29er testing!

I’ve been getting 29er curious over the last few months, and I finally got to test one at the weekend. I happened to be in Intersport in St Junien looking for gloves when I spotted their Trek Superfly AL Elite 29er demo bike. It’s free to demo for 48hrs – you just need to leave a deposit cheque and sign a contract. I picked it up on Friday, and had all weekend to test it. My plan was to set it up and do some comparison tests on the Saturday then ride a VTT Rando on it on the Sunday.

I flipped the stem, moved the controls inboard a touch, set the saddle height, and was ready to go. I measured and compared with my 26er. The Trek came up a little shorter, but as the bars were wider (over 700mm!!!), I thought it would be OK. I noted that the bottom bracket and resulting saddle height were 1 cm higher from the ground.

First impression, a bit strange. Although only 1cm higher from the ground it seemed higher. A U-turn in the driveway felt cumbersome and vague. I wondered about the extra flex that bigger wheels might give, and whether this might be an advantage on rougher ground. I set of on a short testing loop. The bike had a sort of ‘quiet’ feel to it. Very comfortabe. I was going pretty quick, I could tell that from the gear I was in, but I didn’t feel like I was going quick, just floating along really.

At the entry to the first chemin, I did my usual, ‘pedal hard through the corner and control the speed with the back brake’. The bike turned beautifully. I lost almost no speed. It felt good. Still floating, and yet more floating as I crossed some rough rocky ground. Turning downhill I began to pick up some real speed. Still floating. At the bottom of the descent it’s always tricky trying to coax a bike around the off-camber turn, but the 29er was easy, she slid around easily.

Back at ‘chez nous’ I did a quick check on bolts to make sure nothing had come loose. Next I used a timed loop of around 10 mins, a good mix of sweeping trails and technical stuff. I did a lap on the 29er, then a lap on my Specialized Epic, then another on the 29er, then a final lap on the Epic. The results were inconclusive. The difference was not measurable. I was just about the same time to the second on both. There were places where I felt faster on one that the other, but I couldn’t say that one was faster than the other.

So to the VTT Rando at Ambazac (organized by the Ambazac Sprinter Club). My friend Pierre, a 29er convert, had told me that it’s when riding with others that you notice how good the 29er really is. The Ambazac rando is normally well attended, so plenty of riders, and a 35kms loop up in the hills should be a tough test.

I made sure I was there nice and early to get a place near the front. Just before the off I realised I’d left my number board in the car! Doh! A quick dash back to the car and back, and I’ve missed the start. I chase like mad through the back markers. The first big climb and we are down to walking pace. In fact most are walking. Over the top and away. Again I’m ploughing through the back markers like a madman. Down a fast technical descent, I’m being very creative with my line, I clip a rock hard, and pinch flat the rear wheel!!!! It takes me less than a couple of minutes to fit a new tube and get away, but that’s two minutes of riders going past.

I realise my ride isn’t going as planned and calm down a little. I make ground where I can, and just wait patiently where I can’t. At the first food stop I ride straight through. There’s less traffic now, and I can ride faster. Getting into the flow, I notice how well the 29er rolls. On slight descents I seem to roll up to riders ahead of me with ease. On climbs I seem to be going well, I notice how the 29er rolls nicely over roots and rocks.

With an hour and thirty minutes on the clock I know I can’t be far from home. I’m pushing on hard. Totally absorbed in the trail and the flow. As happens so often, I’ve said this before, the trail fairies cast a spell on me, and I’m just there in the moment. The spell is only broken with the realisation that I was under the spell!!! I forgot I was riding the 29er! I was just riding.

So there you have it, a weekend testing a 29er, and no answer, no conclusion, no significant test data. I really dunno! But this… I think that for marathon type racing where you are riding over ‘un seen’ terrain where efficiency, economy of effort, and maintaing momentum are paramount, the 29er might be best. But for closed circuit racing with tight turns, with lots of stops and starts where you are wrestling the bike then a 26er might be best.

In either case, to me, the 29er didn’t feel like I was going fast even when I was. It didn’t have that ‘seat of the pants’ knife edge razor sharp hadling feel that a 26er race bike has. Going fast, and sensation of going fast are different things.
Also, I note that the Trek has quite a shallow head angle of 68 degress. That is quite a lot slacker than I’m used to, and may have added to the Trek’s ‘quiet’ feel.

Finally, don’t get me wrong, I loved riding the Trek. It’s a really lovely bike, handles beautifully. I was sad to give it back. If long distance XC is your thing you’d love it too. It’s a tool for the job.


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