I like bikes. Full stop. Early in my career, I couldn’t really afford to pick one type of bike over another. Working in a shop meant assembling and fixing everything with wheels from 12 inches up to 700C. And even though I didn’t ride 20-inch bikes, much less freestyle, I bought the magazines so that I could learn to set up the bikes we sold so they looked authentic. It taught me a lot about appreciating the vast range of what cycling is. I was grateful to have my eyes opened that way, and I’ve never lost that wonder.
I spent years writing about road bikes and only road bikes for the simple reason that the magazines that paid me did nothing but road. I was able to embrace that, but it was limiting.
A couple of things happened starting about five years ago. First, I did a piece for Bicycling about taking my road bike on a dirt road. Then I started pulling my ‘cross bike out again and hitting singletrack near me. Then I went for a mountain bike ride in Annadel State Park with Yuri Hauswald (this year’s winner of Dirty Kanza). In aggregate, those rides reminded me how much I loved riding surfaces other than asphalt.
My first trip on a full-suspension 29er down singletrack I’d last done on my ‘cross bike was a full-body epiphany. As much as I loved riding my ‘cross bike on that stuff, there’s no denying how much more fun the mountain bike was. By fun, I mean that I was able to ride with near abandon; I didn’t need to pick my line so carefully to avoid rocks that might cause a flat. And then there’s the fact that what passed for singletrack 20 years ago has evolved. People are cutting trails that take advantage of the terrain, using natural features to make the riding more varied, more exciting, and some of what I’ve ridden I simply can’t take advantage of on a ‘cross or even monster ‘cross bike.
Which is which
I’ve been watching—from the sidelines—as the battle rages on wheel size. Within the mountain bike world, people had long arguing 26-inch wheels vs. 29-inch wheels when 650B/27.5-inch wheels came along. Much of the marketing copy was a joke because it was predicated on the idea that you could get the best of both worlds—all the nimble playfulness of 26 plus the lower rolling resistance and angle of attack along with the increased momentum of 29-inch wheels. Sigh.
Years ago, when I was a Nordic ski instructor, there was an effort to make cross country skis that would allow you to either do diagonal (traditional) Nordic skiing or freestyle (skate) skiing. The problem is that a ski meant for diagonal is very flexible torsionally. The tips flex so they can follow tracks. They also feature two cambers—the tradition camber all skis have, plus a second one, called the “wax pocket.” That’s where you apply the kick wax. Skate skis, on the other hand, have no wax pocket and are ultra-stiff torsionally so you can turn them on their edges and push off in order to skate. Combi skis ended up doing neither diagonal nor freestyle well; they didn’t follow tracks through turns and weren’t stiff enough for proper skating.
Where bike wheels sizes are concerned, the industry says that 26-inch wheels are dead. As a standard on which to build bikes, I don’t think that performance-oriented mountain bikes 26-inch-wheeled mountain bikes should be mothballed. It’s a big jump for kids to move from 20-inch to 24-inch. Expecting them to move from 24 to 27.5 when you have 26 in the middle is utterly brain dead. For the sake of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and the future of this sport in the U.S., brands need to continue offering raceable 26-inch hardtails.
If the industry wants kids to keep cycling as they grow, rather than leave the sport for electric guitars or Playstation (either one can be huge fun, right?), they need to make sure that the bikes continue to fit and handle well.
For my part, I can say 26 is irrelevant for me, unless I want to hit a skatepark with my kids; I guess that means there’s a chance I may need to buy another hardtail someday. (Laughter erupts.) More realistically, as I’ve ridden different bikes with 27.5-inch and 29-inch wheels, I’ve noticed that they each have strengths. There’s no denying that a 27.5 wheel is more nimble and allows a rider to flick the bike in varied terrain more easily than with a 29er. That said, nothing mows through terrain with as much aplomb and confidence as a 29er.
At the very point that I was ready to conclude that 27.5 was the best answer for me in descending, I had the opportunity to ride another 29er—both were trail bikes with five inches of travel—and I realized something. That because the 29er rolled through small ruts and protruding rock that might cause a smaller wheel to turn off its line, I was actually more confident and as a result, even though I might have to brake a bit more in a turn, I was faster overall with the 29er. I was more willing to let the bike rip. It was a conclusion that surprised me.
Now let’s thrust into this maelstrom of opinion the new Plus size tires and cyclocross tires that in some cases are more than 40mm wide. If you back up a bit, you start to see something other than just a debate about three sizes, you see a whole continuum of options (heck, lets add 700C road and fat bikes to this as well) that mock the idea of “best.” Sure, a 700C slick is the best thing for a smooth, paved road, and a 5-inch fat tire is the thing for snow, but all those sizes in-between spell the opportunity to make choices based not on availability but on terrain.
My recent experiences with plus tires inspired in me a desire to go back to the muddy trails I rode Memphis and the often wet granite of Western Massachusetts. The increased traction could be fantastic fun on that terrain. Then there’s the fact that I used to ride dirt roads on 25mm tubulars; with some of the tires I’ve been riding of late, I’d never have to turn around or even slow down.
The one conclusion I’ve drawn based on my experiences with all of the tires I’ve ridden lately is that big rubber is winning. It offers better traction, more comfort, and in certain circumstances clearly superior speed. It’s obvious to me that there’s a limit to the bigger-is-better chase—you wouldn’t do a road ride on a fat bike—but I suspect we’ve yet to learn all there is to know about how tire selection can aid performance and enjoyment. Game on.