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The Dirt Dispatch: Getting personal, with wheel size

  • By Spencer Powlison
  • Published Sep. 5, 2013
VeloNews' Spencer Powlison puts the Scott Genius 720 through its paces at a Bell Enduro Cup race in Utah. This 27.5-inch bike offers an interesting compromise between 26-inch and 29er wheel options, but it's impossible to say that one is an outright winner in a head-to-head comparison. Photo: Daniel Dunn | VeloNews.com

This column isn’t going to be about physics. Or math. Or anything scientific. Do you want to pick your next mountain bike wheel size based on laboratory tests?

Most of us love mountain biking for the simple enjoyment of the outdoors. Bikes are the best way to travel through mountains and forests because they take us to awesome places faster than hiking, don’t poop, and are very entertaining when we start going fast.

We’d love to simplify the debate between 26-inch, 27.5-inch and 29-inch options. But it’s not simple. Wheel size is all about personal preference, so you’ll need to do some soul searching.

Who are you?

Think back to the Myers-Briggs personality test. Can all INTJ people raise their hands? Imagine if we adapted this high school guidance councilor quackery into something useful.

Sadly, we can’t be pigeonholed so easily — in our wheel choice, at least.

Consider how you relate to races. Are you a participant, a spectator, or someone annoying who thinks every ride is a race (Captain Strava)?

Now, think about what you wear. Some can sally off into the forest with only a millimeter of lycra between them and the trail’s trees, rocks, bears, and rednecks. Those with ample scar tissue usually stick to baggies, gloves and even knee pads for particularly ragged rides.

Lastly, what is the objective of your average mountain bike ride? Fun? Fitness? Training? All of these things?

Right about here you’re probably expecting me to relate these qualities to a particular wheel size. You’d be wrong.

The problem is, just when you decide what you like, some ectomorph in a rainbow shirt goes off and rides some weird prototype. Racing muddies the waters when we try to discern a preferred wheel size. Mountain biking is so blessedly diverse that all three wheel options were on display at the recent world championships in South Africa.

Some downhillers flirted with 27.5-inch options, but their races were won on 26-inchers. The cross-country contingent preferred mostly bigger wheels, although winner and reigning Olympic champion Julie Bresset is a notable 26-inch holdout. And in the XC Eliminator … well, no one cares about that.

If you want a race format that closely resembles all-around mountain biking, enduro makes sense. Our weekly rides certainly don’t resemble an Olympic XC course or a World Cup downhill track.

Well, it’s settled. Let’s just see what the enduro racers are doing!

But lo! That doesn’t work either. Sorry folks. Looking back at the 2013 Enduro World Series results, riders won on all wheel sizes — yes, even 29ers. Tracey Moseley won the first and fourth rounds on a Remedy 29. Otherwise, there was a smattering of riders aboard 26-inch and 27.5-inch steeds.

Focus on Fun

Racing is a big part of who we are at VeloNews, but it’s only a small fraction of the broader sport, especially in mountain biking. Technology in the pits will always be the tail that wags the dog, but happily, three wheel sizes mean two more choices than we had 10 years ago.

When it comes to bike setup, you should be less concerned with World Cups and more with what makes riding enjoyable. Unless you’re Richie Rude or Lea Davison (keep up the good work guys!).

A 29er gives you the speed and stability that lends itself to racing. Maybe tying on numbers is your thing, but even if it isn’t, there’s a lot to be said for a bike that wants to be unleashed on a fast trail.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, nothing compares to how precise and playful a 26-inch bike is in the hands of a skillful rider. Yes, it gets hung up in lumpy rock gardens, but if you know what you’re doing, those little wheels barely touch ground in rough terrain.

Then we have the in-between option. Why wring your hands over the choice between “more taste” and “less filling” when you can have both? No, 27.5-inch wheels aren’t as fast as 29ers, nor are they as zesty as 26-inch wheels, but they offer an agreeable compromise, if you like compromises.

We’re Sorry

Nope, we can’t pick the right size wheel for you. As advertised, we won’t offer scientific analysis to match the correct wheel size to your genome. And if we could, it’d probably be something random, like 28.65537 inches.

The hype surrounding big wheels has reached fever pitch. On one hand, you can just give in and ride what’s au courant with your riding buddies. That’s certainly the easiest way to bum a spare tube when you flat.

Perhaps we should all forge our own paths. Who knows, what if 24-inch makes a comeback. Or maybe a fatbike would be good for enduros. …

Here’s the good news: there are many great bikes available in each of the three wheel sizes. Try them. Figure out what fits your riding personality. And remember, the right bike for you might be the one you already have.

FILED UNDER: Bikes and Tech / Commentary / MTB TAGS: / / /

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