Written by one of the extended Baum family's mountain bike guru's, James Pierce
I was that guy.
For years I was the loud one in my bunch who couldn't stop bagging out the insurgent clown wheels. Get some skills I'd say. Learn how to ride. They're not any faster. They can't go round corners. They're heavy. They're not stiff enough. On and on…
At first it was the old boys in the field, the 40+ mid pack guys, on the 29ers. It was pretty easy to dismiss this new marketing driven fad and it felt good to lap those guys at races. Then over time bike companies started to get their geometry dialled in, wheelbases got shorter, forks and wheels stiffer and lighter. Finally 29ers started to appear at the pointier end of races where I try to ride. These days the big stage races and the enduro events there is hardly a ‘little wheeled’ hardtail to be seen.
I'm in to MTB enduro and multi-sport adventure racing. It used to be that the must have was a light 26er 4 inch travel dually, or a very light 26er hardtail. Now the bike of choice seems to be a 29er hardtail. It's kind of a shame then that my best, most favourite ever, bike in the world is my custom Ti Hardtail 26" BAUM Extensa.
At 9.6kg with a full XTR group set, ENVE XC26 carbon wheels and Chris King bearings all over it has taken me to six podiums in the last 12 months.
So what am I doing rolling around on a new near identical Extensa with the big wheels? I guess I'm a nerd and a racer. Both of those traits mean I'm always looking for a way to be more efficient and faster. Darren and I worked through what it would take to make a 29er that fitted like my 26er and retained as much of its nimble quick feeling as possible – while also gaining some of the big wheel advantages. Like most things in life change requires compromise. An 80mm fork rather than 100mm to retain my bar drop and fit. 600 grams of extra weight (mostly in the wheels) and a large piece of humble pie.
So what's better, the 26er or the 29er? If you had asked me before I started riding the new bike I think I would have told you that it was horses for courses. But, after about 1000km on the 29er with a mix of training and racing my conclusion that it's faster in nearly all circumstances. Easier to ride in most circumstances and in the tight twisty stuff where it should be slow, it requires more technique and attention but is just as fast. The big wheels and stable ride encourage more aggressive line choice, faster descending and faster cornering most of the time. The bike is also just less fatiguing to ride. The funny thing is it doesn't 'feel' as fast.
What's the downside?
For me personally, I'm not sure that there is one. My bike however is built very much at the limit of what's physically possible with the big wheels in terms of fit. For someone smaller, they are are going to struggle get enough bar drop. Which means not enough weight on the front end and the issues that brings.
I think if you want the fastest possible race bike – go with the biggest wheels you can get a good bio-mechanical fit on. If you want to feel fast and have a fun play bike, stick with a 26er. Alternatively, if you're considering 27.5 (650B) then you'll have to ask Darren, that's been his latest project bike. Just make sure you leave enough spare time for the phone call or visit, as it’s a topic that sparks a lot of conversation.