Trail Mix | Ron Judd
New big-wheel mountain bike fits my larger frame
For Clydesdales like me, a new mountain bike with 29-inch wheels offers less rolling resistance, and, arguably, greater stability while climbing, descending and cornering.
Seattle Times staff columnist
You know, the way stuff you really don't need often does when you're waiting in line at the local outdoors store.
I sauntered over to it. (Never hurts to look.) Although, having done little mountain biking in years, any time expended looking at mountain bikes clearly falls into the questionable category.
This one looked different, though. Beefy aluminum frame. Muscular, but not muscle bound. It was the Mack Strong of mountain bikes. And it was a 29er.
I didn't know what that meant at first, either, which tells you how long I've been away from the activity. But it didn't take long to figure out that the "29" of 29er has nothing to do with age, frame size, or IQ — although that latter part might be arguable in my case.
It's the wheel size.
The standard mountain bike we have all come to love, abuse and ride down to see the fireworks at Gasworks has 26-inch wheels. Those wheels, not to mention the knobby tires that surround them, and the tough frames that ride upon them, are well suited to Northwest environs, both urban and rural. They'll take a curb without killing you, slice through unexpected mud on a forest trail with ease, and charge up a slimy slope with little slippage.
But a good thing wasn't good enough for some inspired bike tinkerers, who determined that 3 inches more tread per revolution on a mountain bike tire would only make it roll over obstacles that much better.
Bless them, they were right. The 29er mountain bike uses a rim the same size as a road bike, for good reason: It offers less rolling resistance, and, arguably, greater stability while climbing, descending and cornering. In exchange, you surrender a bit of quick-turn flexibility, and perhaps wheel stiffness.
But the 29er bike had another, perhaps unintended, consequence for people like me, generally referred to, in cycle circles, as "Clydesdales." Because of the geometry involved (of which I remember little to none from high school; sorry, Mr. Gibbs), they tend to make many mountain bike frames fit larger riders more proportionately, and more comfortably.
This became clear after I surrendered my driver's license and hit the road on the first 29er that caught my eye. Even though the frame was a couple inches smaller than one I normally would have considered the right size, the tube clearance and overall feel of the bike was outstanding. Simply put, its frame felt like it fit my frame, and it handled better than any mountain bike I'd ever ridden.
Hard to explain. It just doesn't feel as top heavy as other bikes — less like I'm a Shriner in parade mode.
Later, I read that the 29er bike's larger tire "contact patch" helps provide more oomph per pedal, which should help shoulda-been offensive linemen like myself better keep up with the gazelles of the world. I'm not sure about that. But after that one test ride, I was fairly hooked. And continue to be.
My own 29er, a Novara Ponderosa, eats up gravel roads and trails, laughing as it goes at roots, rocks and other small obstacles. Riding it is sort of like getting on new, high-quality skis for the first time: A little dangerous. Because of its smooth ride, you can build up a lot more downhill speed, more quickly, than you probably intended. Fortunately, a set of strong disc brakes brings you back down to earth safely in most cases.
The crazy thing has opened up a new world, of sorts, to someone who used to avoid single tracking at all costs. The 29er bike feels most at home on woodsy trails and gravel fire roads, which its knobby tires devour with great relish.
After a few trail outings with my better half, Emjay, an experienced cyclist of both mountain and road variety, a distinct pattern has developed; it mimics the one we've developed for skiing.
At the top of any steep pitch, she waits for me to go first.
"It's because you go like a bat out of hell," she explains. "And I don't want to get run over."
Guilty as charged. There's something thrilling about charging downhill on a 29er, with all that butt-kicking body mass finally turning to one's advantage after that always-extra-painful climb to the top. Call it the Clydesdale's revenge.
I feel a kinship with this big-wheeled bike. No mystery there. Just like me, it's going downhill fast.
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
About Trail Mix | Ron Judd
Ron Judd's "Trail Mix" column focuses on the Northwest great outdoors -- with just the right amount of real life thrown in for good measure.
email@example.com | 206-464-8280
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.