On America's bike trails, treadheads are eschewing the standard 26-inch-diameter bike tires they've all been riding for years in favor of oversize 29-inch wheels. Turns out bigger is definitely better, whether you've got years in the saddle or you're a mountain-biking rookie. Here are five reasons why 29ers rule:
"The larger wheels provide better cornering traction and help smooth out rough terrain," says 29er convert Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, 31, a veteran mountain biker with the Subaru/Gary Fisher team and five-time national cross-country champ. "Those are big confidence boosters when you're riding fast or on a trail you're not that familiar with."
"You hold momentum much better than with a 26er," says two-time Olympian Todd Wells, who swapped to a 29er after racing a Specialized Stumpjumper with the larger wheels last year. "The bike excelled in fast conditions with lots of transitions and sweeping turns. The bigger wheels also allow you to descend faster and with more control—it almost feels like cheating," he adds with a laugh.
Big 29-inch wheels make rear suspension a luxury, not a necessity—reducing a bike's weight and simplifying maintenance. "A hardtail [front suspension only] 29er can smooth out rough terrain almost as well as a 26-inch full-suspension bike while retaining the simplicity, stiffness, and handling of a hardtail," Wells says.
For years, some racers avoided 29ers because they didn't excel on supertight, twisty, single-lane trails. Recent design refinements have corrected those problems. "Now the rider sits more between the wheels as opposed to on top of them—so cornering stability is a lot better than it used to be," Wells says. "The bigger wheels provide a more stable platform when going downhill; it's harder to accidentally crash and flip over the handlebars with them."
Just because the bike is bigger doesn't mean you have to be. Design tweaks keep the bikes accessible to all riders, not just those built like Shaq. "Tall people aren't the only ones who benefit from the big wheels," Wells says. "The U.S.'s Willow Koerber piloted her 29er to a bronze medal at the World Championships last year—and she's 5'2".
Interested in trying out a 29er? From entry level to pro, here are our picks for the best 29-inch bikes on the market:
ENTRY-LEVEL: Gary Fisher Marlin
$599 @ trekbikes.com
You don't have to spend a grand to get in the big-wheel game—Gary Fisher's Marlin is a smooth single-track ripper that's easy on the wallet but big on performance. Mechanical disc brakes, a light-weight aluminum frame, and a SR Suntour fork with 100mm suspension of travel that you can lock out for a stiffer, faster ride make the Marlin a great way for a trail-riding newbie to test his mettle on a 29er.
MID-LEVEL: Kona Kahuna
$1,000 @ konaworld.com
Spend a little more, get a little more—Kona's Kahuna is a great bike for a novice trail rider that you can grow into as your skills improve. With Shimano hydraulic disc brakes, lightweight aluminum frame, and a RockShox Dart 3 fork with up to 80mm of travel that can be easily adjusted, the Kahuna is full of the performance features you want, without the pro-level price.
TOP OF THE LINE: Giant Anthem X 29er 1
$3,675 @ giantbicycles.com
Custom, one-off Avid brakes and a limited edition Fox fork with four inches of suspension travel are all the proof you need to see this 29er doesn't skimp on high-end specs. Giant took one of their most popular 26-inch mountain bikes and redesigned it from the ground up with a new frame and specially selected components to ensure this big-wheel rig handles, brakes, and accelerates with the best of 'em.