This week’s Reader’s Rig comes from Rob Thwaites in the UK, who offers a thorough look at his Surly ECR with 27.5″ wheels, a Rohloff drivetrain, and several homemade bikepacking bags. Find photos and read about Rob’s rides around Scotland, Türkiye, Morocco, and more aboard his ECR here…

Words and photos by Rob Thwaites

Hi there, I’m Rob, raised in the North Pennines, a boat builder by trade, and currently based on the Lincs, Notts, Yorks borders. I guess you could say I’m an accidental bikepacker where a love of hiking and cycling converged.

I imagine my introduction to cycling was fairly typical for the UK born Gen X’er, although I didn’t get my first bike until I was about nine: a hand-me-down rod-pull braked, brush-painted bright orange clunker of a BSA that was probably someone’s Christmas present in the 1950s. Thanks to a former roadie father, it was followed by a new Raleigh Hustler three-speed racer with drop bars in a decidedly ’70s purple. I might have avoided the death-trap Choppers of my friends, but it wasn’t the metallic blue Grifter that I lusted after. A 10-speed (10 speeds!) Peugeot Record du Monde with steel rims, steel cranks, pretty much steel everything, and a 42/52 up front with a what seemed monstrous 28T cassette out back was the pride and joy of my teenage years until the lure of internal combustion proved too much, and although I remained on two wheels, pedalling was long forgotten.

Surly ECR

Fast forward two and a half decades, and I was living in the roadie’s paradise of Denmark. A workmate and a diagnosis of high blood pressure got me back into cycling on a Tiagra-equipped supermarket special, followed a year later by another 10-speed: a carbon Scott Cr1 with full Ultegra and, this time around, a knee-saving triple up front.

A move back to the UK, with its vastly greater traffic density and poor cycling infrastructure, saw me scared stiff on almost every ride. I had to find a way to escape the traffic and keep riding. Back then, I didn’t even know bikepacking was a thing. I had already bought a full set of Ortlieb front and rear panniers and was eying up a Long Haul Trucker with the nebulous idea of cycling around the world floating around in the back of my mind until a Google search for long distance off-road cycling routes brought up the GDMBR and a link to this very website. Things were about to change.

  • Surly ECR
  • Surly ECR

The realm of off-road riding was a closed book. Alt bars, frame bags, and going tubeless felt like a brave new world. I devoured Bikepacking 101, the Gear Indexes, and more besides. I knew I wanted a Rohloff IGH but little beyond that. I read and reread Logan’s articles on his ECR, so it’s no surprise that Monty bears more than a passing resemblance to that machine. My faith in Logan’s knowledge and experience has repaid a handsome dividend with well over 20,000 trouble-free miles (confession: I’ve had one broken spoke and one flat tyre).

I built up Monty in late spring 2018, with the frameset coming from my excellent LBS, Bridgegate Cycles in Retford, and the wheels built by Keep Pedalling in Manchester from parts I supplied. Everything else mostly came from two or three big online retailers in Germany back in those glorious pre-Brexit days.

Surly ECR
  • Surly ECR
  • Surly ECR
  • Surly ECR

Ignorance, so it is said, is bliss, so after riding a few hundred easy local trail miles over the first couple of months, I quit my hated boat-building job and took the train to Tyndrum to take on the Highland Trail. Nothing like jumping at the deep end, right? Six Days and 330 exhausting miles later, I bailed off route and into Ullapool, battered and bruised but totally hooked, and I was soon on the ferry heading west for the Hebridean Way. I was constantly amazed at the bike’s ability to get a total noob to off-roading around two-thirds of the UK’s toughest trail with only the occasional unplanned excursion into the scenery.

Two months and 2,500 miles east to west across Anatolian Türkiye soon followed. This bikepacking lark was amazing, and I wanted more, much more. That winter, a boozy evening in a London pub with an amazing hiking buddy inspired me in a different direction, and 2019 saw me hiking the Continental Divide Trail while Monty languished in the garage at home.

  • Surly ECR
  • Surly ECR

But, come spring of 2020, I was back on track and finally off, starting from Istanbul and pedalling for Mongolia. Less than three weeks later and I was back home again, two days before the first UK nationwide Covid lockdown started. For one reason or another, the following three years saw my riding restricted to the UK until the recent three-month and 4,500-kilometre trip around Morocco. I’ve gradually ticked off existing bikepacking routes and plotted my own. My first route, the North York Moors Ramble, was published here in Feb 2022, followed more recently by the Lincoln Gravel Imp overnighter.

  • Frame/Fork 2018 Surly ECR (27.5 medium) Pant Suit Beige
  • Rims Race Face Arc i35 (32h)
  • Hubs Shimano XT (front) / Rohloff (rear)
  • Tires Maxxis Chronicles (please make them again)
  • Handlebars Gusset Stache
  • Grips Ergon
  • Headset Cane Creek 40
  • Crankset Shimano Zee (165mm) / Surly 32T stainless chainring
  • Pedals Shimano XT M8140
  • Sprocket 18T
  • Brakes BB7 callipers on Sram centerline 180 (front) / Magura 160 (rear)
  • Shifter(s) Rohloff
  • Saddle Specialized Bridge
  • Seatpost Thomson Elite setback
  • Stem Thomson Elite X4 70mm +10 degree
  • Front bags Homemade longflap / Salsa minimalist rack
  • Frame bags Homemade
  • Fork bags Decathlon Itiwit 5l dry bags (modified)
  • Rear bags Decathlon tapered dry bag / Tubus Vega rack
  • Accessory bags Homemade
  • Other accessories Cheap Amazon accessory bar, homemade carbon Nalgene and Kleen Kanteen cages

I really like the overall rugged aesthetic of the bike, especially when coated in a good layer of dust and dirt, and it garners a fair bit of attention, with a lot of non-cyclists commenting on the 3″ tyres. One bloke commented that the bike looked like something that could have been issued to the British 8th Army in WW2. I’d harboured similar thoughts myself, and as my late grandfather had fought with them all the way through North Africa, I decided to name it Monty after General Montgomery. In retrospect, I should probably have named it Bill after my forebear, but I suspect changing a bike’s name holds the same karmic risk as doing the same to a boat does.

Is it a bit of a tank? Maybe, but like that tank, it just keeps going through pretty much anything, thanks to the 15-inch bottom gear. Sure, I spin out at 20 miler per hour, but at that point, I’m going downhill, or I’ve picked up a strong tailwind, and I’m touring, not racing. On the flat, gear 11, the most efficient on the Rohloff at 1:1, gives a mellow 12 or 13 mph at a comfortable cadence.

Surly ECR
  • Surly ECR
  • Surly ECR
  • Surly ECR

The Rohloff is perfect for my kind of cack-handed riding, but it hasn’t been without trouble. I somehow unknowingly managed to get a small amount of water into it, which wouldn’t have been a problem had the bike not subsequently stood unused for several months, causing one of the main bearings to seize. Two years and 15,000+ miles later, confidence restored in its Teutonic invincibility, and now out of warranty, I run it at 32:18, one tooth lower than Rohloff allows, with no ill effects. Sure, it’s about 500 grams heavier than a 1×12, but it’s worth every gram, in my opinion, for its almost fit-and-forget riding.

Over the last few years, I’ve ridden whatever tyres I could find cheap on eBay (Rangers, Trail Boss, Trail Blazers, Nobby Nics), jealously husbanding my stache of Chronicles for that world trip. I have considered putting tan walls on it more than once, but that might be a colour coordination step too far. But, you never know. If a pair turns up cheap enough on Fleabay…

Surly ECR

The homemade bags are the product of frugality and a love of the design and experimentation process combined with the desire to learn new skills. I hadn’t sewn anything before these, so the MYOG guides here on were a great help, and the coyote brown VX21 material was easy to work with.

The front bag is a generic long-flap camper style with a roll top inspired by the Fabio’s Chest, and the side pockets are a total rip-off of Bedrock Bags Tapeats bar bag. Most have been on every trip and have performed remarkably well with a few alterations and repairs. The frame bag was soon altered into a roll-top with the original zipper turned into a side pocket, and the rear accessory was bag flipped to mount up the seat tube rather than along the top tube when I realised I kept sitting on it.

Prior to the Tubus rack, I fitted a homemade zero-sway seat pack harness which, incredibly, lasted about 15,000 miles before finally fracturing. The Mark 2 is now made from 50% thicker walled aluminium tube and weighs in at a massive 250 grams, but I felt more comfortable going with the Tubus over an untested rack on this latest adventure around Morocco.

You can keep up with Rob on Instagram.

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