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At the risk of pouring gasoline on an already well-stoked fire, I thought I would chime in to the 26-inch hardtail vs. full-suspension vs. 29er debate.
While it’s fun and productive to debate the relative merits of one design over another, I found it interesting to note that a healthy majority of the flagship mountain bikes on display at Eurobike in Germany were 26-inch hardtails.
Almost in defiance of semi-scientific studies showing the benefits of full-suspension bikes (and the marketing efforts of bike brands to convince us of our need for them), many Europeans seem steadfastly committed to the 26-inch hardtail, at least for now. As our Test Editor Matt Pacocha has commented, part of this affection for these bikes is due to the “World Cup” riding style.
World Cup racecourses in Europe tend to feature shorter, steeper climbs and therefore favor a more explosive, out-of-the-saddle style. Furthermore, races tend to mimic road events, in that riders often ride in groups together and then attack to gain time. Both of these scenarios favor a rigid frame to transmit force to the pedals and smaller wheels that are lighter and quicker under acceleration. Likewise, flat bars and bar ends are the norm, for just this reason of hard, sharp, high-power efforts out of the saddle.
Even in the ranks of amateur racers or non-competitive weekend warriors, the 26-inch hardtail retains some popularity due to the prevalence of lighter-duty singletrack trails and gravel roads or paths. More challenging alpine terrain is not as accessible to most European riders as we might imagine.
Further, with frequently inclement weather and potentially muddy conditions, Europeans might favor a bike that’s easier to clean and offers more mud clearance (although this last is just a hypothesis of mine that’s not been confirmed).
Personally, I’m with Matt: if you are going to ride a hardtail, at least give a 29er a chance, because they are fast bikes in many situations. But for most of my riding, I’ll take a 26-inch fully any day of the week, and if I had the choice, I’d even prefer a full-suspension 69er (29er front, 26-inch rear). Now that’s a debate that I would like to see!
Until then, check out some of these sweet 26-inch hardtails! (And put away your poison pens, because I’m not endorsing them, just showing you how trick they can get, if given the chance.)