BOISE, Idaho -- If you go into a bike shop and ask about mountain bikes, you will probably be asked 29-inch or 26-inch wheels?
Twenty-nine-inch wheels (aka 29ers) are not exactly the new kids on the block. They’ve been around for a long time, but have recently gained popularity against the standard 26-inch wheels.
Bicycling Retailer magazine reported 29ers were the fastest growing segment of bikes in 2011, and that’s also been reflected locally.
“Lately, there’s been an abundance of people interested in 29ers,”said Jesse Haskin, salesman at Bob’s Bicycles in Boise.
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Does that mean 29ers are going to replace the 26-inch standard, or will big wheels wither as a fad that dead ended?
“I think the 29er is here to stay,” Haskin said, adding that 26ers are still the biggest seller, but 29ers are catching up.
So which should you be riding? It depends on numerous factors, including your experience, where you ride, how much you want to spend, and what you hope to gain from switching from a 26er to a 29er. Here’s a quick summary of the differences.
The larger diameter on the 29er maintains momentum better and rolls over things more easily, which is why you find bigger tires on road bikes and monster trucks.
“It’s more efficient in every aspect,” Haskin said.
The larger tire also puts more rubber in contact with the ground, which provides better traction.
A 26-inch wheel is more nimble on a tight trail and also accelerates quicker. A 26er also gives you a lighter bike with a tighter turning radius than a 29er.
“It’s like trying to make hair-pin corner in a Cadillac instead of Porsche,” he said.
Some of the disadvantages of 26-inch wheels, such as rolling over obstacles, can be overcome through suspension designs, which is one reason why full-suspension 26ers have become so popular.
Because 26ers are standard size, they tend to be less expensive than a similarly equipped 29er.
There are many comparisons and discussions between the two wheel sizes and a lot of opinion and argument about which is better.
Mountain Bike Action magazine did a side-by-side comparison of two identically equipped mountain bikes made by Cannondale, one with 29-inch wheels and one with 26-inch wheels. Each cost less than $1,100 retail.
The bikes were hardtails (suspension fork only) built on identical frames, except one frame was adjusted to accommodate 29-inch wheels. The 26er weighed 28 pounds, and the 29er weighed 30.
Testers rode the two bikes, and compared differences in handling, cornering, climbing, descending, and more.
Much of their conclusions were predictable. The 26er accelerated faster and was more agile. The 29er was slower from the start, but held speed better. It was more stable, but cornered slower.
Other conclusions were more dramatic. Testers found the 29er rolled over rough terrain significantly better.
Rocks and roots that needed to be avoided on the 26er can be ridden over on the 29er,testers said. We are not talking about a subtle difference.
We’re talking night and day. Beginners and experienced riders could feel the smoother ride performance of the 29er immediately.
Although two pounds heavier, the 29er also got the nod for climbing. The only knock against it was it was harder to restart after a rider stalled on a hill.
Descending was a bit of split decision with 29er more stable, comfortable and better overall traction, while the 26er was more nimble and lively through twisty trails.
This is only a portion of the comparison, but the 29er won the shootout.
If you are new to mountain biking, the 29er is the runaway winner. It is not even a close race. The 29er does not require the skill set that a 26er rider has to develop to have a good time, the testers concluded.
The wheels make for a far more forgiving bike and slow up the handling enough to make it harder to make a mistake.
But the testers’ preference for the 29er came with a caveat: Experienced riders will have a tough time giving up their 26ers, because once you have developed the skills, the 26er is a lot more fun to ride.
So does that make the 29er the better choice? Remember it is only a comparison between two hardtail bikes. When full suspension enters the picture, it changes things dramatically. Many disadvantages of the 26er can be overcome by the bike’s suspension.
This comparison also makes no mention of the type of terrain the riders were on, which also factors into which bike works better.