What's the biggest change in mountain bikes since suspension and disc brakes? Find out what's been on Paul's mind.
If you talk about bicycles at all, these days the conversation comes around to the biggest change in mountain bikes since suspension and disc brakes.
Like suspension and disc brakes, you don’t need 29er wheels, but for a lot of people in different applications, your ride can be vastly improved.
The 29 inch wheel is simply a road wheel ( exactly a road wheel ), which firstly implies that ,like a road wheel, it rolls faster and carries that speed better. Secondly, on the trail the larger wheel follows a smoother path as it doesn’t fall into every hole, every space between rocks or roots as much as the 26 inch wheel does. In the winter this phenomenon was obvious on the frozen footprints of hikers in the ice and snow as I switched back and forth from my 29er to my old 26er. It felt like the brakes were on with the smaller wheel finding a little more resistance rolling over each bump. Amazing! In normal summer conditions this decrease in effective rolling resistance combined with the momentum a 29er wheel can carry, allows you to simply go faster through a given section ( if that’s a goal ) or at least smooth it out!
Another aspect of the larger wheel is the larger footprint or contact patch of the tire on the ground. This gives a noticeable increase in traction in all conditions, which allows us to run a less aggressive tire in the same conditions, thus again decreasing rolling resistance and increasing speed. One more reason racers search out the 29er as a race bike.
The wheel base of the 29er has to be longer, which has two noticeable ride effects. Firstly, the bike is more stable, less twitchy at all speeds. Secondly, rider position is slightly further ahead of the rear axle, which effectively puts more weight on the front wheel. On steep climbs the result is less fighting to keep the front end down as you concentrate on keeping traction at the rear and powering forward. Add better traction to the mix and you’ll find as we have ( or specifically the guys on 26ers that ride with us ) that these 29ers climb better.
Another benefit for some people is the fact that a 29er hardtail can be made into a great and rugged hybrid by simply running hybrid or cyclocross tires, thanks to the wheels being 700c or road size. This can double the use for some, or create a great special event bike. ( Locally, Paris to Ancaster or the Lake to Lake )
Now, not everything is rosy about 29ers, and I suggest to people that they may not like them for the type of riding they do, or they simply won’t like the way they feel. One of the first negative handling traits people talk about is that a 29er doesn’t turn well. We have found that, like all bikes, they all handle differently. Some early offerings did show strange turning habits, but todays bikes, at least Specialized and Kona 29ers, ( all I’ve ridden lately ) have been dialed in so that I can get around anything a 26er can. The second and most notable negative aspect of the 29er is also one of the previously noted benefits. The front end feels heavier. It is heavier. Manufacturers are trying, and succeeding, to tuck the rear wheel in and under the rider to minimize this effect with good results, but it is still a noticeable trait. The best example is picking up the front wheel to pop over a log. It’s more work on the 29er, but can be done.
Consequently, many riders, specifically highly skilled and/or riders that like to “play” or ride technical trails or sections, still prefer the nimble and lighter/responsive feel of the 26er. This also applies to riders on small and medium size frames as the wheel base length is more noticeable on these bikes when you add the larger wheel size. At the opposite end, riders on XL or XXL bikes actually look and feel better as the proportion is better with the larger wheel.
Of course, all this is just my opinion. But we’ve been riding a lot of different trails for 25 years, and riding/testing 29ers for 4 years with a slightly skeptical attitude to who benefits the most.
It’s all good food for thought as you decide what the next best bike will be for you. I invite you to come and talk about it, and more importantly try one to see if it puts a smile on your face, which after all, is what it’s all about!