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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?