I’m coming late to a debate again, this time about ten years late. It’s about 29 inch wheeled mountain bikes and what qualities they may have in comparison to those with the usual 26 inch wheels.
Perhaps I’ll start with a bit of personal mountain bike history. When I was a bike nut in the early 1980-ties, I bought one of the first mountain bikes built in Germany by Günther Sattler. His “Technobull” was laid back, had double fork legs, a baby blue powder coat and braze-ons for everything you could imagine attaching to a mountain bike at the time. Riding it at home, I got asked why I was riding a big BMX bike as an adult. But I also rode it around Scotland, and it did double duty as a travel bike with racks and fenders very well. The bike is now retired and with my brother, who lends it to visiting friends for jaunts around town.
My next mountain bike was a british Muddy Fox. It had a simple RST suspension fork and was fun to singletrack with around the town I studied in. One day, the left pedal broke off (not the Foxes’ fault) and disappointedly, I left it outside unlocked. Though unrideable, it was stolen and shamefacedly turned up three weeks later in the same spot when I already had bought a new (road) bike in his stead.
The subsequent mountain bike evolution passed me by with me barely glancing at the increasingly complicated and suspended machines. Follies like downhill bikes that only lacked a motor to become a trial motorbike and that, ridden uphill, demonstrated the characteristics of a rubber cow, ts, ts …
This long winter brought a new mountain bike to my stable, a Surly Karate Monkey with a 29 inch wheelset, built up with a Shimano Alfine component group.
The first few rides are done, and one impression comes to the fore. The 29 inch wheels (with Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires) are just the thing the doctor ordered for conditions like we have now. The roll easily over hard-packed snow, smooth out bumps from frozen tractor tire tracks and once up to speed, track straight and true. Bombing down a forest road with hard packed snow on it, they seem to accelerate on their own. A pure downhill experience, it feels as if they were 700C road racing tires on a smooth blacktop road. Appropriate, because the rims *are* 700C!
The Karate Monkey is puristic in that it has no suspension and I didn’t miss it. When the trail got rougher, I used the suspension built into my legs. 😉
The bike built up as it is now with it’s 8-speed gear hub and my not-insubstantial weight kept this ride from being a climbing wonder. I’m not opposed to some walking stretches though. In fact, I welcome them for the change of pace (and the warming up of toes!).
Yes, the whole riding experience can be summed up as the mountain bike equivalent of Wanderlust.
* I owe this quote to the elder statesman of German Randonneurs, Claus Czycholl. With this encouragement, he used to try to cheer us up on long (600 km, 1000 km) brevets, coming down (that much was true!) out of the Harz mountains and heading back to our start and finish point Hamburg. Hundreds of kilometers to go yet, all downhill … (NOT!)