I currently ride a 15 year old Scott YZ4 mountain bike, which doesn’t even have disc brakes let alone any of the other technologies that current machines have. Perhaps like you as I look to upgrade, I’ve been somewhat confused by the marketing and tech speak of people who love one wheel size or another. Why go to a bigger wheel?
There are now three wheel sizes to consider for mountain biking. The ‘good old fashioned’ 26 inch wheel, the 27 inch wheel and the fashionable yet still immature 29er mountain bike.
Road bikes have long had bigger wheels than mountain bikes because for every push you make on your pedals you go further. In short, you go further for less energy. Where on a road you’re going to make similar turns and encounter similar obstacles to cars – not much – mountain bikes are really for going off road onto trails and bridleways.
Experts have tested 26 inch wheeled bikes time and again against their bigger brethren. For technical, downhill rides where you need to take sharp turns at high speed, the 26 inch wheels are the best. This riding isn’t unlike BMXing, a sport that has survived since the 1970’s with their relatively tiny wheels that are good for tight high speed turns. I defy anyone to ride 10 miles on a BMX however as it really wears you out by comparison to the mountain bike!
If like me you want to put in the miles with some challenging parts as part of the ride, then a bigger wheel is the better idea.
Cross country and commuting
For commuters who like a mountain bike, and cross country riders, the bigger wheel you can get the better. I have even seen a mountain bike with 30 inch wheels! One of the biggest trade offs though is weight. Even if you go for a bike with a light alloy or carbon frame, it stands to reason there will be more material to make the bigger frame. This adds to the weight. The lower cost 29ers will be noticeably heavier, so if like me you’re not averse to throwing the bike over a stile or gate as part of the ride, you should spend the extra cash on a lighter bike.
With the trend for the bigger wheels, you will get a much better specced 26 inch mountain bike for your money than a 29er, so if weight really is an issue then do consider the 26.
How tall are you?
If you want to cover a longer distance then the bigger the wheels the better. Cross country racers have all gone to the 27 inch and the 29er mountain bikes. Not everyone is tall enough for the 29er, so let’s briefly look at the rule of thumb:
If you are under 160 cm tall, stay on the 26. If you are 160 – 175 cm tall then seriously consider the 27 inch wheel. If you’re over 170cm tall then get a 29er. You still need to put your feet down either side of the frame without it sticking in your groin, and the bigger the bike the bigger the frame.
As with all bike purchases, the further you can stretch your budget the better. Money buys better materials, and a newer version. With technology improving all the time on the newer sizes, geometries are changing and 29ers are looking a lot less like their smaller rivals as bike makers learn more how to get the right balance and handling in newer designs. With a 29er, a 2015 edition is going to be much better than a 2012 edition as the technology has improved markedly over the years. Get the latest edition of a bigger wheeled bike you can manage.
29er mountain bike – the answer?
After a 20 mile ride you will have burned less energy on the bigger bike than you will have on the smaller ones. If you go to work by bike, then it is a no brainer. If you like tight, technical trails then the question is a little more difficult. If you want to compete on downhill races, then the 26 is still the answer.