Do bigger wheels equal a better ride?

By Eric Ladd

A mountain bike is like a magic carpet that allows an athlete to float through Mother Nature.

My first mountain bike was a white 1988 Specialized Hard Rock with pink flames. I will never forget the sensation the first time I rode it on a solo dirt trail journey through the woods. With a steel frame, and no suspension, my Hard Rock was built at Paragon Sports in my hometown of Evergreen, Colorado, where at age 15, I worked as a janitor and also learned to build and tune bikes.

As with many outdoor sports, the evolution of mountain biking gear has paralleled the lightning-fast progression of computer technology.

And a technological game-changer is catching on in the mountain bike industry right now: larger wheels. Perhaps the most influential advancement since the advent of suspension, bigger wheels on mountain bikes can best be compared to the evolution of downhill skis, when shaped and fat skis became the new norm.

Developed by downhill and cross-country racers striving for faster, more controlled riding performance, bikes with 29-inch wheels have been around for several years, but are just now catching more traction. In 2011, 27.5-inch bike wheels hit the market more aggressively in Europe, and now both types are dominating store shelves in North America. The majority of all mainstream bike brands now carry them.

When you first get on a bikeIMG_0113 with larger wheels, it feels like you have more throttle. Get those tires rolling, and you’ll blow past your friends on their 26-inch wheels. Why? Larger wheels allow fewer and faster tire revolutions, plus a larger tire contact area on the trail, gives better traction and control when climbing or cornering.

With mountain bikes entering the price range of used cars, it’s important to know all the options and add-ons before you purchase a new ride. These include suspension, frame type, components, braking system, wheels sets and now wheel size. A modern bike mechanic is akin to a specialized car technician, with battery powered tools and continuing education classes to keep up with technological changes.

So, are larger bike wheels here to stay, or just a passing fad? Thus far, it’s hard to find any serious negatives to bikes with larger wheels, other than slight increase in stand-over height. While I don’t feel 26-inch wheels are headed for a quick extinction, it appears their fate is at serious risk.

REVIEWS:

Rocky Mountain Bicycles

Instinct, Altitude

Mountain Outlaw tested the latest in bike technology in Utah’s San Rafael Swell this spring, trying out the Instinct and Altitude models from Rocky Mountain Bicycles. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, the company has been turning out quality bikes for the past 33 years.

“You can’t truly build cutting edge mountain bikes without mountains,” said Rocky Mountain Bike Brand Manager Brandon Crichton. “With the riding areas like the Shore, Whistler, the Chilcotins, Vancouver Island and many more nearby, it simply defines who we are here.”

Both the Altitude and Instinct models feature cutting edge components, full suspension and lock-out options, SMOOTHWALL carbon frames, dropper seat posts, and of course, larger wheels. The Instinct is a gritty trail bike, while the Altitude blurs the lines between enduro and single-track, with a skosh more suspension for those beefy downhills.

The testing ground was a 21-mile cross country loop filled with technical, rocky terrain, quick turns among the juniper trees, and the tacky dirt that makes Utah riding famous.

The first impression of both bikes was like catching up with old friends: easy, fun and like no time has passed. The bikes have a great mix of tight handling, comfortable frame geometry and rock crawling capability. Both models come fitted with Shimano XT hubs and Continental tires, offering a smooth, high performance ride.

Rocky Mountain isn’t the world’s largest bike company, something Crichton calls a “tremendous advantage.”

“Being smaller and more agile is defining… it allows us do things that the bigger ‘ships’ can’t navigate. Plus, we have kick-ass athletes that make our world a better place.”

Yes, Brandon you are correct, your bikes do make the world a better place, especially mine after a sunrise ride in the desert. Cheers.

Instinct – model tested – 970 MSL – 27.3 lbs – $5,399.99

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Altitude – model tested – 770 MSL – 28.6 lbs – $5,499.99IMG_0030

Rocky Mountain bike dealers

Northern Rockies

Big Sky, MT – Gallatin Alpine Sports

Bozeman, MTOwenhouse Bicycling & Fitness

Missoula, MTMissoula Bike Source

Driggs, IDHabitat

Jackson, WYJackson Hole Sports, Teton Village Sports, Hoff’s Bikesmith

Lander, WYThe Bike Mill

Boise, IDEastside Cycles

This story was first published in the summer 2014 Mountain Outlaw magazine.