American brand Carver was doing the 'big wheel up front' thing a long time before Trek thought it was a good idea. We rode a Carver 96er about 18 months ago and loved it. It now has a UK distributor, and with Trek creating a range of bikes with 29in fronts and 26in rears for '08, the idea might attract the attention it deserves.
The frame's designed by Davis Carver in New England and built in the Far East. It comes with an eccentric bottom bracket unit for height and chain tension adjustment, which is great if you want to use it as a single geared or hub geared bike, and the smallest frame can be run with a 26in wheel up front and 24in out back. The geometry is perfect for an 80-100mm travel fork but the easy-rolling ride of the big front wheel is bound to persuade lots of riders to run a fixed blade fork rather than suspension.
The Pace RC29 fork and a bunch of lightweight finishing kit on our test bike resulted in an all-in weight of just over 20lb. Carver makes his frames this way because he reckons a 26in rear wheel and 29in front gives the best of both worlds: faster acceleration than a 29in rear wheel can offer and a smoother roll across bumps and troughs than a 26in front. It also allows Carver to keep the chainstays short for lively climbing, but roll-through isn't as smooth as on a thoroughbred 29er - not that you'd expect it to be.
The Carver has lots of features that we really like, such as the eccentric bottom bracket shell mentioned earlier. We also like the low-slung top tube and we've rarely come across a frame that comes in so many sizes. Carver importers Rock Star Racing will be focusing on frames, so you could build your Carver any way you like.
Not surprisingly, our 20lb test bike was very rapid, especially up the hills and when accelerating. The Pace fixed blade fork combined well with the 29in wheel and Stan's minimally treaded Crow tyres, making rough trails manageable without suspension. The frame's finishing detail and design is extremely well sorted.
We suspect that the 29/26 combo idea will grow, but the full 29er method works slightly better for taller riders or those wanting to take full advantage of the roll-through benefits.