I drove to Columbia (south of Nashville) yesterday to participate in a Trek demo day. This is where biking enthusiasts can test ride the latest Trek bikes in the woods and on the street.
I rode four bikes yesterday, three 29ers and one traditional 26 inch. First up was the Trek Superfly 100 Elite AL (aluminum frame) full suspension (white/red bike pictured). This was my first time on a full suspension mountain bike and it was an awesome experience. The ride was plush and bouncy and the 29er picked up momentum quickly and rode over obstacles easily.
NOTE: Click each photo for a larger image.
The second bike was a Trek Fuel EX 9.8 (gray with green accents pictured). Coming off the Superfly the 9.8 felt extremely low to the ground. This is due to the extra ride height offered on almost all bikes with 29 inch wheels. I liked the 9.8 as it felt more agile than the Superfly. You could flick it into corners and between rocks with ease. But it also felt slower and I had to really crank it up to keep the momentum flowing.
The third bike (not pictured) was a Superfly carbon. The same bike as the Superfly 100 AL but with a carbon fiber frame. You'll pay an additional 1200 or so to upgrade from the aluminum frame to the carbon. I could tell the carbon frame was lighter and created a more agile, flexible bike, but it wouldn't be worth it to me to shell out that kind of money just for a carbon fiber frame. The Superfly carbon is an awesome bike though, if you can afford it.
The final bike I rode was the second evolution of the Rumblefish, the Rumblefish II (brownish frame with green Trek badging pictured). I wanted to try the fish because it has 5 inches of rear suspension travel which should be great for downhill jaunts. And it was very capable in those situations. The bike seemed to glide effortlessly over rough downhill terrain allowing the rider to point it exactly where you wanted to go without worry of what was in front of you. All that stability came with a cost though. The bike was heavy and it was difficult to spin it up and keep it going up hills and over obstacles. It's not the kind of ride I want or need but it's certainly a great all mountain bike.
My favorite bike of the bunch was the white/red Superfly 100 Elite AL. It was light, agile, and would make a great singletrack bike and all around performer. I might have to pick one up real soon. As for 29er versus traditional 26 inch wheels? I think I'm finally sold on it. I didn't know much about the difference between the two, only what I had heard. Now that I've experienced four different 29ers (I rode a Specialized Stumpjumper 29er a few weeks ago) I can see the advantages outweighing the disadvantages. That said, many people are fortunate enough to have multiple bikes and I can see those people not having to pick. You'd simply have your 26er for certain situations and your 29er for other situations. I on the other hand need one bike that can do it all and perform in any situation. So I've been up against the choice of upgrading to a different 26er or making the leap to 29er.
I'm making the leap. The 29er's simply maintain momentum and speed better. They have a larger wheel contact patch which affords more stability and greater traction in the turns. They climb well, though not awesome as some had reported. The thing that is going to take some getting used to is simply how to properly steer a 29er. With over 10 years of sportbike riding experience I'm used to using a lot of body movements to steer bikes. I point my knees where I want to go. I point my hips into the turn and for sportbikes, I press the handlebar in the direction I want to go and I look through the turn. Riding a 29er this way hasn't worked so well. After conversations with the Trek specialists these bikes need to be steered - with the handlebars - where you want them to go. More hand/arm movement is required and less body movement. When I get a 29er, it will take several weeks before I get comfortable with this type of change. In the long run it should be worth it.