The Rise of the 29" Wheeled Bike | The Horse Has Bolted
The internet is laced with truths and non–truths about 29 inch wheels - but how does the reality compare...
Coming at a time when many riders are still working out the decision as to whether to go 140 or 160mm travel the 29er trail bike goes and sends one into the mix...
From Dirt Issue 120 - February 2012
Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Andy Lloyd and Steve Jones.
The internet is laced with truths and non–truths about 29er bikes, personally I feel that the reality of catching a previously out of reach downslope, holding a world class camber or root network at bay outclasses the gossip. Neither fake nor idealistic, I can ride a mid travel 29 quicker than a 26. Therefore I find the question of whether we should or not be riding 29 bikes a bit bonkers. I mean, horse bolted or what?
Had I not come out the back of a UK winter trail tyre test this might all be a bit different, maybe if I was looking for a big hitting 160mm bike for an overseas enduro yes it might offer up a contrasting answer, but when looking for a bike to ride in the UK wet and in the mud for a fair old chunk of the year the 29 totally makes sense. Of the many advantages grip, speed and stability are up there.
There remains a question of size and scale for I really cannot answer as to whether 29 is for everyone of all heights. My eight year old recently went from 16" to 24" having missed out on the 20". She’s now going faster, smoother, for longer periods. Of the specialists 20 continues to boss the dirt jumps on the smoothest of manufactured dirt surfaces – and faster or not they’re simply more manoeuvrable. Street BMX remains the domain of the hardcore on two wheel bikes whilst downhill (26) is still seen as the ultimate in off–road class.
For how long that remains true nobody knows, and as a magazine entrenched in downhill, enduro, dirtjump and anything in that general style, many people’s perception is that 29 could be seen as something that’s entirely none of our business. Yet these pages cut their teeth on four–inch bikes and the question remains hugely valid, “I want a bike to go ripping around the woods. What shall I get?" The largely non–competitive trail bike market remains a rather vague area – 120mm for Surrey, 160mm for Wales. If only it was that simple. And now this.
This feature could be written on so many levels. A general discussion about 29ers, is 29 faster, 29 vs 26 hardtail/mid travel trail bikes/long travel trail bikes, will we ever see a World Cup downhill won on a 29er, 29 componentry. Lets unshackle the 29 for a moment. >>
Click through to keep reading...
[part title="The Rise of the 29 Inch Wheeled Bike - Page 2..."]
A very broad question, with a potentially lethal industry interpretation, for it’s now ten years since Gary Fisher launched a 29 bike and the question has largely been ignored. From the basest level – hardtails – yes they are, but even before going into the fun bit I would encourage people to buy one of a select range of good full suspensions bikes instead of getting beaten to shit by something that really has no place in the 21st century riding armoury.
That many industry ‘purists’ remain hell bent on dabbling with hardtails, more recently 29 versions, has I believe, been one of the key sticking points of the breed – that they are seen as slightly weird, and therefore grouped accordingly. Very much ‘that end of the market’.
Move away from the ‘torture is fun’ attitude of industry nutcases on 29 hardtails and the truth of the 29er becomes much, much clearer, because in Britain the 29" trail bike has a huge future providing speed, grip and stability not previously seen. True there are still weaknesses, but these are largely due to poor designs and feeble componentry not yet man enough for the task in hand. Thankfully however there are some real contenders for a 29 full suspension take over. Leading this charge are the Specialized Camber and Trek Rumblefish.
Still it’s not that straightforward. Faster and more fun is an incredibly complex question, for these wheels might not be for everyone, plus there are blockages to broad acceptance. There remains an initial, many would argue negative, feeling of riding a 29 bike (it took me several weeks to click), there’s the familiarity of riding a 26, the need for a different riding style, the time demands of trying to get used to something new puts so many people off. Then there’s the basics – manoeuvrability and acceleration are two of the biggest negatives levelled against the big wheels and yet in the right environment both can be countered with that greatest and yet most basic of sports skills – timing.
It took me several weeks to settle on the tyres. I found it needed a different lean, slightly more aggro in the tight places that the 26 ruled. Having adapted to the new wheels, changed my timing I find the fun coming in a huge wave of new found poise under pressure, corner speed, camber hold, stability in the air and on the ground – these are just some of the things I like about the 29. I’m also riding smoother, which might ultimately mean a change to SPD’s. For now the gains in traction in British winter are unquestionable. More than anything I can now ride a 29 faster than a 140mm trail bike pretty much anywhere. An emphatic double yes to the big wheels.
29" VS 26" MID TRAVEL
There will be doubters. I also have doubts on longer travel 29’s, but that’s for another day. For now I undoubtedly thought I had put thirty seconds into a 29 time on a variety of 140mm 26 bikes over a three–minute descent. The sensation and the reality however are light years apart, for the feeling of speed on a 26 is always faster. Maybe that’s why so many people like riding hardtails – you get a sense of speed but with the safety of going slower.
One of the greatest benefits of a 29 over 26 is their inherent stability at speed and across rough ground, the main reason many riders choose mid travel 26 bikes. This middle ground of suspension designs (120/140/160mm) is an interesting one, for being honest about where you ride would probably be a more significant starting point and certainly of more value than any comparison between 26 v 29. As a rough guide, I usually ride 140mm this side of both the Irish Sea and English Channel opting for something a bit more robust once I hit Alpine or Rockies. Back here it’s well established that 160 is faster on descents than 140mm, but really I find I have to be in a certain mood, in the right place and certainly fit to entertain a 160mm bike. Like I said, the longer travel 29 debate is for the future but for now a 26 vs 29 trail bike comparison has suddenly become hugely valid.
Here it is then, better grip in corners, cambers and increased traction in muddy climbs. Less nervous during the two wheel slide, hold and flow on rough bumps and roots is better. Below is my first experience of four bangers with tests to follow…
[part title="FOUR 29’ERS TO BE FEARED"]
The Tallboy was my first memorable full suspension 29 experience. I liked it, Billy the web editor liked it, Josh Bryceland was even hooked. I heard stories of well–known bike tester Guy Kesteven being banned from riding one simply due to the beating he dished out to everyone.
On man–made Gisburn forest trails the Tallboy made light of the slightly washed out ground, but I really found the cornering something of an oddity – too far forward, too far back – I was hardly bossing the bike. Yet it transported me and left me with many questions unanswered. Was I on the right size? What would happen in the tight?
To be blunt, the Tallboy is too short up front. It loads a rider’s body weight over the front tyre resulting in poor steering and less than reassuring stability at speed, especially on descents. I also wonder how the bike would feel with an even shorter fork than the one fitted. This is a shame because the acceleration of the Santa Cruz is like many in the range…impressive. It also has many features that riders will be looking for in a bike such as the low bottom bracket and standover. I need an XL and I need it fast.
Santa Cruz Tallboy from £2399 www.santacruzbikes.co.uk
The Rumblefish proves, as on the other three bikes here, that there is still some work to be done on 29 bikes from both a riders and manufacturing standpoint. That the Trek has seen the brunt of the component damage on our test bikes is simply because we love riding this bike hard and as often as we can. Wheels are the first area that needs exploring more fully, for these simply didn’t stand the test of more aggressive riding that this bike engages you into.
Also much like 26" bikes there remains an obsession with fitting long stems and short bars. I’d like to see something shorter in terms of stem and wider on the bar, as they seem to be more crucial to the weight balance of these bikes if you want to ride them rather than be a passenger. You need width to get some leverage. Trek is the only bike with the Maxle rear.
It also reveals the need for quality time on these bikes. The Trek was my first real riding experience of a proper full suspension big wheeler and on the very first run I found the Rumblefish quicker on a man–made three–minute descent, and in doing so setting my fastest recorded time! But it became very ugly when pitched into some dirty tight root and mud. Flow and acceleration it had none. I felt sluggish, poorly timed, slow and it was far from fun. I threw the bike in the back of the car after half a dozen timed descents, “I’ve seen enough of this shit."
Not so bloody hasty. A few weeks passed, I re–adjusted, settled on a more balanced cockpit, threw on some skinnier tyres. We started rolling. Suddenly not only was the Rumbler outclassing some pretty upmarket 140mm 26 bikes on flat root, but actually outperforming on the steeper more tech terrain. I’m not even sure aggressive is the method, confident may be a better way of describing it. This is some bike. Test to follow.
Rumblefish Elite £2400 www.trekbikes.com
It was the Norco that really gave me my 29 legs, coming on the back of two weeks trying to either shake the 29 affliction or prove once and for all that they had any place at all in the mountainbike genus.
It also answered the nagging question about suspension, the quality and the effectiveness. On a flattish entrance into a 45º right hander the future became almost clear, as a root section that had previously rattled me on each approach to the corner was simply flattened allowing me time to look and turn. In the space of a few metres the Shinobi had captured my attention.
The trail flowed on, still a heavy bike, albeit with the weight in the right places. Berms…bashed, jumps…cleared, pumps…pumped. I had no doubt the Norco was now outclassing 26 bikes with higher spec and more travel, certainly 140mm, possibly more.
At 46.5" the wheelbase on the Norco is the longest of the bikes we have on test and similar to many medium sized downhill bikes. In the tight it felt very much like a downhill bike and also has the slackest head angle and highest bottom bracket. Into an awkwardly twisting descent I decided to press on ahead of the chasing pack, put some space in–between us and in no more than two turns it fully clicked on the timing and pump needed to ride the bike. I gained, gained a little bit more, the corners began flowing, each dip and rise became more in tune.
Norco Shinobi 2 £2399 www.norco.com
I’m actually lost for words about this bike…OK focus. The Camber has the shortest combined travel of the bikes on test, but that doesn’t hold it back in the slightest. Up front a Fox 32 is matched with Specialized’s own custom tuned rear damper…you’ve heard it a million times.
Eight foot up and thirty feet out is certainly not the intended place for the Camber to be (see photo) and yet the poise and simplicity of this bike instantly makes a rider feel comfortable. It illustrates beautifully the benefits of 29. Better balance in terms of chassis stability, whereby a rider can actually head in a little bit heavier on the front from small drops or jumps (although clearly they are not meant for this type of action) and have more momentum for trail obstacles, for example lining up a root section.
As with other 29 there remain questions that need answering. I believe the steering is way better when fitted with narrower tyres and as good as the 29 is in the wet don’t believe the hype – it still needs something mud specific and in this case Maxxis’ Beavers were outstanding. But the big wheels in heavy ground, mamma mia it’s good. One of the most precise bicycles I have ever ridden.
Specialized Camber Expert Carbon £3800 www.specialized.com
Maybe we should hold fire until the truth of time has been told, let’s not preach a revolution until facts have been established on the clock by more riders – forget the current XC World Cup and World Champion Jaroslav Kulhavy for a second – but winning the big–wheel–way might be the tipping point.
And why not do things at a different pace anyway? I’m not just talking climbing and singletrack riding either, although both benefit from having 29" wheels. Out with old in with the new, let’s increase the horror of roots (maybe someone could inform the Champery track builders) rather than cut them out. Roots could become part of everyday trail centre riding rather than the ‘road biking on dirt with berms and rollers’ that we have on our diet, and a perception fiercely associated with 29. On the downhill circuit the jumps could be bigger, the speeds faster…
Not so hasty, nobody yet knows how good the next generation of bikes will be. Fine–tuning and suitability of the 160mm 29" stock will take time, and in a way the steady industry feeder system from trail up is a better way to harden and mature the stock. Progress has to come to 150mm in small steps. Nobody actually knows all the answers to all the 29 questions being posed, I’d imagine enduro and downhill is climbing the deep curve at the moment across both sides of the Atlantic. Wheels will become stronger, componentry even lighter.
It will take time to get the geometry right, but there is some good stuff here that we have found with these trail bike 29’ers, that said, many are simply light–years away from any kind of balance. But soon, very soon, the 26" trail bike will be seen as something of a specialist breed.
Industry testers may now find themselves way out of their comfort zones in terms of bike tests, for the call of the 29" speed and smoothness is ever present. What decisions will they be making on 26 versus 29? Will the tests continue to think outside the box but work within it – set of 26"ers one month, a set of 29 the next? I have my own concerns on the adjustment between the two, although I find a 120mm 29 rather like a 26 downhill bike, for many reasons.
Might the local 29 riders push the envelope, bring on ever increasingly off–the–level cambers, rootier descents? Will the 26 become out of its depth? How will tyres progress? The truth is nobody knows how good the next generation of bikes will be. I await the 150mm box from LAX eagerly but for now I’d highly recommend anyone looking for a trail bike to try a 29’er.
[part title="Quotes from the Dirt Website"]
“There is a transition period, where the ‘negative’ aspects of a 29er pray on the mind, but these soon evaporate. Dialling in the right stem and bar combo is so important. Granted it may not be for everyone, but do give it a go." Scott
“True some are better than other just like in 26ers, but overall the benefits are there and can be enjoyed by everyone if they just had the stones to swing their leg over a 29er." T – Unit
“The bottle with the message in it washed up on South African shores two years ago. Suppliers CANNOT keep up with the demand for 29ers here. One ride does not a 29er experience make, which is why this article is accurate and relevant. I’ve test–ridden more than 30 29ers in the past two years (along with a similar number of 26" bikes). I love the honesty of a 26" hardtail and the playfulness of a 26" 5" travel full suss. But if you’re after more speed and better control in most situations, the 29er truly is the new king." Mr Thread
“I thought this day would never come. I’ve been riding 29ers exclusively for four years now but I have never been an evangelist for them. ‘To each their own’ has always been my take on it. For me though, the 29er is undeniably faster both up and down. They jump great too. It’s great to finally have some validation from someone on the gravity side of things and from the UK no doubt!" Shop Mechanic
“To make an analogy, us older folks can remember the days before foreign food came to the UK. I don't recall anybody saying ‘Hey, this curry stuff is really great, we'll never eat fish & chips again’." Belugabob