By Sal Ruibal
Because I write about bikes in a magazine called Bike, people think I actually know a lot about bikes. Truth is, I know a lot about writing about bikes. There's a big difference.
Take the issue of 29er mountain bikes. The most-asked question I get is, "Spare change, bro?" The second most-asked is, "What's the deal with these 29ers?"
A friend who is the market for a new bike [No, I won't send your bike company his contact info] went to a well-known local bike shop looking for a dual-suspension mountain bike. He had heard of 29ers, but was shocked to find this store had just a few 26" bikes but a large herd of fancy carbon and alloy 29ers stomping and snorting like it was the paddock at Churchill Downs.
The salesperson told my friend that no one wanted 26ers because 29ers were the thing all the cool kids were buying. [Time out: You bike folk may find it hard to believe that in 2012 there are people who don't know what a 29er or 26er refers to.]
I will dispense with footnotes about 700c and 650b and who invented or stole the idea of mountain bikes.
The real truth is that 40 years ago, Martians left mountain bikes in Marin County as a gift to humankind and since then the 26-inch wheel has been the 'standard' mountain-bike wheel size. A few years ago, Jupiter sent down 29-inch mountain-bike wheels in an attempt to prevent a Martian takeover of Earth.
Road cyclists have been using the larger size wheel since Pluto was a planet, but with typical Plutonian black humor they made the tires really skinny and hard.
In Europe, where everything is much better but a lot more expensive, they call the big wheel off-road bikes 28ers just to piss us off. The little ones they call 'VTTs', which is short for 'very tiny tires'.
Are 29ers better? Yes, in the same way that 10 bottles of beer are better than six bottles of beer. A 4-inch-thick log seems smaller to a 29-inch wheel than to a 26-inch wheel. For another analogy, ask your sister-wives or girlfriend or boyfriend or all three.
The best reason for having 29er mountain bikes is that your neighborhood bike shop can now sell more bikes to the same group of customers, especially those cheap bastards who come in twice a week to yak about bikes and never buy a damn thing or bring any beer. You know who you are.
There was a time in bike history when 29-inch (or 700c or 28-inch) bikes ruled the world of dirt. In the early days of the Tour de France—way back in 1903—riders rode about the same distance they do now, but in just six stages instead of the 20+ stages in modern times. Stages began and ended in the middle of the night, which is a lot like watching Versus or whatever they call the Bob Roll Channel now.
Those tough bastards rode heavy steel bikes with slack geometry and, in the beginning, just one damn gear. They did the sprints, the roleurs, the Alps, the Massif Central, the Galibier and Tourmalet and the Rapha shop all on the same bikes. And they smoked cigarettes all the time under the assumption that smoking increased their lung capacity. Tobacco and drug companies haven't changed much since.
On the positive side, they could pull into any bar or café along the route and charge their meals and drinks to the Tour organizers. That lasted until the bike journalists glommed on and drank the bars dry.
And, like modern-day mountain-bike racers, they had to be self-sufficient and accept no outside assistance. One poor bastard walked down a mountain to find a blacksmith shop where he could make repairs to his broken fork. He did just that, but was kicked out of the race because the blacksmith's grandson worked the bellows that fanned the hot fire. And Contador got the boot for eating bad beef, sheesh.
They finally got modern and got multiple gears, which they changed by lifting the chain onto the next sprocket with their fingers—while riding. There were a lot of guys nicknamed 'Shorty' back in those days. That was real 'index' shifting.
The roads were crappy by today's Paris-Roubaix standards and the mountain stages were almost all dirt, which could appear as mud, dust, brown snow, sheep dung or a combination of all four.
These were the true hard-asses of cycling, especially since they rode on those damn Brooks saddles. Assassins!
They did all that on big wheels, pretty close to today's 29ers. If they could do it, you could do it. Nah, there's no way you could do it. But if you got one of the new carbon 650b bikes….
Sal Ruibal learned how to ride a mountain bike from Ned Overend in 1998 and it’s been downhill ever since. A reporter and editor at USA Today from 1987 to 2010, he was the first mainstream sportswriter to cover mountain biking as a legitimate sport. In 2007, Sal was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. A frequent rider and sporadic racer, he placed fifth in Masters 45+ category at the 2002 24-Hour Solo World Championships thanks to a blizzard that eliminated most of the field. He joined up with Bike and Paved in 2010 and hasn’t looked back except when the police are following him. He was born in Colorado but lives in Virginia.