Thanks, Nino.

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Choice is generally a pretty swell thing, as Wendy's so brilliantly showed us some number of years ago.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CaMUfxVJVQ&w=420&h=315]

Not too many people really remember it, but for most of the '90s, the mountain bike was king.  Americans who'd gone to race in Europe like Joe Parkin and Bob Roll came home to ride dirty in the exploding mountain bike circuit.  Trailheads were packed, and mountain bikes outsold road bikes 10 to 1 or more.  There was also lots of neon and many other unfortunate things going on, but they were really trappings of the time more than the activity. 

Circumstances conspired to end these heady days, including but not limited to Lance Armstrong's tour wins and trail user conflicts and some others that I'm not aware of.  One big factor was the over specialization of equipment - it became a technology driven game, where unless you had the absolute latest and greatest purple anodized, CNC-machined whatnots, you just weren't in the frame.  People get sick of that - FAST.  Arms races don't turn out very well for anyone involved - even the arms dealers eventually get blown up. 

Today, relative simplicity reigns once again.  Mountain biking got cut VERY low, but has been steadily climbing out of the hole.  A lot of this has been driven by the emergence of the hard tail 29er.  Yes, 29ers are NEW and TECHNOLOGY and a DIFFERENT STANDARD than the old standby 26" hardtail.  They are also reasonably simple, generally use very reliable parts that are no more complext to work on than road bike stuff (hydro brakes are actually pretty easy to work on), and most importantly allow most competent riders to feel like they can ride well on the terrain they most want to ride on and are leagues more comfortable than their hard tail 26" equivalents. 

We could explore the niceties and nuances of 26 vs 29 for weeks and months, but the simple fact is that 29er sales have exploded in the last couple of years in a way that no category has broken out in a long, long time.  Sales successes like that are great for manufacturers and bike shops, yes, but they also mean that more people are getting out there and enjoying riding on a bike that they were enthusiastic enough about to go out and get one.  That's the dog - the sales success and everything is just the tail that wags.

Mountain biking has been a niche composed of niches - hard tails, xc full suspension, all mountain mid travel, downhill long travel, rigid, singlespeed, rigid singlespeed, full suspension singlespeed - all in your choice of 26" or 29" wheels.  If you're in the market for a front wheel, you'll only need to know a few things - UST or not, centerlock or 6 bolt, and 9mm QR, 15mm through axle, or 20mm TA?  Simple right?  Rear is even easier - UST or not, centerlock or 6 bolt, 135x10mm or 142x12mm - or maybe something else.  You have to be a pretty serious bike nerd to know what you're after with this stuff, but despite all that, it grows.  People who I ride with, who know of my reborn fire for riding dirty, are all over me about mountain bike this, mountain bike that.  And when you get into it, they're asking about simple, quality hard tail 29ers.  That's what they mean when they say "mountain bike." 

I got home from a really fun ride in the woods with three other guys on Sunday morning (two of us on front suspension geared 29ers, 2 of us on rigid singlespeed 29ers), and I remember "oh the mountain bike world cup in South Africa was yesterday, I wonder who won."  Nino Schurter won, as he did last year.  Unlike last year, when he won on a 26" hard tail (the Euro pros have, until last year, been DIE HARD about staying on 26" hard tails), he won this year's event on a 650b-wheeled hard tail.  650b you ask?  For those times when a 29er is too much and a 26 isn't enough, a 650b is apparently your go to move.  I just about cried. 

I'm pretty simplistic about gear.  I like having a road bike, and a cross bike, and a mountain bike.  And I'm a pretty gigantic bike nerd.  If someone comes up and says "I want a mountain bike, please!" and you confront them with some 2 to the n conflagration of about a gajillion and nine configurations, they're going to say "just kidding" and turn around.  

Schurter's team made this choice based on getting the .01% edge on the course that will be used for this summer's Olympics.  There's nothing in it that's about "this is the right thing for the way most people ride bikes."  Also notably, the first two women in the SA world cup results rode 29ers, while third rode a 26" hardtail.  Asked if wheel size had anything to do at all with the results, all three said "absolutely not."  Unfortunately, there is a game of telephone that goes on, where the pursuit of that .01% by the people whose skills and fitness are in the .01% group, by the time it gets filtered down to the forums, becomes "I heard some guy's 29er burst into flames when his friend bought a 650b."

For what it's worth, Schurter's team mate and wheel size mate DNF'd in South Africa.  With a wheel mechanical. 

This is the point where someone outs me for my evil ulterior motive.  Yes, we have a 29er frame picked out.  Other than time and pretty short money, we don't have a ton invested in the project.  If that segment falls apart, from a business standpoint, fine.  We've got 29er wheels good to go, but each of the rims we use also comes in both 26" and 650b sizes.  Other businesses don't have it so good.  One HUGE reason why people are buying mountain bikes now?  Because shops can commit to them and know that there's drive behind them, that they won't become white elephants when the next format du jour ("oh that sounds good, I'll have that") comes along.  I would bet that top dealers all over the country are firing off "if you advance this 650b silliness, I WILL NEVER BUY ANOTHER MOUNTAIN BIKE FROM YOU EVER AGAIN" emails en masse.  It's all too common to go into shops now, even with all of the momentum that mountain biking has gathered over the last few years, and hear "yeah, we really don't do too much with mountain bikes."  Now that shops finally feel that they can be in the mountain bike game again without becoming full on specialty boutique mountain bike specialists, if the world puts another format shock in front of them, that will be the definitive end of buying a mountain bike at your friendly neighborhood bike shop.  And that makes mountain biking a non-viable segment.  And that would make me sad. 

Here's the video of the men's race last weekend.  It's a great watch. 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zirMbfNG7pU&w=560&h=315]


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  • Steve on

    Really fun…indeed.

  • another dave on

    I started cycling as a roadie in the mid-1980s, then dipped my toe into mountain biking as an undergrad in the early 90s, but didn't fully embrace mountain biking until a decade later (ie 11 years ago) in California.  As a bike nerd with a quiver of bikes (and an even larger number that I've ridden for a bit then flipped and sold to fund new purchases), I agree that the choices confronting someone who wants to take the plunge into mountain biking must indeed be overwhelming. Off the top of my head, the tech trends that really huge made a difference in mountain biking, giving the rider more control and feedback on the trail were (1) disk brakes (especially when riding in wet conditions), (2) adopting suspension technology widely used in motorcycles (i.e. forks with complex valving that varied the flow rate of oil through the damping circuit), (3) adopting rear shocks with "platform" damping that eliminated "pedal-bob" inherent in most rear suspension frame designs, and (4) "parallel-linkage" rear suspension designs with a variable "virtual" rear pivot point (i.e. the rear axle does not simply rotate about a fixed pivot point as it did in the early days of full suspension mountain bikes)—the more successful iterations of this design eliminated pedal inuced rear axle movement (i.e. "pedal-bob") as well as rear brake induced rear-suspension compression (i.e. "brake jack"). I am not an early adoptor of new technology, but prefer to let others testdrive new technology so the kinks get worked out a bit before I drop my hard earned cash on gear.  So I'm a little late to the 29er game, having added a full squish 29er (with parallel-linkage/virtual pivot rear suspension design) to my quiver 2 seasons ago. And after having spent a little bit of time in the saddle atop a 29er, I fully support the bigger hoops.  They roll noticeably better over the trail and the tires larger surface area contact patch or footprint provides noticeably better traction especially in loose corners. If I recall correctly, the early cons of the 29er's larger wheel size dealt with wheel strength and the ability to build 29er wheels that could hold up to the kind of beatings technical trails deliver.  And that is where the appeal of the 650B wheel size came into play—its 584mm rim diameter was roughly midway between the 559mm rim diameter of traditional 26" inch wheeled mountain bikes and the 622mm rim diameter of 29 inch wheeled mountain bikes.  The conservative wisdom of the day opined that the 650B size provided the best of both worlds:  bigger diameter than the 26" wheel to roll better over terrain but smaller than the 29" wheel giving it better strength. I believe that wheel parts for 29ers have grown substantially since that size first hit the mointain bike world so that building up a reasonably strong and light 29er wheelset is sort of a non-issue today (unless one was a dedicated downhill racer or hardcore "freerider"/slopestyler). So all this was a roundabout way of saying that the 29er wheel standard provides a whole lotta pros (noticeable advantages of rolling over terrain and improved traction than smaller 26" hoops), with very few cons today (the "weaker wheel " argument probably has less credence unless you're a DH racer or slopestyler).  I dabbled a bit in the DH/FR scene, but since I'm more focused now on less technical terrain, I'm paring my mountain bike quiver down to a very reliblable 6" travel 26" wheeled "all-mountain" bike (with a heavy duty wheelset for tech trails and a lightweight wheelset for 5+ hour enduro days) and a hardtail 29er for less technical XC trails. I'm very much looking forward to the 29er hardtail frame that November will offer up in the near future, and agree that for anyone looking to get into XC mountain biking, the 29er hardtail platform is a good place to start. 

  • Dave Kirkpatrick on

    Josh – You are a couple of years behind where I was but not many. The old Gary Fisher had, I believe, two parts remaining from original spec – the frame and seat post.

  • Josh on

    Well, I'm still riding my 1993 Giant ATX 770. Slightly modified, of course.


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