Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why 29" wheels aren't for everybody, and a dig at 2x10' drivetrains

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.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Spa City 6 Hour Race

Bah... 2012 is starting off to look a whole lot like 2011, and I have got to do something to change that. I spent a good amount of time building trail karma in anticipation of the 2012 race season. It has to start kicking in soon.
Anyway, on to the title of this post. The 6 hour race was a race I had been looking forward to for a decent amount of time. It was a home course for me and it suits my riding style fairly well. It is a 10.something mile loop with roughly 1000 ft of climbing per lap and, while it isn't what I consider technical, it does take some handling skills to keep your momentum through all the corners.
The race started out with an abnormally long lemans style start which was pretty brutal on the ol' knees and ankles. I don't mean to complain, but I think I am...
The first lap was fast, and I came through the start/finish area about a minute or two behind the few guys like Byan Fawley and Tinker Juarez  that were really drilling it at the front. This was okay, it is where I wanted to be. I would much rather race to catch the few folks in front near the end of the race than be running too hot and burn out a few hours into an event. I firmly believe that endurance racing is won through intelligent pacing.
Lap two threw me for a loop. I don't think I have ever had a flat tire at Cedar Glades, and I usually run race tires. This time, I decided to run some heavier tires with reinforced sidewalls just to be on the safe side. Somehow, I still managed to get a flat tire. I'm not sure exactly what caused it.
I jumped off the bike and proceeded to begin fixing the issue. After getting a tube swapped in and hitting it with an instant inflator, I realized that the tube had pushed the tire over the sidewall in one area....Wah Wah.
This is when I start kicking myself in the ass. I always race with a hand-pump, but this time I opted for C02, and I only had one C02 device. I let some air out, enough to get the tire back on the rim, and put in the remaining air from my inflator.
This got the tire up to....oh, I don't know, 10 psi?
I decided to start cruising at whatever speed I could until I came up with a plan. About 5 minutes later I *happened to find* another c02 to use. -Thanks for wearing the jersey with loose pockets, Dave.
Now I was back up and ready to start reclaiming my position. The last half of lap 2 and all of lap 3 were pretty hot. I caught the majority of people who passed me during my last minor inconvenience.
This went on until the beginning of lap 4 when I realized that the rear end of my bike felt squishy. Not just a little soft.... Jello squishy. Warm, delicious, Jello squishy.
At this point I began to baby the bike around the course in an effort to keep from making the rear wheel complete trash.
I failed.
When I came into pit after lap 4 my wheel had basically come untensioned. The nipples were just twisting loose on the spokes.
Double Crap.
It was starting to look like I was done for the day.
Then, I was lucky enough to be offered a bike from the one and only Todd Henne. Funny thing, it was the exact same bike that I competed on last time I did Spa City. I don't mean the same model, I mean the exact same bike....I sold it to him about a year ago.
The next two laps were fun. Painful, since I was on a single-speed, but fun nonetheless. I had pretty much given up on getting the result that I wanted, so at this point, I was just enjoying an absolutely perfect day to ride a mountain bike.
At the end of the day, after 60 something miles, I was smiling. I got to spend a perfect day riding a bike. Regardless of how well/terrible a race goes, its always another day on the bike, and that's something worth smiling about.
A quick shout out to Sarah Miller for being the best support person ever. Love ya.