Fun on a 29er

So, having heard all about these new fangled big wheeled 29in Mountain bikes, the opportunity arose to test ride one of them for the first time.

To give you some balance, I ll quickly run through what I ride usually. I have a (26in) Cotic Soda, a Ti Trail/XC hard tail with a 120mm fork. I tend to use 2.1in tyres unless we re off doing something big. I ve loved my bike for 5 years or so and have ridden it in 24hr races, XC races, trail centres, all day natural epics, trail centres, down Snowdon and on trips to Spain/Pyrenees. It is an older version that predates all these new fangled frame designs like tapered headtubes, BB30 and such like. It is a bike known for being a little flex/noodly in exchange for a bit of extra comfort. I ve not ridden a FS bike for a long while.

I live near Certini Cycles, who remain one of the best bike shops I ve ever been to. As a Specialized concept store they let you demo bikes for free. I was given a 17.5in Stumpjumper Comp. They re full carbon loveliness and come with a 85mm RS Reba fork. At first I felt like the bike could be a smidge to long for me but having messed about with set up and dropped the bars a bit it felt good. After all this is Specialized’s XC race hardtail frame. People rode this bike in the Olympics! (I did nt)

Day 1 – Haldon Forest (trail centre)

I took the bike, and my parents to Haldon forest which is a decent little, if not super, trail centre near Exeter for the bikes first ride. Knocking about in the Skills section I was able to gather some thought on the bike:-

  • Manualling/jumping/drops were notably harder work than I was used to. Although drops were not impossible, they required significantly more body language to get the requisite fore/aft movement to get the wheel off the ground.
  • Grip was exceptional, I pointed it at some stupid things deliberately and just mashed the pedals, it was amazing what it just rolled up.
  • There was a little bermed section there that I rode fast, the bike was undoubtably harder to turn, in fact the first turn I did I went straight on at. This was to be a day of understeer. The bar width was exactly the same as what I ve got on Suzy (680mm) and it really felt like I could have done with another few centimetres each side. Alternatively (given that the frame felt long anyway) a shorter stem could have helped. However it already had an 80/90mm stem (I think) so i couldnt have gone much shorter.
  • To summarise the bike felt like it was on rails – but it didnt always feel like those rails were going around the corner

Moving onto the Blue Trail for the first time (hey, i was with my parents and sometimes you have to be a good son!) gave me the chance to ride the bike flat out. Man these things really do go. Stony surfaces, mud and roots are dispatched with ease. However, it became clear very early that pumping the trail and popping off little drops/rises is near impossible. Climbing is notably easier, in fact it is possible to stand up and chug up trails that had 26ers sliding out. I could almost lean over the front of the bars, roadie style, and not slide out such was the extra grip (almost, its still MTBing after all!).

The “good parts” of 29ers (better rolling, more grip, more inertia etc) all add up to make them seriously quick. To be honest, I did nt notice the effect of the bigger wheels on acceleration to be honest, I’m a big lad who drinks too much beer at the weekend and getting my lardy arse moving is not going to be affected by a few extra hundred grams on the bike. If you re a 55kg flyweight super racer then maybe you ll notice the difference, but not I.

Day 2 – Cann Woods (local DH/jump trails)

Ok so DH might be a stretch but there are some tricky little twisty-turny trails built in some woods near Plymouth that I thought might prove tricksy for the bike. Weather in the southwest has not been at all good so there was a lot of mud around. Again the bike performed brilliantly in the deep mud and over the slippery roots that characterise these woods. Climbing and descending was notably easier due to the better rolling and better grip afforded by the 29in wheels. I have to say that the turning and handling became much easier today. I’d got used to how much I had to turn the bars so did nt have the same problems with understeer. Although I would nt go so far as to say you need to change your riding style, it certainly takes some getting used to. Even so, the front wheel commonly felt a bit remote. The best comparison I can give is when I’m riding the Dutch bike a bit to fast ;). The position was already long and low, I don’t think you could go much more relaxed (I think it’s a 69.5deg head angle) without feeling like the front wheel was attached to the bike in front. That said, for more traditional (i.e. less steep) XC trails it’s fine.

Summary

OK, so would I buy one…?

If I was a racer, definitely! Tomorrow! (they actually had some there with 700 or so off!). They are definitely faster and easier to ride than 26in bikes. Even if you ignore all the scientific reasons, just the feeling of better grip, stability and the bumps feeling smaller allows you to ride sections faster (especially when you re already breathing out your….). Plus, the ability to stay sat down and mash the pedals whereas a 26in rider would need to be standing up is faster. If I was to do a 24hr race, I would be hankering after a 29er. Canyon and On-One have some for extremely tempting prices too! A rigid one would be excellent for the “trails” around me in Holland.

Would i sell the 26in to buy one – No. Recreational rides where the time taken is unimportant are definitely more fun of a 26er. Pumping, popping and bouncing down trails is what makes MTBs fun, this is much less pronounced on a 29er

Would I buy one as n+1?* Seriously tempted! For all day natural rides over places like Dartmoor, Conwy Mountain, the Dales, The Lakes etc, it would be perfect. Essentially you have the benefit of a 140mm FS bike but still in a lightweight, stiff package that can climb nicely.

What puts me off buying one? very little. Keeping Suzy for trail centres and general larking about and having the 29er for racing/long rides would be a rather splendid bike garage – I think 650b could be a perfect sweet spot gaining the benefits of the 29in wheels but being a bit more fun. I’m thinking that a 650b 120mm XC/Trail bike could be perfect – we ll have to wait and see though, possibly for a long time to come!

Other stuff

The bike had SRAM 10spd stuff on it (an X7/X9 mix), I upgraded the Cotic to Shimano XT from 9spd X9  recently and have to say I much prefer it. The SRAM stuff is good, the shifting is the rapid clunky shifting that I remember but I’m a convert to the smoother shifting of Shimano now

As I say, the position would need some work, shorter stem and wider bars would be necessary. Possibly I should try the size smaller.

Santa bought me some Endura MTR shorts with that new fangled sticky stuff on the back. Riding them back to back I can say that that is a simply genius idea and works brilliantly!

Mother bought me some Seal Skin Socks for Christmas and they are simply brilliant!

*the correct number of bikes to own is n+1, where n is the number of bike already owned

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About ddraver

A Cornish petroleum geologist living in the Netherlands. Expect some stories about travels, comments of the perils of being an ex-pat and some mindless ranting/musing on cycling.
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