Friday, November 7, 2014
The 29er becomes a teenager
Are 29er's now "new school"?
According to self proclaimed bicycle historians and fad bloggers, the concept of a 29er bicycle had existed for a really long time. Apparently since the 80's, some custom builders and European bicycle manufacturers wanted to get away from 26" wheels as the standard for mountain bikes. Prior to 2007, I don't remember ever seeing a 29er mountain bike. It was that year that I walked into an independently owned bicycle store (otherwise known as local bike shop, or LBS) for the first time and picked up Gary Fisher's catalog of bicycles for that year. That is when I learned that such a thing as 29ers even existed. Gary Fisher claimed that the "Genesis geometry" on these new bicycles improved riding characteristics such as handling, rolling resistance and overall speed. I was intrigued and always wanted to try one out but the sticker shock always turned me away from committing to buying one until very recently.
Lately I have been writing articles on mountain biking with an emphasis on 26 inch "old school" mountain bikes. But it recently dawned on me that the 29er mountain bike isn't the new kid on the block anymore. It has been around for a while now, seven years since I first came across one and thirteen years since Gary Fisher made the first commercially available 29er in 2001. From the standpoint of someone who got into mountain biking in the Aughts it is now understandable why 29 inch mountain bikes and not 26 inch mountain bikes have become the new norm. It stands to reason that if 29ers have been around for about thirteen years that replacement parts and tires could and should be found anywhere in the world, at least in westernized countries. It would be interesting to find out if anyone has ever toured around the world on a 29er and has had their bicycle break down on them in order to prove this theory.
Last week I bought my first 29er mountain bike. It's an awesome steel, single speed and rigid beast of a bike. I took it to my local mountain bike trail and now it is the funnest off road bicycle that I own. I believe that the claims of speed and stability that 29er bikes are alleged to have are true. On the rooty parts of the trails, my wheels did not sink in between the gaps of the roots. Rather my wheels seem to hover over everything; roots, log piles, bridges, rock gardens, etc. The bottom bracket clearance on this bike is insane. I smash my pedals hard, and frequently damage my pedals mountain biking when I take sharp turns or don't go over obstacles with the right foot technique. This bike allows me to pedal straight through anything without stopping.
So are there any disadvantages to 29er bicycles? There are disadvantages, many which are well documented, about having a bicycle with a larger wheel size. First of all, turning is not as fast as on a 26" mountain bike. A skilled rider can still turn around obstacles fast while riding a 29er but the rider loses the ability to take tight corners at speed like on a 26er. Being that my 29er is a single speed, popping a wheelie takes massive amounts of effort, whereas it only takes a flick of the wrist to lift up the front wheel on the 26 inch bike. These are the only two disadvantages of 29er bikes to 26 inch bicycles that are worth noting. The rest is pure preference and aesthetics. Riding a 29er bike is simply "different" than riding a 26er. There is no better or worse riding style. The two can't be compared against each other properly because they are simply not the same kind of bike. It's like trying to compare a cyclocross bike to a fat bike.
My conclusion about the 29er to 26er debate, after having ridden a 29er, is this: For trick riding, trials riding, downhill, freeride or anything that involves doing wheelies, jumps, or having precision control, go 26. For riding fast off road, plowing through otherwise technical sections of the trail and for overall efficiency, go 29. For cross country, enduro and all traditional mountain biking racing events, do both. The 29er may be "just another wheel size". It may, if people allow it to, mark the end of the 26" wheeled mountain bike. Some people will always have to bunny hop over something on their bike. They will always go for the bike that suits their riding style best. Whatever your riding style is, pick the bike that works the best for you. There is no wrong choice.
Stay tuned for more informative posts.