By Vernon Felton
I’ll just cut to the chase here: If you are a product manager in the bike industry, I’m begging you, don’t kill off the 29ers in your line-up.
I understand that 26 is dead. I know that you could make the greatest mountain bike in the world and not sell a single one of them if they were equipped with “old” 26er wheels because 650b/”27.5” is now Jesus Chris’s Official wheelset of choice. I get that. I’m not really happy about it, but I’m a realist and I understand that the battle for the hearts of the masses has been won. 650b has effectively kicked sand in the face of 26 and strolled off with his girlfriend.
But let’s not also kill off 29ers. Not yet. Please.
I’d never have predicted that I’d one day defend the 29-inch wheel size. For years, I was not a fan. Or, to be more accurate, I hated the things. I’d ridden 29ers since 1999 and had never been impressed by their sluggardly handling. Most of them simultaneously annoyed and bored the hell out of me—riding one was the cycling equivalent of being trapped in a supermarket and being forced to listen to James Taylor butcher Marvin Gaye’s How Sweet It is for an eternity.
Wagon wheelers rolled over rocks with greater ease, sure, but for many years, they seemed to suck the soul out of riding. and while there are plenty of other reasons to ride a bike, I’ve never really given a damn about anything other than fun. Riding for fitness? If I wanted to be healthy I’d just stop eating bacon and drinking beer.
So 29ers and I were not a match made in heaven. But about five years ago the bike industry got serious about the wheel size and a much larger group of engineers and designers began fiddling with the larger wheels; in doing so, they wound up creating legitimately fun 29ers—bikes that not only monster-trucked over obstructions, but which also possessed some of the liveliness of the 26-inch wheel. The Santa Cruz Tallboy is the model that immediately comes to mind as the first 29er that rocked my world, but there have since been plenty of others and that’s because the market matured.
It takes years of product development for any technology to come into its own. Those first suspension forks sucked by today’s standards. Early disc brakes were nothing shy of scary. But after enough years of trial and error, you wind up with products that truly deliver on their potential. Cue the image of monkeys cranking out copies of Romeo and Juliet—it’s just a matter of numbers and time.
And that’s right where we stand with 29ers. This segment of the mountain biking universe is just growing out of its overweight, acne-riddled, 8-sided-dice-rolling ugly adolescence and is coming into its own. Frame geometry is largely dialed now. Single-ring drivetrains are enabling manufacturers to shorten chainstays and accommodate big tires. You may not have liked the 29ers of the past. I understand why—I didn’t either—but have you ridden the Yeti SB95 or the Santa Cruz Tallboy or the Specialized Enduro 29er? These are just a few of the big-wheel bikes that blow conventional wisdom about 29ers right out of the water.
In short, we are on the verge of bringing 29ers into their own and, yet, I’ve heard product managers asking themselves whether they should cut 29ers out of their lines altogether and simply replace them with 650b.
Seriously? Now? We’re going to toss the 29er onto the funeral pyre right when its come into its own?
There are a few companies (Giant comes to mind) who have struggled to make their suspension designs really mesh with the largest wheels. I understand why those companies are embracing 650b, but those companies are vastly outnumbered by the ones who are considering shelving 29 because it’s suddenly no longer hip.
This bums me out to no end. I understand the logic. This is business after all. Those companies keep the lights on by selling bikes—not unicorns, rainbows or beer-soaked high fives. If no one wants to buy your 29ers, you’d be a fool to keep cranking out the big wheelers while ignoring 650b. And, yes, I like a lot of the new 650b bikes. Giant Trance Advanced SX? Brilliant. Kona Process? Fantastic. GT Force? Damned good.
So, fine, make some 650b bikes. They’re, to paraphrase Mugatu, so hot right now. But when it comes to 29ers, take a stand. Be bold. You don’t have to stock one in every model and size, but let’s not give up on the breed altogether. Twenty-niners aren’t for everybody and every style of trail, but in some applications, they have no equal. And, dammit, after all these years, we’ve finally gotten a good crop of the damn things. It’d be a shame to see them packed off to the glue factory simply because something slightly cooler just happened to show up.