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Big Wheels: While not for everyone, 29ers are earning their place on local trails 

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It wasn't that many years ago when mountain bike makers started rolling out models with big (29-inch versus the standard 26-inch) wheels. This, we were told at the time, was the dawning of a new era in mountain biking with bikes that were the answer to every rider's need. And while the new bikes promised much, they generally fell short of expectations. The problem lay in the fact that practically all the 29er makers had simply put the larger wheels on frames made specifically to handle 26-inch wheels.

Yes, the first generation of 29ers could roll fast down old logging roads but were not much fun in technical terrain. The problem lay in floppy front wheels and the need to get any 29er bike up to pretty high speed to roll over, let alone trying to steer around, any and all obstacles.

Times have changed. The most recent crop of crop of 29er mountain bikes are designed around frames geometrically configured to match their big wheels. This has led to some pleasant surprises.

Surprises, like the fact that 29ers are superior on technical singletrack climbs. Big front wheels track better because there's little or no wheel flop.

O.k., how about technical downhills? Because of a 29-inch wheel's ability to roll faster, you have to adjust your thinking and anticipate your moves going into tight corners. But unlike a typical 26-inch wheeled bike, a 29er is easy to lay over, so it carves making nicely arced turns.

Next thing to consider are those diving board, vertical drops over big rock outcrops or group of rocks. Having three-plus inches of wheel and tire beneath you makes the drop shallower. Those scary I-could-do-a-huge-ender drops become almost too easy.


And of course, it goes without saying that on easy rolling terrain and fast wide-open downhills, 29ers rock. The 18-20 mph downhill on a 26er becomes a 25-30 mph run on a 29er.

Over the summer, many local riders have been doing the smart thing when it comes to testing 26ers against 29ers. They've been riding the identical course with each bike tested. At the end of their tests, many reported that 29ers are the bomb.

The bomb as Carl Decker proved riding one to both the 2010 and 2011 All Mountain World Championship titles.

Says Decker: "Big wheels are more efficient than small wheels because they have less rolling resistance. The softer and bumpier the terrain, the more advantage these wheels have. Around Bend, where trails get dusty and sandy, you can really feel the difference. Part of the magic lies in the contact patch, which is longer and narrower on a 29er. This allows for improved cornering traction. The approach angle is also superior - the bigger the wheel, the bigger the obstacle that wheel will roll over.

So what you have is a bike that is slightly easier to pedal, slightly easier to turn, and a little harder to go over the bars on. The drawback is a very small weight penalty. I'll take mine in blue, please."

Non-professional rider, graphic designer Dave Caplan loves long-distance, multi-hour rides. "I really appreciate the confidence-building stability through the rough stuff and the added traction. And once a 29er is up to speed, you can really feel that the wheels want to hold onto that momentum."

Weighing in from the viewpoint of an older (read 50), "typical Central Oregon trail rider", professional photographer Mike Houska notes, "a 29er takes several years off the rider, making the older rider a bit younger. This is especially obvious on climbs and going over obstacles. However, they suffer a bit on quick turning ability and handling qualities.

"If you're a recreational rider (old, slower, and relatively cautious) go with a full suspension 29er. If you're young, reckless go with the longest fork travel 26er you can find. If you're rich, add the 29er to your arsenal just 'cause. Bottom line for me: a 29er is a GS (or Super G) ride compared to a quicker (slalom) 26er."

Never at a loss for words or an opinion, noted bike and bike components tester Paul Thomasberg invokes his own skiing analogy.

"29ers are able to ride over steep rocky terrain with slightly less travel than would be needed on 26er. This is most noticeable with (less) skilled riders. Expert 26 riders can ride terrain on a 26 or 29, but a 26 requires more skill for same terrain. It's a little like new school fat skis, which make it easier for beginners and intermediates to ski most conditions. Yet an expert skier can use almost any ski anywhere.

"I really don't think one is better than the other - they're just different."

However, adds Thomasberg, "When I get up in the morning my go-to bike is generally a 26er with six inches of front and rear travel that does everything and is damn light for that much travel.

In addition Thomasberg says that he prefers a 26er, "in the air" i.e. jumping.

Air or no air, performance, as with everything, is in the mind of the rider. So 29ers might not work better for every local rider, but given the benign nature of most Central Oregon trails, they're proving to perform pretty well around here.

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