Roger Phillips: Mountain bikes now have three wheel sizes

rphillips@idahostatesman.comMay 2, 2013 

Last spring, I was cruising the Foothills on my full-suspension mountain bike with 26-inch wheels. Like a lot of mountain bikers, I was curious about mountain bikes with super-sized wheels.

The 29-inch wheels have been around more than a decade, but they really gained momentum in the last few years. Every bike shop has the so-called 29ers, and riders are snapping them up.

AS THE WHEELS TURN

If you go into a bike shop, you may notice another wheel size on mountain bikes, which is known as either 650B or 27.5-inch.

That gives you three wheel choices, which gets a little confusing.

The newest size is obviously between the 26-inch and 29-inch wheels. Not exactly halfway; it's closer in size and manners to 26-inch wheels.

But before diving into the new wheel, let's go back to the 29ers.

Last summer, my curiosity got the best of me, so I decided it was time to give Mr. Big Wheel a try.

I found a used aluminum 29er hardtail (no rear suspension) for a reasonable price and eagerly hit the Foothills.

I really liked it, so much so that six months later, I replaced it with a new, lightweight, carbon-fiber 29er hardtail.

Here's why I like the 29er. It lives up to its reputation as a super stable, comfy cruiser for the lower Foothills trails, which tend to be smooth.

It also does a passable job on pavement because it keeps its momentum at cruising speed, which is a bonus because I always disliked riding a 26er on roads.

Despite being a hardtail, the 29er doesn't pound my lower back like the hardtail 26er I gave up years ago because it caused too many back spasms.

The 29er also corners reasonably well and has great traction.

The knock against 29ers is that they are less nimble, slow to accelerate and tough to restart on a steep climb.

I found the slower acceleration didn't bother me. As long as I could keep pedaling those big wheels, I didn't have to stop on a hill, so restarting was a moot point.

The 29er is less nimble than my 26-inch bike, but that's the trade-off for the added stability.

I might have considered a 29er for my all-around bike, but I still like full suspension, and there are some drawbacks with a full-suspension 29er. There needs to be a lot of clearance for those big wheels, which limits frame designs.

And it's not like my 26-inch bike was flawless. I'm a shade under 6 feet 2 inches, and I ride an extra-large frame.

Having 26-inch wheels on an XL frame always made the wheels feel a little small to me and the bike handle a little squirrelly.

I don't have a technical explanation of it, but I felt like I was riding with my chest over the front tire. If I rode a frame that put the front tire farther out front, the bike wandered on steep climbs, especially while I was seated. If I stood and pedaled on a steep climb, I lost rear traction.

I also tend to oversteer coming out of corners. I never figured out if the problem was the bike or my riding style, but it went away when I rode a 29er.

TWO-BIKE STABLE

I avoided choosing between the two sizes by having one of each. A full-suspension 26er and a hardtail 29er is a great combination.

I can cruise the smooth trails on the hardtail 29er, and jump between dirt and pavement and gobble the miles in comfort.

I can zigzag through the tight, twisty trails and bomb the bumpy ones on my 26er full-suspension bike.

But not everyone wants two bikes. So along comes the "compromise" wheel size.

COMPROMISE OR COP OUT?

After my positive experience riding a 29er, I decided to give 27.5-inch wheels a try. Rather than buy another bike, I converted my 26-inch bike to the midsize wheels.

Mind you this was not recommended by the manufacturer, but it seemed to be a fairly common practice for those who had my frame and wanted to experiment with the new wheel size.

The decision to switch from 26 to 27.5 wasn't made without talking to people who know more about bikes than I know, and also spending hours reading sometimes-entertaining, but often-tedious debates on Internet forums.

Converting my full-suspension bike to 27.5 cost the price of a new set of wheels and tires. It wasn't cheap, but it was still a fraction of the cost of a new bike.

Because my frame wasn't designed for the wheels, I had to decrease my suspension travel so the tires wouldn't rub against the frame when the shock was compressed.

But I've been pleased with the results.

Best of both worlds? Not really, but 27.5 does add some of the advantages of larger wheels without the downsides. I notice more stable and predictable handling with 27.5-inch wheels and a slight improvement in rolling momentum, but nothing that takes my breath away.

The midsize wheels feel more like a 26er when cornering, but then again, they're on the same frame so that's to be expected.

Because I still like to bash through rough trails in the mountains, I still have full suspension.

Overall, I like how larger wheels handle, so 27.5 was a good compromise.

I am dying to ride a bike that was designed for 27.5-inch wheels because I think it would be a better bike than one that's converted.

RIDER'S CHOICE

It's been a very interesting transition. A year ago, I was perfectly content riding a full-suspension bike with 26-inch wheels. I had no experience with a 29er and barely any knowledge of 27.5-inch wheels.

Now I don't see myself ever riding another bike with 26-inch wheels. There's nothing wrong with them, but I think the benefits of the larger wheels outweigh the liabilities, especially on an extra-large, full-suspension frame.

If you're in the market for a new bike, the options have never been better, but you have some tough decisions ahead of you.

I wouldn't try to tell you which is best for you because it's a matter of personal preference, and where and how you ride.

But I thought I would share my experience in case someone else is curious about making a switch.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

Statesman outdoor writers Pete Zimowsky and Roger Phillips alternate columns on Thursday. Look for Zimo next week.

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