It’s hard to know what to make of the 29er explosion on display at Interbike this week. Most boutique manufacturers are coming out with 29-inch models, and Lenz even was showing a 29er downhill bike — 7 inches of long travel (really long when you consider the bigger wheels) with a 26-inch mod kit for the rear if the big wheel is just too much. Why you’d get a 29er for downhilling and then switch out to a 26-inch rear is one of those great Unsolved Mysteries that will never make the TV show, but it is what it is.
First, a reality check. When manufacturers and PR types talk about the 29er revolution, they’re mixing marginal data with speculation and hope. I have yet to see an industry figure for 29er adoption. There’s another revolution in mountain biking going on, too, having to do with tubeless tires. For loose yardstick purposes, keep the tubeless “revolution” in mind in evaluating the 29er revolution.
I can’t see most downhillers, who are compact guys and gals between 5-9 and 6-0, getting much advantage from a 29er. But someone who did come to mind is the all-time greatest, Steve Peat, a big guy with shoulders broad as Texas who tosses a conventional 26-inch downhill bike around like it was a BMX.
It’d be interesting to have a guy of Peaty’s dimensions (6-2, 200 lbs) try out the 29er DH. Or even the new Santa Cruz Tallboy 4-inch 29er for that matter (Peat rides for SC). If Peat smokes the field riding a 29er then I’d say yeah, we have a winnah!
There’s no question that a 29er is going to roll faster and cover more ground than a 26-inch bike. If downhilling were just a matter of point and rip, then yes, by all means, a 29er would belong in your quiver. But downhill courses are among the most technically demanding racing a rider can do. There’s lots of twisting and turning and braking and railing. It’s a big question-mark whether the gyroscopic advantages of going 29 translate into an arena modeled for 26-inch competition.
Here at Bike Intelligencer, we’re keeping an open mind. We’ve ridden 29ers and like them. We don’t own any. But we have friends who love the things (for awhile; after the honeymoon, most relegate their 29ers to specific trails and types of riding), and who are all over six feet tall. We may yet see the light. After all, we are just a tad over 6-0. And out of the seven bikes we own, one does actually really truly sport tubeless wheels.