RC's op-ed last week about the split between enduro and trail bikes got me thinking about the future, specifically the bikes that we're likely to see announced over the course of 2016. Mountain bikers can be a contentious bunch, especially when it comes to wheel size, as silly as that seems, but the optimistic side of me likes to think that we're starting to get past that. We might not quite be at the gathering 'round the campfire and singing 'Kumbaya' stage, but I like to think that as a whole, we are starting to realize that having more than one wheel size option isn't necessarily a bad thing, although 26” wheels (R.I.P.) may have served as the sacrificial lamb for us to arrive at this point.
In any event, 2016 is shaping up to be another year full of new bikes and components, and with the season beginning to gather steam it seemed like an appropriate time to take a take a look at the past and the future of the much-loved and much-hated 29er.
I was working at a small bike shop in Colorado when the first wave of 29ers began to emerge in the early 2000s. Customers would roll their big-wheeled bikes in for a tune-up, an air of superiority wafting in the door behind them, convinced they were in possession of the one bike to trump all others. Those early 29ers were certainly different, and many of them were expensive, custom rigs created in garage workshops by small builders, but I wasn't convinced. Part of my skepticism was due to the fact that I'd just discovered how much fun it was to huck off cliffs and blast downhill as fast as possible on a full-suspension bike, feats that those new-fangled 29ers simply weren't equipped to handle. They were cross-country machines with geometry closer to what you'd find on a road bike, and the handling to match. I was perfectly content with my 26” wheels, thank-you-very-much.
Fast forward to the present day and there's a much different landscape, one where 26” wheels and tires have been relegated to the discount bins, 27.5” enduro bikes are all the rage, and now there's this new 27.5+ size trend creeping in. It's enough to make your head spin, especially if all you want to do is ride without needing to get into mind-numbing conversations about rim and tire profiles. Hell, it's my job to geek out over this stuff, and even I get sick of it sometimes. But bear with me here, because I'm pretty excited about the future. My crystal ball isn't always correct, but I have a strong suspicion that we're about to see a resurgence of 29ers hit the market, and these new rides are going to be more capable than ever, and even further removed from your dad's sketchy road bike on steroids.
Francois Bailly-Maitre took the win at the 2016 Andes Pacifico aboard his 29" wheeled BMC Trailfox.
The groundwork was set for this next generation of 29ers a few years ago by bikes like Kona's Process 111 and Specialized's Enduro 29, two very different machines, but both aimed at riders whose preferred trails tended to be rough and technical rather than smooth and sanitized. Kona's entry prioritized geometry over rear wheel travel, while Specialized went big, equipping the Enduro 29 with over six inches of travel.
Those two bikes were mainstream examples that proved 29ers could be much more than machines for cross-country bandits, but there was one factor that prevented every bike company from rushing to roll out their own boundary-pushing 29er: the growth (perceived or real) of enduro racing. All of a sudden the market was flooded with slack-angled 160mm bikes, and it seemed like there must have been some sort of massive tectonic uplift that created mountains from molehills around the world, since previously there hadn't been that many places with terrain to warrant riding such burly bikes.
Kona's Process 111 opened the eyes of skeptics, proving the 29ers didn't need to have awkward handling.
That enduro-fueled wave has receded slightly, leaving a bumper crop of incredibly capable 160mm mini-downhill bikes in its wake, and room for slightly more well-rounded rides to get their time in the limelight. There's a reason Trek's Remedy 29 earned Pinkbike's 2015 Bike of the Year award – it's a shining example of a bike that absolutely rips up- and downhill, a bike that makes unleashing your inner speed demon incredibly easy. It was also the first bike to usher in the much-derided Boost standard, but for as much hate as the wider rear wheel spacing generated, 2016 looks like it's going to be the year where it starts to become the norm, as designers take advantage of the new standard to roll out bikes that have room for wide tires, appropriately sized chainstays, and enough stiffness to hold up to aggressive riding.
Santa Cruz's new Hightower is a prime example of the possibilities, a bike with 135mm of travel, a relatively slack head angle, and the ability to accept 29” or 27.5+ wheels. It's that versatility that makes it appealing, giving riders a choice between wheel sizes, something that was lacking when 27.5” wheels arrived to push 26” wheels to the wayside. There are other new-school 29ers in the works as well, and the details should start showing up over the course of the next few months. The Taipei Cycle Show kicks off next week, and Sea Otter will be here all too soon, events that will provide the first glimpses of what 2016 and 2017 hold in store.
What about 27.5+?
Plus-sized bikes, which use extra-wide 27.5” rims mounted up with tires measuring 2.8” or greater to create a wheel that measures almost (but not quite) 29” in diameter emerged last year, and continue to gain traction (no pun intended). At the moment, the main limiting factor is the lack of tire options - many of the tread patterns currently on the market are best suited for cruising on hardpacked or sandy trails rather than taking on steep, technical terrain, the type of trails I'd imagine a large percentage of Pinkbike readers enjoy.
Better tires are on the way, but at the moment the lack of suitable rubber is the biggest drawback when it comes to plus bikes. That's one of the reasons I see 29ers poised to step up to the plate in the near future – there are already plenty of excellent tire options, and in many cases it's not abnormally difficult for a company to make a bike that can be adapted to work with both 29” and 27.5+ wheels.
It's the lack of suitable tires that is currently preventing plus bikes from achieving their full potential.
Now, this isn't a ploy to get you to buy a new bike, or to sow the seeds of uncertainty that your current ride is somehow sub-par. As long as you're getting out and riding, it doesn't matter in the slightest what wheel size you're on. But if you do decide to get a new steed this year, by the looks of things there will be more choices than ever, and many of them will be rolling on 29" wheels. Having more options isn't always better, but I'm eager to see what this new generations of 29ers looks like - I have a feeling that they'll be well suited for going fast and getting sideways, two of the reasons many of us started mountain biking in the first place.