Close this search box.

Big Wheels

We asked our readers whether they thought 29ers (mountain bikes with 29-inch wheels for you heathens) were phat or simply a passing fad. You like big wheels—75 percent of you think 29ers are here to stay, while just 25 percent say they will go the way of mountain unicycling. To hash out the argument, we asked bike writers Michael Frank and Joe Lindsey to square off over how 29ers have affected bike culture.

Illustration: Kevin Howdeshell/

Open Your Mind
What’s the old saying about the carpenter whose only tool is a hammer? I’m not that kind of 29er advocate. I know those guys. I’ve ridden with them. They only believe in the hammer.

Look, I have my doubts about 29ers. I’m not sold that every 29er on the market is exceptionally well thought out. Poorer versions have trucklike understeering and refuse to carve corners. That’s right, carve, like an hourglass-shaped ski. The best 26ers, such as a Santa Cruz Blur or the Yeti ASR-5C, will lay over at the apex of a turn and seem to bend right around it.

Still, there’s magic in the best 29ers. I’ve been testing the five-inch-travel, Intense Tracer 29. You’d think it would be too tall for a short guy like me (I’m barely scraping 5’ 7”). You’d think a five-inch-travel 29er would be overkill. You’d be sooo wrong.

Not only does Intense work some serious magic by tucking in the rear wheel so tight that the Tracer 29 is barely longer than a lot of its 26er trail-bike competitors, they cut the standover enough so that I’m not risking my manhood riding this tall-wheeled rig. The bottom bracket is low enough, too, that the Intense will carve corners, just like its 26-wheeled cousins. And because it is a big-wheeler, the Tracer’s large-footprint contact patch bridges the gaps over bumpy ruts rather than hanging in them.

Twenty-nine-inch bikes are way more than a fad. Every major bikemaker is now selling 29ers, and some brands that were slow to the party, like Specialized, Santa Cruz, Trek and Yeti are all making fantastic versions.

So go ride a 29er. Bring an open mind. But… don’t turn you back on the 26er. In a cycling world full of turf battles we can afford to endorse more than one genre. Fixie-singlespeed-29er-rigid? Well, maybe not that genre.

Michael Frank has been an editor at Bicycling, National Geographic Adventure, Forbes and Esquire.

Dirty Stinking Hipsters

It’s a bike, not a value system.

As Barack would say, “Let me be clear.” I’m not against 29ers. It’s a wheel size. It makes no overt value judgment, has no opinion, no heartbeat, and no way to defend itself. What I’m against are 29er people.You know who you are. There should be a Budweiser Real American Heroes ad for you, Mr. I Can’t Shut Up About How Awesome My Bike Is. You don’t just ride a big-wheel bike. You don’t even stop at telling everyone you ride a big-wheel bike. You demand that they do too.

Back in the 1990s, singlespeeding became the big value statement for mountain bikers. I enjoy riding singlespeeds, but I quickly began to not like singlespeeders, particularly racers, for their almost hipsteresque iconoclasm, right down to the obligatory Listen to Black Sabbath sticker on the chainstay. Why, I wanted to ask, do all the non-conformists dress alike?
Just as bearded, tight-jean-wearing hipsters will (please) someday move on from fixies to alight like a plague on some other pastime, 29ers replaced singlespeeds as the snobtastic technology of choice, while following the exact same arc as any other newfangled discovery.

29er people can’t just ride their bikes. They feel compelled to share their revelation with the same zeal that religious fundamentalists of all stripes share their passion: by demanding you convert.

It does not begin to occur to them that you ride a standard bike because you a) might not have the money to switch right now b) might also have a 29er in the stable but pick different steeds for different days or c) have tried 29ers and decided that 26-inches is perfectly fine.

Wheel size is a tool. It is like gears, or three inches of suspension versus seven, or rocker skis versus cambered ones. It is an advantage in some scenarios and not in others. It works for some people, but not all. This concept, however, is anathema to the 29er Way, in which the wheel size is vastly superior in all ways and if you don’t understand that, you’re an idiot.

Look, I ride my bike to get away from people like you. I didn’t ask you how you like your bike. I don’t care. I like mine. That’s all that matters. But speaking of wheel sizes, have you tried 650b…?

Joe Lindsey is a contributing writer for Bicycling magazine.

Readers Response from the Web
Because in the world of anonymous online comments everyone has a say.

“The most interesting aspect of the 29er revolution is the innovation it is driving in the industry. Bigger wheels require stiffer connections in places like the hubs, head tube and forks. Thru axles, tapered head tubes and so on are becoming the norm in the 29er world—and driving change elsewhere. When these innovations are combined with big wheels, you get a stiff, smooth-rolling, enjoyable ride. When I get on a 26-inch-wheeled bicycle these days, it feels more like a BMX bike—still fun but less capable at riding long distances over bumpy terrain efficiently” —Cameron

Share this post:

Discover more in the Rockies: