The 26-inch wheeled hardtail mountain bike is, indeed, dead.
OK, so I’ve been intentionally stirring the pot this summer with that proclamation. What you’re about to read is no exception.
In an article in the July issue of VeloNews entitled, “A Racer’s Edge, Which is Faster: Hardtail or Full Suspension?” I wrote a story comparing the prowess of hardtails to full-suspension bikes for cross-country racing. The result of our real world, semi-scientific testing put the full-suspension bike on top. And I must note that the terrain I used for testing seemingly favored the hardtail — if one were to base his or her choice on only perception.
That story spurred a flurry of reader mail into my inbox. Many people liked it. Others expressed the opinion that they think I’m full of it. Those readers specifically pointed to multiple-world mountain bike champ Julien Abaslon as the proof that the 26-inch hardtail is still better. For the record I did mention Mr. Absalon in my story. Alas, if only we could all ride like him.
Those two points aside, the most frequent comment and complaint I received from readers was that 29ers weren’t represented in the test.
Warming up to 29-inch wheels has been a long time coming for me. I’ve never been against the idea or technology, but I’d never spent enough time on a well-designed example to really learn how to exploit its benefits and minimize its shortcomings. My experience was left to yearly exposure at Interbike’s Dirt Demo and Gary Fisher media events, admittedly not enough to form any sort of opinion. For a long time, I simply thought that big wheels made sense for big riders and left it at that.
Then two things happened this summer that forced me to take a better look at the technology and form a true opinion. You, the VeloNews magazine reader, filled up my email inbox and the husband-and-wife duo of Heather Irmiger and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (both Subaru-Gary Fisher) won two sets of national championships on 29ers. Those victories inspired me to write another oft commented web story about the 26-inch hardtail dying.
It should be noted that 29er carbon — frames, wheels — and tire technology evolved significantly over the last few years and are key in allowing Horgan-Kobelski and Irmiger to win big races on big wheels. There is now very little disadvantage — in terms of weight and tire technology — associated with 29ers.
So after being inundated with mail and watching the Subaru-Gary Fisher racers win, I took up the cause of trying to compare a similar 29-inch wheeled hardtail to the 26-inch hardtail and full-suspension bikes that I tested for the magazine in July.
Over the course of 14 days I rode a full-suspension bike and hardtail bike 28 times on our 3.1-mile test course. Both bikes were built from aluminum and the position of the bikes was matched. The weight of the bikes differed by roughly one pound. The same wheelset was used on both bikes and tire pressure was kept the same. The bikes also used the same gearing. They were ridden in the same smooth-pedaling manner; riding out of the saddle created power spikes and was therefore avoided. Data was gathered using Garmin’s 705 GPS unit and a PowerTap Disc hub.
The constant was our power output, keeping in mind that it’s very hard to keep anything constant on a mountain bike. Climbing was limited to 300 watts and flats limited to 250 watts. In reality the closest I could get was to keep the ranges within 25 watts of each side of these set parameters. Downhills were all ridden at zero watts, simply coasting, and we abstained from pedaling out of corners.
The test course consisted of just under a mile of rolling, lightly technical terrain, a half-mile climb gaining 50 feet in elevation, 1.2 miles of non-technical but bumpy flat double track and a half-mile of twisty, fast-descending singletrack with three moderately technical sections.
It took roughly 15 minutes to complete each loop. The fastest lap recorded stopped the clock at 13:26 and the longest took 15:48.
Following the same protocol I tested Gary Fisher’s Paragon 29-inch-wheeled aluminum hardtail. As equipped for our test, it split the weight difference between the 26-inch hardtail and full-suspension bike.
The surprising results of our measured and timed trials put the 29-inch hardtail ahead of both of the 26-inch-wheeled bikes. The fastest lap recorded on the 29er was 13:26, four seconds faster than the fastest of the full-suspension bike. The 29er reigned supreme, however, because of its consistency on our test terrain; the big bike’s averages were significantly better than either of the small-wheeled bikes. The 29er’s average lap time was 13:39, the lowest by about a minute, but it also posted the lowest heart rate and power averages, which means that I was going faster and doing less work.
So what does this mean? Did I get rid of my full-suspension bike in addition to proclaiming the death of the 26-inch hardtail?
The Take Away
29-inch wheels are quite fast in the context of cross-country racing. The big wheels seem to smooth out moderately bumpy terrain and they definitely make descending easier, especially when it’s steep, due to the larger diameter wheel. It’s much harder to go over the handlebars of a big-wheeled bike.
In addition to the testing I carried out on the test 29er, I also raced it in both short track and technical cross-country races. My findings here were twofold. I expected it to be slower for short track because of the importance of quick acceleration in this type of racing. In practice I found it faster than a 26-inch-wheeled bike and was even able to win a local weeknight race on our 29-inch test bike.
In a technical cross-country race, however, I found myself wishing for my full-suspension bike. Even with the larger wheels I was bounced around, which lead to fatigue, not to mention a greater fear of flatting than when on a full-suspension bike.
The prowess of the big wheels in my measured testing and racing leads me to continue to pronounce the death of the 26-inch-wheeled hardtail. At this point, if you’re racing one I truly believe that you’re at a disadvantage.
For the one-bike quiver, I still conclude that a full-suspension bike is more practical. It’s more fun, more comfortable and the fastest both down the hill and in technical terrain. If you could have two bikes, however, my pick for that second bike would surely be a 29-inch hardtail. I believe the big-wheeled bike is the fastest for smooth-to-moderately bumpy terrain. A 29er is a great tool for racing and is my new go-to short-track racer.
It looks as thought Specialized’s Todd Wells might have the perfect quiver right now as his team allows him both a 29er hardtail and 26-inch-wheeled, full-suspension bike. Both of his bikes weigh about 20-pounds, so weight doesn’t factor into his choice and he can focus his decision on which is best for each individual racecourse.