The 29er Conundrum: Revolution or Acquired Taste?

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Every year at the start of the bike season (around springtime), manufacturers put out the theme for the year’s merchandising push.

This year it seems to be: 29ers are here to stay. So get yours now!

(There’s a subtext as well, which is: Get ready for the 650b Revolution! 650b being the tire size splitting the difference between the standard 26er and the 29er.)

We at BikeIntelligencer have puzzled over all the hot talk re 29ers since it first stirred the pot back in the day. We in fact had the pleasure of riding with a WTB (Wilderness Trail Bikes) 29er pioneer a decade ago on Sunday morning rides with Keith Denebeim’s Tam Valley Bike Club.

Over the years we’ve seen a number of friends, colleagues and riders we respect get 29ers for their main steed. And here’s the bottom line: Nearly all have gone back to 26ers.

The exceptions have been folks falling into 3 categories:

1. They are sponsored riders paid in part to promote bikes that happen to be 29ers.

2. Their favorite rides are tailor made for ‘niners.

3. They are tall.

The other folks — the ones who bought 29ers with their own hard-earned cash just to see what the buzz was all about — have just about to a rider abandoned or shelved the big wheels.

When we ask them why, we get a surprising variety of answers. But they all militate toward a common theme, which is: Lack of versatility. 29ers are great bikes for certain specific purposes, which can include racing but mostly involve classic cross-country (XC) singletrack.

The problem is, most riders don’t ride just XC. Most riders in fact do a lot more with trail riding (aggressive-trail, freeriding, or downhill), where things like maneuverability, quickness and handling are paramount. It may seem like a joke to point it out, but so far 29ers haven’t made it big in slope style, 4-cross, enduro or downhill competitions. They aren’t even the bike of choice in World Cup XC events, although some riders have done well on them.

We go up to Whistler every summer and have yet to see much evidence of a 29er boom there. Out on the trails in NorCal this summer-like winter, we have noticed an uptick in 29ers. But they’re hardly a threat to displace conventional mountain bikes.

We stopped and chatted with the owner of a spanking new 29er on the climb up Mount Tam a month ago. Why had he gotten a ‘niner? “Curiosity.” What did he think so far. “It’s…OK.” It was hardly a ringing endorsement, although he did say he’d not had enough ride time to adequately evaluate it.

Another facet of the ‘niner buzz that frustrates us is the broad generalizing about the bikes with little quantitative basis. Commentary after promo commentary hints that the bigger tires make riding over obstacles easier, forward momentum stronger and ride stability greater. While those may be observationally true, we have yet to see any scientific substantiation.

In that vein, we were intrigued to see the 29er versus 26er shootout in the most recent (No. 23) issue of Mountain Flyer magazine by racer Michael McCalla, who compared similarly set up bikes over a variety of terrains for time and power output (wattage).

McCalla’s startling conclusion: No quantifiable difference between the two. Interestingly, McCalla experienced the same feedback that 29er evangelists promote regarding ride feel. But none of it translated into any actual ride advantage.

McCalla’s findings may have surprised us, but they mirror our own reaction to 29ers. We’ve ridden fully rigid, hardtail and full suspension versions of 29ers and always had the same response. They feel great for the first hour or so. Then they feel OK. Not long after, their idiosyncrasies start to make us hanker for our familiar mount.

We do think that 29ers are great for taller riders (6’2″ and above). A big powerful guy like Dejay Birtch thrives on a Niner, and not just because the Niner brand sponsors him. We can see why the (tall) maestro, Gary Fisher, was so stoked at the idea in the first place.

And for specific terrain — flowy, not-too twisty or technical singletrack — 29ers are a hoot for just about anybody. But are you gonna do drops or hucks and jumps on a 29er? Is a 29er suited for your favorite downhill? And what about having to buy spare 29er everythings, like wheels and tires and tubes? Ka-ching!

We’re firmly in the camp of “to each his (or her) own.” Just because we don’t ride 29ers doesn’t mean we hate them.

But when someone starts talking 29er Jesus to us, we have to smile and shake our heads. They’re just wasting their time.

A friend of ours, citing the Church of Big Hoops, put it well in a modified Christian hymn. Feel free to sing along!

Hoop of ages, spin for me
For a slightly higher fee.
Though the weight is kinda high
And the roll out burns the thigh.

29ers rule the day
Just get in the line and pay!

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1 thought on “The 29er Conundrum: Revolution or Acquired Taste?”

  1. Nicely made case. I think you’re right about “to each his own”. I have converted my stable to exclusively 29er over the last couple of years after having played with some very nice 26ers. But I see some points you made about 29ers that just don’t ring true.
    I dont fit into any of your categories. I am just shy of 6′, am not paid to ride a 29er and ride very rock gardens and rooty East coast trails. I prefer to roll rather than drop, and the 29er allows me to do so with confidence where a 26er would be endo-ing. I don’t like getting hurt. Climbing a technical assent on a 29er hardtail is akin to a sophisticated short travel full suspension 26er bike. Clearing a rock garden on a dual suspension 29er is unlike anything on a 26er. I ride with a varied group of guys, mostly 40’s to 50’s, and mostly shorter than me. They all ride 29ers, and each has seen their trail riding improve dramatically with the transition. I think 26ers actually offer a nimbleness to the racier rider that a 29er cannot match. its different. The rear end stays glued when you might want it to drift, but then tire choice can make up for that. I strongly believe 29ers are better for my style of riding. But I am well aware that others ride a 26er better. BTW my wife is 4′-10″ and rides a custom ti rigid 29er. Her confidence over rocky descents has soared and her ability to clear whole sections that she used to walk puts a smile on her face.

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