Converted, on Sunday

This is November?

We’ve been racing a lot of cross this fall, the last five weekends in a row. As a result, we had no idea what to do with ourselves with a shocking Sunday off. We were discussing it yesterday and decided that we should try some mountain biking. My mountain bike for the last several years has been a 26″ VooDoo Sobo with fancy wheels, brakes and fork. It’s a *very* aggressive bike, damn near twitchy. It can be rewarding, but it can also be downright scary.

You, like me, have probably noticed the gradual demise of groovy 26″ hardtails over the last few years. 29ers are taking over. I’ve been slow to jump on this bandwagon for a couple of reasons. For starters, I don’t do a metric ton of mountain biking, so the expense of Yet Another Bike and  associated psychic trauma from the lady of the house are formidable deterrents. Also, I’ve been wary of big-tire bikes for a shorter dude. On the other hand, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who’s more than happy to tell you about how a 29er is suitable for anyone over 5’4″.

With this as a backdrop, Ryan and I decided that it was positively stupid that we had not yet tried some of our equipment in its chosen environment. Thus we picked a couple of 29ers off the rack and headed for the trails. I chose a 17″ Jamis Exile II. This is a cool bike: light aluminum frame, Tora fork, Shimano 3×9 drivetrain, Hayes hydraulic brakes and decent wheels and tires. Plus: incredible value. Ryan grabbed a 19″ Dragon Sport, which is incredibly similar to the Exile but for the steel vs. aluminum frame and SRAM vs. Shimano drivetrain.

In short, I am stunned, so much so that this bike might not see the interior of Pedal until it needs an overhaul. We rode hard for a couple of hours on the red and green trails of Fort Custer on this wondrous fall day, and I’ve never had so much fun on a mountain bike. I think the trip was a validation of 29″ wheels in general and this bike/geometry in particular.

Things I noticed:

  • The steering is slower than my 26″ bike, but still plenty quick. I’m not a good mountain biker and the quickness of my existent bike is often a liability, as I spend a great deal of time steering too hard, overcorrecting and trying to get back to where I should have been in the first place. This 29er was much more natural w/r/t steering input. The more modern, upright seating position also put a lot less stress on my hands and wrists, for which I am appreciative.
  • 29″ wheels make it easy to get over things. Like log piles. Or Ryan. Much easier.
  • I noticed absolutely no difference with regard to center of gravity. Perhaps this is because I spend the vast majority of my time on a road bike, but the transition from 26″ to 29″ wheels was not only a non-issue; it was imperceptible.
  • It’s true. I could not spin a 29″ wheel up as quickly as a 26″ wheel. This is due to unbreakable laws of physics and that pesky guy Newton. But I didn’t really care. The lack of outright acceleration was more than offset by the momentum I had once I was up to speed.
  • I’m not tall at 5’8″, with relatively short legs. Still, I had zero issues with toe overlap or any other alleged issue with the big wheels.
  • The stock bars are wide. I whacked a tree pretty darn hard, and was happy my hand didn’t get pinched in the process. Cue the tube cutter.

As mentioned, I’ve been watching the 29er thing with an interested but uncommitted eye. The benefits have always appealed to me, but I always worried about the alleged drawbacks. A bit of time with the real deal dispelled a few myths about center of gravity and quickness. I’ll admit: if you’re a fighter pilot with incredible reflexes and control, a 26″ bike is probably more your speed. For a citizen such as myself, I was very impressed with the bike. Very impressed, indeed.

Confession: I am extremely anxious to try a Dragon 650B in the appropriate size.

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