By Hunter Swanson. Peak Cycles. July 2019.
If you asked me a few weeks ago about choosing between wheel sizes, I would have said something like this. “If you are shorter or more into downhill choose the 650B, and if you’re taller and more about the up go 29er.” Honestly, I was pretty sold on this idea. I passed the same message along to many people. How many times had I actually ridden a 29’er though? Embarrassingly, only once. And from that one experience, I pretty much wrote off the 29er and assumed everything I’d heard about them was correct. The 29er wasn’t suited for my riding style and since I’m 5’8″ it wouldn’t work for my height either. That is, until a few weeks ago.
One day after work I decided to take out a 29er from the Peak Cycles demo fleet. One of the mechanics in the shop warned me, “you might end up buying one after this.” I laughed, unconvinced that this would change my mind. I grabbed a Stumpy Expert 29er and headed to Green Mountain outside of Golden. Right when I hopped on the saddle, I was reminded of the 29er’s ability to climb. It’s very capable at smoothing out rocks, bumps, and trail irregularities. Much more so than the 650B, in my opinion. Because it’s not getting caught up, it makes the climb more enjoyable and a bit easier overall. I experienced this the first time I rode one, but this isn’t news to anyone, so let’s cut to the chase.
When it came time to descend my mind was blown almost immediately. I was on a trail I’d ridden many times before. I knew how it normally felt punchy and rough on my 650b. But this time around I knew something felt different. It felt oddly smooth. Almost as if I was on a huge boat cutting through rough ocean chop. Like a freshly sharpened knife effortlessly slicing through a cut of meat. I was in a state of pure bliss as I rolled over the loose rocks and bumps with ease. Then came a few tight corners. I was able to take them with just as much speed as usual. I felt the added traction of the bigger wheel. It just wanted to stay planted. But wait? I thought this wasn’t supposed to corner well?
Unsure of whether or not this was due to the bike being different or just the wheel size, I went back to Green Mountain the next day. This time on the 650b version of the Specialized Stumpjumper Expert. After riding the exact same trail on the 650b version, I arrived at my conclusion. The 29er was, in fact, better at descending than the 650B. I continued to ride the 29er over the next few weeks. I took it to different trails all around Golden, ones that I had ridden many times. The most astonishing results I had were on Chimney Gulch. As my go to ride in town, I had recorded over 40 different rides on this trail. But when I descended on the 29er, I shaved 30 seconds off my fastest descent time. Now that is saying something.
After years of holding a false belief, my attitude towards 29ers changed instantly. It was obvious to me. Aside from going straight into “I want a new bike mode,” I learned something along the way too. Despite whatever a spec sheet, a friend, or your local bike shop employee is saying, the ultimate test is to ride as many bikes as you can. It’s easy to get caught up in the details and forget the fact that no two people, or wheel sizes for that matter, are alike. It’s easy for us to put people in boxes. Short people ride 650b’s and tall people ride 29ers. Downhill riders need the 27.5 and XC riders would be fools not to ride a 29er. Try out both wheel sizes and see which one feels right for you. That is the beauty of doing a demo before making a purchase.
Is one wheel size better than the other? Is there a right answer to that question? I don’t know. All I know is that I felt the advantages of the 29er both on the ascent and descent. Faster ups, faster downs, more traction. It can be as playful as the 650b, it just requires more effort and strength. I did notice the turning radius of the 29er to be wider than the 27.5. It doesn’t love super tight turns, but neither do I. All in all I’ve made the switch over to the…darkside? I’m all aboard the 29er train until the next best thing comes along. Maybe a 30.5. Time will tell.