Have you been watching any UCI World Cup downhill this year? If you have you know that the switch to the 29” wheel is on fire right now. Can you believe it? Downhill was the last small wheel holdout. Then even they adapted to the 27.5” and now they’re going full 29”. Not to be the guy who says, “I told you so” but let’s face it: Niner Bikes and I were way ahead of our time on this one.
I guess this all surprises even me, MBT’s first 29er devotee, not because I don’t understand the charm of the larger contact patch and increased rolling reach but because downhill was one of few areas where popping up off things seemed truly beneficial. The bigger wheels tend to simply plow through and roll over trail chatter as opposed to hopping off it or carving sharp lines around obstructions. As much as I had fallen for the 9er’s charms on the trails a decade ago, I really never imagined it would take on the downhill circuit.
Even to this day, I’m not too much of a fanboy to overlook the wheel size’s shortcomings. Quite frankly they accelerate more slowly, especially from a dead stop, force frame designers into making more radically swept tube spars to clear those massive hoops, and they numb tight handling. They are an acquired taste to say the least but in the world of mountain bike wheel size, the bigger is better mentality has won the day.
Keep in mind when I first adopted the 29” philosophy, 26” wheels were still the standard and the 9er was the fringe. For someone like me, who always felt cramped up on the 26er, that additional 3” of wheel diameter really just felt right. Plus I wasn’t the type of rider who tried to leave the ground (at least not on purpose anyway) so simply plowing ahead over roots, rocks and downed trees worked just fine.
In the years since, we witnessed the birth of the 27.5” wheel. At first it served to split the difference between the two extremes but eventually, in an industry over-saturated with wheel sizes, the 27.5 became the norm, obsoleting the 26” wheel as the standard in the process.
Now as a fan of larger wheels for so long, you’d think I’d celebrate the death of the 26er but not so. The wheel certainly had its place. Every time I’d return to it after extended stay on my niners, I would marvel at just how snappy it really was. Directional changes were so effortless as to be subliminal. There was certainly reason for it to have been the mainstay for so long.
I honestly suspected the 29” wheel to go rather the same way- if not full extinction, then at the very least the fringe size for those of us who absolutely refuse to conform. Instead, it seems like the 29” wheel is actually gaining in popularity all of a sudden. It’s pretty much taken over XC racing and now it’s spreading like a virus on the prestigious downhill cup.
Not to be a dick, but what’s taken them so long? Nobody thought to mount a 29” wheel in all these years just to see how it felt? Factory teams in particular have incredible resources to work with; you’d think they would have been experimenting all the while. If not on race day then during weekday practice sessions at the very least.
In any event, now we live in a time where the 27.5” is the small wheel. And with the popularity of fat bikes and + sizes spreading, one wonders how long even that’s going to last. I hope it doesn’t take mountain bikes looking like steam rollers for the world at large to realize that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Just like this steak fresh off the grill and cold beer to wash it down. Sometimes you just have to know your limits.
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