After 5 years of winter trail riding on an 1996 Univega Dual Action Team, I decided to finally open up the wallet for some newer technology (10-speed, dial in suspension, disk brakes, etc). I was torn between 26 inch wheels and the more recent trend of 29 inch and even considered 27.5 inch (650b) which is starting to get some traction in the market. But after seeking advice from friends (big props to Sui and Drew) and fellow PdC'ers who suggested that 29 is the way to go I pulled the trigger. The bike that caught my eye was a Santa Cruz Superlight 29. The base model (Rock Shox Recon fork, SRAM X5/X7, Avid Elixer 1 Hydraulic brakes) can be had for under $2k, and after a month long search on ebay bore little fruit, the price of this bike at competitivecyclist.com made it a no-brainer.
First off, there are few things in life that compare to the joy of coming home from work to find the large bike carton in your living room just waiting for some minor assembly. I didn't even wait to toss on a t-shirt and pair of jeans before I opened the box and carefully removed it's contents. She was as shiny and pretty as the pictures suggested. Big smile. Essentially the set-up was not terribly different than a road bike, although I had never used disk brakes before and had to consult the manual to insure I did not cause any damage. The set up. The stock 90mm stem was predictably too short (I ride a 130mm stem on the road), so was replaced with a less cramped 110mm (truvativ Stylo T20). I also swapped out the stock Race Face Ride post for a 7000 series, lighter Truvativ Stylo T30 one. It came with a Stylo T20 bar, so now I have a matching cockpit. Sadly, I am one of a handfull of people on the planet that actually care about this kind of thing.
Ride Characteristics, and I am comparing this to my older 26er:
Speed: 29er hands down. Soaks up the 2-4 inch bumps like nobody’s business. Large diameter wheels just hold their speed better and the longer wheel base just makes for a smoother ride. 26er’s are lighter and maybe a tad quicker to accelerate, but the 29er seems to get rolling and stay rolling noticeably better. Not even close: 29er
Climbing: The 29er, is bigger, heavier and different. While riding up the steep side of Prospect hill section of Wompatuck State Forest (twice) yesterday, can I say it’s faster than my short travel, 27lb Univega? Probably not and I needed my granny (ok, not full 22/36t granny, but 22/32t), where on the Univega I typically never shift out of the 32t middle. Also, on a tricky little section on the trail where I ride, I failed at 2 attempts on a tight little step-up that I was able to do on my old 26er bike. Ok, it was wet, so maybe not a fair comp, but the small wheels are better at the tight, twisty track-stand kind of stuff. Where the 29er excels is the ability to commit to your line and carry momentum into a climb. You sacrifice something on the really narrow stuff, but not enough: Tie
Handling/Maneuverability: I rode with the notion that I was going to slip and fall for about 3 hours yesterday due to the amount of wet roots, icy bridges (and I rode every one of them, including a very long narrow scary one), and wet leaves covering every spot that you thought might provide some traction, but the slip and fall I was guarding against never happened. The long wheel base, wide bars, lower center of gravity, etc really kept me in a nice secure position. The feeling of riding down between the axels on the 29er is an improved feeling over a 26er where you always feel as though your center of gravity is very high. I know that it’s only an inch and a half but you feel less tippy. The roll over ability takes a lot of sting out of the rock gardens. On the 26er, you always searched out for a line between the rocks, but the 29er allows you to ride over the smaller ones with no issue, and even the larger ones with momentum: 29er
Descending: ok, I had a low travel (80mm) 26er and am on a still-low but higher travel (100mm) 29er, so not a total fair fight. But the 26er takes the hits a little easier, however the more stable position of the 29er is more confidence building… Haven’t done enough full bore descending on the new bike to really say definitively here. I did some very technical and wet slow descents yesterday, but haven’t let the bike go with no brakes yet. I would suspect that a real all mountain 26er with 140-160mm of rear travel would be the way to go for the ski lift crowd, but for the cross country stuff we do, it’s hard to tell: Tie (for now).
The SRAM X5 shifters, are entry level but crisp (for now) and I like the overall feel of the SRAM 1:1 ratios. The Avid Elixer 1's are entry level but light years ahead of any V brakes. The rear shock has three positions, a soft "downhill" setting, firm one for "climbing" and a neutral "trail" one. I left it in the middle except for a long climb and pavement where I switched it to climb. It isn't a true lock-out, but it's pretty tight. Stock grips were Cane Creek, but found them too narrow and hard so switched to softer Oury's. Pedals are Crank Bros Eggbeater C's. Had them sitting in a box. Thought I'd miss the platform of the Candy's on my other bike, but didn't notice it. I do notice the improved ease of clipping in the eggs over the candy's though. Tires are Maxxis CrossMark 2.1" (wire) and I replaced the standard tubes with Slime tubes, which are heavy but a must given the thorns I encounter. I will eventually go tubeless. Although a hard/dry cross tire, they were pretty sure footed on the wet rocks and roots I encountered on my rainy ride Sunday. Heavy set up though, and you can feel the weight when you hit the slow twisty stuff. All in all though, I am very pleased.
I am anxiously wishing away the week to go get muddy again this weekend.