A lot of my singlespeed friends are riding 29ers these days. The idea of wheels that roll over terrain more easily is quite attractive. But what about all that rotating weight? Won’t the bike still be slower and harder to pedal up these tough Colorado climbs? I set out to find out the answers myself with an informal little shootout. In this article I will comparison test two somewhat similar steel hardtail singlespeed bikes. I will outline the component spec on each, describe the course they were tested on, and detail my on trail impressions. Finally, I will give my personal thoughts and conclusions, followed by recommendations on which bike might be the best for you. Keep in mind this is a 26 vs. 29er article, tested in single speed configuration. Why single speeds? Why on earth would you want to climb mountains with only one gear? Lets not get into the why’s, pluses, and minuses of singlespeeding, that is another story entirely! This story is already way too long as it is, so let’s get started!
I drove both bikes up to the Betasso Loop outside of Boulder. I rode each bike over a set loop and timed myself, meanwhile making notes in my head, comparing the bikes over the same terrain on the same day. I wanted to compare the bikes one right after another. It can be hard to compare bikes on different days, as my energies and motivations vary day to day. I did not wear a heart rate monitor. I did not have a power meter. I did not set the bikes up exactly the same way. If you want a totally scientific comparison, check out CyclingNews’ Tech Feature: 26 vs. 29 inch wheels. Unfortunately, that project has been in the works for well over 6 months with no final results published, so I decided to conduct my own. While the CyclingNews comparison is all about science and performance, I want mine to be all about fun and feel. With a little bit of numbers; because getting dropped is no fun at all!
The subjective nature of this test is of course the biggest limiter towards any sort of validity relating to my course times. I just tried my best to go the same speed on both runs. I did not go all out, rather, “comfortably hard”, which is around 80%. Well, except on the Canyon Link, because on a singlespeed that trail is an all out event, but more on that later. I have ten years of heart rate race training experience, as well as a season on a PowerTap under my belt. I’m pretty confident in my ability to monitor output and effort. Plus I’m a bit of a wimp these days; I don’t like to suffer too badly, so I’ll generally ride as fast as I can without really suffering too much. I’ve had enough of the pain cave. I like to smell the flowers a bit more these days. On to the 26 verses 29 inch wheel trail review.
Bike #1: On-One Inbred 29er Single Speed. This bike to me is kind of like the British Surly: Economical, Image-conscious, bombproof, but not particularly light or high tech. The sliding horizontal dropouts are cool. This bike can be built as either a geared or a singlespeed without derailleur. There is pretty good tire clearance, and a lot of standover. Unfortunately the Rock Shox Lockout knob does hit the frame, thus the piece of rubber stuck on there. This is a common 29er problem. The seatstay tubes and yoke are a cool design, although not a particularly weight efficient one. The bike has Avid Juicy 7 hydraulic disc brakes, a Rock Shox Reba 80mm fork, and XT Hubs laced to WTB Trail 29er rims. Traction is controlled by Maxxis Ignitor 2.1 29er tires. The rest of the parts are reasonably light components. Gearing is a 32×20, which on a 29er is 47.2 gear inches.
Bike #2: Curtlo Single Speed. I bought this bike cheap and used at VeloSwap two years ago. I don’t even know the year or the model. This bike was hand made by a small builder in Washington State. It has True Temper Platinum OX steel tubing, butted and ovalized at the bottom bracket. The S bend seatstays have monster tire clearance, 2.5’s are no problem. I love this bike; it is very smooth and very stiff. It still steers pretty quickly even with the 120mm Fox Talas Fork I have on the front. It has Paul’s Components V-brakes, which are the best V-Brakes that I have ever used. The brakes grab ceramic rim surfaces on my 1st generation Bontrager Race Light wheelset with Chris King Hubs. Ceramic rims make a huge improvement for rim brakes. They are a whole level of performance increase over regular machined surfaces. The front tire is a WTB 2.5 Weirwolf and the rear tire is a WTB 2.4 Motoraptor. The rest of the parts are a small bit lighter than the On-One, but the spec is similar. Gear is a 34×19, which on a 26er is 47.4 gear inches, which is almost identical to the On-One gearing.
Comparing the bike builds: I have a detailed list of all the parts on each bike, and their approximate weight IN A CHART CLICK HERE. The frames are functionally pretty similar. They are both steel hardtails weighing approximately 5-ish pounds. The On-One has a distinct braking advantage with the hydraulic discs. This should not affect the test since there is only one downhill with a lot of braking on this course, and it is not very long. The biggest discrepancy is in the wheelset. The XT/WTB wheels weigh 2400 grams for the pair while the Race Lites are only 1435 grams! Some of this weight is due to the larger size, but most of it has to do with the performance. The Race Lites were $800 retail in their day, have 400g rims, 24/28 DT 15/18 Revolution Spokes, alloy nipples, and top of the line Chris King hubs without discs. The XT/WTB wheels are price point, do-it-all-for-everyone, 32 3 cross 14g spokes with brass nipples, plus disc brake rotors (weight not included above). In order to balance the weight a LITTLE bit, I put my biggest and heaviest 26 inch tires on the Curtlo, the fatty WTBs, along with heavy tubes. The tubes and tires on the Curtlo actually weigh more than the 29er’s, which should balance the inertial drag by a bit. Gearing on both bikes are essentially the same. When all is said and done, the 29er is 26.2 lb and the 26er is 23.3 lb. Exactly two pounds of that weight is in the wheels. Wow. There is also a difference in fork suspension travel. I made the Curtlo’s suspension a little stiffer than normal, to compensate for the 50% increase in travel of the 120mm Fox over the 80 mm Rock Shox.
RIDING THE COURSE
The course consists of 2 distinct parts: The Betasso Loop and the Canyon Link. I know these trails like the back of my hand, so riding order shouldn’t matter from a technical sense. I planned to ride the Loop once, take a split time, then ride down the Link to Boulder Canyon, then back up the climb and stop the clock. The Betasso loop itself is 3 miles long, and is generally rolling, fast, and hardpacked, like a BMX track at times. It is very NORBA race course style, and it is perfect for a singlespeed as none of the climbs are very steep for very long. That changes very quickly when you plunge down the Canyon Link. The Link is straight down, then straight up, maybe a mile each way. This part of the course would be the real test for climbing performance. The lower part of the trail varies from barely rideable to unrideable on a single speed bike. The upper half is steep, but poses no real threat of getting knocked off the bike. Also, the Park Service alternates bike riding direction once a month on the loop. On this day the Loop was ridden clockwise.
26er VERSES 29er ON THE TRAIL
I had been planning this test for a while, but I really have things that I should be doing other than spending my time writing this for fun. But God do I love bikes.
So I woke up Thurs morning, and saw the sunrise peeking in my bedroom window. It was already hot in my room at 5:45. I laid there for a minute, then decided it would be a great day do get up early and beat the encroaching heat. I didn’t find out until that afternoon that it was the Summer Solstice! Cool.
I decided to ride the On-One 29er first. It is only fair that I ride the heavier bike when I am fresher. I headed out on a warm-up lap of the link. Since it was early there was no one was out on the trail yet to get in the way of my blazing speed. Haha.
This was my 4th ride on the On-one, and I’m getting quite used to it. The cornering traction is amazing. Hey maybe it could be the Maxxis Ignitor tires, but I kinda doubt it. It feels to me like the gyroscopic action of the big wheels helps to keep you upright and pointed forward. I can definitely two wheel drift more securely and predictably with the longer contact patch that the 29er wheel offer. The Loop does not have too much in the way of rough terrain. There are a few patches of rocks and roots here or there, but you can blast over most of them without slowing down. The big wheels surely roll over these obstacles smoother. In really rooty terrain such as East Coast riding I’m sure this is even more predominant. I have the wheel moved quite forward in the dropouts, I find that manualling (wheelie-ing) this bike with 17.3 inch chainstays is no problem. Finishing the Loop portion of the course (I actually only did a partial loop before heading down the link); my 29er time was 16:01.
Downhilling is where big wheels get really fun. All that spinning inertia between your legs is confidence inspiring. I feel more secure with the big wheels, like it will take a bigger obstacle to knock me off my line. I rode a prototype Ellsworth Evolve full suspension 29er in Moab back in October. I noticed that on the rock drop offs and ledges that Moab has to offer, that big front wheel made it feel like I could nose dive bigger without feeling like I was going to go over the handlebars. Back to Boulder, I finished the descent without much fuss. Now the work begins, 15 minutes of singlespeed pain, here we go! Summer is here and the trail is drying out quick. The dirt is getting loose and sandy, and rear wheel traction is the difference between cleaning the section and walking. Oh, I should mention that the second pitch is ‘unrideable’ on a singlespeed; it is just too steep. (Disclaimer: I’ve heard that Travis Brown has cleaned this section on a single. Olympians don’t count!) After a short push up the second pitch, there is another very steep and painful but not technically hard third pitch. Then, a VERY short flat spot, followed by the crux of this climb, a 4 tiered maximum output section that is rocky, loose, and rutted. The rear wheel traction of a 29er is wonderful. I’m able to grind away at 40 rpm and still hook the rear wheel up into the dust. I cleaned the rest of the climb without any real close calls. Make a left at the picnic table, to the top of the next short climb, second split was 19:02, for a total loop time of 35:03.
Now, I’m out on the Betasso Loop on the Curtlo Single Speed mountain bike with 26 inch wheels. I’ve been riding 26 inch wheeled mountain bikes for 16 years. Four rides later and now I feel like I’m on a kids bike! The wheels are just so darn LITTLE! Into the first high speed corners, whoa, almost lost it trying to drift as fast as the other bike. I felt like I had to take the corners a tiny bit more carefully than I did on the 29er. OK, but the 26er should feel more nimble, more flick-able, a better jumper, right? Yes, it does. A little. But not much. On the rough patches I could feel the wheels packing up in the ruts more than the 29er, but I didn’t feel like I was going any slower. It was just felt a little more choppy. On the short and steep climb that finishes the Loop I could feel the lighter wheels. I could definitely hold a seated position more easily while grinding away at 50rpm. I held the more efficient power position for longer on the 26er, which was fortunate since out of the saddle traction was greatly reduced compared to the other bike. As it was getting later in the morning, I had to slow down twice to pass hikers this time around the Loop. I tried to sprint spin back up to speed to make up for lost time. I finished the loop in 15:47, 14 seconds faster. I’m certain that much of it was gained in the steeper uphill portion where I remained seated. Or maybe I was just riding faster after my previous warm-up laps?
On the upper parts of the Link downhill I felt like I was riding exactly the same speed this second time. Both bikes maneuvered the twisties and the turnies equally. The bottom quarter of the run features steep loose and rocky high speed sections. This bike maybe felt a little twitchier and nervous, but I’ve ridden this trail so many times that I’ve got it pretty down. I DID notice the decreased power of the V-brakes, and these Paul V’s with ceramic pads are the best V’s that I’ve ever used. I was getting noticeable forearm pump on the descent which I did not encounter at all on the previous run. So I may have lost a little bit of time on this bike, but I doubt that it was more than a handful of seconds.
Turning around to come up the link, I realized that the first Link run took more out of me than I wanted. I’m not quite fit enough to maintain maximum anaerobic efforts with repeatability. On the first pitch I could feel the lactic acid built up in my quads. Oh crap, the rear tire is spinning out, A LOT! I dismounted for the hike a little earlier than I did last run to try and save my legs a little bit. On the 3rd steep pitch I was glad that I had wheels that were two pounds lighter because I needed to stay seated to keep that rear wheel hooked up. On the small recovery spot I started having nightmares about the lactic acid that was going to pack through my body over the crux. And what if I don’t clean it? That will throw off my times! Well, my lapse of mental focus bit me in the ass, and I missed the very first small root and rock section for the first time in a couple years. I had grown used to those big wheels rolling over the section smoothly and forgot to slam the pedals as hard as I could. I lost maybe 7 seconds and remounted. 20 seconds later while grinding up the hardest part of the section I accidentally pulled my worn right cleat out of the pedal and had to dismount a second time. Bummer. This bike is definitely more difficult to clean these maximum traction technical sections. Once I regained my composure on the more moderately graded upper half I felt like I was going a little faster on the lighter bike. Maybe it was mental. Maybe I just thought I was going faster because the light wheels are supposed to be faster. I can’t say for certain, but once traction was no longer a concern, it just seemed easier to keep the pedals turning over while staying in the saddle. Final time for this split was 18:53. So even with 2 dismounts I was still 9 seconds faster. Total time was 34:40 which was 23 second faster than on the 29er.
THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS
It doesn’t surprise me that my times were very close to being the same. 23 seconds variation over 35 minutes is a difference of only 1%. Since I only had one gear it makes sense that I rode roughly the same speed! What I wanted to find out is which bike made that 35 minutes more enjoyable.
Riding around the loop, the 29er had superior cornering capability due to a larger contact patch. The larger wheels lessen the ‘angle of attack’ that the wheels hit obstacles on the trail, thereby rolling over them with less jarring. On this loop I was not bothered by the longer wheelbase. There is only one real switchback on this trail, and this bike negotiated it without problems.
On the steep downhill, the larger wheels are confidence inspiring. The bigger bike feels more stable at high speeds. Flicking small kicked out tabletop jumps off of waterbars may have been a little easier on the 26er, but not much. On previous trails I have noticed an increased level of confidence on drop offs with the bigger wheels.
Steep and technical climbs on the limit of singlespeedability (Yay, new word!) are where the big wheels really shine. Cleaning the Canyon Link was undoubtedly easier on the 29er, despite a 3 pound weight penalty.
So far I’ve been mostly promoting all these benefits of the 29er. I’ve listed; a less jarring ride, better cornering, stability at speed, increased rough terrain performance, and better standing climbing traction. Yet, it was still slower. When you look at the stopwatch, when it comes down to steep high altitude climbing, VO2 Max is King, and light makes right. This is why I want to get a custom 29er wheelset that is very light, so I can have the best of both worlds.
WHICH BIKE IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
Well how tall ARE you anyway? Not in Internet Inches, like, I mean for real. I am 5 foot 11, so the big wheels fit under me quite nicely. I would imagine that the threshold for 29er sizing is around 5 foot 7. At that point toe overlap with the front wheel begins to become a concern, and the frame head tube angle needs to be slackened to increase front center distance, all of which are all trade offs that lead to a less nimble bike in the singletrack. This is a *rough* guideline for around the point where size becomes a consideration. Can you be shorter and ride one? Sure! But it *may* not give you the best performance possible. Conversely, if you are a gi-normous 6 foot 2 or above type, well, don’t even think about it. Airplane seats were not made for you and neither were 26 inch mountain bikes. That said, flame away.
Secondly, where do you live? If you live in flatter to rolling terrain then go for the 29er! The rougher the trails the more you are going to like one. If your terrain finds you keeping more of a constant speed on average then you are not going to be spending a lot of energy spinning big wheels up to speed. In fact, that inertia that you put into the wheels is going to help you maintain that speed when you encounter something that is going to try and slow you down. On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time on long climbs, then maybe you would be better off with the lightest option that you can find. And that is going to be the smaller wheeled bike.
Thirdly, what is important to you? Are you a go fast at all cost racer? Do you just ride trails for fun with no other agenda? Do you like cleaning climbs on a singlespeed while geared full suspension guys walk? Do you have every part of your bike weighed and calculated in a spreadsheet? If you are a racer, you still might go faster on a 26er depending on your racing discipline and location,. But then again, maybe not. 29ers make a lot of sense to me for endurance racing, where the race is more about conserving energy and maintaining a high average speed than it is reacting explosively and powerfully. And that is what big wheels are good at.
After 16 years of riding wheels of one size, to try something new is just fun, plain and simple. Feeling a bike that rides differently is fresh, interesting, and exciting. Additionally, I find that riding a 29er makes me feel more of a man. Ooooh, Big Wheels (insert Tool Time Man Grunt). Does this mean it can also make a female feel more like a woman? I guess all you 29er riding ladies will have to blog us and let us know. There is one thing that do know for certain. Last week I went up to Nederland and did my first highly technical ride of the year (too much photo and computer time . . .). I was on the 29er and I cleaned a section up there for the first time of my life, on my first attempt of the year. I was on a 29er; was it coincidence?