Greg Minnaar V10 29
Editorial

Why the Fuss about 29ers in DH Racing?

Words Cam McRae
Photos Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool
Date Jun 9, 2017

Fans and athletes in the mountain bike DH world do indignation very well, and there has been a lot of foot stomping and snorting about the arrival of 29ers on the World Cup circuit. Followers of downhill are diehards, we are purists, and those attributes make us resistant to change. But not all change. In fact some changes have been spurred by the DH community's desire to be distinguished from other mountain bike disciplines.

Fort william Crowd

The Fort William crowd didn't seem to care what wheels Greg Minnaar was on.

If you look back at the Kamikaze races and early DH in general skinsuits were plentiful along with visorless helmets. Early DH racers wore lycra and other tight fitting material just like today’s XC riders, with pads either over top or underneath. And yet nobody was fussed when skinsuits were banned even though they are faster. In fact, there was a lobby against skinsuits and visorless helmets led by riders, media, and fans and in 2008 it was made official. The UCI statement said, in perfect Swinglish “All tight-fitting clothing is not permitted.” There were those who spoke of the heritage of the sport as a rationale for this change but DH didn’t have a long pedigree at that point. And skinsuits were part of what little there was, despite looking godawful.*

The arrival of 27.5 wheels caused little fuss that I can recall. My web searches dug up little in the way of furor from the media or athletes and it felt like a foregone conclusion at the time. And yet this was the moment when the sacred 26" wheel was forsaken, despite 27.5 having no special status that distinguishes it from 29ers which have a longer production history in MTB. There were some rumblings but nobody suggested a ban or a different category for what were then called 650b bikes. Is it because they didn’t look as different? Or maybe because a lifetime 26 rider could swing a leg over and get comfortable quickly? Most riders need some time to learn how to ride a 29er, even coming from tweener wheels but that may not explain the seamless adoption.

Aaron Gwin

Those saying that 29ers are unfair forgot to factor in Aaron Gwin. He was over 3 seconds up on the field when he came off in the nasty new woods section at Fort William. Was he pushing harder knowing he had to beat big wheels? Only he knows that. 

Perhaps the contrast in outrage between the wheel sizes is due to 29ers being associated with XC while that stigma has never been directed at 650b. Could it be that 29ers offend the masculinity of DH types since it is mountain biking’s most macho pursuit? Skinny jeans did not make it onto the DH circuit the way they have at Rampage and at slopestyle comps. Many riders associate wagon wheels with shaved legs and bib shorts and most DH fans and racers would rather be lumped in with syphilis than XC MTB. These attitudes are changing some, largely thanks to the younger generation but it's a painfully slow process, as highlighted by homophobic comments that still sometimes appear under articles and social media postings about 29ers.

There are some concerns about the big wheels that have less to do with testosterone as well. Loic Bruni has a Specialized Demo 29er prototype ready but he has resisted riding it for philosophical reasons. He thinks big-wheeled bikes are too easy to ride over rough terrain and that the viewing experience for fans is compromised as a result. And this is happening while tracks are getting easier compounding the situation.** Was the switch to 650b okay with Loic? If not was it the degree of change or something else that allowed him to veer from traditional MTB wheels?

I see his point to some extent. The juice for me watching DH either live or after the fact comes from those rare moments of separation; when it’s clear that one rider is doing something the others can’t or taking lines their peers didn’t notice. Could the rollover ability 29ers are famous for make it more difficult to see those nuances? At Fort William Greg Minnaar has a signature line that others don’t ride (see screencaps below) where he launches an inside between corners, and he did it on his 29er as well, but what about more technical zones? Will big wheels make it look too easy or will it simply look faster?

Them’s The Rules (or lack thereof)

Those howling that 29ers offer an unfair advantage*** are failing to recognize that within any competitive structure maneuvering to achieve a legal advantage is the point. This scraping for an edge is why racing improves the breed. The UCI has had outdated rules in road racing for years, only recently thinking about reducing the 6.8 kg minimum bike weight and considering allowing disc brakes (albeit with ridiculous and unnecessary guards). Do we really want the Swiss Mafia meddling in mountain bike design and putting limits on what is possible? There are those who wish our industry had never forsaken the 26” wheel but now that ship has sailed and I think striving or as little UCI interference as possible is the way forward.

There are always rules in racing but the parameters constraining bike design for DH racing are few.


ARTICLE 1.3.004 “Except in mountain bike racing, no technical innovation regarding anything used, worn or carried by any rider or license holder during a competition (bicycles, equipment mounted on them, accessories, helmets, clothing, means of communication, etc.) may be used until approved by the UCI. Requests for approval shall be submitted to the UCI, accompanied by all necessary documentation.

Gearboxes however are out! Supposedly at least. 


“The bicycle is a vehicle with two wheels of equal diameter. The front wheel shall be steerable; the rear wheel shall be driven through a system comprising pedals and a chain.”

Don’t tell Benoit Coulanges however, who has ridden his belt-driven gearbox Nicolai to top twenty finishes on the big stage. Apparently even that one goes unenforced. That’s not to say the UCI doesn’t have any rules that are particular to mountain bikes. Of the 47 pages in the UCI’s clarification guide, all but 6 pages apply exclusively to road and track bikes (no mittens!) and associated equipment. But in the mountain bike specific guide there are some rules:

As you can see wheel size isn’t on the UCI’s radar. But is it coming? It’s unlikely the big wigs in Switzerland will retroactively enact a 29er ban, but they might cap wheel size at 29. Or they may just leave it alone since they don’t seem to care too much about what happens in the knobby world as long as they are allowed to rule it.


§ 7 Equipment 4.1.038 The use of radio links or other remote means of communication with riders is forbidden. 4.1.039 The use of tyres fitted with metal spikes or screws is not permitted. 4.1.039 During MTB races no traditional road handlebars may be used. bis Clips-on extensions are forbidden but traditional barends are authorized. (article introduced on 1.02.12; text modified on 1.01.16).

Irish racer Ben Reid called the arrival of 29ers “the worst thing that’s happened to mountain biking since I’ve been involved in it.” Ben is not a big guy and he feels riders his size won’t be able to capitalize on the twenty-nine inch advantages, despite Danny Hart who is of similar stature being up 3 seconds before a crash took him out of the running at Fort William. Ben says his objection also relates to how gnarly the riding looked in the early 2000s with 26” wheels; “a 29er just mellows that all out. Guys were getting scattered about and just fighting the bikes through sections and I think you’re going to lose a lot of that.” Of course you have to credit some of the difference to geometry and suspension design and even wheel and tire tech but to Ben those are innovations while wheel size is not.

Isn’t it supposed to be about going the fastest? This counter argument is often repeated but in most speed sports there are limitations on equipment dimensions and design. For downhill skiing, there are limits on the minimum ski length and radius rather than a maximum and in motorsport, it’s often displacement and aspiration regulations that govern speed and acceleration limits and even downforce is subject to regulation.**** To isolate driver skill some race series dictate one make and model of vehicle for each driver. In a perfect sporting situation, there wouldn’t be performance gaps based on the size of your wheel or the efficiency of your dampers. 

Aside from the odd time trial, I don’t recall it being suggested that a Tour de France stage was ever won because of non-pharmaceutical technology. But DH isn’t road and the technology is part of what we sink our teeth into leading up to and during each World Cup round. Imagine the UCI putting together 47 pages on travel, rotor size, bike weight, materials, handlebar width and more... Regulating technology within DH could be the kiss of death and while 29-inch wheels may be less 'core' than 26, I’d prefer to sacrifice wheels rather than allow mountain bike teams and brands to be hamstrung by reams of lame regulations. 

Viva le wagon wheel!

*A satisfying irony is that these days racers get their pyjama suits tailored to be as close fitting as possible. You won’t see any jerseys flapping in the wind because that costs time. 

**While many riders lament the speedway sections of many tracks the loudest criticisms we’ve heard for some time came from Fort William and the gripe was that the new woods section was too hard.

*** Notoriously contrarian suspension tuner Chris Porter disputes this and notes that Greg Minnaar winning Ft. Bill by two seconds is business as usual.

**** Formula 1 in the past has limited downforce in an effort to increase overtaking but for 2017 they allowed it to increase with the same goal, mostly because the engineers always find a way around the rules.


Comments

zigak
0
ZigaK  - June 9, 2017, 2:56 a.m.

"The UCI has had outdated rules in road racing for years, only recently reducing the minimum bike weight and considering disc brakes (albeit with ridiculous and unnecessary guards)."

So many questions. 

What is the new UCI weight limit for road bikes? When did they .... wait a minute. You have no clue about road racing do you?

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+2
Cam McRae  - June 9, 2017, 7:48 a.m.

I take that as a point of pride, but really that's all you've got to add to the discussion? ;)

Reply

taprider
+1
taprider  - June 9, 2017, 10:11 a.m.

why take pride in promoting a clique?

cam@nsmb.com
+1
Cam McRae  - June 9, 2017, 10:23 a.m.

Promoting a clique? Does not compute (and I wasn't being serious!).

cooperquinn
0
Cooper Quinn  - June 9, 2017, 7:46 a.m.

The real fuss and exciting story is.... WILL ATWILL RACE HIS HARDTAIL THIS WEEKEND?! 

I hope so. 

https://www.instagram.com/p/BVF_u_zFYXS/

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+2
Cam McRae  - June 9, 2017, 7:50 a.m.

Imagine if he qualified? If you can win without a chain at Leogang...

Reply

cooperquinn
0
Cooper Quinn  - June 9, 2017, 7:56 a.m.

It would be a pretty amazing form of protest. 

Better than just whining about wheelsize.

jt
+1
JT  - June 9, 2017, 8:18 a.m.

Maybe he could cheat and have a RockShox suspension post?

mammal
+3
Mammal  - June 9, 2017, 9:04 a.m.

So funny. 

This was sparked by Wyn, when he and Atwill were discussing the track on WynTV. He said he'd ask his manager, so they took it to Ben Reid, and then Reid put the pressure on to actually do a run. WynTv is turning out to be my favorite part of the WC season this year.

Reply

cooperquinn
+2
Cooper Quinn  - June 9, 2017, 7:54 a.m.

On a less joke-y note, I disagree with this statement, " In a perfect sporting situation, there wouldn’t be performance gaps based on the size of your wheel or the efficiency of your dampers. "  - at least as it pertains to F1. 

There are two championships at stake in F1, manufacturer and driver. It is absolutely as much about damper efficiency (and, well, everything else that goes in to building a racecar with the current formula) as it is about driver. 

Pretend 29" wheels are double diffusers. If they're well and truly faster, you better get on 'em until they're banned, or you're going to be off the back. That's just how racing works. 

As for the 'it looked rowdier on 26" wheels' argument.... eh. Maybe? Or maybe its just cause bikes 10 years ago weren't very good, compared to now?

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+1
Cam McRae  - June 9, 2017, 9:19 a.m.

I don't think "a perfect sporting situation" pertains to F1. I'm talking about isolating athletic performance so tech doesn't have an influence. So maybe we aren't disagreeing? And I agree about bikes 10 years ago as well; "Of course you have to credit some of the difference to geometry and suspension design and even wheel and tire tech but to Ben those are innovations while wheel size is not."

Reply

jt
+2
JT  - June 9, 2017, 7:55 a.m.

I think the hulabaloo, hubbub, and b&m'ing is more about the rate of change rather than the change itself. Compare the amount of time between 26-27.5 change and the time from 27.5-29. One was around for 20 odd years, the other for 5(ish)? Design wise, it's logical. An evolutionary change yielding competitive advantage will be exploited, and part of that entails taking the concepts of the initial change and applying them in other areas/ideas at a faster rate. If 27.5 was THIS much better, then 29 must be THAT much better. Great for racers, fun for engineers, but not so much for the privateers and fun havers who just laid out solid coin for what is now essentially old tech. And that may be a bummer for someone who's looking to be the next DH idol. Design evolution can easily be chastised as planned/forced obsolescence, and as forums show there are many folks who will voice that call.

Reply

cooperquinn
+1
Cooper Quinn  - June 9, 2017, 7:58 a.m.

Is it 'old tech' now? 

Lots of EWS riders still choosing (well... presumably choosing? Its always questionable for top athletes, but odds are their brands want them on what's faster, and they've definitely tested both) smaller wheels. DH is a different sport, and what's best for racing isn't necessarily better for 'JRA'.

Reply

jt
0
JT  - June 9, 2017, 8:16 a.m.

In a way, yes. Can't have new and improved without old and inferior. Or at least that's what marketing tells us. And it's why I brought up racing. EWS racers are going by what they prefer but also by what the course shows to be the better performer. To those of us who have a ride it 'til you break it mentality (i.e. not looking to make the big leagues, having more fun rather than quicker track times), we won't mind much. But someone who's spending their time and dollars to move up the ranks may have more of a concern. Not everyone wants to drop $5k on a new ride when they JUST bought one last season.

Timmigrant
+1
Tim Coleman  - June 9, 2017, 8:26 a.m.

Maybe a different take is that smaller riders are going to struggle fitting 29er DH frames. To further that point descending on a 27.5" bike felt like a 26" bike, but with better rolling characteristics. Maybe with 29er wheels the geometry is compromised enough that the DH guys have more fun riding 27.5" bikes, but feel forced to ride 29er for the rolling advantages.

Reply

LoamtoHome
0
Jerry Willows  - June 9, 2017, 8:47 a.m.

29er's are boring as hell to watch.  Everything is just muted and looks lame and not good for the sport.  If UCI bans skinsuits, they should ban this atrocity. 

Watch Greg in 2013 on 26":  Rowdy

then compare it to his recent run on 29" Lame

Keep it at 650b and make the tracks better and not bike park style.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+1
Cam McRae  - June 9, 2017, 8:58 a.m.

Comparing Leogang and Fort Bill doesn't prove much. I've never enjoyed Fort William much personally for that very reason; the riders don't get very loose where we can see them. The woods this year was rowdy but not fun to watch. Also how can you isolate the differences in rowdiness to wheel size when everything else has improved as well? Suspension has taken some big steps in four years as has geo and everything else. Tough to isolate wheels as the only factor. 

Reply

LoamtoHome
0
Jerry Willows  - June 9, 2017, 9:54 a.m.

I disagree about suspension and geo changing the rowdy game... the 650b riders on Ft Bill looked faster/looser than the 29er riders.  Just not a fan.  #loicisright

cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - June 9, 2017, 10:22 a.m.

Connor Fearon was one of the most fun to watch I thought. What about Danny Hart? Did he look less rowdy than usual? That wasn't my impression. And Greg always looks like he's going slower even when he's going faster. You may be right but I'm not sure the jury is in on this yet. Maybe there should be a 26er DH league? That sounds like fun. Who kept a bike?

Reply

LoamtoHome
0
Jerry Willows  - June 9, 2017, 11:38 a.m.

I could be wrong but I thought Connor was on 650b? and he did look rowdy af.  He was on 650b for this race : bike and Google didn't come up with anything other than 650b.

Hart I thought looked kinda meh but if you watched Greg from that vid in 2013, he looked super pinned.  He looked like molasses at Ft. Bill even though he was pretty quick.  275 was quickest in 2 out the 3 sections at Ft Bill.

cam@nsmb.com
+1
Cam McRae  - June 9, 2017, 12:17 p.m.

Yep. I'm agreeing with you. Shocker!

craw
+1
Cr4w  - June 9, 2017, 8:52 a.m.

Why are so many critics talking about 29" wheels in DH like they're about to take over? Horses for courses. Big wheels are going to be great on some tracks and a hindrance on others. Nobody is forcing these guys to change. They'll use what's legal and fastest for a given track.

Reply

natbrown
+1
natbrown  - June 9, 2017, 9:38 a.m.

Nice article Cam. I kinda feel like 29ers coming into DH, and seeing reasonably wide acceptance so quickly, signposts that the future will be 29. At least for bikes designed to ride trails. The controversy right now will be short lived I bet. it human nature to talk about change. People might have their preference for wheels size, but we've recently seen that the industry is prepared to deny the market access to old favourites, and that could happen again. I don't think it will be as fast as the 26 -> 27 change though.

Anyway, it's just my hypothesis. The one fly in the ointment to this is at what stature do the benefits of the big wheels become obvious? Like can someone who is 5'6" ride a 29er effectively without getting friction burns on his or her genitalia?

The argument that this change, or any other, make it too easy doesn't really stand to reason. I get it, but it's a knee jerk reaction driven by nostalgia. What these changes really do is extend possibility. And when people take advantage of that, they have new horizons that drive further change. It's just nature.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - June 9, 2017, 10:25 a.m.

All solid points. But what about making it appear easier so it's less fun to watch?

Reply

natbrown
+1
natbrown  - June 9, 2017, 10:32 a.m.

I just think that's temporary. It won't take these guys long to find the limits of the new bikes and make it interesting again. And it makes a mountain out of a mole hill as it stands now as far as I'm concerned, but I don't mean that as a shot at you and your analysis. All of this stuff is just driven by passion, which is one of the things I think we all love about racing and MTB. I'm just a dry analyst.

jan
0
Jan  - June 10, 2017, 9:33 a.m.

I appreciate that sporting events need audiences, but I personally can't believe that this is even an argument against 29ers in DH.

'Less fun to watch' ...really?? I wish folks would just appreciate racing for what it is, and that is to go faster in the respective discipline. Is it faster --> neat! (I'm not calling you out personally, I know it's a sentiment widely expressed about the recent changes)

dave_f
+1
dave_f  - June 9, 2017, 11:44 a.m.

Actually, the Tour de France was revolutionized by a non-pharmaceutical technology. If not for that, the downhill crowd would probably be still riding with toe straps instead of clipless pedals. Look up Bernard Hinault.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+1
Cam McRae  - June 9, 2017, 12:28 p.m.

Good point. If you want to go back further (and I know exactly who Hinault is) we should perhaps talk about Bartali, Coppi and the derailleur as well. But my point wasn't that no technology has changed the Tour anyway, but maybe that wasn't clear. My point was that the playing field is generally level and the race isn't won or lost because of technology, particularly in the modern era. The exception I was mentioning was Lemond starting the final time trial in 1989 sitting 50 seconds behind Fignon in GC and then winning by 8 seconds, probably because of his time trial bars.

Reply

toodles
+1
Trent Blucher  - June 9, 2017, 1:02 p.m.

Danny Hart and Ben Reid are no where near the same height I'm pretty sure?  I could be wrong though.  Danny Hart is 1.78m - hardly at a disadvantage on a 29er really.  I think 29ers will actually be the first step to making DH favour taller riders.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - June 9, 2017, 1:45 p.m.

There you go. I always thought he was shorter than that. And he does appear small on the bike to me as well.

Reply

grambo
+1
grambo  - June 9, 2017, 3:23 p.m.

From a spectator perspective, I'm not that fussed about 29ers in UCI DH.

As a park rat, I'm upset because DH bikes are already a tiny market segment that is questionable as far as profit generated to bike companies. I'm pretty skeptical that bike companies will be able to offer DH bikes in 27.5 and 29. My worry is some companies will throw up their hands and stop making DH bikes while others will transition to 29 only (similar to what Trek did with the Session, they sold 26 and 27.5 for a few years and then stopped the 26). 

29er is not appealing to me for a park bike. I'm not that tall of a guy so rear wheel buzz, low speed handling/tight turns and jumping are real issues, especially since I suck balls compared to the WC guys. To be fair, I haven't tried a 29er DH but I have ridden 29er trail bikes and personally prefer 27.5.

Reply

Kieran
0
Kieran  - June 9, 2017, 5:22 p.m.

This!

I recently purchased a RM Maiden thinking that if I wanted to change the bike in a few years it wasn't going to cost me dearly. I'm now looking at a possible big loss if I want a new ride.

For me the swap to 27.5 hasn't transformed my riding, it was never going to, only riding more can do that but I get frustrated when the media/marketing tells me that I'm riding out dated gear, and a majority of riders see this for their lack of skill / progression.

It was not so long ago I as asked how the hell did I ride my 26 enduro up old buck and descend John Deere so quickly by a fellow 29er rider. I mean come on WTF!!!

Plus the fact under the right rider 27.5 is no slower. Gwin proved this last weekend...

Reply

tehllama42
0
Tehllama42  - June 11, 2017, 9:16 a.m.

I just see this as an opportunity to make park bikes better as park bikes, and without the fuss of trying to make those setups so double duty as DH race rigs, they can be much better for lapping something lift served, or shuttled.  There will be good options that can do both, but I see no reason a company couldn't make frames that can be ran single or dual crown, adjustable geometry to run 26" or 650b, maybe even adjustable travel from 180-200mm... If the dropouts are themselves adjustable, then whatever existing wheels will drop in.

Reply

grambo
0
grambo  - June 12, 2017, 1:16 p.m.

It's possible for sure, but it's such a small market segment that my worry is most companies won't bother. I could be totally wrong, and hope I am, but as a mediocre park rider, I don't want to have to ride 29".

El_Sketchio
0
William Gaffney  - June 10, 2017, 3:26 p.m.

At least I get to race a Santa Cruz Nomad tomorrow. That's all I want to enjoy!

Reply

Xorrox
0
Brad_xyz  - June 11, 2017, 2:18 p.m.

I think mixed wheel sizes actually make the most sense for gravity riding.  29" front, 27.5" rear is a winning combination in my experience:  29" front for roll over and stability, 27.5" rear for more clearance and more travel, quicker acceleration, and stronger wheels and the combination of the two providing greater OTB resistance and more front end 'pop' for launching  up and over obstacles.

I believe there is a UCI rule against mixed wheel sizes though?

Reply

cyclotoine
0
cyclotoine  - June 14, 2017, 7:41 p.m.

29" has been a long time coming to DH. I always thought it seemed backwards that it started with XC bikes and has slowly progressed to bigger bikes. Full disclosure: I am a dedicated 29" rider. Many of the great pioneers of mountain biking experimented with bigger wheels but it was the availability of tires, parts and strength at the time that lead to 26" being adopted as defacto. Gary Fisher championed 29" for years as he always knew it was the better size. Now we have the technology to build strong bikes with 29" wheels. Why wouldn't we do it for DH where it is faster?

Reply

Please log in to leave a comment.