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Bigger is Better- The 29er Revolution is Here

August 23, 2010

For every job there is a proper tool. If the task at hand is flattening the Texas Hill Country, a 29er is the tool for the job. Read along to learn a little more about the big wheeled mtb craze and the origins of the 29er.

The 29er has many pros and not as many cons. Most of the cons of the 29er are misconceptions or can be addressed with proper geometry and wheel/tire choice. The Pros are as follows:

  1. More stability. 29ers have more gyroscopic effect than their 26” wheeled little brothers, keeping the bike stable at speeds. In addition, the rider on a 29ers wheel bike has a lower center of gravity in relationship to the wheel’s axle. Think of it as riding “in” the bike, instead of on top of the bike.
  2. Better grip. The contact patch of the 29ers wheel is larger and therefore puts more of the tread on the ground which increases traction. This combined with the added stability of the gyroscopic effect means that you can lean into a corner and just hold on for the ride. As you learn to trust the 29er in the corners, you’ll be amazed at how far over the bike can lean and maintain traction.
  3. Faster, more controlled descending. The larger the tire, the more the bike will float above the terrain instead of getting stuck down in the terrain. Think of it like a monster truck being able to get up and over the top of cars with those huge honking wheels as opposed to a skateboard wheel that locks up on a small rock (this is an extreme example, obviously). The 29er wheel just doesn’t get caught in the ruts of technical terrain.
  4. Added comfort. The 29er allows for more compliance, damping the terrain and adding more comfort to the ride.
  5. Better control. Because of all of the above traits, 29ers simply have more control than their 26” brethren do.

The cons are as follows (addressed as to their validity):

  1. Added weight. The larger the wheel, the heavier it will be. This is true to an extent; however it depends on the wheel and tire choice used. Developers have greatly reduced the weight of 29er wheels and there are some extremely light tires out on the market. Frame weight difference between a 29er bike and a 26” wheel bike is nominal.
  2. Slower acceleration. This is due in part to the above mentioned higher weight in the wheels. Lighter wheels and tires will help this, however, the larger the wheel, the harder it is to get up to speed if looked at scientifically. Many people have noticed this to be true on single speed starts, but they only notice in the first few pedal strokes. Once up to speed, the 29er maintains its momentum much better than a 26” wheel. On a geared bike, the difference is imperceptible.
  3. Slower handling. This is a misconception. Many of the early generation 29er mountain bikes just adopted the standard 26” wheel geometry and made it longer to fit the 29er, causing excessive wheelbase length, slack head tubes with bad fork trail, and high bottom bracket heights. Niner bikes geometry is designed around the 29er and is every bit as agile as a 26” wheel bike. Tight switchbacks and technical terrain are no problem on a 29er.

The Origins of the 29er Concept

The “standard” off road sized wheel was 26″ for years. It was adopted by the pioneers of modern, California style off roading as a reasonably tough, cheap, and conveniently available choice. The 26″ wheel worked out alright from a standpoint of availability, price, and toughness, but the early California pioneers of the MTB didn’t have a research lab to see what would make the optimum wheel size for off road adventures. They made their choice based on convenience and product availability.

The term “29er” was born in 2001 with the release of the first mass production big wheeled mountain bikes, Gary Fisher’s “Two Niner.” However, the concept of the big wheeled off-road bike traces back to the 1980’s and the basic technology involved dates back even further. While some may think that a 29er involves a new rim size, it actually utilizes a 700c size rim. While this wheel size had been used on road bikes for decades, it took a number of innovations to make the 700c applicable to a true mountain bike

Some of the big wheeled mountain bike pioneers, were introduced to the benefits of a bigger wheeled off-road bike, via modified touring bikes of the times. This group included, but wasn’t limited to names like Bruce Gordon, Wes Williams, and Charlie Cunningham. While their experiments with touring bikes and touring bike components confirmed their belief in the benefits of a bigger wheel off road they were limited by their choice in tires. Convinced of the potential, Williams kept after it, building bikes under the name “28 Incher.” William’s has since moved to exclusively building 29ers under his Willits Brand Bicycles.

In 1989, a big brand decided to jump in on the game. Bill Horner, who is better known for Felt Bicycles began working on a bike for Bianchi labeled “Project 7.” Equipped with 700c wheels, flat bars, thumb shifters, mountain bike brake levers and brakes (cantilevers) and a triple crank, “Project 7” landed in production in 1990 with the name “Volpe.” Though this wasn’t the 29er of today, it was definately a step towards a big wheeled mountain bike. Bill left Bianchi later that year, but the company followed up his work with Project 5,3 and 1. While Bianchi thought that the bike would be very useful for adventure racing, they did not see it as a mountain bike replacement and dropped it from their line completely in ’95. It required a number of years and numerous contributions from various other bigger names in cycling before the 29er revolution could really take off.

One of the biggest obstacles the 29er Revolution has had to overcome has been to creating a supply of readily available parts, most importantly, tires. Mark Slate of Wilderness Trail Bikes deserves lots of credit for keeping the wheels of this revolution turning. With a bit of prodding from various builders, one of which was Gary Fisher, to make a 29″ tire in late 1998 Slate proclaimed, the new Nano 26″ as an ideal candidate for a 29″ tire. Thus, the 29″ NanoRaptor emerged. Familiar with the concept, because of the 28 Incher Williams had left at WTB for everyone to ride, Slate knew that the ride was truly different. Slate also believed that the 29er would make an ideal ride for a person who wants one bike that can do anything on as well as the person who had multiple bikes and was looking for something different.

With a mass produced tire to call their own 29er Revolution was ready to put the treads to the trails. In 1999, Moots released what is considered by some the first ever “Big Wheel Mountain Bike” the Mooto-X and Wes Williams was modifying his 28 Inchers to accomodate the bigger tire. The big push came in 2001 Gary Fisher introduced the concept to much larger audience with the release of the “Two Niner.” In the same fashion that Fisher had brought the mountain bike to the masses before there was a demand, he was now releasing the big wheeled mountain bike on the general public before anyone else had. With the “Two Niner” on the loose, everything else seemed to fall in line. The number of 29er tire selections grew along with the number of forks and frames being produced.

Though many retailers wrote off the 29er concept as another passing fad, Bicycle Sport Shop knew that there was something to this big wheeled mountain bike idea and stocked Fisher’s “Two Niner” from the start. The ability to ease riders over obstacles is an ideal fit for the rocky Texas Hill Country and the increased speeds make it easy for weekend warriors to keep up with their buddies who ride all week. Even though this movement towards a bigger wheel started with a pursuit towards efficiency, the undeniable truth about these bikes is how much fun they are to ride.

You’re already familiar with the landscape surrounding Austin and now that you know a little bit about the benefits and how the 29er came into existence, the choice is simple. Come in today and take one of our 29ers for a test ride. The next time you look at your 26″ wheels I think you’ll agree, those things just aren’t big enough.

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