26 vs 29er The Debate!

Glentress staff member Trev Worsey, decided to see what the new crop of 29 inch wheeled bikes were like.  So earlier in the year he headed out equiped with the Trek Superfly 100 29er and Trek Fuel EX 8 and did some riding!

29’ers the Rolling Debate!

If you had just over £2000 burning a hole in your pocket and were looking for a new bike, there is now a bewildering array of fantastic machines to choose from. As you walk along racks of organic sculpted hydroformed frames adorned with carbon fiber and unique adaptive suspension systems, you may chance across an oddity, standing taller in the wheels than its stable mates. You have found the latest buzz in mountain biking, the 29er, currently lighting up the MTB press in a Marmite like fashion. Unless you have been marooned on a desert island you cannot have missed the start of the 29er revolution, sweeping like a tide from the States. Once considered a fringe bike, nearly every  bike brand now has a big wheeled bike in their range.

With its larger 29inch wheels (compared to the regular 26inch) the 29er is touted by the press as a bike for the modern rider, allowing you to travel further, faster and in more comfort. I thought it was about time for a back to back test, to get my own impression on the new phenomenon. Thanks to the Glentress demo fleet, I got hold of a 26er and 29er aimed squarely at the same type of rider to see how they compared.
The 29er of choice was the 2012 Trek Superfly 100 Al Elite, very well reviewed and aimed towards the XC racer but also offered up as a viable 29 inch trail bike for average UK rider, able to hold it with the fastest in an XC race, or carve out some high speed turns at the local trail centre. The Al Elite is the most budget offering in the Superfly range which is topped out with the uber bling Carbon Pro which will set you back a whopping £5800. The weight of the bike we tested was 13.1kg.
To add a 26 inch reference bike I picked the highly well reviewed 120mm travel 2012 Trek Fuel EX 8 as not only was the weight very close at 12.8kg, but the geometry is very similar. Both the wheelbase and effective top tube length are almost identical. The 33.8cm bottom bracket height is a little higher but not dramatically so. The head and seat tube angles are a little slacker but all things considered, (with the exception of the wheel size) the bikes are very similar in geometry and are aimed at the same sort of rider, one that wants to ride fast and cover a lot of ground.

In this test I was not looking to review the bikes themselves, but look more at the two different platforms, so we will not be looking at the componentry and specifications of the bikes, but trying to get to the hard to explain but all important ‘feel’ of the bikes themselves.

Climbing

Starting up the trail and hopping onto the 29er for the first time, I was immediately hit by the inherent stability. It feels like you are sitting more inside the bike, which indeed you are. The frame of a 29er is no higher than a 26er, so you sit lower in comparison to the axels than on the smaller wheeled bike. This lowers your center of gravity, and gives an impressive increase in stability on the bike. On the climb the Superfly 100 was highly effective, the increased contact patch and larger diameter wheels provided improved amounts of grip, and the increased rolling height of the wheel swallowed up imperfections in the trail with ease. With the larger wheel you could deliver the power more evenly and smoothly to the ground making the 29er an efficient climbing tool. 8 Inch step ups were dispatched with minimal fuss, not even the smallest weight shift was required, just pedal straight over.
The Fuel EX is no slouch when it came to the climbs, but the differences were highly apparent when hopping back onto the 26 inch wheel after the 29er, the Fuel immediately felt a bit twitchier, the smaller wheels accelerating quicker but requiring more stoking to maintain speed than its larger wheeled sibling. When it came to steeper climbs you could definitely sense the spikier power delivery, you could physically hear the rear wheel working harder for traction. The steering felt livelier, due to the lack of the feeling of straight line stability offered by the 29er, and you had to work a little more with line choice to keep the front wheel tracking.
It soon became clear that the 29er is a much more accomplished climbing machine, once aboard there is very much a feeling of just sit back, pedal and let those big stable wheels deliver the power with minimal fuss or requirement for steering corrections. Surprisingly the bigger wheel did not reduce the immediacy of the bikes steering, being both quick and precise. Trek has worked hard with the 29ers geometry, using a custom offset fork to reduce the trail of the bike sharpening up the steering. I would certainly not like to come up against a 29er in a climbing competition.

Flowing trail

From their initial early design stages, this is the sort of riding both of these bikes were destined for, fast flowing single-track. It is immediately clear that both bikes are in their element, on hard pack trail centre trails both these bikes are capable of some insane speeds. The Fuel EX is a razor sharp trail machine; the geometry is all about going fast, with a neutral but lively steering response. The bike is quick through twisty sections with a highly flickable feel. Easy to lay down in the corners, it has a lot of pop out of berms and it is bikes like this that make me question if we really need any more travel than 120mm for trail riding in the UK. I do not want to get too much into componentry as this review is more about feel, but the speccing of a relatively wide bar makes the Fuel EX an easy bike to hop onto and shred straight out of the box.
Stepping onto the big wheeled brother, I found that the biggest hurdle was adjusting my mindset and preconceptions about the big wheel phenomenon. I almost wanted to find the 29er clunky and unresponsive, but it really is not the case. The offset fork on the Superlight 100 really does help sharpen up the handling at the front end, and once I had stopped focussing on the funny looking giant wheel and started scanning down the trail the Superfly was indeed superfast. It is a different way of riding, lacking the pop and acceleration of the 26er, the 29er is all about conservation of momentum, once up to speed and charging the 29er holds its speed very well and shrugs off trail imperfections with ease. Your perceived speed is much lower than on a 26er, but a quick check of the GPS traces indicated that was not the case. It is almost like riding two different trails, over the same terrain the 26er requires many subtle steering inputs and adjustments and even though the 120mm travel handles the rough stuff admirably, there is a lot of feedback from the trail. The same trail on the 29er feels noticeably smoother, sections where the smaller wheel bike chattered are dispatched with barely a stutter and roots and ruts become much gripper affairs. When things got very twisty in the trees the 29er did start to feel a little more cumbersome. It is a simple matter of physics, the rolling mass of the larger diameter wheel will require more input to change course, and fast, choppy riding through trees was more fun on the 26er. However, one thing that I was not expecting was how much more accomplished the 29er was at flat corners, the increased tyre patch and stability offered massive grip through fast carving turns, the sort of turns where you are hanging on the edge of tyre traction, exploring the edges of drift, become effortless railing carves on the big wheel.

Descending

So far during the day I had really enjoyed the 29er experience, it seemed that whenever the bikes were put back to back on the same trail, it seemed like the 29er had an edge that was hard to ignore. It was here that I thought (and looking at the sculpted Fuel EX hoped) that the 26 wheeled bike would have the edge. Initially I adopted quite an aggressive riding style on both bikes, the 26 inch Fuel EX loves to be pedaled hard, thrown into turns, then accelerated hard again and again. For a 120mm bike the Fuel descends extremely well, with its lightweight focus you have to pick your line a little and cannot be as lazy as on a big hitting 160mm bike, but scan ahead and the Fuel will reward with an engaging and playful manner. Onto the 29er, things were not quite as rosy, adopting the same aggressive manner the big wheels felt sluggish out of the turns and just a little out of shape in the rough stuff, I was underwhelmed and a bit disappointed as the 29er had been remarkable over the rest of the hill. It just did not feel right, dim witted and slow, and got me thinking how the big wheel phenomenon had gained such a following. A quick blast back up the hill on the big wheels and I thought the bike deserved another go. This time I decided to concentrate more on being smooth and less aggressive, and there it was, this is what it is all about! Concentrating more on momentum and linking turns in a series of smooth arcs, the 29er made mincemeat of the descent, the bigger wheels allowed more creative use of the trail, taking lines that would be impossible on the 26er and taking the fastest line through the corners. Roots and ruts crossing racing lines passed unfelt beneath the big wheels and the trail felt as if it had been freshly groomed. It still felt slower, perhaps due to the lack of chatter and negative feedback from the trail, but looking at the GPS traces the 29er was equally as quick, often holding much higher speeds on the flowing sections and only marginally slower out of corners.

Final thoughts

So there it is, I have long been suspect of the big wheels as another fad, and it is unfortunate that big wheeled bikes have long been put in the same ‘fringe’ box as fixies and fat bikes. There is no ignoring the cold hard facts, if you are a smooth rider, on flowing trails the 29er is the faster, more comfortable and stable platform. I am sure with more time on the big bike, a lot more speed could be found, exploring the limits of the grip available, and I must admit to being blown away by the big wheels.
So if I was looking for a new bike and wanted one bike to do it all, which bike would I go for? The surprise is, I would still go for the 26 inch Fuel EX, this would seem like a crazy choice as the 29er had outperformed the smaller wheeled bike all over the hill. That fact is that impressive as the 29er platform is it just did not suit my style of riding. I ride my bikes for fun and enjoy throwing them into corners and letting the rear tyre drift, I enjoy engaging the trail and having a few ‘white knuckle’ moments over roots and gnarr. A well set up 26er with a short stem and wide bars just loves to be abused through the corners, to take the daft line and cling on, with the odd epic fail. The 29er just did not suit my point and shoot approach, it did however reward a smooth style with speed on tap.
If you are a smooth rider, who enjoys long days in the saddle and want a bike that will complement your ability, shame your mates uphill and basically get everywhere faster and smoother, then you really should get a test ride on a 29er, they really do deserve to be a mainstream bike for XC duties. If you enjoy, or want to get into XC racing or marathons, then the 29er is almost an unfair advantage. In a perfect world everyone would be able to have one of each, but in these tight times most folks look for one bike to do it all. If you are a rider that is looking to exploit the maximum amount of speed from a trail and wants to cover miles in effortless comfort, the big wheel s may be the secret weapon you have been hoping for.
This test was an eye opener for me and I will now endeavor to never get shoulder to shoulder with a 29er rider on a tough climb. If I ever need a new bike for XC and mile munching, I will certainly be testing the new crop of big wheel bikes. We have seen so many fads come and go, but I think in the competitive XC and Marathon bike industry, the 29er may be as big a step forward for riding performance as the advent of suspension. 29ers are here to stay and it is great to see new platforms coming in to the market, in the end it is all about having fun out in the mountains and forests, and the world of mountain biking has never been better!

You can test ride the latest range of 29ers at our Glentress store. We have the Trek Rumblefish, Trek Superfly 100, Yeti BigTop, Orange Gyro and Santa Cruz Tallboy LT all available to hire.