I have been a keen MTB-er since I bought my 1990 Kona Lava Dome and even though technologies have changed over the years one thing has always remained constant; 26 inch wheels. The new(ish) breed of 29ers are viewed by some as a fad but the number of pro riders using them for XC races must mean there’s something in the theory that larger wheels make you go faster.
Proponents say the larger rims roll over obstacles more easily and lose less speed over rougher ground and have a greater contact patch. Detractors point out that the wheels are heavier making them harder to accelerate and brake plus you kinda look daft on one if you are, ahem, short in stature. Pop onto to just about any bike forum and you will see the debate raging back and forth with no satisfactory or definitive answer proving which is better. So, the best way to find out what advantages they offer is to actually ride one and here is my review of the Felt Nine Comp (2012).
First thoughts out of the box is that this is big. Not only tall but long as well and the front wheel seems a crazy size even when on the road. All of the dimensions are a little stretched compared to my 26er and it feels much racier with a stretched out position enhanced by the wide bars. It’s not like riding a hybrid which also has large wheels, this machine is designed to be ridden fast, not ambling down to the shops.
Now, I am not the tallest bloke out there and come in at 5’10” but I would be a bit concerned about riding one if I were much smaller. If you are less than 5’6” I can’t see how you are going to find a frame small enough to work without radically changing the geometry of the frame – and there won’t be room for a water bottle either!
So how does it actually ride then? Well, it’s quick on the road that’s for sure. My usual trip out to the local woods was dispatched with some speed, possibly down to the racier and more aerodynamic riding position. The tyres may also play a part here – the Prowler WTB Race XC tyres aren’t the nobbliest in the world and have a higher rolling resistance than the Specialized Ground Controls on my 26er.
Once the target destination arrived it was time to get muddy; really muddy! It’s been a wet autumn and this has made a lot of my usual trails rather squelchy which immediately caught out the racier tyres. Full-on mud tyres would struggle through a couple of inches of the brown stuff and once it got really deep the 29er just gave up. It was amusing for a while though with lots of semi-controlled sliding around but you would need to swap the tyres out if your regular routes are quite loose. On fast, winding corners the tyres held firm enough with controlled sliding but on slower, more technical sections the 29ers large wheels became difficult to manoeuvre – something that can’t be fixed with new tyres.
Once I had negotiated the muddier sections and got onto a harder off-road surface it was much better. This bike is fast and certainly rolls over humps and bumps with smaller branches and twigs easily ridden over at speed. Tackling larger obstacles at slower speed though wasn’t great fun. The extra weight of the bike meant jumping obstacles was harder and the bigger wheels couldn’t turn as fast either. The Felt still made me smile though – mostly due to the smooth ride and power on the flat as well as the performance in high-speed bends.
I also got the chance to take it out on some hardpack off-road cycle routes around reservoirs and disused railway lines and unsurprisingly the Felt scored highly here. My average speeds were a good 2-3 KMH up on usual (although that could be down to training) and I barely left the top chain-ring.
The quality of the equipment on the bike was good with quality Shimano Deore components all-round, hydraulic discs and RockShox Recon Silver forks. Everyone knows that you need to spend a
bit on decent forks and these solo air units were great – once I had got hold of the right pump to get the pressure right. There’s no remote lockout (gimmick) but you can easily reach the lockout level while riding. As mentioned earlier, the bars are wide and in a strange mast-red finish. I would have preferred to see them anodised but maybe that’s just because everything used to be anodised on my bikes in the 90’s! Oh, and presta valves suck on an MTB. Fine on my road bike but not here please!
So, what would I choose; a traditional 26er or a new-fangled 29er? Well, I suppose it depends on what and how you ride. If you like speed and aren’t a total short-ar$e then I’d go for a 29er but if you like the jumps and twists or mud-plugging then it’s a 26er for you. Me? I’d have both.