Saturday, May 4, 2013

Review: Day on a 29er

With my Turner out of action (I'm waiting for the forks to come back from Fox), today was a curious chance to try out a 29" wheeled hard tail, courtesy of Hong Kong's only mountain bike instructor- cross country Steve, who lent me his Merida 29er for a 'Tour de Lantau'.

Much has been written about 29"ers in recent years, and the popularity seems threatened only by the new wheel size on the block- 27.5". I've generally been quite skeptical in the grounds that for me, at a mere 5 foot 8, the wheels just don't look proportional, and I don't like the idea of a higher center of gravity. Having ridden a few bikes (generally those too big for me and never for very long) these experiences have never really convinced me that bigger = better either. However, wanting to keep an open mind, I thought today was a good chance to come to a slightly more informed conclusion.

First up, the bike is an excellent value budget orientated alu. hard tail package, costing less than $8000 HKD for the full bike. Considering you get a decent fork, components and hydraulic discs it's a really good example of trickle down technology. It wasn't so long that all this stuff really cost you, so it's a real bonus for those getting into the sport (who haven't got their heads around the idea that a bike should cost the same as a second hand car) that such a capable bike is available at such an affordable price point. Yes, better kit is available, but you don't really need anything more than this to enjoy mountain biking. 

Of course, it's a law of diminishing returns as you pay more, but for me the idea that this bike had bigger wheels and that was the biggest difference compared to my Turner was slightly redundant- they're in completely different price brackets and it's not a fair comparison- the Turner frame alone cost more than this complete bike, so you'd hope the Turner is a better bike (and it is). However, it's hard to make an apples to apples comparison to look at the wheel size alone. A better comparison was to remember what my S-works hard tail was like, given that is / was a alu. hard tail also, just in 26" wheel format. Rest assured, going from a hard tail to a quality full sus makes much more a difference to ride quality than wheel size. But analyze the pros and cons I will try to do, based on this experience:


The key advantage to the bigger wheels seemed to be holding a straight line over bigger rocks and less of a sense that your front wheel might 'tuck' throwing you over the bars. For beginners I can certainly see this is an easier bike to ride than most comparable 26" hard tails. The difference isn't quite as pronounced as many journalists / 29er make out, but it is appreciable. I wouldn't say I was clearing obstacles that I can't clear with 26" wheels, but perhaps a little less body English is required. 

Straight line speed on smooth surfaces is another touted benefit of the big wheels, but I can't say I really noticed this in a big way. Yes, it was a fast machine & it climbed well, especially for something that costs so little, but it's a hard tail with fairly low friction tires and this would also ring true with a 26" wheel equivalent. If you want something for smooth trails / dirt road touring / tow paths then physics would suggest that a bigger wheel will retain more speed for a given effort and that's not something I'd dispute. Again, an apples for apples comparison might make a fairer assessment, but don't go thinking that by switching to bigger wheels you'll suddenly go much faster. Bike companies / the media have to do something to sell more bikes...


There are some quite straightforward reasons why bigger may not equal better- an equivalently specced 26 inch wheel will be lighter and stronger, but heavier wheels are not the end of the world, and you can always throw money at this problem. Light, strong, cheap - choose two...

A problem that's much harder to fix, if you're short on stature, is stand over clearance when stood over the top tube. The head tube is inherently jacked up by the bigger wheels meaning the usual maneuverability you might have in a tricky dismount situation is not as good. Your manhood is that much closer to the line... I'm sure this is less of an issue as you get closer to 6 foot, and there are some frames that would allow a shorter head tube to compensate, but for me this is quite a big deal. Some might find it less of an issue.

The last of the negatives, that is even more subjective, is the issue of how the bike generally did not feel as 'agile' as a 26"er. Some people might interpret this as a positive, i.e. they think a 29"er is more stable, but for me at least it felt less responsive than what I'm used to. I'll caveat this by saying its hard to teach an old dog new tricks. And as someone who got their first real (26") mountain bike 20 years ago almost to the day, I'd have to say that it's a bit like convincing a stuck in the mud Jazz fan that Thrash Metal is better- maybe if you've grown up with it, or if you're naturally disposed to head banging, then you might prefer Heavy Metal. I grew up with more Jazz than Metal, so that's probably where I'll stay... I have my opinions, but I'm not going to argue with a Metallica fan, metaphorically speaking, if that's what they like.


Perhaps the biggest conclusion from today for me was that wheel size is a small factor in lots of other variables when it comes to mountain bikes, and the difference is less significant than the media might suggest. Issues like frame design / material (especially in a hard tail), geometry, fit, component selection and contact points all add up to playing a much bigger part in how a bike handles than wheel size. 

My second conclusion was that I won't be rushing out to buy a 29er, and I don't think I'd ever have one as my main mountain bike. But, my interest is piqued and I think it could be a really good format for a nice custom steel hard tail, or perhaps even fully rigid single speed (wait, don't I already have one of these?!?). Or perhaps I'd be be tempted to try taking the middle ground with a 27.5" wheel project. I guess it's another case of try before you buy.

Lastly, I want to emphasize the point that I'm a pretty dyed in the wool guy when it comes to a lot of new things the bike industry tries to convince us are better and as such I see the advent of all these wheel sizes to be a positive in terms of picking up good deals on what people perceive to be yesterday's technology. However, if you're reasonably tall, you want a new bike & have a budget that is more real world than a pro team replica, you wouldn't regret buying this bike. If you're also new to the sport, then it's hard to think of a better value multi use bike than this.

Thanks to Steve for the rental, Check for more on Steve.