29er BETTer, FASTer, HARDer, STRONGer?
The 26 or 29 discussion is comparable in many ways to that of discussing the merits of a two stroke over a four stroke moto-x bike.
They are harder to ride, slower, more expensive, just a fad, don’t handle, don’t accelerate, can’t go round corners, won’t manual or wheelie, hard to jump, won’t change direction as quick and are not really an mtb. Various comments made by bikers but did they give 29er’s a break?
Friends in the know Dickon at Jungle, Rob Roskopp (owner of Santa Cruz) and Steve Peat suggested that I really ought to try a 29er, they thought it would suit the type of long challenging endurance rides that I do. The problem was I didn’t quite get it, the only ones I had ridden where Steve’s and had heavy tyres or hardtails that felt very different to my carbon blur.
I wanted to do the West Highland Way double on a 26er, others had failed on a 26 so doing it on a 29er was not right. That successfully out of the way bring on the 29er, It came in the shape of a Tallboy probably the best looking bike on the market after my favourite the Nomad, so here we go, my year in the saddle of a 29er.
First ride out was a local trail centre and an education to say the least, the placebo effect that normally comes with a first ride out on a new bike was short lived, It’s not like any other mtb and requires a very different technique, I made many errors and eventually disappeared to the back of the bunch. The worst part was my mate Steve was riding my Blur and was now at the front, I had given him the fastest bike I have ever had and sold my soul to the devil in the pursuit of speed.
The bottom bracket is lower so you are lower in relation to the wheel axles, almost In the bike not on it, this gives you a lower centre of gravity and adds to the feel of extra grip. Swapping from 26 to 29 made me feel like the 29er was a big mans bike, swapping back the 26 it felt like a boys bike, too small more twitchy and less stable wrestling it through the corners to find grip and direction.
My first thoughts were, you took a 26er for a ride and a 29er takes you, but once you alter your technique and are back in your comfort zone you find yourself getting faster again, the larger wheels smooth out bumps you get used to the feel and get more involved using the increased grip in the corner and come out faster with less need to accelerate out of corners as you would on a 26. They need better brakes as the extra speed, grip and torque can warp light weight discs so I use either Shimano or Hope Discs now.
It takes a while to adapt to a 29er both physically and mentally, you can’t just jump on one and be instantly dialed in, I had to develop a way of riding which used different muscles .The transition between the two takes time but If you put the effort in and can adapt it’s worth it.
People who can adapt to riding a 29er find it hard to get back on a 26 and go as fast, just as I found it hard to go quick on a 29er when I first got on one, so comparisons done by magazines with 26 riders on 29ers and vice versa are compromised by personal preference, a 26 rider will go slower on a 29 and a 29 rider will go slower on a 26. I thought the best way was to spend a year in the saddle in various situations, swapping between 26 and 29 clouded the issue.
Over a short lap the difference is negligible between 29 and 26, that changes on longer rides where the 29er comes into it’s element, suiting the rider who likes to go further or does endurance races.
I went on a trip to Torridon in the summer and rode with others on 26 long travel bikes, they were all very good bike riders and Torridon is as hard core as it gets, and the Tallboy lapped it up.
The thing that makes all the difference on any bike is the rotational weight, the rims spokes, tubes and tyres are heavier on a 29er, and can be more expensive. Tyre choices have been limited compared to 26 which is an area that is improving. A 29er wheel is not quite as strong as a 26, this is where quality is key on a 29er.
One thing that bucks the trend of extra weight, flexibility and rolling resistance is Enve carbon rims. I was lucky enough to have some on lend and bolted them in asap, they look absolutely fantastic and transformed the bike making it so tight handling it’s now more accurate than my 26 with alloy rims.
Shortly after my first few rides on carbon rims around Glentress & Fort William, we went to the Downhill World Cup and met up with Jason Schiers and Joe Stanish from Enve, I discussed my experiences on their carbon rims over dinner, no surprise to them or the Santa Cruz Syndicate Team who choose to use them on their downhill bikes, stronger and lighter in the same sentence is very rare but true of their products, especially the rims.
Enve carbon rims are the best rims I have ever fitted to any bike and possibly the best addition I have ever made to a mountain bike, they are that good.
The other rims I run have had to be trued up several times after doing the same amount of rides as the Enve rims, but the Enve rims haven’t needed any work, they may be more expensive but worth it. They keep direction and roll better than alloy rims they also wheelie better which brings me to another myth that 29ers struggle to lift the front wheel. Initially it is harder but they are far better than a 26er when you get used to them, the balance point is more stable. I wish I had one for the C2C wheelie I did, it would have been a less traumatic journey.
So, is a 29er better?
There is more corner speed if you are willing to push the limit to find it, but don’t accelerate as quickly, they are more comfortable and more stable at speed and you can ride them for longer distances off road with less effects on the body, they roll over big stuff easier, change direction quick enough and don’t get thrown off line as easy as a 26er. Off camber and rooty sections also become less of a task, although all that extra performance can cost a bit more, you can easily argue it’s worth it.
There are various choices that cover your needs, a Tallboy 100mm travel 29er full sus has the feel of a longer travel bike without the sag, a Highball hardtail feels more like a 100mm travel bike without loss of energy associated with rear suspension. Then there’s the 140mm travel Tallboy LTc which I am looking forward to riding soon, It is reported to be the equivalent to a Nomad, same ability with less travel and weight, I will let you know about that soon.
What would I choose? Well I’m sticking with the Tallboy, basically for the things I have in mind in future, long rides and events, watch this space! I have it dialed now and am a 29er convert.
To quote Dickon at Jungle “Joe, you have to take your medicine, It’s in the guise of a 29er but it will make you feel better’’ Now I continue take my 29er three times a week with a drink after meals, my 26er has moved on after being mothballed covered in dust through lack of use, welcome to the dark side.
At the end of the day be it 26 or 29 both have their merits. If your aim is to find a way of getting faster, take a 29er for a test ride but bear in mind that my words here are based on a Santa Cruz Tallboy, a Benchmark bike and not many bikes can live up to it’s reputation, Santa Cruz get things right before they launch a bike, Better, Faster, Harder, Stronger.
But if you just want a new bike and are size curious I hope I may have shed a little light on the dark art of the 29er.