Saturday, February 7, 2009

26" Wheels or 29"? You Make the Call.

Allow me to enjoin the debate over whether 26" or 29" is the way to go for the mountain biking enthusiast. If this is discussion you've already had with your biking buddies, you've already found out that people tend to be as opinionated about this as they are about everything in the bike world.

Some say that the 29er is a silly fad, and that the only reason people are latching on to them is to be different. I think this is premature statement at best and, at worst, stupid one. On the other hand, there are those who will tell you that the days of the 26" wheel mountain bike are numbered, because the 29" is far superior in every possible way. This also is a premature statement at best, and at worst, really, really stupid.

The simple fact is 29" is right for some people while 26" is better for others. It all depends on what you want to do with your bike that determines which one is the better call. It all comes down to understanding the pros and cons of each size, of which the following are just a few.

The Pros- Because 29" wheels are a larger diameter, they give several distinct advantages over the 26". They roll over bumps more smoothly and maintain their momentum more easily. They allow for a larger tire contact patch with the ground for better climbing and cornering traction.

The Cons- The larger diameter 29ers result in a wheel that has more rotational mass, meaning there is more inertia to overcome in order to get the bike both moving and slowed down again. The wheel is also taller, but with the same width hub as on a 26er, meaning the lateral stiffness of the wheel is less, which in turn increases their susceptibility to ending up "taco-ed" in a crash. Cramming these large wheels onto a smaller frame without compromising the geometry or creating unwanted toe overlap presents its problems too. If you are less then 5'4" your chances of finding a nice riding 29er are almost nil.

So what does all this translate to in the real world? What type of riding is best suited to which wheel size. Here's how I see it.

If you enjoy the simplicity of a hardtail frame and you're not a midget, the 29er is a great option. It will ride smoothly sans suspension on most trails, and makes for a great singlespeed or commuter. Taller riders also get along well with the greater wheel size. A guy who's 6'8' riding a 26" wheel makes about as much sense as myself (at 5'9") riding a 24" wheel. The proportions just work out better.

If you like tackling really rough trails and jumping off of everything in sight with abandon, and are sometimes a little rough on your wheels, you'll probably get along better with a 26" wheel full suspension bike. Let's face it. There's a reason that 29er downhill bikes simply don't exist. It's a stupid idea. Even 29ers with 5" inches of full suspension travel seem to me to be a little like an amphibious car. In it's effort to be versatile it ends up not doing anything very well.

So there you have it- yet another opinion on top of a mountain of opinions, but I'd like to think of it as the little flag on top. Of course, in a perfect world, we'd all have a 29er and a 26" and we could pick which one to ride depending on the trail we're riding that day and how we feel. Until then?... shop wisely.



GenghisKhan said...

Excellent, well-balanced article and advice!

Anonymous said...

Correction. 29" gives you a different shape contact patch, but not a larger one. Two theoretical tires supporting 180 lbs at 30 psi will have 3 square inches of contact patch for each tire.

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