26 vs 29 bikes test-8
26 vs 29 bikes test-8

So which is faster, a 26" 160mm bike, or a 29" 140mm? Steve Jones takes a look… 

From Dirt Issue 126 - August 2012

Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Steve Jones.

Tough times. Tough conditions. Tough sport. There’s not much money around, it’s been pissing down for months and there’s always pedalling to do somewhere. Get fit or get home. And then your mate goes and buys a 29" bike which means you’ll only ever be riding behind on a typical UK trail.

Really? Look, we’ve only just begun to come around to the lightweight 26"x160mm idea – they’re faster downhill and generally more versatile than 26"x140mm, unless of course you live east of the old river Exe – Tees line. On top of that 29/26 has created an even bigger divide and has been carving up people’s heads globally.

Is that it then? The end of 26? “Hold your Welsh horses" I hear you say. Look I’ve tried to be objective, but as a general–duty trail bike I fully believe the end is near…except of course that once you venture off the beaten track into terrain more battlefield than the ‘cat litter trail centre business’ the opinion has been that 26x160 will still dominate. Lets have a look at the facts.

AIMS AND OBJECTIVES

The aim of this test is to see whether 29x140 is faster than 26x160 on the harder side of UK trail riding terrain. More than that, it is to get some idea of the sensitivities of the various wheels, and of course the fun factor. In an attempt to take some of the speed out of this feature (to many riding is not about being the fastest) I’ve deliberately brought in a virgin 29 rider and a cross–country bike for comparison. Four bikes and two riders then, riding a shorter travel 29 against a longer travel 26. Reigning UK Gravity Enduro champion Rob ‘Box’ Cooksley and Trans Provence Expert winner James Richards.

ROB COOKSLEY

Height  5’ 8"

Bikes  Intense Carbine 26x150 and Intense Tracer 29x140 (both coil Cane Creek Double Barrel shocks)

JAMES RICHARDS

Height  5’ 8"

Bikes  Trek Rumblefish 29x120 and Trek Slash 26x160 (both air Fox) 

>>

Click through to keep reading...

[part title="The Facts and Feelings of 26 vs 29 - Page 2..."]

26 vs 29 bikes test-6
26 vs 29 bikes test-6

Trek Rumblefish 29x120 vs. Trek Slash 26x160

James you’d never ridden a 29 bike before this day?

Not properly, jumped on one or two in a car park, and I've ridden one round a short demo loop but never set one up for me and had chance to get used to one.

You never intended too either! Why?

I have been happy with my 26, build them light and they go fast! But also I'm a bit of a stick in the mud, I don't feel I need one, plus people say they're cumbersome, and slow in tech stuff. So I was sure it wouldn't suit my riding style.

OK your bike the Trek Slash, that’s your bike of choice for enduro racing right?

Yes, definitely. 160mm travel, good angles, pedals great, bombproof and has a reliable proven suspension system. It ticks all the boxes for UK and European enduro races.

You’ve worked on the set–up of that bike?

Yeah everything, except rear shock. Lighter wheels with Hope Hubs, Mojo tuned float 36ers, XTR drivetrain, Ti bolts, carbon bar/stem, Black Spire stinger with a Shimano Shadow Plus rear mech, a solid reliable set up for me.

Would you say the track was a fair gravity enduro stage?

Yeah, a pedally DH track, not the pure steepness of a full–blown DH course, but with plenty of rough sections to challenge full sus’ bikes.

Any significant places where the time could be gained?

I guess I thought the whole track would favour my Slash except maybe the 20 seconds of fire road. The top middle and bottom sections all had braking bumps, roots, jumps, drops and turns, but the sections each get faster, steeper, and rougher, but especially on the final section, it's rough with drops and faster turns, almost DH bike territory. So that place for sure should be quicker on my Slash.

Happy that your efforts were consistent?

Solid, couldn't have ridden any more consistently. These weren't race runs, I pedalled off the start the same every time and tried to carry speed the same, hit the jumps the same, pump in all the same places. I just tried to have identical back–to–back runs, clean, smooth, and fast, but not taking chances that would cause mistakes. I wanted to let the bike do the talking.

26 vs 29 bikes test-19
26 vs 29 bikes test-19

Lets talk about the sensitivities of each bike. First up you rode the Rumblefish. I’d imagine you got a beating (it is after all only a 120mm bike) but it was stable?

It's rough no doubt, there’s some big braking bumps, but I had grip, composure and control and it seemed to corner like on rails. It did feel like the bike was on its limits but I was never sideways, or out of control. I only felt nervous on the tables near the bottom. The grip is quite inspiring really looking back now, and when you have grip you can go faster.

Describe the riding position?

Surprisingly similar to my Slash, reach was half a cm longer, bars a touch wider and slightly higher too. But for a 19 the short, wide cockpit set–up was close to exactly the same, I was comfy and at home almost straight away.

Did you find you needed to adopt a different style of riding?

To be honest after first run I felt like it was one of my bikes, point and shoot, hold on. I maybe automatically adjusted a little, but I made no significant adjustments to my riding style.

And the Slash, surely better in choppy terrain over the 120x29?

It felt faster, but I was way more loose, lots of little steering corrections and slides. The off–camber roots were smoother, but in the heavy braking bumps I see–sawed more and I was more of a passenger.

Let’s talk times. When you arrived at the bottom on the Slash you reckoned about eight seconds quicker, correct?

Yeah it had to be because I felt that much more aggressive carrying speed through the jump sections and more on my limit. I just felt faster in the steep rough stuff, as it should.

Compare and contrast the different sensations of riding each bike.

They feel like two completely different bikes. The Rumblefish is somehow taut and coiled ready to spring into action, it feels like a thing of purpose, almost uncompromising, whereas the Slash is the clown, a goon, lots of fun and eager to please any interaction.

26 vs 29 bikes test-14
26 vs 29 bikes test-14

Was the 29 fun to ride on what’s pretty much a downhill course in sections?

For me to enjoy my ride it's simply about fun, little jumps, tweaks and bar turns all the way down the trail, and I didn't get that feeling on the 29er, but there’s still that feeling of speed.

Now you have some facts where do you see the future?

I'm sat firmly on the fence now, anyone who has a racer in them will love the unquestionable speed and ability of a 29er, and if you still have reservations you’ve got to try one. I'm looking forward to trying the new breed of long travel 29ers and the knowledge that we're closer than ever to finding one bike to rule them all. Until that is, everyone starts riding a 29er, and the holes in the trail are twice as big…and 26ers just love little doubles!

 

[part title="The Facts and Feelings of 26 vs 29 - Page 3..."]

26 vs 29 bikes test
26 vs 29 bikes test

Intense Carbine 26x150 vs. Intense Tracer 29x140

Not a stranger to 29ers Box?

Yes I rode one a couple of day's before the Brechfa Enduro last January, loved it, decided to do the race on it and won, and that was that. 

Had you previously had any facts about which was quicker?

I knew the 29 rolled better than the 26 in general, but I was unsure about how it compared in fast tight tech stuff, I had never gone back–to–back against the clock though.

Would you say this test track was a fair gravity enduro stage?

It was a really good enduro type stage or let's face it, ‘a standard bit of trail for the UK’ just like you get served up at the UK Gravity Enduro. Definitely not trail centre kitty litter surface shite, it had a bit of pedally fire road but the finish was steep and loose in places, so you had to be on your guard.

Describe the different sensations of riding each bike. Any significant places where the time could be gained?

I don't feel that the 29 is quicker on any one part of the track we rode, it feels like once I build up the momentum it keeps its head of steam better than the 26. The smoothness that you enter and exit corners is so noticeable you feel the momentum building as you ride. It feels really nice to have that big wheelbase. The 26 Carbine feels fast accelerating and playful, direction changes are rapid and that can be a bonus if you make a mistake and need to correct fast, but even though Carbine had a super tacky dual ply front tyre on at 25psi I still felt like I couldn't get the grip like on the 29, which considering I had a 2.25 Maxxis Ardent single ply at 30psi that's saying something don't you think? The whole feel of the 29er was laid back which gives me time to look up and see what's coming, where as the 26 Carbine felt playful but hurried. I think 26" bikes give you more feedback which means they can be more fun for definite, but I'm f–ked if you're getting that 29er back off me Jones.

26 vs 29 bikes test-10
26 vs 29 bikes test-10

The ride is simply made easier on these 29 bikes, for covering rough ground locally here in the Mendip hills the 29er is far more enjoyable and better than 26 as my line of sight stays very level with the extra stability of the wheel base/size. 29 is more stable for sure, will out–climb a 26 in all conditions, period, and has more grip in the wet. I love jumping and the 29er feels crap to jump but jumps OK. We all like manuals and on the 29 they can be a ball ache. But…29 is a better ride. Where 26 comes into it's own is manoeuvrability in very tight situations, jumping and manualling is lots of fun. So yes 26 is more playful, but not as fast, but more fun than 29 in many situations.

Lets have a look at other benefits of 26x150. Stronger wheels?

I would say the wheels are stronger with shorter spokes but after you've been on 29 you can feel 26" wheels hang up on rocks and roots so they have to be stronger to contend with this.

A more cushioned ride on the 26x160?

Not a more cushioned ride at all in anyway I'm afraid, I used to come back from most rides with a stiff back but not so much anymore.

Choice of bikes?

There's a glut of shit–hot 26x150mm trail bikes to choose from and sod all decent 29ers at present so with that a low choice of tyres, rims and forks comparatively to 26 you could still consider a 26 as a possibility.

Which is the better tool when the going gets really choppy? Some people say 29 is for ‘wheels on ground’ riding? Surely the stability on landing makes them a better bet? Surely there is still a place for a solid 26x150 bike?

For ‘wheels on ground’ riding the big wheels are unbeatable without question, for holding off–camber they are on another level, as they will hold on far beyond the limits of grip we have come to be familiar with 26". I don't like jumping them at the moment because it feels a bit weird, but that will probably get better the more I ride them. But this is it and I don't give a toss what people think, when I got home from this test I had flogged my new Carbine to this geezer within four hours because I had just been given the devastating news from a set of timing poles and a watch that I (and everyone else) had been riding the wrong size wheels for racing for over 20 years.

Some people, like my life–long mate (and Danny Harts technician), Dave Garland from Stendec, absolutely hate me for all of what I believe (and more to the point know) about 29ers, but I can't help the truth. I don't even own a 26" wheel bike anymore, and doubt I ever will to be honest. I can see DH over the next couple of years going to 650b because of the rear end space issues with DH bikes. It seems to me that the finer points of perfect bike set–up on 26" wheeled machines, which have to be adhered to in order to not get spat off the thing at speed, are nowhere near as important on bigger wheels. For years I could tell you to the nearest psi that I was running in my tyres, how many clicks of compression or rebound I was running in fork and shock. Now I pump my tyres up to around 30, stab the front and rear suspension a few times, a click here a click there, set my saddle height and win a national fricken enduro, "it just don't add up". Fine set up is bulldozed by the sheer might of geometry.

[part title="The Facts and Feelings of 26 vs 29 - Page 4..."]

THE TIMES

26 vs 29 bikes test-18
26 vs 29 bikes test-18
Richards Rumblefish 29x120 Cooksley Carbine 26x150
Run 1 2:39.30 2:29.26
Split 1 1:38.31 1:30.25
Split 2 1:00.98 59.01
Run 2 2:36.46 2:29.15
Split 1 1:36.19 1:31.27
Split 2 1:00.27 57.87
Run 3 2:33.46 2:28.19
Split 1 1:35.88 1:31.38
Split 2 57.65 56.89
Run 4 2:32.82 2:23.64
Split 1 1:34.85 1:27.62
Split 2 57.97 56.02
Run 5 2:35.19 2:22.73
Split 1 1:37.50 1:28.61
Split 2 57.69 54.11
Richards Slash 26x160 Cooksley Tracer 29x140
Run 6 2:32.10 2:20.96
Split 1 1:35.23 1:25.96
Split 2 56.87 55
Run 7 2:30.16 2:20.31
Split 1 1:34.49 1:26.18
Split 2 55.67 54.12
Run 8 2:29.00 2:17.08
Split 1 1:33.74 1:24.32
Split 2 55.26 52.75
Run 9 2:28.11 2:17.80
Split 1 1:33.74 1:24.42
Split 2 54.37 52.38 

Richards Rumblefish fastest overall = 2:32.82

Richards Slash fastest overall = 2:28.11

Slash beats Rumblefish by 4.71 seconds

Upper sector fastest: Rumble 1:34.85 Slash 1:33.74 = 1.11 seconds

Lower sector fastest: Rumble 57.69 Slash 54.37 = 3.32 seconds

Box Carbine fastest overall = 2:22.73

Box Tracer fastest overall = 2:17.08

Tracer beats Carbine by 5.65 seconds

 

Upper sector fastest: Carbine 1:27.62 Tracer 1:24.32 = 3.30 seconds

Lower sector fastest: Carbine  54.11 Tracer 52.38 = 1.73 seconds

26 vs 29 bikes test-13
26 vs 29 bikes test-13

CONCLUSION

The results show that for Richards a dedicated 26x160 enduro weapon will beat a skinny cross–country bike. But by less of a margin than expected, the skinny Rumbler was only a second slower on the top sector over the bigger bike’s fastest time, whilst on the deeper battlefields of the lower sector James put 3 seconds on the 120mm travel bike. In previous tests on 26x120 vs. 26x160 the margins were far larger.

In comparison Cooksley smoked the burly 26" bike with an overall time more than five and a half seconds quicker on the Tracer. Unlike the marked travel difference of Richards’ Slash and Rumbler the Tracer took apart the Carbine in both the upper, and surprisingly lower downhill sections.

Given the big drive for enduro competitions at the moment the importance of this test is obvious. 29x140 climbs better and offers improved stability over a 26x160. Combined with more grip and speed over root you could be looking at the ultimate enduro weapon. The problem lies in availability, plus there are many people in the industry that think that all 29" bikes are of equal ability…which of course is bollocks.