With the explosion of 29″ wheeled mountain bikes over the past two years, more mountain bikers who may not have been sure on the change have made the switch. Some like it, some love it, other riders aren’t too fussed on the difference. At the recent JetBlack WSMTB 12hr in August, Gary Harwood had the opportunity to revert back from his new 29er full suspension Cannondale, to the 26″ variant. Perhaps we all need to be reaching into our quiver of bikes more often?
“Having made the transition rather late into the 29er market, i picked up my Cannondale Scalpel 29er around six months ago just before The Ingkerreke Commercial MTB Enduro. Having been a little sceptical at first i’d managed to hold back from the big wheels as long as i could. But always a sucker for trends and the ‘next big thing’, I finally caved and bought the big wheeled beast!
Now this isn’t going to the usual story of how great 29ers are and how stable and planted they feel, or how well they roll. Although, I will tell you that in the six months i’ve owned it, I haven’t ridden my high end 26 inch bike once!
I must say though, I reckon the new 29er is probably the best Mtb i’ve ever ridden. (But don’t we always say that about our new steeds?)
Anyway, Fast forward to August and I was entered in a 4 person Mixed team at The Rocky Trail/Jet Black 12hr at Dargle Farm with Subaru-MarathonMTB Riders Kath Bicknell and Tate Dogan. Another blow in from Cannondale was The Columbian rider Jorge Baron. After a warmup lap to familiarise myself with the course it was quite clear that it was a course for the 29er. A fairly flat loop with very little tight switchback and a couple of techy pinchclimbs, a fair bit of open, straightish firetrail and the singletrack was a flowing affair with nothing too daunting.
Two laps in and all was good until I realised, inbetween my laps, I had a major mechanical I couldn’t fix that day.
I thought my race was over and the team was reduced to a 3 person until Jorge offered to lend me his Cannondale Scalpel 26er. After frantically swapping pedals, number plate and a few other minor tweaks she was ready to roll. But I was very apprehensive about getting back on a ‘Kids’ bike after riding my ‘big’ bike for the last six months.
Tate came flying into transition and off I went, across the grass paddock and towards the first climb.
The bike felt tiny and I felt like I was leaning way too forwards over the front wheel, the smaller witdth of the bars became apparent as soon as I hit the climb and I noticed the tension across my shoulders. I traversed the rock section with no problems, although I felt like I was concentrating harder to find a line and not slip the back wheel.
Across the top then down the singletrack downhill with a couple of turns, I felt like i was fighting the bike and with any lack of concentration the bike would have thrown me into the undergrowth.
Onto the first flat section of the course and I really had to spin my legs to get the speed I wanted, it certainly made me feel like I was working harder to keep the same speed as the 29er! By the end of the first lap my shoulders were aching like crazy and my hands had gone numb due to me leaning on my ulnar nerves on the outside of my palms, thanks to the narrow bars. I was a little worried that the pain in the shoulders and hands were going to get much worse later in the day but my second lap on the 26er I felt somewhat more familiar and a little more comfortable, enjoying the lap much more this time.
I enjoyed the fact the bike made you work a little harder and made you think a little quicker, something I hadn’t felt in a while! Not that riding a ‘Big’ bike doesn’t require thought and skill, it’s just different?
By the end of the day and 4 laps on the ‘kids’ bike i can honestly say I really enjoyed it. Yes, my hands kept getting numb and my shoulders still hurt like hell but that was to do with it’s bar width and agressive xc geometry and setup. I’ve realised since then that even though I own a race ready 29er with a low stem and flat bars, It still feels a hell of a more relaxed ride than it’s 26inch sibling.
I’ve grown acustomed to this and although the majority of my racing is 70% XC, 30% Marathon, I can’t see myself going back to and certainly ever buying a 26inch wheel Mtb ever again. With 29ers, you just don’t have to try as hard! MTB racing is a pretty tough sport and (once you’ve become accustomed to one), the big wheeled bikes really do make it a little less tough.
Having looked at the lap times I was expecting my times to drop dramatically as soon as I swapped to the 26inch bike but suprisingly (especially as I had never ridden the bike before) my times only got slower by the expected amount on a multi lap race and the downward arc was constant in times as I became more fatigued through the day!. I was completely thrown by this and thought my times would have been much worse!
Since this race, I’ve made more of an effort to ride my 26inch bike. I’m really not drawn to it but feel that I should ride it as it’s a very expensive dust collector. The only upgrade i’m considering is to get some new, wider bars which would match the width of my 29er bars.
I know the argument will be going on for a long time yet and this story is just one persons opinion. Each to their own and all that and all we need now is for the manufacturers to throw another wheel size into the equation!
What? 650b! WTF???????”