There’s a lot of intrigue surrounding the 29er “revolution,” especially since the mere existence of 29ers gives us bike geeks a chance to mull yet another arrow in our quiver. I mean, I love my Ibis Mojo. But now Ibis has come out with the Mojo HD, and since I have an HDTV … well, I have to have a bike to match, right? (This is what my wife piquantly calls “bike logic.”) The trouble is, the HD only adds .5 of an inch of travel, so functionally at least I’d have almost the same bike, just with a beefier build. That and a white paint job that is the absolute bomb.
With a 29er, though, there’s no such splitting of hairs. It’s a whole new world, those bigger wheels — at least, that’s what they say.
To find out for sure, we went to the Titus Demo Day at Forest of Nisene Marks in Aptos (near Santa Cruz). Beautiful day, at least above ground level. At ground level, well… more to come.
The brightly bannered demo trailer was parked with a bevy of beauts behind the Epicenter Cycling store in Aptos. You had to feel for Titus. Rains have turned the region’s trails into seasonal creeks. Titus faced the double whammy of few riders showing up, and those that did trashing out brand new frames.
No one was around except Mike Wirth, in charge of the festivities. I had no trouble scoring a Rockstar 29er full-suss rig, with Manitou 4-inch travel up front and RP23 rear (the current spec calls for Fox up front as well). It was a medium, which made it slightly undersized for me. But with the long stem and bigger wheelbase I figured I wouldn’t be too cramped.
Mike slapped on some Eggbeater Acids, tweaked the shock and seatpost, and I was ready to go.
I love riding in Nisene Marks, but the previous week’s downpours, capped by a real wringer the night before, led Mike to caution me about trail condition. Above the steel bridge, he said, the rangers were issuing tickets. I figured OK, I wasn’t going to try anything too challenging anyway. My only regret is that I wanted to do some extended climbing on the 29er, and below the bridge there just ain’t any.
But there are plenty of risers and drops, and twists and roots and rocks. There’s even a makeshift teeter and some ledge launches. What the heck: I wasn’t going to do any of the upper gap jumps on a 29er anyway.
So I headed up the road and, at the first trail, sped up for the little 2-foot root-ledge drop-in to the left. Whee! Whoaa! Acckkkkkk! Bleaahhh! The trail below was a freakin’ lake! The bike handled great, but the splash and roll was something out of cable TV’s mud wrestling channel. Five minutes into the ride and I was already looking like a Jackson Pollack painting in brown and black.
For a good 50 feet beyond the trail was completely submerged. I didn’t know it then, but that’s as bad as it got. I rode through, rejoined the road and cycled up to the bridge. On the way I played around with seat height and suspension to get a good feel for the bike. I also looked for logs, rocks, berms and other things to test the handling.
What I noticed right off is how much more ground a 29er can cover. As a reformed roadie, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But you tend to attribute a road bike’s speed to the skinny tires and kind of forget about wheel diameter’s role.
Titus makes great bikes, but even so I was impressed by the Rockstar’s tight handling. They’ve obvious dialed the suspension and geometry to the point where, I have to say, the bike itself doesn’t feel that different from a standard 26er. The standover height is decidedly not an issue. You’re slightly aware of being higher off the ground, but I never experienced the tippiness or instability I expected. Instead the bike whipped nicely around turns and over obstacles and tracked straight through everything, even sloppy mud.
Then there were the steeps. Nisene Marks has some full-bore G-outs — big gullies you then have to climb out of. Going up, you realize the full advantage of 9er wheels. Step-ups, roots, rocks and other impediments that would require thrusts or churns to get over on 26es just disappeared. Going down, same thing. The sketchiness of rocks and roots, even drop-offs, was a no-brainer. I rode off some pretty good drops with no problem — the steeper angles of the 9er gave me plenty of cockpit control, and the Nevies (my tire of choice) held true.
Tight switchbacks were no sweat. Again, Titus has the geometry dialed: I really could tell no difference in hard angle turns from my 6-inch-travel Pivot Firebird.
Conventional wisdom is that 29ers benefit riders 6 feet and taller the most. I run slightly over 6 feet and can see the logic there. But I also see kids riding 9ers after high school and even up at Whistler (not on the extreme stuff, just tooling around), and they seem perfectly comfortable. It may be just a matter of orientation.
I will say this: I probably wouldn’t choose a 9er for freeriding. The higher BB and riding height make it slightly less desirable, although again, the Rockstar held lines mighty well. So far no one is making freeride and downhill models in the big hoops, although one version of the latter was shown at Interbike last fall. If 9ers make it into the long travel categories, I’d be up for another look. I’m not sure how bike makers will conform the bigger wheels to long-travel geometry and frame clearance, but am intrigued to see if someone tries.
As it stands, I can see big pluses to riding XC on a 29er full suspension. You cover more ground, you roll over anything a typical cross-country trail can throw at you, the steeps are no prob, you blow through swtichbacks. And you do it all with less work. Most of all, a 29er is a great excuse to buy another bike, and you know that can’t be bad.
Erik Orgell rode the Rockstar the day before and reviewed it as well.