Sam Jones is Cycling UK’s Senior Campaigns and Communications Officer. Hannah caught up with him at a recce of the planned new North Downs Way National Trail, where he was riding his Surly ECR. Here’s a closer look at his bike.
What was on your shortlist, and why did the ECR win out?
I came to the off-road world rather late in the day, having been more in to road touring, which is where I first became a fan of Surly and their Disc Trucker. It was only when I was brought in to working on our off-road campaign Trails for Wales and learning a bit more about the MTB community (swear this is true – sad but true!), that I began to consider with serious intent the trails running off into the green and traffic free landscape. My criteria were steel and a relatively easy to maintain bike that could allow me to travel with gear into the unknown. This pointed to a hard tail and plus sized tyres also appealed as it seemed the best compromise to allow me to ferry about luggage on the forks while also giving me a little cushioning.
I’d already fallen a bit in love with a pal’s Surly Krampus when I saw those wonderful plus sized tyres, so that was on my on my hit list, as was the gorgeous looking Shand Tumshie. Ultimately the ECR stood out though due to its off-road touring capabilities and versatility due to its multitude of braze-ons and accessory mounts. Reviews were also good but it was tricky finding one in my size, as Surly were phasing them out ahead of the new version introduced last year. Fortunately I think I managed to get one of the last small versions available in the UK, and at a price that was much better than my alternatives.
Did you get it as a complete bike, or have you built it up? Any build highlights or favourite components?
I took the cheat’s option and bought it as Surly sold it, with a view to embellishing it with some extras a time went on. The first thing to go was the saddle which I replaced with a Brooks Flyer to give a little more comfort when the going is a bit bumpy. After a troublesome time with the mud on the South Downs Way, I traded the stock Knard front tyre for something with a bit more grip and settled for a Maxxis Minion DHF 29 x 3.0 – it’s been a dream of a tyre and kept me upright when in the past the Knard would have turned to a slick. I’ve also added some Salsa Anything HD cages which feel pretty bullet proof – they’ve taken some pretty serious knocks and it’s usually the knocked that comes out worse!
Singling out a favourite component is easy – it has to be the Jones loop handlebars – and it’s not because we share a name! They really make the cockpit of the bike comfortable and cosy! It means fitting lights, Garmin, luggage, Timberbell etc is really not a problem – plus on long days in the saddle, it’s always nice to have the option for variation on hand placements.
Anything you’re planning on swapping out?
I love the Brooks…but not being especially tall (5’8”) on a small frame with 29+ tyres I’m not left with much clearance for a seatpack due to the springs taking up about two inches – I think it will have to go at some point perhaps for a B17 (not a fan of the Cambium saddles). The current set up usually means some sort of intricate arrangement of bungees, climbing slings, straps etc to try and make sure I don’t get bag bounce. If I’d waited for the new ECR which runs with 27.5 + I’d probably have got round this problem, but I didn’t realise these developments were afoot and after all who wants to wait when they’ve got a new ride in mind?
Having destroyed a cassette while out riding the Dorset Gravel Dash in May, on my wish list for upgrades would be a Rohloff. I started riding bikes with hub gears, and have always enjoyed the way how they allow you to change gear from a stopped position – always handy when you’re forced to stop on a steep ascent and want to get going again! However, that’s a costly upgrade which I’ll need to save for and perhaps do when the drivetrain needs replacing again…
I’ve also toyed with the idea of a Son dynamo hub so I can charge things on the go, but given they don’t react too well to submersion, and I’ve been known to try and ride through rivers, I’m still in two minds on that front!
Apart from that, I’ve been thinking for a long time I should go tubeless – and after watching Singletrack’s film I’m feeling inspired enough to give it a go. It can be a nice little project for a winter’s eve…
It looks pretty adventure ready, have you taken it anywhere fully loaded and into the beyond?
I’d originally planned to take the ECR out on an Icelandic expedition 2017 along the Kjolur route – a far more tame introduction to the island than Tom Johnstone’s trip to Landmannalaugur which is a tough enough trek on two feet! Unfortunately it didn’t arrive in time for my departure…so to date most of my trips have remained in the south west and south east, and have remained around two to three day mark, with a ride from Surrey to Dorset over Christmas, the Dorset Gravel Dash, numerous jaunts out in the Surrey hills, Dartmoor, South Downs Way and of course the North Downs Way with you! When the Beast for the East hit, thanks to the ECR I had the most fun on a commute ever!
I’ve a commission for next March to ride off-road between Florence to Sienna for Cycling UK’s member magazine Cycle along Il Sentiero del Chianti (The Chianti Way), so currently I’m plotting a route through Chiantishire that takes in the maximum ratio of interesting ascents and descents to vineyards possible. There’s also a new Transcaucasian Trail being mapped and opened up through Armenia and Georgia at the moment – I’d love to head out there on it too!
Tell us about the frame pack – it looks kind of unusual?
This is a speciality from Judy McNeill aka Beerbabe who is based not far from Box Hill in Surrey. When she’s not out racing her fatbike, Judy is crafting tailor made bike luggage from old inner tubes and malt sacks. She sources the inners from local bike shops like Pilgrim Cycles and also Bike Park Wales for larger quantities, and uses malt sacks from nearby breweries Firebird and Dark Star for the lining. I was fortunate enough to receive one for review at Cycling UK, and it’s only left the frame when I’ve given it a clean. It’s cavernous despite its size and kept my kit dry through all sorts of deluges.
Apart from being a nice green alternative that gives old inners a new lease on life, the benefits of being rubber is that it’s kind to your frame. Unfortunately, nylon straps plus mud have a corrosive effect on the paint work – but that’s a problem of the past now! If you’re looking for some eco-friendly luggage that works, then I can’t recommend Beerbabe enough.
Any comments on the rest of the kit – is it yours, or stuff you’re testing for Cycling UK?
Most of the gear is a combo of review kit I’ve done for Cycling UK and things I’ve bought over time. The Garmin is pretty basic compared to some of the newer fancier models, but since learning its peccadillos I’ve been impressed with its ability to steer me along 100 + mile off-road trips nigh on faultlessly, while the LifeLine Ara 2000 is great for long night rides – I’ve ridden for at least eight hours solid using variations on beam strength and not even run into the red.
The guys at Lyon Equipment very kindly gave me an Ortlieb Seatpack M for long term review, and so far I’ve been pretty happy with it. I’m a big fan of the compression valve which makes packing much simpler. Despite the lack of space between saddle and wheel, I can just about fit a hooped bivvy bag, (sparse) set of clothing, and a half sized inflatable mat – with a bit of a squeeze I can usually fit a lightweight down jacket too.
The Apidura Foodpouch Plus 1.2L has really grown on me, and is indispensable given I don’t have any bottle cages when using a frame bag. It fits a litre canteen and snacks which is more than enough for my current set of rides – I might consider another for longer journeys though.
While I wasn’t using them on the NDW, for longer journeys I’d usually have my Salsa Anything Cage bags that I bought from Charlie the Bikemonger. I can’t recommend them enough as they’re tough, waterproof and exceptionally handy for holding things like tools and cooking kit.
I think I read about the Timber Bell first on the Singletrack forum and then ended up buying one. £20+ for a bell seems steep, but I feel its money well spent. With lots of my day to day riding being in the Surrey Hills where there’s a lot of footfall on the trails, it’s a really useful and friendly way of notifying people that I’m bustling along. That tinkle just doesn’t seem to as aggressive as a bell and being able to switch it on and off is handy.
Was it the right tool for the North Downs Way?
Given the range of bikes we had on the ride, and how the NDW is a bit of a mix of a route, I’d say it held its own especially against those gravel bikes! It’s a good all round capable bike, making up for its lack of speed with its ability to manage all terrain and comfort over long distances. The 29+ tyres are sympathetic for someone of my skill level and roll over pretty much everything, allowing me to just get on and enjoy the ride!
Is the bike living up to expectations, or do you have a hankering for an N+1?
18 months on from unboxing it, wheeling the ECR out of my shed still brings a smile to my face. It’s a joyful bike that just wants to be ridden wherever you set your sights on. It’s a bike that encourages you to dream of adventure, and then go out and do it. As my gateway to riding beyond the bridleway, it really has opened my horizons more than I ever expected – not just in where I can ride but also the wider off-road community. That being said, there’s always room for one more and I do like the idea of a Salsa Blackborow or Surly Big Fat Dummy joining the family!