At this point, it’s more than obvious that 29er mountain bikes are here to stay. And, it’s agreed that there are definite advantages to a larger-diameter wheel in certain situations.
This column isn’t intended to nay-say the existence or benefits of the big wheels, but simply to recognize that there’s more than one opinion out there in regards to mountain bike wheel diameters.
Alone on the Trail?
For a while, I thought I was mostly alone on the idea of sticking with 26-inch wheels, as the vast majority of Boulder, Colorado, riders I’ve chatted with seemed to have shotgun’d the 29er Kool-Aid. But, as more and more riders, racers and industry types have had the opportunity to put in solid time on the larger diameter wheels, the benefits of 26-inch wheels have come back as the hot topic in some circles.
Usually, it’s a general agreement that 29-inch wheels have specific advantages in specific environments, but have an equal or greater list of negatives that, with said riders, make the choice easy between the two.
So, what’s the argument to stay with the good ol’ two-six? Generally speaking, the more aggressive riders with tendencies of throwing a mountain bike around underneath them will most likely appreciate the ride of a 26-inch-wheeled mountain bike, in comparison to a 29-inch-wheeled bike of similar design. The actual size of the wheels themselves have a lot to do with this, but the geometry of the bike plays a big part in feel between the two bikes as well, especially when factoring in a rider’s size.
Comparing wheels to wheels first, and keeping in mind that we’re talking apples to apples and not NoTubes to CrossMax SX’s or 1.9 semi-slicks to 2.4 all-mountains, a 26-inch wheel is going to be lighter — period. And as far as weight is concerned, cyclists as a whole have always put the utmost importance on light wheels and tires. Even downhillers appreciate the benefits of reduced rolling weight, and constantly try to find the lightest wheel setup possible while remaining reasonably durable (ever see what Greg Minnaar runs for wheels at World Cups?)
The lighter the wheel the better it will accelerate and climb (short of building a set of wheels so light that they’re too flimsy to properly transfer power, of course). In addition, suspension has a tendency to work better with lighter wheels, braking can be arguably more responsive with less rotating weight, and overall handling ultimately becomes more responsive as well by offering a more nimble feel.
A smaller diameter wheel, again when compared directly to a similar wheel of larger diameter, will also offer a stiffer, less flexible feel, which can offer a rider a more precise and accurate feel. With suspension, this factor can be key in improving steering accuracy. In addition, the reduction in leverage with a smaller diameter wheel makes for a more durable wheel, as well.
More specific to handling differences, the fulcrum point for getting a bike with 26-inch wheels to wheelie is much more manageable with the higher bottom bracket position in relation to the lower rear axle, the shorter wheelbase and shorter chainstays. Obviously, there are variations in different designs on both sides of the wheel diameter fence, but all three usually add up to a more “grounded” effect on a 29er. On the more timid side, riders will say that 29ers feel more stable on drops at slower speeds, as there’s more wheel in front of them, and the bottom bracket-to-axle ratio adds a more stable-feeling position.
But, back to more aggressive trail tendencies, riders who like to hit drops of any height with speed have a tendency to wheelie, manual, or at least pull the front wheel up enough to set up for the next drop/rock/root, or to keep it from pole-vaulting them OTB upon landing, which is more difficult to do on big wheels (the pulling up, not the pole-vaulting).
To some riders of 29ers, there’s also a feeling of being stuck “in” the bike. This opinion is often variable in relation to a rider’s size, increasing with smaller riders, but affecting larger riders as well. The best analogy to explain this sensation, albeit exaggerated, is by comparing the ride of a big cruiser-style motorcycle to that of a sport bike. If you were to take a sport bike rider and put him on a cruiser, he may initially appreciate the smooth, cushy feel, but will most likely complain about how slow and sluggish the heavier, more relaxed cruiser handles. Kind of like riding a big Hog, the feeling of being more along for the ride than actually controlling the ride can set in on 29ers.
This sensation is more geometry based, and has a tendency to be more noticeable with smaller riders, but has been observed by all sizes.
A classic example of variation in wheel diameter performance, and a story I’ve told many times this year, happened this spring in Moab. A buddy of similarly matched skill and I rode LPS and Porcupine together, he on a four-inch travel bike with 29-inch wheels, and myself on a five-inch travel bike with 26-inch wheels.
Up high in the twisty singletrack that constantly interrupted momentum, he dangled off the back and was generally out of sight. But when we hit the open, straight doubletrack of Porcupine that’s riddled with embedded rocks, he and I rode bar-to-bar almost the entire time. Then on the road back to town, he and the other guys on 29ers dropped me like a rock.
The next day we rode a trail that was consistently twisty, tight, technical and varied in elevation constantly, not offering a single arena where 29ers generally shine the entire day. With each passing mile, I found myself waiting longer and more frequently for my buddy (who happens to be an amazing technical rider) to catch up.
Another example that surprised even myself was at a mountain bike time trial earlier this season where I brought my favorite five-inch travel trail bike (with 26-inch wheels), and a hardtail with 29-inch wheels. The idea was to race the 29er, and spend the rest of the weekend playing on the trail bike.
The course was a few shy of 20 minutes, started with a long, mellow and non-technical double-track climb that ramped up towards the end to fun, flowy singletrack contouring around to a fast, fluid and smooth descent back to the finish. For kicks, I took a timed hot lap on each bike before the race, all but assuming the 29-inch wheels would be the sure choice beforehand, but it turned out that, even though the 29er somehow felt faster on a good majority of the course, I’d knocked just over three minutes off its time on the 26-inch trail bike.
Don’t Forsake 26ers
Currently, the industry is still abuzz with 29ers, and if that’s what it takes to breathe some stimulation into the local shops, then fantastic. And, as mentioned before, 29ers definitely have their place in the market. But, if you’re thinking of getting a new bike, or if you’ve ridden a 29er and feel like maybe you’re missing something that your buddy is going ga-ga over, just know that while the big wheels may be good for some, they’re not the end-all, be-all for all of us.
Noted: I do have a 29er hardtail, and plan on keeping it in the fleet. It’s essentially turned into my “road bike,” and is great for long doubletrack/fire road climbs, and rides linking bike path and road with slivers of singletrack and/or sections of mellow doubletrack. There are also a handful of short-track races and smooth-coursed endurance races that’ll warrant picking the 29er for, but generally speaking, it hangs in the garage on days that are spent on what’s considered “real” trail riding.
Zach White started writing for VeloNews in 1996, and after a solid run at trying to escape the bicycle industry over the last few years, we were finally able to suck him back in at Singletrack.com. With a history of both competing — and working — on bicycles since 1986, Zach has the kind of experience that is hard to come by. While he reviews product for singletrack.com, don’t be surprised if he squeezes in stories of racing 1991 World Championships on a hardtail with cantilevers, wrenching for international teams or running white tires and grips when they were cool the first time — in 1987.