It has been a long, uphill struggle, but the 29-inch wheel is now poised for mountain bike supremacy. The once-maligned wheel size has proven its worth in cross-country, enduro and is now emerging as a contender on the World Cup downhill circuit.
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I’m not saying it will become the only diameter we ride — it’s great to have so many wheel and tire options these days — but from where I stand, the 622 ERD is the way to go.
I’m not just writing this because I prefer 29-inch mountain bikes (which I do) or because they’re measurably faster against the clock (which they are), there’s a confluence of factors beyond my self-interested position leading them onward.
Yes, the 29er had a very awkward and ungainly adolescence. And sure, the rollout of 27.5in mountain bikes stole the spotlight for a few seasons. But this is changing fast, especially when it comes to the honey pot of the mountain bike market: trail bikes.
Evil’s The Following, Yeti’s SB4.5, the Santa Cruz Hightower, Specialized’s Stumpjumper and the Trek Fuel EX 29 series are just a few of the many outstanding examples of the breed.
Speaking of Yeti, a company that reluctantly entered the 29er market, it has seen record sales of its 29er models.
“So far this year, the sales for our 29er bikes have surpassed our expectations. In fact, two out of three of our top-selling bikes are 29ers — the SB5.5 and the SB4.5. We bet heavily on the SB5.5 this year, and the demand exceeded our projections,” said Chris Conroy, president of Yeti Cycles.
Sure, they might not be for everyone. I applaud companies that give riders a choice of the same bike in versions with 27.5 and 29in wheels.
Norco does this with its Optic trail bike. I attended the Optic launch with a pack of other journalists and I don’t remember any of us thinking of a situation where we would have preferred the 27.5 in version.
This preference for 29ers is shared by many of my tech editor peers at other cycling media outlets. Is this a cycling media conspiracy or an evidence-based predilection? I’ll let you decide.
Big wheels mean broad uses
While we’re spoiled with so many excellent mountain bikes, they certainly aren’t getting any cheaper. If you’re looking for one bike to cover the broadest range of uses, a 29er has many admirable qualities.
Want something that’s efficient, but can also get a bit rowdy? There’s a wealth of slack, short-travel 29ers on the market.
Do you need something for aggressive trail riding or enduro racing, but also need to cover a lot of ground? It seems that there are new entrants to the long-travel 29er market every month.
Sure, there are still compromises when it comes to fitting petite riders, although it does seem that there’s some truth behind Trek’s marketing slogan “Ride the fastest wheel size that fits.”
Speeding forward — uphill and down
This brings us to another major reason for 29-inch dominance: speed.
So much of the current mountain bike market is focused on going faster. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a racer-type, if you use Strava, you’ve probably felt the urge to shave seconds off your favorite climb or descent. A 29er can help with that.
In terms of racing, this brings us back to the fact that 29ers now span everything from cross-country to downhill.
Members of the Santa Cruz Syndicate have embraced the V10 29 and it’s no secret that Trek has been testing the merits of 29-inch downhill bikes for many years.
“I think having 29ers on the DH scene normalizes 29ers and helps people realize it’s a faster wheel size,” said Travis Ott, Trek’s mountain bike brand manager.
Admittedly, the World Cup season kick off in Lourdes wasn’t the 29er proving ground it was hyped up to be; a mid-race storm stacked the deck in favor of the first riders down the course.
Still, if the pre-race qualifiers are any indication, the fact that riders piloting 29ers took first and third is a sign they’re up to the task.
“It actually seems natural that downhill, the fastest, most aggressive form of mountain biking, would make its way to the wheel size. Perhaps it will be permission for some of the haters to actually ride one and discover that modern 29ers are nothing like the awkward donkeys of yesteryear,” said Don Palermini, marketing manager at Santa Cruz Bicycles.
Give it another go
Feel free to disagree with my love of 29ers, but if you haven’t thrown a leg over one in the past several years, do yourself a favor and take one for a spin before spewing big-wheeled animus on your favorite bike forums. You might be pleasantly surprised.