“Just like V-brakes they’re going to be around, but they will be the minority, I guarantee,” Sugai said. “I even made a bet, at Interbike, that I would bet any industry person that 26-inch wheels would be the minority. I had five years; I still have two years left. I’m very confident, still willing to take all bets.”
As co-owner of Niner Bikes, Sugai has a vested interest in the success of 29-inch wheels. But his love for large-wheeled mountain bikes runs deeper.
“You always hear the cliché, do something you love, do something you’re passionate about,” Sugai said of building an entire company around a new idea in mountain biking. “I’ve been riding bikes for a long time, and I rode hundreds of bikes, but I never had one that was this big of a slap-in-the-face improvement to my riding.”
That’s a common experience among 29-inch converts. Explaining the preference, many ask rhetorically—and derisively—why anyone would want to ride a bike with kids’ wheels.
That’s a reference to the history of the 26-inch mountain bike wheel, which evolved from the steel, coaster-braked wheels of balloon-tired cruiser bikes. Those bikes were intended for kids, but for bigger kids. They were also often used by adults, as those were some of the only bikes available in this country during the dark years of cycling, which went roughly from the introduction of the model T to the ‘70s bicycle boom.
Still, the point is mountain bike wheel size is arbitrary, based on what was at hand when the pioneers of mountain biking in Marin County, California and Crested Butte, Colorado were discovering the joy of off-road cycling. They weren’t modifying road bikes for the purpose because there were neither fat tires nor frames with clearance to accommodate them.
Even as some riders began to recognize the potential advantage to larger wheels—mostly those same Colorado and California riders who started out on 26-inch wheels—they faced the same problems: they could build frames, but there weren’t many tires or rims available. So, much like the 26-inch standard grew from off-the-rack parts, 29-inch wheels were repurposed for the task.
To back up a hair, wheel size is the diameter of a wheel measured with the tire. The problem is obvious—not all tires are the same size. Wheels rarely measure out to their stated dimension.
The system used to be more accurate, but it was also much more complicated, at least in Europe. Decades ago, while most everyone in this country was bouncing along on balloon-tire cruisers they may have picked up at the local auto parts store, Old World riders had a wide range of choices.
One popular wheel size was 700 mm, which is about 27.5 inches. To accommodate different tire sizes, there were three different rim diameters. A 700A tire was skinniest, so it required the largest diameter rim. At the other end was 700C, which was the tire with the tallest sidewall, so it took a smaller hoop, at 622 mm.
Today the letter on 700C is vestigial. A touring bike with meaty 700C tires might measure out to 700 mm, but few road bikes do. But the 622 mm rim is ubiquitous, as is the rim for the 26-inch wheel, which measures 559 mm. Those sizes, 559 and 622, are more specific than 26-inch or 29-inch (or 700C), as they refer to the bead seat diameter, the part of the tire which must match the rim.
Neither size could be said to have been optimized for mountain biking. No one sat down with computer models to decide that 29-inches is the perfect size. In fact, the first 622-rimmed mountain bikes were called 28-inch bikes, because the tires at the time were fairly narrow.
When people did start to think about it, bigger made sense, at least in a simple way. “Take a gross exaggeration,” Sugai said. “If you take a standard Toyota 4X4, and you compare it to a monster truck, you can drive a monster truck over a car. You can’t do that with the Toyota. Larger wheels allow you to get over larger objects easier because of the attack angle.”
Conversely, a skateboard will stop on a thumbtack. That aspect of bigger wheels seems pretty obvious. Personally, as I was dreaming of testing out a couple of 29-inch singlespeeds a couple of years ago at Interbike Bicycle Expo’s Outdoor Demo a couple of years ago, I was hung up on a more esoteric distinction—bottom bracket drop.
That’s the measurement of how far a bike’s bottom bracket, the lowest point on the frame, hangs below the axles. With bigger wheels, designers can add more drop without reducing pedal clearance, that is, the distance from the pedals to the ground.
Picture a hammock strung tight. Try to lay on it, and you flip right over. Loosen it up a bit, and your butt hangs down with confidence and stability. It’s not a perfect analogy, since the bottom bracket doesn’t exactly swing between the hubs, but it helps to understand how raising your weight up on larger wheels actually lowers your center of gravity.
And I swear that’s what I felt, every bit as much as the extra momentum of the wheels and the extra bump-absorbing ability, when I tested one of Sugai’s creations at Interbike. Between that bike and a Kona Unit 2-9, I was ready to join Sugai’s revolution.
Soon after the bike show, I was enjoying some of local mountain bike maven Rich Cleveland’s musings on his MoabWorld website. Rich is among the many Moabites who believe that larger wheels are an answer to a question no one asked. He’s happy on 26-inch wheels, and he’s glad to share that perspective.
I emailed in a short response, praising the bikes I’d tested as “singletrack steamrollers.”
The next time I ran into Rich, he chuckled. “That was great, ‘singletrack steamrollers’. You cracked me up with that…” he trailed off. I wasn’t scowling, but I wasn’t sharing the joke. “Oh—you were serious,” he said.
29-inch wheels are not popular among Moabites. Right or wrong, many believe the bikes suffer from poor low-speed handling. Wheel strength is another issue people bring up.
Sugai is firm on that second point. “Nobody mentions that anymore. It’s been proven to be a fallacy.” For anyone with wheel-building understanding, that actually makes sense. A wheel is under tension, like a suspension bridge, and a larger wheel has more of that suspension in the form of longer spokes. A bigger wheel might be more susceptible to side load failure, as more leverage can be applied to it, but it could be more resistant to being knocked out of round.
Of course, that’s theorizing. In the real world, Sugai notes, wheel manufacturers don’t report any higher warranty rates on larger wheels.
On handling issues, he said years of tweaking have eliminated problems like toe overlap which have plagued some bikes. “Low speed handling, that just comes down to geometry. One of our strongest markets is the east coast, and that’s where they do a lot of slow technical riding.”
That geometry is more complicated than any single factor, like my obsession with bb drop. “You have to tailor the geometry of the bike for the wheel, which I think a lot of people lost sight of. You have to really think about how the frame is designed,” Sugai said. “We call it a recipe, and it’s sort of a secret recipe, so we don’t like to say, if you do this, this and this, you’ll get a great handling 29er.”
As Sugai notes, he is opinionated. Over at Moot Cycles, where they’ve been making 29-inch bikes, sales manager Jon Cariveau is more willing to indulge my impressions. “One of the great feels of this bike is you kind of sit down in between these two big wheels, and you can have a little more drop in the bottom bracket, and it gives is an amazing, stable feel when you’re flying down the trail,” he said.
But he is a little mystified by the idea that 29-inch wheels are too big for Moab.
“We were just in Moab a couple weeks ago, as a company, we went down and camped all together for a couple of days and rode,” Cariveau said. “When we go there and ride, it’s wide open, fast, blazing Porcupine Rim type of stuff, and a lot of us rode 29s. I ride the soft tail version. If I lived in Moab full-time I would have a dual-suspension 29 without a doubt. I think it would be the best bike for that area.”
Cariveau concedes that full-suspension 29-inch bikes are “a lot of bike”, and he agrees many riders choose bigger wheels as an alternative to full suspension. “The bigger wheel does have a bit more give to it, so going into dual suspension with a 29-inch wheel is almost not needed for a lot of folks,” he said. “The number one seller for us is the soft tail. That, with the 29-inch wheels feels a lot like a short-travel full suspension bike.”
The soft tail, the Mooto-X YBB, uses flex in the chainstays, accommodated by a spring in the chainstay yoke, to soften the ride. It’s not just their best selling 29-inch, it’s also their top mountain bike. 29-inch has already taken over the mountain bike market at Moots. In the singlespeed category, Cariveau said an order for a 26-inch is rare. No one at Moots will be taking up Sugai’s bet.
Still, there’s the Moab paradox. The riding in the area really took off after visits from those early pioneers. Moab is almost as much of the old guard as Marin or Crested Butte, but attitudes are significantly different.
For one thing, most local Moab riders prefer bikes ranging from long-travel trail bikes to freeride sleds. As both Cariveau and Sagui note, returns on the 29-inch wheel advantages are maximized on hardtails and singlespeeds, where stability and momentum are at a premium.
But the other thing about attitudes is, well, attitude. I couldn’t bring myself to share one local bicycle salesman’s opinion with Sugai, owner of Niner Bikes. “They’re for people who like to say ‘niner’,” he said, highlighting the word with static air quotes as he mimicked a tinny ham radio speaker.
Sugai has probably heard similar snipes, but he’s good at deflecting them. “There’s a sub-culture that goes around. It’s sort of like, hey, it’s not cool to ride bar ends with riser bars, so no one does it—even though it’s the best thing to do. It gives you more hand positions, it gives you more leverage on the bars. You just don’t want to show up and be the Fred of your group.”
The smart-aleck salesman, with a keen ear for marketing, may have heard something pertinent in the common name for the 29-inch category, “29er”. It is an ugly duckling of a name. It may represent a beautiful idea, but it’s like a diction coach’s nightmare, a phonetic stumble in progress, “29-er-um-ah…”
Cariveau must have a similar ear. While Moots uses “29er” to describe the company’s best-selling mountain bikes, he doesn’t word. Consciously or not (I didn’t ask), he says simply, “29” or “29-inch”. He must not be a person who likes to say “niner”. That hasn’t stopped him from selling—and riding—lots of 29-inch wheels.
So, you’ve read this far, probably hoping for an expert opinion. Should you buy a 29-inch—okay, I’ll say it—a 29er to get out ahead of the revolution?
If you’re not a big hucker or a trials rider, and you’re over five foot three (just three inches shy of Sugai), you can’t go wrong. I loved them on the relatively smooth cross-country loops at Boulder City; they even handled fairly tight switchbacks and ledges well. Extrapolating, they’d be great on the vast majority of mountain bike trails, everywhere.
But I don’t expect to see many in the next North Shore video, and, except when the Moots crew is in town, they don’t seem to be setting Moab on fire. I may get one myself, someday. I’m sure I’d even ride it quite a bit—every time I leave Moab.
Ron Georg lives in Moab, where he writes and rides in the time not occupied by five-year-old who’ll step up to twenty-inch tires this year. His current favorite bike is a touring bike with 26-inch wheels, demonstrating a close relationship with his inner Fred. He can be reached at email@example.com.