The Way of the 29er

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I’m really into 29ers these days. Not heard of them? They’re basically bikes with 700c wheels, big fat mtb tyres and a rejigged geometry so there’s no toe overlap. Popular in the US, the 29 bit refers to the approximate size of the wheels’ outside diameter. I tried one out on a What Mountain Bike shoot. Instantly smitten, it didn’t take long before I’d bought one. My first impression, before I’d really got into this whole *movement* (as it turns out to be), was the front tyre’s anaconda-like grip on the ground, and the way it just rolls and rolls and rolls.

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But why? There’s loads of stuff on the internet debating the pros and cons of a 29er compared to the now traditional 26incher; vocal preachers and avid demonizers alike airing their views. As a fairly tall rider (6’1″ with giraffe legs), 29ers immediately felt right. They looked right too, which I like in a bike. Nicely in proportion. A longer fork means less spacers stacked up like casino chips to get a comfortable cockpit, and as I run a long seat post, there’s no need to a ridiculously high riser bar to balance it out.

I’ve tried the Inbred in pretty much all its incarnations. Singlespeed rigid in Ashton Court, with a Rock Shox Reba fork, gears for Wales, a Rohloff for touring in China, and now I’ve purloined a carbon fork so I can experiment with it light, rigid and geared. The upshot is that I’m riding faster than before, with more confidence: thanks to those big wheels, and their useful knack of rolling over things rather than hitting them. In fact, with that big pocket of air, they almost act like suspension. Not 100mm travel suspension (which seems more than ample for these bikes) but enough to take the edge off a lumpy trail.

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The sliding dropout gizmo means the Inbred is a real chameleon. There’s even a special hanger with a mini torque arm for a Rohloff. It’s a bit more fiddly to run a BOB trailer, as you need to space the dropouts a bit, or cut down the skewer. I’ve only used it for the groceries so need to check how it handles heavier loads, as single wheel trailers put loads of stress on the dropouts. You’ll need a longer trailer yoke too, or the back tyre will rub. Check out those extravagant blue-capped Hopes. They were due for Cara’s colour co-cordinated Cotic Soul, but they arrived late so I got them (-:

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The argument against big wheels is that, being inherently more stable, they’re more unwieldly to turn than their 26in brothers. Well, no complaints with how the On One handles – it’s certainly no slouch. I believe it’s the only 29er currently sporting a fork with a specific 29er offset (47mm) to sharpen up steering (by reducing ‘trail’), while also helping out with toe/tyre clearance. 29er goemetry and fork offset have yet to settle down across the brands – though this looks like the way it will go with forks, rather than taking a normal 26in fork and sticking a bit on the end…

What’s in a number?

The big complaint (funnily enough, generally from people who don’t ride them) is that the extra size and weight of the wheel makes life harder in tight singletrack, as it requires more effort to kick the bigger wheels up to speed. While this makes sense, those who favour a fluid riding style rather than a stop-start explosive one probably won’t find it such a big deal, within reason. In fact, it may even bring out the best in your riding. The big wheels seem to roll nonchalantly over roots, allowing you to pick up more tempo. Far from holding you back, all that rubber corners like it’s on rails, thanks to a longer tyre patch with the ground. I particularly like the way the bike seems to lope along like my (now sadly departed) lurcher Tramp. Full of potential energy, coaxing you to ride a little faster, use a little less brake, urging you to see what it/you can really do. The downside is that extra tyre=more area for mud to stick to, and hence even more weight in UK winter conditions. But the advantage is that it’s more inclined to float over boggy and muddy patches rather than sinking in. After riding a Surly Karate Monkey on this year’s Coast to Coast off road epic with Cara and Kieran, I was unanimously crowned BogMaster.

I’m still tweaking the setup, and there’s some of the fiddly stuff to sort out, like cutting down brake hoses and tydying up the fork steerer length. A few bits are borrowed, like the minimally lovely Middleburn cranks, the lightweight Speedcity wheelset and the leggy On One Superlight carbon forks. I’m even trying out a 29/44 chainring combo. Another experiment.

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Only two chainrings means a neater chainline and less to think about. The 29er wheel accounts for about a cog and a half difference in gear size over a 26in bike, so I could envisage running out of gears on a long technical climb. A bigger gear means you have to attack the climb faster, like a singlespeed, and use the momentum and that extra 29er grip to hurl you up. So far I like it, though I’m having trouble getting it to shift reliably into the smallest cog at the back – removing a couple of links from the chain helped. (edit: I’ve now fitted a longer arm rear mech, and that has sorted it out) Think I’ll fit a Tiagra front mech I have around, as this will maximise tyre clearance and look a bit neater too.

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On One’s new carbon forks weigh about 940g, have massive clearances and are unashamedly cylindrical to keep them on track. Like the steel version the frame came with, it has a 47mm, 29er specific offset. I’ve fitted a 180mm front disc, the norm these days so I’m told. Does the job nicely.

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Tyres… There’s more and more options available, though most shop still don’t have any in stock, which is a pain. I’ve been running these light Little Alberts, which are about 600g and 2.1″ wide. I’d like to try some Bontragers Jones XRs, as they’re a wider tyre for extra grip, yet don’t seem to suffer much weight penalty. Mavic’s Speedcity wheelset is a bit narrow really; if you run the tyre pressure low it rolls a bit and they’re not the stiffest laterally. But for their weight they’re ridiculously strong, and are unblemished despite numerous outings down rocky coombes in the Quantocks and Exmoor. A wider rim would spread out the tyre and increase its contact area with the ground – which I think would be a good thing, if you’re not running suspension.

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Having got used to the mighty Rohloff and its low maintenance pleasures, if I’m to use derailleurs I like old, simple things like thumb shifters. Again, it’s that tourer mentality. Easy to set up, little to go wrong and in the greater scheme of things, not that much slower. This is my first set of disc brakes and unfortunately, they don’t quite work with the thumbies. The reservoir sits proud, so you have to shunt the shifter along or run it at a steeper angle. It would be no problemo with a mechanical disc brake though, as they use V-brake levers – a better option to take abroad anyway. The Ergon grips are the business, particularly with a rigid fork, though the smaller, women’s ones are best off road unless you have bear-paws.

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I like the design. It’s a bit of a cheeky bike really. And look at all that room in there – there’s no brace on the stays, so yet more mud clearance. The rear triangle seems a bit out so the tyre is noticeably closer to one side than the other. Bugs me to look at, but don’t notice it when I’m riding – though it wouldn’t be great with really fat tyres. Unfortunately there’s no eyelets for a rack, though Old Man Mountain do some that would fit using the V-brakes bosses and a replacement skewer. Or I guess they could be brazed on by someone like Argos (no, not Argoos, the high street shop).

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Those big wheels are certainly BIG but somehow they don’t really look it. In fact, most people don’t notice I’m even riding a 29er. Until I put it next to Cara’s diddy little Cotic, when it becomes a prop from the Land Of The Giants.

Touring is always lurking at the back of my mind, and I’m beginning to think that 29ers would make ideal backcountry touring bikes, with the added versatility that you could throw on some fast road tyres too. Ditch the suspension – with these wheels you can get away with it – and just roll merrily along. The downside is the availability of 29er kit (though that is rapidly mushrooming), and more importantly, the lack of big tyres/700c rims outside of N America and Europe. As I generally ride with Cara, it means less compatibility of parts. But the upside is so tempting that I’m thinking of going with it anyway.

Being accustomed to bombproof-builds (let alone a suitcase worth of camping gear in my panniers), I’m used to the manners of a heavy bike. Although the steel frame is certainly no lightweight, I’ve tried to keep the weight down, as it does make a big difference to the fun-factor – bit worried I’m becoming a weight fanatic these days. With the Speedcities and the carbon fork, I think it’s coming in at about 25 and a half pounds (without pedals). I hope in my pursuit to shave off excess gs, it will hit the sub 25 mark without compromising durability too much.

So all in all, I love my 29er. It feels good, and I like riding it. I guess if it boils down to it, 26in wheels still are the best option for a ‘one wheel fits all’ bike. But if there are other wheel sizes about, why not make the most of them?

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Edit: there’s a few more thoughts on touring with a 29er on our Scotland post.

1/1/08: see how the On One fared riding Sichuan Singletrack in China…

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6 Responses to “The Way of the 29er”


  1. 1 Glenn Rabenold April 22, 2008 at 1:18 am

    Can’t get the frame I want built. I happen to need 26ers because I tour in Mexico and have already had to replace two tires down there. I need fat pneumatics to absorb the shock of carrying so much weight. I have a BOB trailer and full front and back “saddlebags”.

    I also need to go titanium. I went through a rear drop-out this last year. Titanium is highly durable. I have a titanium axle and used it for the last 4,000 miles.

    Titanium “raw” material does not extend to 26er rigid forks. No such animal. I will probably have to go with carbon for the front. I need the right bosses to go with the forks so I can place a rack on the front. I also need the threaded reflector hole at the base of the Y, in the fork. Low-rider panniers aren’t worth anything. Everyone is hitting curbs and obstacles with them. I also like the front rack for the perfect place to store my tent. Can’t have a normal rack surface on low-riders. Low-riders use a different boss on the fork and either a threaded hole midlength in the fork, OR clamps on the forks.

    Right now, I am using a Specialized Hard Rock. It was the first production model mountain bike and is STILL the only machine that can handle everything I need. STOCK had the wheel specs I need, too.

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