Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dreaming of Twenty Nine Inches

With our planned Sunday Death Ride washed out by a Nor'Easter, Dave and I decided to check out a Specialized Bicycles demo day at Fork Rock in Exeter on Saturday instead. They had nearly every type of bike in most sizes there, dualies, hardtails and road. For a while now, I've toyed with the idea of building up a lighter weight hardtail for racing. I still prefer a hardtail for certain courses, like the VT50. My Dean Ti hardtail, which will be going back for warranty repair, weighs nearly 25 lbs. After watching this trailer, I'm definitely targeting the Leadville 100 next year. A hardtail looks like the way to go.

A couple weeks ago, I inquired about picking up a Specialized S-Works HT 29er frameset through a LBS. Built up, these bikes go for around six grand. A week later, I get an email from Exeter Cycles that they and Papa Wheelies will be hosting a demo day at Fork Rock by Exeter on Saturday. What perfect timing. Forecast was looking highly favorable too.

I was unsure what size frame I needed, as per specs I was half way between a medium and a large. They had both available, 2010 models with the new SRAM XX drivetrain. The medium clearly looked too small, so I signed out a large bike. Dave started out on a 26" dualie.

For those not familiar with Fork Rock, it is the most technical riding spot in southern New Hampshire. As the name implies, it is very rocky. It is town owned land and has robust network of NEMBA maintained trails on both sides of Rt 101 with tunnel under the highway connecting the two sides. In wet conditions, Fort Rock is treacherous. Very little of the singletrack is considered buff. Mostly just rocks and roots. I used to ride Fort Rock frequently. Since becoming mostly a roadie, I haven't been there in about 3-4 years.

I've ridden a 29er once before, in Hawaii, but not on singletrack. It was pumice rock jeep road climb. I could perceive some of the benefits of bigger wheels on that ride. Fort Rock would be the acid test of big wheel riding. We started out with a perimeter loop of the south side with one of the Papa Wheelies guys joining us. My legs were a tad wrecked from the big ride the day before, but there are few places where you can keep the hammer down in Fort Rock anyway. Lots of techy bits to catch your breath on. I liked the bike. The large frame was the right size for me.

We looped back in about 30 minutes. There was a 1hr max on demo's, but few people were showing up, so they let us head out again. Dave swapped his dualie out for a medium just like the carbon 29er hardtail I was on. We crossed over Rt 101 for a big loop, hitting all the good stuff. Surprised I could even find myself around after being away so long. We of course had to hit the trail called The Demoralizer. I was doing quite well and thought for a minute I might clean the whole thing. Silly roadie. I did much better than I expected though, and probably much better than when I used to ride it regularly, even on my Ellsworth dualie. There really is something to big wheels.

We rode the sinister swamp bridge (where Ron Marcaux went off and through the ice in January once) and followed the perimeter on the north side. Lots of faster stuff there to get a feel how the 29er handles at speed on rough stuff. We finished up on the Red Trail with many challenging rock formations. I don't think I ever cleaned this trail back in the day, but I was cleaning tons of sketchy stuff this day. I was having a blast. Can't credit all of it to big wheels, as I've regained most of my off road skills this summer. By the end of the ride, my confidence was increasing by the mile. I found myself riding over things that would give me considerable pause on my 26" hardtail. The big wheels are far less apt to get stuffed and send you over the bars. Plus they tend to ride more over the tops of choppy roots and rocks, so you don't feel as much of it. I was sold.

We rode 1.7hrs. Conditions were surprisingly dry, the air crisp, with brilliant bluebird sky. Dave and I both agreed we need to ride there more often. A three hour loop can be had at Fort Rock with minimal to no repetition. It's all pure fun factor.

Now for the bike's good and bad. First the good.
1. Super light bike. Forgot to take fish scale to measure it.
2. Frame uses BB30 standard. I never did like external BB cups, as I ride splay footed and most carbon cranksets do not work for me. They do not leave adequate heel clearance. BB30 should fix that. It wasn't broken before everybody went to the stupid external BB convention.
3. Big wheels let me ride faster over much of Fort Rock's rough terrain.
4. Big wheels provide noticeable gyroscopic stability at speed.

And the not so good.
1. The frame was quite flexy at the bottom bracket for carbon. This might partly be light weight big wheels, which also can be flexy.
2. The bottom bracket is very low, causing nuisance crankarm smashing. This is common trait to all Specialized bikes.
3. Big wheeled bikes aren't quite as agile in tight conditions.
4. Didn't care for the SRAM XX drivetrain. 10spd drivetrains have no business on a MTB. Large cog in cassette was 36t aluminum, a real pie plate! Cogs 11-32t are milled out of solid block of steel and looks very fragile. Hate to think what a replacement one costs.

I will likely procure one of these frames this fall. I'm a Shimano guy. As long as Shimano maintains compatibility between most of their groupos, I'll keep buying their stuff. I tend to mix road and MTB components on all of my bikes. I'm very happy with my two XTR equipped bikes, but not so happy with the replacement cost of XTR chainrings. Does Shimano have a BB30 crank yet? Since ski season will soon be upon us, this will be a winter project for me.


Az said...

I think you need to go test ride a Mach Pivot 429. I don't think you will regret it. I love the one I have. Go for the full squish.


CB2 said...

As a 1x8 HT, I had my Karate Monkey down to 25.2 lbs, so I think sub 23 with a XTR mix and well built wheels is very attainable for well below the cost of a S-Works.

Anonymous said...

changed over from my 6" heavy 26" dually bike this year, and am now riding a HT SS full rigid with 29" wheels, tubeless. More stability, rolls better, maintains speed on the flats, more climbing traction. You'll never go back, just need to find the right fit. Just ordered a Fisher Hi - Fi Pro.

plum said...

I love these stories. There really is magic in those 29 inch wheels. It's a matter of finding the right frame, and you're sold. I rode a Karate Monkey and sensed we were on to something, but it steered too slowly for my taste. Then I demo'd a Salsa Mamasita and never returned it. I've found the only drawback, if you call it such, is precisely what you noticed - the lack of slow speed agility. But only on technical, slow speed climbing. However, I chalk this up to technique; it's a matter of getting used to the dimensions of a wheel that isn't what you've been riding your whole life. You adapt quickly. The total package rocks.

Anonymous said...

I think Gary Fisher does a great job summing the 29" difference here.
I switched a year & 1/2 ago (Trek 69erSS - put a 650B on rear) and will never go back. I ride Ringwood, Skyline, Waywanda, Diablo - NJ..and Blue Mtn. - NY...some of the most technical riding I have found anywhere (US & Canada)...and the 29" rocks.

rick is! said...

drinking the koolaid.

there is nothing better than hitting super techy stuff on a 29'er. I've been able to go from a full sus 26'er to a hardtail 29'er with only a fraction less comfort overall but drastically better tech riding and less mechanical issues.

Big Bikes said...

I'm with anonymous there...many of the limitations of the Specialized are addressed with The Superfly.

The BB is stiff as all hell and the Fisher geometry causes the bike to handle just as quick as a 26".

I'll have my Superfly at HP tomorrow you wanna take it for a spin.