Big wheels are becoming more popular for mountain bikers

Posted April 18, 2012, at 4:55 p.m.

How a magazine compares 26ers to 29ers can be helpful, but it’s no substitute for getting information directly from people who use the bikes.

I talked to riders who own and ride both size mountain bikes to get their opinions on the differences and how they relate to local trails.

Lenny Nelson, 35, has been mountain biking about 10 years on 26-inch bikes. He currently has a full suspension 26er and races in the sport class (intermediate level).

He describes himself as an endurance rider who likes long rides in the Foothills. He said several of his friends who ride 29ers encouraged him to get one.

“I was skeptical,” he said. “I just thought they wanted me to buy another bike.”

He bought a hard tail 29er and estimates he has about a thousand miles on it.

The first thing he discovered was it’s faster on Boise, Idaho, trails in a park known as Foothills. He shaved 4 minutes off a training ride that used to take 30 minutes. But he also found he was about 2 minutes slower on the downhill sections.

He said the 29er is easier on long, sustained climbs, and although a hard tail, it is as smooth, if not smoother, than his full-suspension bike on some washboarded roads and trails.

“I do 90 percent of my riding in the Foothills,” he said. “And if there was a place built for a 29er hard tail, this is it.”

But he added it’s not perfect for all trails, especially tight and technical trails, or ones with big drops.

“I can throw my 26er around a lot easier,” he said. “Once the 29er gets on a line, it wants to stay on that line.”

He’s also not ready to part with his 26er. If he rides in a place with more rugged trails, the full-suspension 26er is probably the bike he would use.

Susan Centano, 43, of Boise, Idaho, is a mountain biker and competitive runner. She has been biking about 10 years, and gotten more serious about mountain biking in the last two years. Until recently, she rode a 26er full-suspension bike.

She likes to ride in the Foothills, including “scarier trails” such as Watchman and Corrals.

“I like to be challenged a little bit,” she said.

She got a 29er hard tail about two months ago.

“It felt odd when I first rode it,” she said. “You definitely feel like you’re higher up from the ground. But it’s not so odd that it would have prevented me from riding it.”

The 29er is fun, she said, and she’s more confident in rougher terrain.

“Girls don’t like to jump curbs and rocks and things like that,” she said. “I definitely feel I can roll over them easier.”

But without full suspension, she noticed a harsher ride on the 29er. She also found herself slowing down more for corners.

“I’m not as confident. I noticed I was a little more cautious,” she said.

But Centano expects to overcome that as she gains riding experience, and she also prefers how the 29er takes hills.

“I feel really strong on climbs,” she said.

If she had to choose between the two, she’s leaning toward the 29er.

“I don’t even know if I will pull out the 26er this year,” she said.

Jack Helton, 50, of Nampa, Idaho, has been riding a 26er for over 30 years, including his current full-suspension bike.

He likes riding the rugged trails in the Owyhees Mountains and also rides Foothills trails.

He said most of his riding buddies have switched to 29ers, and he was “one of the last holdouts with a 26er.”

Five years ago, he had back surgery that made it uncomfortable to ride in a hunched-over position.

“I hopped on a 29er, and that front end was right there, but I was still sitting up straight,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I need a 29er.’“

Unlike others who ride hard tail 29ers, he bought a full-suspension rig.

Like others, he found it a little slow off the start, but found improved traction because there’s more contact between the tire and the ground with the 29er.

“It felt so much more stable,” he said.

He plans to mainly ride his 29er, but is not abandoning the 26er.

“I will probably have a 26-inch hard tail for the Foothills and ride the 29er [full suspension] out where it’s going to be rough.”

Mike Harmon, 47, of Nampa has been mountain biking more than 25 years and rides a full-suspension 26er most of the time.

But he said his 26er has nearly 7 inches of travel, which is “overkill” for most of the Foothills trails.

“There’s nothing in the Foothills that necessitates that much travel on a [full-suspension] mountain bike,” he said.

A couple years ago, he started riding a 29er single speed with no suspension.

“I read all these magazines, and I was drinking the Kool-Aid,” he said.

He said he didn’t notice any improved traction with the 29er, but added that could be because he’s comparing it to a full-suspension 26er.

Harmon added if he only rode in the Foothills, he would probably ride a 29er. But he prefers rougher trails in the mountains, such as Eastside trail near Bogus Basin, and it’s a great place for his 26er.

He said his 26er is not only more agile but “more playful” than a 29er.

But he added it’s hard to compare a long-travel, full-suspension 26er to a rigid, single-speed 29er.

“I don’t think I’ve found the right 29er yet,” he said.

If you go into a bike shop and ask about mountain bikes, you will probably be asked “29-inch or 26-inch wheels?”

Twenty-nine-inch wheels, or 29ers, are not exactly the new kids on the block. They’ve been around for a long time, but have recently gained popularity against the standard 26-inch wheels.

Bicycling Retailer magazine reported 29ers were the fastest growing segment of bikes in 2011.

“Lately there’s been an abundance of people interested in 29ers,” said Jesse Haskin, salesman at Bob’s Bicycles in Boise.

Does that mean 29ers are going to replace the 26-inch standard, or will big wheels wither as a fad that dead ended?

“I think the 29er is here to stay,” Haskin said, adding that 26ers are still the biggest seller, but 29ers are catching up.

So which should you be riding? It depends on numerous factors, including your experience, where you ride, how much you want to spend and what you hope to gain from switching from a 26er to a 29er. Here’s a quick summary of the differences.

The larger diameter on the 29er maintains momentum better and rolls over things more easily, which is why you find bigger tires on road bikes and monster trucks.

“It’s more efficient in every aspect,” Haskin said.

The larger tire also puts more rubber in contact with the ground, which provides better traction.

A 26-inch wheel is more nimble on a tight trail and also accelerates quicker. A 26er also gives you a lighter bike with a tighter turning radius than a 29er.

“It’s like trying to make a hairpin corner in a Cadillac instead of Porsche,” he said.

Some of the disadvantages of 26-inch wheels, such as rolling over obstacles, can be overcome through suspension designs, which is one reason why full-suspension 26ers have become so popular.

Because 26ers are standard size, they tend to be less expensive than a similarly equipped 29er.

There are many comparisons and discussions between the two wheel sizes and a lot of opinion and argument over which is “better.”

Mountain Bike Action magazine did a side-by-side comparison of two identically equipped bikes made by Cannondale, one with 29-inch wheels and one with 26-inch wheels. Each cost less than $1,100 retail.

The bikes were hard tails, or with suspension fork only, built on identical frames, except one frame was adjusted to accommodate 29-inch wheels. The 26er weighed 28 pounds, and the 29er weighed 30.

Testers rode the two bikes, and compared differences in handling, cornering, climbing, descending and more.

Much of their conclusions were predictable. The 26er accelerated faster and was more agile. The 29er was slower from the start, but held speed better. It was more stable, but cornered slower.

Other conclusions were more dramatic. Testers found the 29er rolled over rough terrain significantly better.

“Rocks and roots that needed to be avoided on the 26er can be ridden over on the 29er,” testers said. “We are not talking about a subtle difference. We’re talking night and day. Beginners and experienced riders could both feel the smoother ride performance of the 29er immediately.”

Although 2 pounds heavier, the 29er also got the nod for climbing. The only knock against it was it was harder to restart after a rider stalled on a hill.

Descending was a bit of split decision with 29er more stable, comfortable and better overall traction, while the 26er was more nimble and lively through twisty trails.

“If you are new to mountain biking, the 29er is the runaway winner. It is not even a close race. The 29er does not require the skill set that a 26er rider has to develop to have a good time,” the testers concluded. “The wheels make for a far more forgiving bike and slow up the handling enough to make it harder to make a mistake.”

But the testers’ preference for the 29er came with a caveat: “Experienced riders will have a tough time giving up their 26ers, because once you have developed the skills, the 26er is a lot more fun to ride.”

So does that make the 29er the better choice? Remember it is only a comparison between two hard tail bikes. When full suspension enters the picture, it changes things dramatically. Many disadvantages of the 26er can be overcome by the bike’s suspension.

This comparison also makes no mention of the type of terrain the riders were on, which also factors into which bike works better.

©2012 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)

 

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