As long as mountain bikes have been around, riders and designers have tinkered with their machines in search of optimum performance. More than a decade after the first "big wheel" mountain bike was built, the 29er has exploded into the mainstream.
The 29er is a mountain bike with a 29-inch wheel base instead of the standard 26 inches. It uses road-bike rims fashioned with thick (two inches plus) mountain bike tires. Proponents of the 29er have championed its traction and rollover capabilities on off-road terrain.
"I bought a full-suspension 29er last year, and I love it," said Steve Stuebner, author of Mountain Biking in Boise and other books. "When I was climbing before, I was always trying to thread around every rock. With the 29er, I don't worry about that too much."
History of the 29er
The origins of the 29er can be traced to the 1980s, but the story picks up in the mid-'90s when Wes Williams put the "big wheel theory" he had learned from another designer into practice.
Williams, maker of the custom Willits Brand Bicycles, is often credited with building the first modern 29er. He completed a prototype frame in 1994, and five years later introduced a line of 29ers that included mountain, commuter, tandem and cruiser bikes.
One of the setbacks in the 29er's development was the tire. It wasn't until Williams pitched the concept to Wilderness Trail Bikes at a trade show that a specific tire--a modified version of the 26-inch WTB cross-country Nano Raptor--was created, paving the way for the Willits 29er line.
Gary Fisher was the first mass-production company to get into the game, debuting the hardtail Two-Niner with its 2002 line. It didn't take long for Gary Fisher to become synonymous with the 29er. Today, Fisher produces multiple 29ers, including full suspension, hardtail and single-speed models. (Cool local side note: Fisher has tested some of its 29ers in the Boise Foothills.)
Other major companies--including many that were initially skeptical of the 29er--have followed suit. Cannondale, Specialized and Bianchi are among the big names currently manufacturing 29ers.
Local shops have taken note of, and responded to, the 29er's recent surge in popularity. "There was a little cult following at first, but it really exploded," said Tom Platt, co-owner of George's Cycles and Fitness of Boise.
The 29er has received high marks for its momentum, stability and traction, all of which can be attributed to having more wheel on the ground than 26-inch bikes.
"A 29er is going to give you more built-in suspension," Platt said. "It's more forgiving, descending is very stable and it climbs well."
The 29-inch wheel base also decreases the rider's approach angle, making obstacles much easier to roll over. Endurance racers have begun using 29ers in 24-hour competitions with favorable results. The 29er is?six percent faster on uphill courses and?three percent faster on cross-country courses than 26-inch mountain bikes, according to a study conducted by Pepperdine University.
Complaints against the 29er are minor, but they do exist. The main criticism is the higher standover height, which presents a disadvantage for shorter riders. Other noted drawbacks include added wheel weight, lethargic acceleration and poor low-speed maneuverability.
"For me, it's not as quick on real tight turns," Platt said. "The smaller wheel is a little better on switchbacks."
Is the 29er the Right Bike for Everybody?
Much of what you read and hear about the 29er is it's a great bike if you're?6 feet or taller. Tyson Hart, owner of Civilian, a custom steel frame company in Boise, can vouch for that--he's 6 feet 6 inches tall and has been riding 29ers since they hit the market.
"I was an early adopter, and now it's pretty much all I ride," he said. "For people 6-feet-plus, 29ers make a lot of sense."
Stuebner called the 29er a "dream mountain bike" for tall riders.
"As a 6-foot-3 mountain biker, it really fits my body well," he said. "The geometry is great for climbing and descending."
Question is, do you have to be tall to get the most out of a 29er? Not necessarily. Alex Cross, manager at World Cycle of Boise, one of the first local shops to embrace the 29er, said customers as short as 5 feet, 8 inches have purchased--and loved--29ers.
Soon, height might not be an issue: Willits currently is developing a line of 29ers to accommodate riders ranging from 5 feet to 7 feet.
Here to Stay
Unlike other come-and-go cycling trends, the 29er seems poised to occupy its own niche for many years to come.
Gary Fisher's 2008 line has three full-suspension and four hardtail 29ers, including the new full-carbon Superfly that already is generating a buzz.
"When the 29er first came out, other people thought it was going to be a fad, but it's only gotten bigger and bigger," Cross said. "It's definitely going to stick around. The industry won't get away from the 26-inch bikes, but more and more companies are making 29ers each year."
Photo by Darren Poore, courtesy of Willits Brand Bicycles.
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