Originally, I wanted to say “Upgrading to a 29er.” But I realized that that would be biased. It would suggest that 26er bikes were somehow inferior, which is hardly the case. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why 26 inch wheels have come to dominate the mountain bike world.
But first things first. For those new to mountain biking, a 29er is a bike that has wheels with a diameter of 29 inches. Standard mountain bikes have smaller 26 inch wheels. And no you can’t simply slap a 29 inch wheel into a standard mountain bike, they just won’t fit. You’ll need a new bike frame and a new fork as well.
So why did I choose to switch to a 29er? More than anything else, I guess it’s because I wanted to try something new. Just like my switch last year to a more minimalist style of running, the switch to a 29er means forcing yourself to re-learn mountain biking.
Of course, it also helps that 29er wheels supposedly offer advantages that smaller 26 inch wheels don’t. Some of the more common claims made about 29ers are:
A 29er offers a smoother ride.
Engineers at the NASA human propulsion laboratory have calculated a significant variation in the angle of approach to an obstacle between a 26er and a 29er, and have consequently determined that 29ers are… way smoother. Actually I just made that up. But if you’re really into the technical stuff, there’s a very interesting and mathematical discussion about diameters and angles of approach on mtbr.com. My two cents worth? Smoother indeed. Having bigger wheels means you can roll over small bumps without feeling too much jag.
A 29er is less likely to deflected by large obstacles
I have yet to test my rig in a proper trail, but I tried to simulate encountering large obstacles on my rides around the UP Diliman campus. The kerbs in UP range from 4-6 inches. On my 26er, I needed to do a minor wheelie to get over them. On the 29er, I just plowed right on. Having bigger wheels means you can roll over large bumps without too much effort. This means you can go faster on rough terrain.
A 29er is easier to handle on steep climbs
Again, I have yet to test the 29er on a proper technical climb. But on the steepest section of The Wall on the way to Timberland, I felt more comfortable rising out of the saddle than I did on the 26er. It didn’t require as much handling to keep the rear wheel from losing traction. The bike is longer from wheel to wheel, which means you are less likely to tip it over by shifting your weight to the front.
A 29er feels like a better fit for a tall rider
Some say people who are less than 5’5 should stay away from 29ers. But I’m 5’9 and so this huge bike feels just about right.
I can’t wait to test the 29er on a proper trail this weekend so I can discover for myself its other supposed advantages. But even with my limited testing time on pavement, I also noticed some disadvantages of the 29er compared to a 26er.
A 29er is slightly harder to turn.
Bigger wheels require a much larger area to shift direction. On a narrow road, it’s almost like making a two-point turn on a car. On fast descents, you need to lean further to the side to make it turn. A 26er is definitely snappier when it comes to turns.
A 29er is harder to accelerate
Bigger wheels require more effort to move, thus the new bike feels a bit sluggish at the start. Standing up on your pedals and mashing big gears don’t seem to have quite the same effect as they did on the 26er. But once you get them moving, they retain that speed a lot better.
A 29er needs more braking power
Because they retain speed better, they also require more effort to stop. I found myself squeezing the brakes harder on the descent from Timberland. It takes some getting used to.
29er wheels feel flexier.
While a 29er can easily roll over a six-inch high obstacle, the wheel does feel flexier when it does this. A 26er wheel on the other hand, feels stiffer and stronger.
A 29er is harder to fit in the elevator
My old bike required only a simple twist to fit in our building’s elevator. This new 29er bike however requires some complex jiujitsu to make it fit. And now no one else can ride the elevator while me and my bike are in there.
Anyway, I’ll be testing the new rig on proper trails this weekend. Hopefully I chose the right weapon for upcoming XC race in La Mesa next month. Hopefully, I won’t need to do anymore upgrades soon. Upgraditis wreaks havoc on pockets.
UPDATE: Tested it several times on real trails and I must say I love the 29er. Sure, it’s not as nimble as a 26er, but since I am not exactly Justin Bieber’s age anymore, I don’t mind. I don’t do a lot of flicking or tricks, but I like long epic rides and this where the bigger wheels stand out.
But if you must ask: which is faster? Well there’s no easy answer to this. 26ers supposedly accelerate faster, but 29ers retain momentum better. Angry Singlespeeder of mtbr has put both types of bikes to the test, and thinks he has it all figured out. It’s a very interesting article :)