By Steve Frothingham
The debate over the merits of 26-inch and 29-inch mountain bikes has been raging fitfully over at VeloNews’ sister Web site, Singletrack.com, ever since Matt Pacocha declared 26-inch hardtails deader than John Edwards’ political career.
Interbike’s OutDoor Demo at Boulder City, Nevada, was an opportunity for me — who’s been riding 26-inch wheeled mountain bikes since 1984 — to try a few 29ers and at least one 650b-wheel bike (if you haven’t heard about 650b wheels, suffice to say it’s a common size for European utility bikes and is roughly halfway between a 26-inch and 29-inch wheel). Singletrack.com editor Jamie Bate was also interested in trying a few, so we brought our shoes and helmets, notebooks and helmet camera and tried as many bikes as we could before the hot Nevada sun dried us out.
A test of an hour or so is not definitive, of course; I’ll leave the nuts and bolts, grams and millimeters to our tech editors. But the OutDoor Demo is all about short tests. Your local shop managers use the demo days in Las Vegas to decide what bikes to stock next year and what they can tell potential customers about the bikes they don’t stock.
Here’s a brief look at some of the bikes I rode. For more on Jamie’s opinions, visit Singletrack.com.
Gary Fisher Superfly 100
The Superfly 100 is already one of the most successful — and hyped — bikes on the race circuit, and Matt has written about it several times on our sites. Jamie and I made sure we were on the first bus to the demo Tuesday morning so we would get a chance to ride one before they were all accounted for. It hits all the trends: carbon, full-suspension, 29er.
The bike didn’t disappoint. It was one of the fastest, smoothest, most confidence-inspiring mountain bikes I’ve ever been on. It’s very light, and rolls super fast on 29×1.9-inch tires. The latest version of Fisher’s Genesis geometry is dialed. On the little jumps, ditches and compressions at the Demo, I always felt like I was safely nestled between the axles and incapable of doing a header; the bike provides an odd combination of feeling fast yet safe.
I never forgot I was on a 29er; the center of gravity felt a bit higher than I am used to, and the standover height was a bit higher, too. When making a tight turn, there was a sensation of inertia from the front wheel, almost a gyro effect. But making the turn did not really take any extra effort. When I rode a 2009 Fisher Hi Fi (an aluminum full-suspension 29er) this summer in Crested Butte, I found it a bit of a handful to get around tight switchbacks. There were no switchbacks at the Demo, but the Superfly 100’s steering felt lighter to me than on the Hi Fi, so I suspect it’d have no trouble.
Jamie rode the Fisher on Monday and on Tuesday he started out on the Santa Cruz Tallboy, another carbon full-suspension 29er. He reported the two were very similar, but he leaned toward the Santa Cruz. I didn’t ride the Santa Cruz, but give it high marks for appearance. That is one sexy looking bike.
Our Lennard Zinn also tried the Tallboy and gave it high marks.
Jamis’ John Stamstad is a big proponent of the 650b wheel size. Actually, he’s sort of a medium-sized proponent: Stamstad is not a tall man.
“For riders my size,” Stamstad said, “you really have to make compromises in the geometry to use a 29-inch wheel.” Smaller framed 29ers start to look weird, with their tiny headtubes and deep-sloping top tubes. Their front-end geometry is a whole new world of rarely seen angles and dimensions.
Thus the 650b, which some refer to as a 27.5-inch wheel. It rolls fast, like a 29er, but doesn’t require framebuilders to bend over backwards to come up with good-handling smaller frame sizes with decent standover height. Jamis and Stamstad point to some other advantages that Matt, who spent more time on the Jamis, will soon cover in a technical article.
I rode the Jamis on a more difficult trail than where I rode the Gary Fisher. It had a long dirt road climb and a descent on a narrow trail punctured with sharp-edged black volcanic rock. The larger-than-26 wheel rolled well up the road and through some loose gravely sections near the top of the climb. On the descent, it rolled over some of the sharp-edged rocks in a way that a 26-er might not. The lower center of gravity and standover, compared to the Fisher, also was welcome. However the Jamis lacked the light, fast-rolling sensation and the between-the-axle stability of the Fisher.
With wider tires and a heavier component mix, I couldn’t expect the Jamis to feel as fast and light as the Fisher; it would be unfair to the 650b wheel movement (and the Jamis) to compare the two bikes head-to-head and rule on the merits of 650b.
Currently there are limited fork, rim and tire choices in 650b. The size has some advantages, but the Fisher 29er rode so well, it’s hard to see why anyone — except perhaps the very petite — would invest in the in-between size. But maybe some testing in more wooded, rooty conditions would reveal its advantages. I hope to get a chance to ride some 650b bikes at the OutDoor Demo East in Rhode Island next month!
The Mamasita is not a brand new design for Salsa; it’s been in the company’s line for two seasons. It’s a scandium-framed 29er hardtail, with carbon seatstays that are flat from the side, like a leaf spring, to absorb shock.
It was a pleasant surprise. It had nearly the same fast-rolling feel, smoothness and light handling as the Superfly 100. Whether it was from the larger wheel size or the stays (or the cush Salsa saddle?), I don’t know, but the rear end felt amazingly plush for a hardtail. It’s a fast bike.
The only thing the Mamasita lacked, compared to the Fisher, was the confidence and increased tire contact in sketchy conditions that comes from full suspension. The Salsa was almost too fast for its own good. On the lower loops at the demo, the same loops where I rode the Fisher, I entered the compression drops and fast narrow turns with a lot of speed, and then often felt my heart skip a beat as I wondered if I’d come out alive.
I always did … but survival came at the cost of more mental stress. For about half a lap I got behind a group of four or five riders who were going at a pace just a hair outside my fitness and technical comfort level. I hung with them for a while. But after a few minutes my nerves and lungs had had enough, and I dropped off the pace. There are still three more days of Interbike (all indoors, regrettably) and I want all my skin intact.