Are 29ers the future of downhill?

World Cup Downhill is about to get more interesting

29er DH
Twin Santa Cruz V10 29ers

Twin Santa Cruz V10 29ers

Do you like betting? I don’t. At least not usually. But this weekend, I’m willing to bet that someone will ride a 29” bike at the World Cup DH season opener in Lourdes, France. And I don’t just mean some random racer, I’m talking someone whose name you’ve actually heard of. If I’m wrong, you can tease me relentlessly from here until the end of our ever decreasing attention spans.

Greg Minnaar Hightower LT Prototype

Minnaar was recently spotted testing a Santa Cruz Hightower with a Fox 40 mounted up front and a custom rear linkage.

If you’ve been paying attention to recent trends (or following athletes and mechanics on Instagram), you’ll know I’m not sticking my neck out that far. It’s no secret that athletes like Greg Minnaar have been testing 29” DH rigs.

Right now, the times at the most elite levels of racing are all bunched up. Everyone seems to have their nutrition, diet, and testing game dialed. Introducing a new technological innovation, like 29” wheels, could shuffle the rankings. The longer contact patch creates better traction in corners and they simply roll over rough shit better.

Neko Mulally Gambler 29

Neko tested the new wheel size by short shocking his Gambler, adding offset bushings, and milling the arch of his Fox 40 to get extra clearance.

Last year, Neko Mulally gave the 29” DH thing a try by modifying his existing 27.5” frame to accept 29” wheels. His first impressions were:

“that it makes all bumps feel smaller….If you get late into a turn you really need to commit or you get stood up. It definitely is not as nimble with the big wheels, but when you ride smooth it’s great. Then switching back to the 27.5 the front wheel seemed small after riding this thing! For a bike that I was able to build into another wheel size with all stock parts (aside from the linkage I’ve been using all year) it feels pretty good.

I’m not sure better or worse yet, but it certainly has its sections and I’m excited to ride it more. I think there is huge potential for a downhill bike designed from the ground up around 29″ wheels. It could be a great tool for certain tracks, maybe more than you would think.”

You may still have this perception that 29” wheels are best for XC oriented pursuits, but things have changed since those dark early days. The Enduro 29 was the first bike to show what was possible. Released back in 2013, it paired an aggressive geometry with 155 of rear travel and ridiculously short stays. It was stupid fast and loads of fun.

FOX Rad 49

We spotted a prototype 29” Fox 40 on Luke Strobel’s Evil Wreckoning a year ago. This new Fox 49 RAD (Racing Application Development) was posted recently by Fox mechanic Kolja Schmitt. From the shadow, it appears to be mounted on a Mondraker Summum.

Since then, the bikes have only gotten better. There’s the Evil Wreckoning, Trek Slash, and of course the recently updated Enduro. All three sport geometries that would make DH bikes of yesteryear blush. The parts have also caught up. There’s finally tires and wheels that are capable of going twelve rounds with Tyson in his prime.

Specialized Enduro 29er 2017 Black

The new generation of long travel 29ers are easier to throw around that you’d think.

If you haven’t ridden one of these new generation bikes, you’re missing out. They’re faster just about everywhere and require less work to maintain speed. A good one is easy to throw around and if you’re complaining about how hard they are to turn, you should probably skip your next upgrade and spend that money on a riding clinic. There are places a 27.5” downhill bike will still be faster, but I predict that on tracks that are notoriously rocky, the 29” will become the bike of choice.

Specialized Demo with a single crown fork, or Specialized Demo setup with 29" wheels? #conspiracytheories

Specialized Demo with a single crown fork, or Specialized Demo setup with 29″ wheels? #conspiracytheories

The only thing I can see hindering their adoption amongst elite racers is the cool factor. Cyclists are a fashion-conscious bunch. They’re obsessed with cool. The best (and arguably most tragic) example is Shawn Palmer. He lost the 1996 DH World Championship by the hair of his chinny chin chin because he was too damn proud to slip into some lycra. That’s also why in subsequent years, riders banned together to ban skin suits and bullet heads. Gravity racing is about being cool, but the only thing that outweighs being cool is winning.

What do you think? Are 29” wheels the future of downhill? How about a 29” front, 27.5” rear?

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  • Mike Curiak says:

    The Enduro wasn’t the first bike to show what was possible — it was 5+ years late to the party. There were 5, 6, and 7″ travel 29″ rigs available many years before that, with similar geometry.

    This article really highlights that MTBR and it’s writers are in tune with the goings on of the big manufacturers, and not much beyond that.

    • Saris Mercanti says:

      @Mike Curiak

      There were a lot of “smartphones” available before the Iphone, but Apple was the first to make a product with mass market appeal.

      Specialized was not the first brand to introduce a long travel 29er, but they did it the best. Before the Enduro 29er, long travel 29ers were kooky. Specialized showed the masses just how incredible they could be.


  • Chogokin says:

    I’ve asked why 29r’s were not used on DH bikes years ago. A common answer was that the wheels were just too “big”. The riders kept getting hit by the rear wheel. How are manufacturers getting around that? I can see a tall rider like Minnar with an inseam long enough to keep his rear off the rear tire benefitting from a larger rear wheel…but a smaller rider? IMO…its just bike manufacturers moving forward in an effort to sell more bikes. Bike sales have been pretty flat as of late. The 27.5 has been marketed to death, fat bikes are no longer a thing, and the Plus bikes just aren’t moving fast enough. The hype machine is turning back to the 29r.

  • craig says:

    I think 29ers make sense in most mountain biking applications, I think it is just a matter of bike designers getting the geometry right. im excited to see dh bikes with 29 inch wheels its just a fact that the big wheels roll over shit that much easier. I dont know but im never happier then when im shredding the trail on my honzo just think” in” the bike not “on” the bike

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