I know, I know, this topic has been beaten to death many times over. But, I think it still needs a good, swift kick in it's lifeless ass. So, if anybody cares to read one more potentially useless, opinionated commentary that probably has more holes in it than Stan's could seal up, read on fellow opinion-holder. Read on.
First, let me introduce myself as a lover of all wheels, regardless of size, race, creed or religion. I attend the Universalist Church of wheel sizes. Everybody is welcome here. I will try to keep this sermon as short as possible, and to use as little industry jargon as I can. If you hear me talk about "an increased angle of attack" or anything fancy like that, please slap me and bring me back to the normal world. I apologize, but sometimes I black out and just start rambling about anything cycling that comes to mind.
Now, on to the argument at hand. 29" wheels have some distinct advantages over 26" wheels. They keep rolling with less effort than a 26" wheel, they roll over obstacles easier than a 26" wheel, and for taller riders, they simply make the bike fit better. However, they also have disadvantages that are directly proportional to their advantages. Before logging off and dismissing me as a "hater", hear me out. You can still call me a hater, but you have to listen to me rant before you do so.
29" wheels take more effort to move. Period. It is a bigger, heavier wheel and it has more inertia than a 26" wheel. This is good when you are moving and a bad thing when you are stalled or trying to increase your speed. Also, remember that fit thing I said earlier? Yeah, it goes both ways. I know that some companies have made 14"-15" frames that work with 29" wheels and can fit underneath a 5'2" female frame. I acknowledge this point and I don't think this is a terrible thing for some (read: a very select few) men and women, but I do think it's terrible for a lot of shorter men and, in particular, women out there.
Very, very, very rarely will you see me on a 26" wheel. I have ridden 29" wheels way before they were popular or mainstream. They work well for me. I like them. But, here's why. I am 5'10", an XC/endurance racer, and I like to think of myself as a stronger-than-average rider. 29" wheels fit under me with no problem, they cover more ground on each revolution than a 26" wheel does, which I like as a racer, and I don't seem to have a problem getting them started again if I stall on a technical climb......most of the time. Oh, I also don't think it's crazy when a wheel set cost $1000 or more, which means I ride pretty nice, lightweight stuff.
Now, before you go and say "Didn't you see Emily Batty tear it up on her 29'er, she's just 5'2"? ", hear me out. I am a big fan of miss Emily Batty, for more reasons than one. But, with all due respect, she's no ordinary rider and she doesn't ride ordinary equipment either. I'm here to discuss the everyday rider, the first time mountain biker, the weekend warrior.
My opinion is thus. If you are shorter than 5'6"-5"7 you should really think twice about hopping on the 29" bandwagon before considering everything that goes into it. If you are going to spend $5000-$10,000 in order to get a bike as fast and light as Emily's, disregard what I'm saying and go enjoy riding the hell out of that bike. However, if you are just getting started, or only looking to spend $2000 or less on a mountain bike, be aware that for every upside to a wheel size, there is a downside. Please consider the following:
1. Are you strong enough to push a heavier wheel up those steep climbs? An entry level 29" wheel set with tires can weigh close to 50% more than a 26" pair. Plus, read my rant on gears below for more ...
2. Are you going to be walking if your bigger, heavier wheel comes to a stall on a technical hill, or are you going to be able push hard enough to start it rolling again? When 29" wheels stall, they stall. I don't mean "Oops, I stalled, let me get started again". I'm talking old Buick in the turn lane to the freeway on-ramp kind of stall. Pop the hood, look aggravated, apologize to all the traffic your holding up.....You just got some guy fired for being 5 minutes late to his first big meeting about advertising or the stock market or something. Can your conscience handle this?
3. Can you stand comfortably over the top-tube of your bike? You really need a couple inches or so of clearance, not just the ability to physically clear the top tube when standing over it. I don't know for certain, but I have heard from trustworthy sources that it still hurts when your crotch hits a top-tube even if you don't have balls there to cushion the blow.
4. Do you have enough upper body strength to control the bigger wheel? The 29" wheels certainly seem to track better in my opinion, but if they get off-course, it definitely takes more strength to get them back on track.
Don't get me started on 2x10 drivetrains... Just because it works for the professionals, doesn't mean it's right for everybody. I remember when there was no shame in a new rider dropping down to that 22tooth ring, shifting into the 34t cassette cog, and giving a 26" wheel hell up some steep climbs. Now we force them to ride a 26t small ring with a 36t cog on a 29" wheel. Here's a link to a gear inch calculator if you want to see exactly how much harder that is. Hint-- it's a lot. Bigger hint, it's roughly 20% harder. Wow....
No wonder I see so many people walking their bikes on the trail. This industry is trying to kill it's newcomers!
So, when your friend asks what bike they should buy to get into mountain biking, please take a moment to consider all the options out there and the impact they have on the rider. Don't just point them to the newest, trendiest bikes out there, and don't assume that what works well for you will invariable work well for others. Not all of us are as strong and fit as Emily Batty, and not all of us can afford to ride the same equipment as she does. Also, hot. Not many of us are as hot as Emily. Don't know if that helps her much, but it sure as hell can't hurt.