Friday, April 15, 2011


The one certainty is that 29'ers have gone mainstream. All the top contenders at the Epic were on 29'ers and the Cape Epic / Cycle Lab have issued a fact sheet recommending 29'ers for use in the Epic.

However, whether there are actual performance benefits from a 29'er, is dependent on a number of variables.

1) Marketing: Lets not kid ourselves, 29'ers are good for the bike industry. In the beginning, we all one bike for XC, Marathons, Downhills, Dual Slalom and even commuting. Today, the enthusiast has a quiver of bikes: 6" travel downhill; hard tail cross country bike; commuting bike; road bike for training; all resulting in a garage full of bikes which have added significantly to the bottom line of bike companies (still a bargain compared to the price of a car!). The lure of profits will generate growth in the 29'er section and every company will bring one to the market - be they good, bad, or downright ugly.

2) Parking lot experiments: I had a chance to roll around on a few 29ers at trail heads. I have tried the Cannondale Flash, Specialized Epic, Fisher Superfly and a steel On One. They roll wonderfully and are very smooth. In the parking lot, they're winners.

3) On the trail: Here things get more complicated. Side by side on long open, often corrugated downhills of Longmore, they simply roll away from my 26er when coasting down a hill. But, the 29er pilots were big boys and gravity counts as well. When it comes to hills, be they short or long, the benefits fade. It seems you have to lay on more power to get them rolling and keep them rolling. Whether you have the legs and lungs to do that on a continual basis is dependent on each individual.

4) On the Epic: Lets be honest, even if Burry was on a BMX, he would still ride me off, and so would most of the factory pilots, paid to ride 29'ers. At my end of the field (in the 60 to 150 placed range) I came across alot of 29ers but also many 26ers. In contrast to my experience at Longmore, I could not see noticeable performance benefits. We rode with an Iron Deficient 29er clad Andrew MacLean and Paul Furbank for awhile. On a few occassions, MacLean lit the afterburner and got that motor going, but, we hung on. Later, we rode away from them, though its impossible to tell whether its because they stopped to take pictures, the benefits of the 26er, or our strength - probably the former. Not once over the eight days did I have a instance where I was absolutely convinced that the 29er had performance benefits. But, the lingering doubt remains, there could possibly be benefits and I will never know unless I race one.

5) Weight: Don't expect any 29'er to be magically faster. There is no ways that Burry Stander will ride a 29er unless its the same weight as his 26" bike. Rumour has it that Burry's 29er weights 8.6kg. My standard Scott Spark weighs 9.6kg and in race trim, probably about 10.4kg. I have no doubt that gram for gram, the 29er is a better bike. The reality, for mortal wallets, is that the equalization of weight is going to cost you plenty. The wheels are the most important, and 26" carbon wheels tip the scales at 1250 grams, while a similar 29er setup will come in at 1400 grams. You can skimp elsewhere to equalize, but, its going to cost.

6) Frames & other variables: I dont think aluminium framed 29ers work. You need components and frames which are equal to or better than 26" stuff. Its taken the mountain bike industry decades to optimize performance for 26", and there are still serious learning curves for 29ers. Some are just learning better and quicker than others.

So what would I do? Firstly, I would not touch a 29er which is anything other than high end. It would have to be the top of the line model. Anything less, and you are wasting your time. In most cases the wheels of even the top end 29ers would have to be replaced with a Stans or similar wheelset which is lighter or on par with the 26". Secondly, it depends on the type of riding. The majority of 29ers on the Epic were hard tails, and unless you were at the top of the field with a granite core, you were going to get hammered - and I saw plenty of 29er HT rides who disintegrated over the 8 days. For the full suspension crew, Burry Stander showed the benefits with his rig, but, I saw many mid field riders lumbering under the weight of their rather porky 29'ers.

So what would I choose. At the moment, the only bike I would consider is the Trek Fisher Superfly, but, I would have to customize it heavily, starting with the wheels. The other option is the Specialized Epic, but, I am not convinced that their current production model is robust or good enough. Even Willow Koerber's Trek Superfly HT weighs 9.6kg, so I am not convinced that the current offering of 29ers offer significant benefits over a standard 26" bike.

I think the best production 29ers are still under development or in production. Burry Standers 29er is one of those (I somehow doubt whether Burry's bike can be bought at this stage!). The other is the Scott Spark 29er which is apparently due for release in July 2011. I think the Spark 29er is going to be a bike which will shape the future of 29er racing and will provide the best out of the box performance benefits. Whether or not it will be affordable, is an entirely different matter.

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