Initially when I was first introduced to the 29 inch wheel size I was highly skeptical and thought that it was yet another ruse by mountain bike manufacturers to sell more bikes. I have seen it all; everything from Biopace elliptical chain rings, to U-brakes, elastomer suspension forks, clip in pedals and bar ends.
Some of these innovations are part of the evolution to better performance while others are pure marketing gimmickry. The truth is that most of them are somewhere in between. For every change there are advantages but there can also be disadvantages like added weight or complexity. Paint me incredulous.
The problem with introducing a new wheel size is that the change from the standard 26”wheel affects an assortment of other components. The new wheels need new tires and inner tubes as well as new frames to accommodate the new larger hoops. It is a major revision that should offer real world advantages in order to justify the cost.
Being the know-it–all type of person that I am, I rejected the new wheel size out of hand. The larger wheels would be heavier and therefore harder to pedal uphill and harder to bunny hop and manual to get over obstacles. The idea that the larger hoops would flow more easily over irregularities in the trail seemed logical but would it make enough of a difference to justify the cost of purchasing a new bicycle? The bike stores were full of bikes using the oversized wheels.
I have a lot of experience and was once a pro-am mountain bike racer. In the 1980s and 90s I raced cross country, downhill, dual slalom and trials. This was when mountain biking was in its infancy. I even won the pro class ($300.00) at the Bear Valley Nationals Downhill race in 1988.
I used the same bike for all the classes. It had no suspension front or back. I raced it through bowling ball sized rocks when I had to go off the main racing line in an attempt to get around the person who started in front of me. However, I couldn’t maintain my speed in the big rocks without front suspension. I also raced it over a tangle of wet roots spread out at an angle across the trail. The trick is to not brake or change direction and you will just fly over them.
I wheelied over and bunny hopped obstacles of all kinds and in my mind technique and expertise takes precedence over design in every application; that is until the introduction of front suspension. Even on the cross country course where I usually dominated on the downhill sections, I was getting wasted by riders who were normally much slower than me. That was when I decided to get my first suspension forks, the Rock Shox RS-1.
OK so I was wrong about the benefits of suspension, but how could I be wrong about the new wheel size? I was going to stick with my Santa Cruz Heckler with the 26” wheels and nobody was going to convince me to do otherwise.
Except that now Santa Cruz makes the Tall Boy with the new bigger 29 inch hoops. It was awarded Bike of the Year for several years running. Even the new Heckler now comes with the in between 27.5 inch wheel size like the Santa Cruz Bronson. Could I be wrong?
Am I being left behind with my retro attitude and old lady prejudices? Is the 26 inch standard going the way of the dinosaur?
The truth of the matter is that I became convinced of the benefits of the new wheel size after riding with my buddy, Justin, who has a Specialized Camber with the new 29 inch wheels. It only has four inches of suspension and I never dreamed that it could keep up with my all mountain Heckler. Boy was I wrong. Let me take you through the sequence of events.
Initially I met Justin at the local skate board park. He is fearless and an expert level skater. Not only that but he is almost twenty years my junior. However, I didn’t factor those considerations into the equation. I had been riding mountain bikes for almost thirty years and he had only been riding a couple of years. There was no way that he was going to keep up with me, or so I thought.
That perception was changed once we started riding Devil’s Drop. This was a trail I raced down with a fellow BTU team mate in the 1990’s. I considered myself an experienced old hand on the trail until a wasps nest suddenly appeared in a decaying tree near the bottom of the hill. Afterwards I stopped riding it for fear of the insects. They can be very aggressive when aroused. I didn’t want to take any chances racing past their nest when I could see and hear them buzzing in and out of the hollow tree.
Justin suggested that we ride Devil’s Drop (he had found a way around the wasp’s nest) and the first thing I noticed is that it had become even more brutal since the last time I had ridden it. It is steep and very slippery with off camber turns composed of loose soil and dry leaves over hard pack. The trail has no run-out what-so-ever making it necessary to stay somewhat in control and hardly ever letting go of the brakes completely. Braking hard and going really slow is not an option in most places. Then there are the piles of dry leaves that led to several low side wipe-outs on my part.
Justin dropped down into the upper steep portion of the trial with no problem while I washed out my front wheel. I was not able to save it and I crashed. He claimed that the bigger wheel size gave him more control while braking and an advantage on this section of the trail.
Not one to give in to the inevitable, I went to the Pedaler Bike Shop and asked them to fix my front brake which was a little sketchy and I purchased a new wider tire to replace the somewhat bald knobbie in the rear.
I finally got to the point where I could ride the tricky upper section by letting go of the brakes through the slippery off camber part and then braking hard to maintain control afterwards. So far we are talking stalemate between me and Justin after I made some upgrades to my bike and I got a little more practice on the trail.
Further down there is a big tangle of roots exposed a few feet above the the trail where it winds around and down past a big California Oak. In the old days I used to ride over the roots with no problem but over the years they have become such an extreme obstacle that I made only one attempt before crossing it off my to do list permanently.
After getting over the roots I got totally out of control and almost crashed on the steep section just below the tree. I felt so uncomfortable with the maneuver that I never felt the temptation to try it again. When I asked Justin whether he was able to ride over the roots, he asked,” what roots”. OK so if he is telling the truth, Justin one – me zero. The score is starting to add up against me here.
Then there is the rocky stream bed at the bottom of the hill. You have to approach it at speed to have enough momentum to get across. I watched Justin attempt it and although he did get his foot wet taking a dab when his front wheel hit a rock hidden in the water, he made it all the way to the other side. When it was my turn I lost control going over some roots where the trail dips down into the rocky stream bed. This caused me to lose concentration and I ended up getting off my bike and walking my bike across. Again, the score is Justin one – me zero. Am I just turning into a coward in my old age?
There is one more obstacle where Justin runs circles around me. It is a smooth steep downhill trail that runs into a flat section and around several large obstacles. The trick is to fly around the obstacles at speed and maintain enough momentum to make it up a steep rocky cliff and then take a right turn at the top over a bridge. Justin cleaned it by keeping up his speed at the bottom; coasting and then pedaling to get over the worst of the rocky ledges to make the turn at the top.
I have tried it numerous times and the best I could do was to pedal just short of the turn. On other attempts I can’t even get part way up the hill before losing control and jumping off the bike. Justin beats me again.
Is it time to throw in the towel and discard the notion that old age and treachery will beat youth and skill every time? Am I just turning into an old fogy and should I give up the notion that I have any skill on my mountain bike?
I prefer to accept the notion that the 29 inch wheel size beats 26 inch wheels. Maybe Justin is just trying to spare my feelings. He says that the bigger wheels are an advantage. To be honest, his conclusion is a bit suspect because the Camber is the first full suspension mountain bike he has ever owned. How can he compare it to the 26er?
I guess I just want to believe him so that when I can afford a 29er he will never be able to beat me again. End of story…