It looks as though big wheels are here to stay. Compared with the 26in standard, 29in wheels offset their greater weight with noticeably lower rolling resistance over trail obstacles.
That’s one of the reasons why Gary Fisher makes two versions of the enduro-biased HiFi Pro – one with regular wheels, and one with the bigger hoops that are gaining a strong following among riders in the know. Does the HiFi Pro 29 make a convincing case for itself, or is it a niche too far?
Ride & Handling: cruises comfortably yet is fast and responsive
Few bike designers have had more experience nudging frame components, angles and tube lengths around large diameter wheels than Gary Fisher. And it shows. Various tweaks to geometry and frame design, including that custom fork offset, transform the HiFi Pro 29 into a bike that hides its wheel size well. Climb aboard, roll down the trail and the only time most riders will be reminded of the extra rubber they’re pushing around is when they glance down at the oversized front wheel.
Fisher boast that this 29er matches its smaller-wheeled cousin for weight and stiffness, and that’s borne out by the way it rides. Reducing travel from the 5in (127mm) of the 26in wheeled HiFi to 4in (101mm) makes perfect sense, since the HiFi Pro 29’s big wheels roll noticeably more easily over small trail undulations that have a smaller-wheeled bike’s suspension working overtime.
We’re not convinced that it’s as plush feeling as a longer travel machine, but it’s as quick in almost every situation except fast, tight singletrack, where the extra mass of the front wheel caused a hint of understeer. It’s easy enough to compensate for though, and the payback is that easy-rolling feel that comes with the bigger contact patch and lower rolling resistance of large wheels.
Bikes like this are becoming popular with endurance racers in North America, and it’s easy to see why. Unless you need the subtly faster handling and bigger mud clearances of a smaller wheeled bike, the HiFi Pro 29 is one of the best mile-munching trail cruisers we’ve ridden.
Frame: unusual looks mask a great-handling design
Frames designed to accommodate 29in wheels invariably end up looking a bit squashed – and the Fisher is no exception. But look beyond the unusual aesthetics, and you’ll see a chassis design that takes the successful HiFi formula and rearranges it for the bigger hoops.
An asymmetric swingarm at the rear helps keep the rear wheel tracking straight while reducing chainslap clatter, and it's bolted to the seatstays by a pair of chunky pivots, which in turn connect directly to the shock and a small linkage plate. Generous mud clearance up top is made moot by the tight space around the bottom bracket area – like many big-wheelers, this one isn’t the best choice for slime surfing.
Overall travel is down from the 5in of the regular-wheeled HiFi Pro to 4in. The main practical difference between this and a frame designed for regular wheels is the tight main triangle clearances, which make fitting a bottle a squeeze so don’t forget your CamelBak.
Shock duties are handled by Fox air units front and back. The long stroke of the Float RP23 rear shock makes for a very supple ride that can appear susceptible to pedal-induced mush, but the three-position ProPedal compression damping counters all but the choppiest pedalling styles. Up front, Gary Fisher’s proprietary G2 geometry has been reworked for the 29in platform to reduce the heavier feel of big wheels when turning. A custom fork crown has even more offset than the already increased offset of regular G2 geometry, which reduces trail and quickens steering. Fisher says it is possible to use forks without the special offset, but it’ll affect the feel of the bike.
Equipment: High spec all round though the tyres not ideal for wet weather
A Bontrager wheelset and finishing kit combined with Avid’s excellent Elixir brakes and a full Shimano XT transmission leave little scope for upgrades, although the close-spaced shallow tread of the Bonty XDX tyres gives up grip quickly in typically slimy UK trail conditions. And, while we’re grumbling, we’ll point out that our test bike’s XT shifters had a peculiarly cheap and plasticky feel – not what we’d expect from Shimano’s best-but-one groupset.