Like me, you may have wondered about the abilities of a big wheel bike on the trails? I’ve looked at the magazines foretelling the end of the 26 inch mtb, I’ve actually heard riders say that they can’t believe the difference, and would never go back to a 26er.Have I missed the boat? Well rather than listen to magazines ( who help the industry shift product) you may want to hear the conclusions of an average (biking) Joe, on what I have noticed. Its written on the basis that I have personally bought two hardtail 29 bikes, A Giant Talon, and a Trek Superfly to see for myself . Currently I Have around 12 bikes, Road, Hardtail, and full suspension. My experience with bikes have taken me to the all over the place, mostly lost, but including the Alps, Canary islands, England, and Wales. I now live in Kent, and there’s some great riding here, I work from home and have been lucky enough to be able to indulge myself often over the last 12 months The Talon is a low cost option which I found Locally. It’s 30 speed, has giant branded wheels, finishing kit, and was fitted with Schwalbe Rocket Rons. The first ride revealed a few things of note, The first was how much higher I felt perched up! My feet were in the same place on the ground, but due to the wheel size, it felt much higher! Whilst turning the bike at slow speeds it also felt a bit more ponderous. I don’t think this can be helped with bigger wheels and a larger tyre contact patch. I did notice that once up to speed, it held it well. I kind of expected this due to my experience with road bikes With Mountain bikes a lot of performance off road comes from the fork. Giants branded Suntour Xcr, is ok if you have come from a position of no off road experience. It can be clunky on extension, but generally takes the sting from any hits. My position on forks is that I tend to spend a fair bit of time on setup. Going over a favorite bit of trail to get it just the way I like it. With the Suntour there is only a lockout option, It didn’t float my boat! So for ride two I had ordered a Rockshox xc32 . The XC32 is an upgrade fork, It has an air spring, Lockout, and rebound. It’s an excellent choice, with only weight, and snobbery going against it! Once set up the first few meters of ride two confirmed to me that for off road use this fork was what’s required. The ride was revolutionised, with smoother travel over bumps, and far, far, more control (Safer) on rooty descents. Really get to know your fork and its settings, it makes such a huge difference when set up right! Also by ride two the brakes, stem, seat post, and bars had somehow changed! The Trek has a Fox RL E2 fork which has the larger 1/12 inch lower Bearing, and slightly revised castor, again i think this option really only makes a difference when you are really motoring over rock gardens, forks with this bearing setup work noticeably better with a 15 or 20mm thru axle. At some stage Ill have to service this fork, as the small bump compliance isn’t actually as good as the xc32,. Fox’s are normally very supple. The downside is more frequent service. The 30 speed deore gearing is more than adequate for my local trails , it shifts well and for me feels as good as the more expensive groupsets. I Long to go to a 2 ring setup, but, as I have used the small ring on some really wet, muddy climbs before I really don’t want to shoot myself in the foot by taking it off! Gearing for 29ers is longer due to wheel size, so manufacturers are putting bigger rear cassettes on to compensate for this. I still wonder why they bring out 10/ 11 speeds. I have only 9 and 10 speed rears but really haven’t thought “wow,I’m maxed out, if only I had 3 more frigging gears”? And don’t get me started on electronic shifting! The kings new clothes springs to mind.
Braking on both bikes is no better or worse than a 26er. It should be better, but going purely on feel, I didn’t notice. The Giant has Avid Juicy threes, and the Trek is Shimano Xt, both are excellent and I would happily fit either to any other bikes. When I got the Trek it had some rather nice looking continental trail kings fitted. These really looked the part, and being a big fan of Contis I felt sure that they would be great! Wrong! After the first ride I came back thinking I need to get fitter I couldn’t believe the lardy nature of climbing with it. It had come with a 1×9 setup, and for a second I thought it might be the gear range restriction. Taking off the front wheel told me all I needed to know! Tyre’s swapped for some Rocket rons, and hey presto problem solved, Can you believe the weight of each tyre is around 1100 grams, not including the tubes! Bloody hell! A lesson I learnt very early on with wheels? Rims and tyre’s are better lighter, what a difference! ( so much so that I prefer the unfashionably low section rims, and tubular tyre’s on the road bike. Lighter, faster, and better feel, and no, they aren’t a bugger to change!) So, will I be changing to 29er? Well currently I ride the Trek quite a bit, I will be taking the Stans/Novatec wheels from the giant because I want to run tubeless in the future.. I have a couple of bikes with 10 speed groups, but I really can’t see the point in swapping the 9 speed, in the real world there just isn’t any advantage. I did put an Xtr crankset on, that I had lying around, and I took off the slx brakes/shifters and replaced them with the old xt combined Brakes/shifter set. I get on with it really well. But if I could shut my eyes whilst riding the bike (without having the mother/father/ and extended family of accidents) would I notice much difference? The answer I would have to say is no.
I have some great 26 bikes and they have an agility that a 29 couldn’t possess, it’s pure physics so why replace? I would say that if I lived in a place with very little space, and could only have one bike to commute, ride to shops, and take the trails with, the 29er could do this better than any other. If I was a Pro, and every second counted (eh Lance?) then I would have to use the fastest available ( and a Sponsor may want to push its 29 product forward) choice. However, I’m Not, and neither are 99% of the buying public. So make your choice knowing this and just enjoy riding, the bike doesn’t have to be today’s fashion to enjoy the ride !