There’s no doubt that mountain bikes with 29-inch wheels have gone through a significant evolution since they rolled onto the scene in the early 2000s.
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In their formative years the front ends were steep, with head tube angles better suited to road riding than mountain biking, and at the back their chainstays were excessively long. This combination was often as bad as it sounds, resulting in awkward handling.
If steep, gangly angles and rangy rear ends weren’t bad enough, the lack of robust rims, forks and tires hindered the growth of the breed for many years.
Despite the myriad factors conspiring against them, the speed and rollover benefits of 29-inch wheels were undisputed, so it was no surprise when cross-country racers readily adopted them — despite some of their early failings.
It took a host of refinements before the 29er would finally emerge from its awkward pubescent struggles to become a legitimate contender outside of Lycra land.
With their growing-pains solidly in the rearview mirror, big wheels now reign supreme in the world of cross-country, but they have also shown they can be a force to be reckoned with in enduro, and even World Cup downhill racing.
“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.
For riders looking for one high-end mountain bike to cover the broadest range of uses, the 29er trail bike puts forth some very compelling arguments. With sorted 29-inch tires, wheelsets, forks and dialed geometry, there’s nothing left to hold the breed back.
Bikes such as Kona’s Process 111, Yeti’s SB 4.5, Evil’s The Following MB, and the latest incarnation of the Santa Cruz Tallboy, exemplify how incredibly capable short-travel 29ers can be.
“Doing more with less” is the mantra that comes to mind when describing these short-travel trail slayers. These are the troublemakers of today’s mountain bike scene. The roll-over attributes of big wheels paired with dialed geometry make up for their meager suspension numbers.
The Following redefined Evil as a brand. It also tore apart preconceived notions about how much travel was necessary for aggressive trail riding.
“When we made the original Following, we had a lot of riders who were taking it in so far above its head. They were comparing it to 160 and 170mm bikes. We were like ‘Hey, man. It’s only 120mm bike, an inch and three-quarters of stroke isn’t a lot to play with,’” Evil’s CEO Kevin Walsh mused.
In the hands of an expert pilot, 29er trail bikes can keep pace with their smaller-wheeled brethren on trails usually reserved for enduro rigs.
Do you consider yourself more of an average Joe than an aspiring pro? Fear not, more often than not, these bikes are also forgiving enough that weekend warriors can still get themselves into and out of trouble while riding like a hooligan.
If you’re looking for a raucous-riding partner, do yourself a favor and look past suspension numbers and give one of these trail bikes a go.
BikeRadar would like to thank Brittany Ferries, the Commune of Peille, France, and Kieran Page at La Maison des Activities de Pleine Nature de Peille for their help and support during our Headline Bikes test.