lincoln“Everything would have been fine if it were not for those darn 27.5 wheels”.  A. Lincoln (pretty sure, anyway)

I am hardly the foremost authority on anything, but it has been interesting this past year or so watching the trends in MTBs in general and 29ers specifically, since that is what I still prefer to ride as a do-all wheel size.  And if I were to put e-pen to e-paper, 2016 is, I think, headed in a direction that I believe bodes well for 29er lovers, although if you were watching things from about 2014 to 2015, that optimism might have looked a bit iffy.

It was pretty exciting, back when all this wagon wheel stuff was in its infancy. Like some toddler pulling itself up on the sofa cushion and first tottering, then walking, then running, then jumping OVER the darn sofa, 29ers were happening in all kinds of configurations.  And they were being marketed for nearly everyone and for nearly everywhere, which was a mistake, but who could blame the Bike Industry for wanting to sell the hottest thing to come along in ages to the entire MTB universe?  So they made little ones and big ones and rigid ones and squishy ones, and little by little things began to get refined and massaged, etc.

Carbon FS bikes like the Santa Cruz Tall Boy, which as I understand it, outsold all the other models Santa Cruz had in their line-up combined, were pretty cool to have on the market .  Some of it was great and some of it was not great, just like anything else ever made for bike-land, but it was an exciting time to be shopping for and riding 29ers.  New tires, wheels, forks were getting produced for 29ers en masse. Every new tire was exciting and we all were clamoring for beefy versions just like the 26er guys had.  When that happened, or pretty much happened anyway, with 2.35″ trail bike tires, the internet forums were all a-twitter.  When the Fox 34 in a 29″ version was announced, they practically went into hypoxia.

About then, two things happened.  First, 29ers were no longer ‘the new’.  Speaking with Guitar Ted, our distinguished founder, we would ask ourselves the question, “When will 29ers become ‘just a bike’?” and would we recognize that when it happened?  I mean, nothing stays unique and exciting forever and once the newness wears off, then what?

I remember the first time I saw a new carbon 29er hardtail…OOoooo.  Then, there was the year at Sea Otter where they seemed to be growing out of the lawn like dandelions.  Yay…China open source moulds!  Ho Hum.

Then the next thing happened.  The second horseman of the apocalypse rode in on a 27.5″ tall horse.  That much-vaunted by the industry tweener wheel, the best of both worlds (26″ and 29″), the perfect compromise…ah, I am sure there were more nifty marketing sayings…but basically the Spork of wheelsizes came along to muddy the waters with its promise of giving us X% of all the goodness of 29ers yet XX% of all the goodness of a 26″ wheel.  They might as well have been coffin nails for anything 26″ wheeled, but the Bike Industry was just about ready for the Next Big thing to sell.  Some companies were caught off-guard by this new wheel size.  I was told by one company employee of a BIG bike company that they were not even TESTING 27.5 when this all happened and you know that the gestation period of any new bike, especially in carbon, takes much more than a month or two…like maybe 1 or 2 years more.

Giant Bikes nearly abandoned 29″ bikes completely and went armpits deep into 27.5″ wheels, which was either amazingly prescient or really foolish, but in any case it was quite the gambit.  Either they would be the one-eyed king of the land of the blind or they would be the emperor on the top floor in a 27.5 story building.

And then the phones stopped ringing at because all the engineering and marketing budgets were all about getting 27.5″ bikes done.  Demo trucks were full of mid-wheeled bikes.  Just try getting a 29er from a bike manufacturer for review when no one is trying to sell a bunch of them. Not good for us at because, although we discussed it, we really did not want to be  Not that I think 27.5 stuff is awful.  Quite the contrary.  Well, except maybe for 27.5″ XC hardtails.  Who wants one of those things beside Nino?  Not too many folks do, I bet. But 27.5 makes a lot of sense for smaller persons, for bigger travel bikes, like 150mm and up, and for those persons who really like to have a bike they can toss around a bit more easily.  But for me, 27.5 is what one Bike Industry guru said about it:  “It’s a better 26.”  I am not all that interested in that ‘benefit’ and the riding terrain and style I have does not really call for that as a great option.

But this industry feeds on the new and a lot of folks bought into the ‘best of both worlds’ nonsense and bought 27.5, even when they could have fit on a 29er and even if their riding style and conditions did not really call for the smaller wheel.  And you know what?  They found that they had really good bikes.  They were fun to ride, those 27.5 bikes.  Not a bad deal.  But…they were not 29ers.

Talking with some industry folks, many of them from either smaller or mid-size companies, what was being hinted at is that, while 27.5 was what they were focusing on now, in a year or so 29ers would be back, but with a new focus.  And that new focus has happened and I think it is perhaps the best that 29ers have gotten yet.  It ain’t over yet folks, and that brings us to today.

Take a look at these bikes.  From left to right, top to bottom.  Salsa Horsethief.  Kona Process 111 DL.  Specialized Camber Expert Carbon 29.  Pivot 429 Trail.  Just a random sampling of the market…there are many others just as good.

theif cut kona process 111

camber expert carbon 29 cuttrail 429

They all have suspension travel in the ‘very moderate’ range…not a new thing for 29ers…but mix in a 130mm or 120mm front end with a 120mm or 115mm rear end, add in slacker HT angles than what would have been on a 29er of days gone by, then tuck that back end in till it hurts…maybe to where only a 1X drivetrain will work, and it really becomes a new animal.  Those 29″ wheels still do what they always did best…they do MORE with LESS, so even that moderate amount of travel is pretty darn fun, especially with the newer Fox and Rockshox fork offerings that are stiff and light and have a proper 51mm offset.  That shortened back end is a revelation, allowing the bike to remain more nimble, even while the slacker HT angles give you a fun ride at speed and over difficult trails.  And that smaller amount of rear travel allows you to have a bike that still pedals well without too much compromise.  Hell, maybe with NO compromises!

It is, IMO, perhaps the best all around FS bike for a HUUUUGE amount of the riders and riding conditions out there.  Although I think we already had some pretty stiff 29er wheels out there, the new Boost 148mm/110mm hub spacing gives us the potential for improvements here.

It is, or at least I think it is, what a lot of the 29er future will look like.

So while Plus is the new focus, and frankly, might be the best reason for 27.5 to exist at all, IMO, and will also allow many of the new bikes like this to run 27+ and a 2.8″ tire with only a bit of geo changes.

But taken all by itself this new take on FS 29ers breathes life into big wheels, giving them reason to grow and be further refined beyond just being the wheel of choice for carbon XC hardtail racers and endurance racing freaks.  And I would not be at all surprised to find many riders who jumped ship to 27.5 jumping right back onto a bike like these shown above.

They are fun bikes to ride, taking the best of what bigger wheels do for you and wrapping them in a very nice package that will still be viable and fun for some time to come.

And that makes me and old Abe there smile.

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