What’s going on with mountain bike wheel sizes and how does it affect us female riders? Our 29er mountain bike buyer's guide is here to fill you in...
Mountain biking has been undergoing some technical changes when it comes to wheel sizes. After a long reign of 26" wheels, the 27.5" (650b) wheel size took over a few years ago boosting performance and offering a greater allowance to accommodate female riders.
However, the 27.5" wheel is now being lapped by the 29" size - a.k.a the 29er. Like with any major change in the cycling industry, they have been received with hesitation, although now, it looks like 29er's are here to stay as they move out of the cross-country scene and into the downhill and enduro disciplines.
Arguments have since followed about the advantages and disadvantages of the larger wheel size. Evangelists made bold, often excessive claims about the faster and increased traction of the larger wheels, while sceptics rubbished 29-inch wheels for being ponderous and heavy.
If you're on the fence, let's take a look at 29er's in greater detail...
Advantages of 29er Mountain Bikes
Faster: Larger wheels roll faster, that’s a matter of the physics of tyres.
Smoother ride: They are also less prone to fall into dips and ditches in the trail, so a 29er smoothens out the ride.
Improved traction: Because the tyre’s contact patch is longer, there are usually a couple of extra tyre tread blocks in contact with the ground, so traction is slightly improved.
Those advantages make 29er mountain bikes great for most types of riding, and especially for fast, endurance rides. Beginners also benefit, because a 29er’s forgiving ride on rough surfaces makes it easier to learn to ride off road.
Disadvantages of 29er Mountain Bikes
Taller: A larger wheel inevitably raises the front end of the bike. This presents a couple of challenges; getting the handlebars low enough for smaller riders and lowering the standover height enough to not impede the ride.
Heavier: Big wheels are unavoidably heavier, and any technological tweak that helps makes them lighter can also be applied to smaller wheel sizes.
Slower acceleration: The extra weight makes them slightly slower to accelerate than a 27.5" wheeled bike, in theory at least. In practice, on rough surfaces, it feels like the ride-smoothing effect swamps this.
Handling: The ponderous handling of early 29ers was down to poor steering geometry. With your eyes closed, it’s now hard to tell a 29er from a 27.5" wheeled bike because bike designers have dusted off their textbooks and rediscovered the equations that determine good bike handling.
What about us girls?
When 29er mountain bikes first appeared, some said they were best for riders over 5ft 8in, which eliminated about 90 percent of women.
Smaller riders, the thinking went, would not be able to get 29ers that fit them well because the extra height of the wheel pushes up the height of the bike.
Ultra-short head tubes and zero-rise or even dropped stems have helped, and there are now plenty of small-framed 29er mountain bikes on the market.
Compared to the bike shapes we’re used to, small mountain bikes with 29" wheels do look a bit odd. In fact, let’s be honest some of them are downright ugly. But they ride brilliantly, providing all the confidence and easy-rolling benefits of 29ers in a female-friendly package.
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