • Other accessories Rawlands Demiporteur front rack with Surly Steel Supports, Surly Disc rear rack

On a side note, my recent Pisgah trip was a balm to my soul. Working on the front lines, in a hospital, during this COVID-19 pandemic is extremely stressful and being out in nature and out of cell phone range was something I really needed. After we set up camp, we had a visitor: a really big rattlesnake. Snakes are fascinating creatures in their own right, but also have symbolic significance. Snakes are found in all the world’s religions and are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. As we experienced a feeling of rejuvenation the universe shared with us its own true nature.

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