Tech FAQ: Wanting to Like 'Wagon Wheels'

A reader wants to like 29ers, but found that he was "underwhelmed" by the big wheels. He asks's tech guru Lennard Zinn if he's missing something.

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Dear Lennard,
I’ve got a 6’3″ riding buddy who is looking to buy a new mountain bike, and it seemed logical with his height to look at 29ers. I was certainly steering him, so to speak, in that direction based on everything I’ve read. But when he demo’d a nice Ellsworth, we were both kind of underwhelmed.

Neither of us really felt like there was a noticeable difference in ride quality with the bigger wheels. The bike just felt kind of sluggish, and losing that low gear was a big deal.  Does it just take more time to appreciate the effects of the larger wheels?

Along those lines, why do you think we don’t see 29ers used for downhill, or are they being used? It seems like they would be ideal both for the wheel size, and for the stability I would think one would get putting the cranks lower relative to the hubs. Any thoughts?

But while I may have been underwhelmed by my one experience with a 29er, I think it’s way cool that Shimano has come out with a 12/36 cassette for these folks. I have regular wheels, but I need an 11 like a fish needs email, so trading the 11 for a 36 is a total no-brainer. Although Shimano says they only guarantee it working with their newer shadow derailleurs, I can’t believe a 6 percent change would be a problem with any Shimano or Sram derailleur.  Any thoughts on this?  I personally have an X-9 rear end, and it sure looks like there is plenty of B-screw adjustment.

Dear Steve,
I’d say 29ers grow on you. That’s been my experience, anyway. Certainly, handling is more sluggish with the “wagon wheels,” as Greg Herbold is fond of calling them. And if you’re into hucking and doing stunts in the air, no question you’ll want the smaller wheels.

But it shocked me to discover how I could clean rocky, technical sections on a 29er that I never could on a 26er. And long rides are noticeably less fatiguing on the bigger wheels.

Matt Pacocha, who is a relatively small guy and hence somebody you would think would benefit least from the big wheels, found in a test that he was faster on a cross-country course with a variety of terrain and uphills and downhills on the heavier 29er. That was a surprise even to me, someone who has been using 29ers almost exclusively for over four years.

As for downhill, now that Manitou makes the Dorado Pro downhill fork for 29ers and WTB makes a 29-inch version of the Dissent freeride/downhill tire, riders are experimenting with it. Riders whose opinion I trust have told me that they are noticeably faster with the 29er downhill rigs.

Devin Lenz, for instance, has been experimenting with riding two Lenz Sport downhill bikes, one in 26-inch and one in 29-inch. Two riders, one on each bike, ride a downhill course right behind each other. Lenz tells me that when he is behind on the 29er, he need only coast when the other guy is pedaling, and he needs to use his brakes when the other guy coasts. When he is in back on the 26er, however, he has to pedal when the other guy coasts, and he has to pedal madly and still can’t keep up when the guy in front pedals on the 29er

And regarding the 12-36, I haven’t tried it on a non-Shadow rear derailleur, but I’d be surprised if you weren’t right, that a little tweaking of the b-screw and chain length couldn’t make it work acceptably with other current rear derailleurs.

Homepage photo by Joanne Coyle

Technical writer Lennard Zinn is a frame builder (, a former U.S. national team rider and author of numerous books on bikes and bike maintenance including the pair of successful maintenance guides “Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance” – now available also on DVD, and “Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance,” as well as “Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikes” and “Zinn’s Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips and Skill Building for Cyclists.”

Zinn’s regular column is devoted to addressing readers’ technical questions about bikes, their care and feeding and how we as riders can use them as comfortably and efficiently as possible. Readers can send brief technical questions directly to Zinn.

Follow Lennard on Twitter.

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