The traditional wheel that has graced most bikes since the sport began is a 26-inch wheel. Recently, 29-inch wheels have emerged, and have gained some popularity over the years. While not ideal for every rider, 29-inch wheels do offer some distinct advantages over their 26-inch counterparts. Mountain bikers are full of personal experiences and opinions on which type of bike is superior, so get to know some of the basic pros and cons and decide for yourself.
The most cited advantage of the 29-inch wheel is its increased ability to rollover trail obstacles like rocks and roots. If you've ever had your midsection fly into your handlebars due to a sudden stop from a rock that proved to be a little bigger than it appeared, then you can appreciate the distinct advantage of added rollover. Because the wheel has a larger diameter, obstacles meet it at a lower point and the wheel more easily rolls over the rocks, roots, logs and other on-trail objects that are a part of mountain biking. The added rollover capability will make for a smoother overall ride.
Increased Contact Patch
The larger 29-inch wheels have more contact area with the ground, which adds stability and traction to the bike. Stability is higher at speeds and the bike is able to handle more solidly thanks to the larger wheels. The added contact patch also helps in gaining traction when riding through soft ground such as sand.
Decreased Rolling Resistance
Larger tires have less rolling resistance and will work up more momentum once you get them rolling. This will enable you to travel faster without exerting extra energy to keep pedaling.
Taller riders who feel uncomfortable on traditional 26-inch wheels can benefit from the larger wheels and frame of a 29-inch bike. Noted bike expert Lennard Zinn admits that as a 6-foot 6-inch rider he feels that the 29-inch bike is more proportionate and comfortable to ride. He cites that the higher steering tube height made possible by the larger wheels enables higher, more comfortable handlebar positioning. If you're taller than six feet and have ever felt that the traditional mountain bike is cramped, disproportionate or uncomfortable to ride, a 29-inch based bike is worth a test ride.
While there are many advantages to the 29-inch wheel, it's important to recognize that there are also disadvantages. Larger wheels mean more material for both the wheels and the bike itself, so 29-inch bikes will carry added weight. The wheels also accelerate more slowly when compared with 26-inch wheels. While 29-inch bikes and parts have become more popular over time, there is still a limited selection when compared with 26-inch equipment. The larger rim is also more prone to bending than a 26-inch rim.