Big Wheel Believer
October 16 2013
Is bigger better?
Like most people my initial view of 29 inch wheeled bicycles was that they were an odd niche thing which became a head-down-cross-country-race thing. It’s only been over the last year or so that they have actually become a mountain bike like the one I, and most people I know, would ride. Maybe we are a bit insulated here in the West Highlands, but very few people have picked up on the 29er thing yet and most of those who have fall into the pedal-for-pain club.
I’m no innovator when it comes to picking up on trends. Instead I dismiss new ideas before being proven wrong and then jumping on the bandwagon. Same situation with 29er. Except this time, I’m not alone. Many riders still seem to be in the dark and the move to big wheels is a more radical jump into the unknown given the hype/lack of information in the mountain bike media. We know that big wheels have their place but most everyday trail riders still don’t know where they stand.
It was only when a couple of riding mates started riding some modern 29ers that I started to see them as a viable alternative for folk like me who value fun, tight and twisting technical trails over pedalling ability. I could instantly see they were smoother downhill, wasted less energy, climbed steeper hills and could actually go around tight corners OK.
With so much hype, both positive and negative, spinning off wheel sizes at the moment it’s easy to get pulled into it all, not being able to get a true idea of what the reality is. So, having ridden my 29” clockwork and my 26” wheeled Five for a few weeks now, I thought my experiences might be interesting for those happily riding great 26” bikes, but curious that they might be missing out. I am obviously completely avoiding the 27.5” issue here, but for now I am quite happy to group them along with 26” in the ‘smaller wheel’ category.
I chose the Clockwork because Orange seem to have the knack of building fun bikes, my Five and P7 certainly have been. Despite being such a fun and capable bike, the P7 was a bit close in character to the Five, except without rear suspension and was a bit heavier than I’d like, being made of steel with sliding dropouts. I wanted a bike that I actually wanted to pedal fast on, for the days I was not in the mood for committing downhill trails. The Clockwork also seems one of the few 29” hardtails that can take a 120mm fork. I’d hoped the Clockwork would blend good pedalling ability, lightweight, great handling, fun and decent value. Big wheels also seemed like a good idea as a change keeps things interesting.
Pulling the frame out of the box, the great colour and graphics stood out. Lack of weight came next. The frame is pretty simple and conventional looking; it's nice to see a traditional bottom bracket and dropouts! The bike felt fine when built, quite similar to my Five, which is what I wanted. I was interested, and slightly nervous about how it would handle.
For me, bikes need to be versatile. Not too heavy, not too light, capable uphill but the downhills and the fun stuff is always the priority. The RockShox 120mm Revelation forks strike a good balance of weight and strength, if anything they are a bit too hardcore, but I would rather not be held back by a twangy, pogo stick of a fork not up to the job. Hope hubs with Stan’s Arch EX rims should keep working for years and not have me throwing track pumps around the shed in a tubeless rage. Likewise a Hope headset and bottom bracket will just keep working. Shimano SLX brakes and rear mech are as good as I need. A 32 tooth single ring is cheap and light, I rarely need to pedal faster, and I can grind up just about any climb. A RockShox Reverb makes so much sense to me on a bike like this, one that will be pedalled over all sorts of terrain, but it will come off for winter. A Hope 50mm stem keeps a similar front end feel to my Five and prioritises downhill capability. So, a nice build without being overly expensive or fancy. Performance and reliability should be sorted.
Over the last few years I have heard a lot about 29ers being rubbish through tight turns, slow and uninspiring to ride. Equally, I have heard they are faster and actually just 'the best thing ever'. I’ve read about needing a definite period of adjustment to learn how to ride them. Predictably, my first impressions of the ride fell somewhere in between the extremes. To be honest I just jumped on and rode it like I would a 26inch bike on the same trails I normally ride.
Initially I was paranoid about folding over my oversized wheels but I found I could actually go around corners and down steep stuff adequately. Not amazing, but good enough considering I’ve not touched a hardtail for about six months and not been on an XC one for a couple of years.
I suppose what struck me most was the lack of negative characteristics I had been expecting. I could just get on and ride, no problem. Drops, jumps, turns, rocks, off cambers, it all felt fine. Then a ride or two later I was accidently over shooting a landing of 1.5 metre step down to a flat landing, thinking, ‘OK, maybe I’m carrying more speed than I think’. It all starts to feel comfortable and easy to forget I am on a XC bike. The ride was fun, just maybe not as engaging as a 26inch. Stability was the main characteristic; it cruises up steep slippery rocky stuff with no drama. Downhill, I don’t know if it is actually possible to go over the bars on a 29er (yet!) but when things do go wrong it happens pretty quickly and you are reminded you are on a light hardtail.
After five quick rides to familiarise myself with the Clockwork I lined up at the No Fuss Tour de Ben Nevis, the race I’d built the Clockwork for. The Tour is part XC marathon, part enduro, and always really tough. Four hours of rugged West Highland hill tracks, interspersed with more interesting stand alone stages. In previous years I had ridden my Five at the Tour, which was great but, to me, felt like too much bike for all the pedalling. Stage one into Kinlochleven was a bit of a 29inch revelation. The trail is all downhill and is long, rocky, with loads of switchbacks. It’s tough on the body and bike, and although not that steep, it is a proper downhill with no real pedalling and plenty of speed. Fastest time of the day on the most downhill stage, on an XC hardtail.
Back and forth.
After a few more rides I was starting to feel really comfortable throwing the bike around. I was pretty interested to get back on small wheels and bigger travel to see how much fun I would have, so first ride back on the Five was… odd. It seemed my balance and timing was out and the bike needed so much more attention to keep it under control, definitely not so much of an easy ride as the big wheels. A couple of rides later and I was back to feeling normal on the Five, pinging off roots, pumping the ground and throwing the bike around turns. That feeling to me was definitely more apparent on smaller wheels. I think I can ride both bikes and have fun, but it definitely feels like I need time to readjust after switching between wheel sizes, where before I could swap between 26inch hardtail and full suspension easily.
To sum up; where and who do different wheel sizes suit? 29ers are definitely confidence inspiring on rougher ground. On slow, steep, stuttery ground they are better. On fast, rough stuff they are great. I think a lot of ‘normal’ riders could benefit from a hardtail or short travel 29er; their steeper angles and increased traction mean they climb really well, they are really stable and fast on rough ground and downhills and they are smooth and confidence inspiring through turns. I really think for a lot of people a reasonably light and efficient 29er could outperform a longer travel, slacker 26inch bike on most terrain.
In some ways my 29er feels like an old fashioned mountain bike. A bike for riding over all-terrain, just brought up to date to cope with today’s trails. It just does everything. We have become so used to bikes that allow us to smash down all-sorts using loads of travel and slack angles, with fancy knobs and dials to make it behave how we want. I like the way my Clockwork makes me work harder and feel out of my depth in some terrain, without ever being terrifying like a 26inch XC bike can feel. In that respect, I think big wheels have a lot going for them. I’m sure plenty of people want a bike for just riding without any complications, even if that means sacrificing some performance in certain situations.
For me, 29inch is a great alternative; the Clockwork is a great bike for doing more pedalling, making me want to pedal, that can handle big days out, tackling anything that I come across. For hardtails bigger wheels are probably better than smaller wheels on most trails. I’m sure plenty of these Strava KOMs have been claimed on big wheels, but I don’t time myself and just gauge my riding on the somewhat unreliable measures of feel and fun had. It’s about fun, mastering the trail, and getting home tired, beaten up and excited.
What’s your motivation for riding?