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  1. #1
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    29er vs. 26er... head-to-head comparison

    The question of "which should I buy: a 29er hardtail or a 26" full suspension has been asked and answered on this forum a million times. The answers usually point out that it's like comparing apples and oranges, which may be true, but the question still remains. This weekend I decided to put my 26" full suspension bike and my 29er hardtail to a head-to-head comparison. I'm training for a 24 solo, so I've been putting in lots of time on the bike lately. I figured this comparison would be a nice way to entertain my brain while riding endlessly...

    My background is in research (I'm a professor who does research) and I realize this comparison is less than scientific, but I figured I would share my results anyway. It's not like I'm going to publish this is a scientific, peer-reviewed journal...

    Subject:
    Me -- I'm a 40 year old male who has been riding mountain bikes since 1994 (while in grad school). I didn't really start riding seriously until about 6 years ago. I mostly do adventure races and let's face it... adventure racers train for many sports and don't necessarily excel at any. So, I'm an average mountain biker. I live in San Antonio, TX where the trails are rocky (loose and packed-in) and dry/dusty during the summer drought. We don't have lots of super-long climbs or decents... the ups and downs around here are pretty quick.

    Apparatus:
    26" Full Suspension: 2009 Titus X (aluminum with lots of carbon bits) with a Fox Fork (100mm travel), Crossmax SL wheelset with IRC Serac XC UST tires, SRAM XX (2 X 10) drivetrain, derailleurs, and brakes. 24 pounds. Probably cost about $4000.

    29" Hardtail: 2009 Soma Juice (steel frame) with a Rockshox Reba (80mm travel), Stan's Arch wheelset with a Maxxis Ignitor front tire and Maxxis Crossmark rear tire, XT (3 X 9) drivetrain, derailleurs, and Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes. 27 pounds. Probably cost about $2000.

    Methods:
    I went to Flat Rock Ranch in Comfort, TX and rode the lower loop (actually, the 6-hour race course that was used for the "Texas Chainring Massacre" a few weeks ago). I rode 4 laps. First lap on the 26, second and third laps on the 29, and the last lap on the 26. This order was done to help counterbalance for fatigue effects (i.e., I was certain to be more fatigued by the last lap and didn't want that to influence my judgment of the bike's performance).

    There are 4 places on this loop that have historically given me problems. I recently mastered 2 of these places and can now ride them 100% of the time on my 26 (we'll call these Problem Areas #1 and #2). There are 2 other places that I have never been able to ride on my 26 (we'll call these Problem Areas #3 and #4). There is a series of downhill switchbacks that are covered with loose rocks and I never feel overly comfortable on my 26 while navigating these obstacles (we'll call this Problem Area #5). I've never ridden this loop on my 29. It was 68 degrees when I started at 9 AM and 90 degrees when I finished the day around 2 PM.

    Results:
    I completed the first lap (26" bike) in 1:03 with an average heart rate of 148. I was able to ride Problem Areas #1 and #2 without any issues. I wasn't able to ride PA#3 and #4. PA#5 still felt shaky and I continue to put down my inside foot for stabilization while navigating the switchbacks.

    I completed the second lap (29er) in 1:08 with an average heart rate of 155. I cleared PA#1 and #2, didn't clear PA#3 and #4, and PA#5 didn't feel any more or less comfortable. However, I did feel somewhat more comfortable on other turns in the trail -- there are a couple of turns with loose rocks/dirt that feel a little "slippery" on my 26, but felt "stickier" on the 29.

    I completed lap 3 (29er) in 1:10 with an average heart rate of 161. I didn't clear PA#1, I cleared PA#2, didn't clear PA#3 and #4 and PA#5 was the same.

    I completed lap 4 (26) in 1:01 with an average heart rate of 154. I cleared PA#1 and #2, didn't clear PA#3 (closest I've ever come to clearing it, though) and #4, and PA#5 was the same.

    Conclusions:
    My lap times were faster on the 26. My average heart rate was lower on the 26. I would have expected this finding for the 1st lap of the day (I was rested and the weather was cooler). However, I did not expect this for my last lap of the day (I was tired and it was hot). The 29er was slower and I had to work harder.

    There are a few claims about 29ers out there and I will provide my opinions based on my experience...

    Claim #1: The bigger wheels on the 29er make bumps/rocks/etc feel smoother -- I gotta say, I don't agree with this. The suspension soaked up a lot of the rocks, roots, and ruts that I was very aware of on the hardtail. I don't think the big wheels can make up for what suspension can bring to the table.

    Claim #2: Big wheels can roll over anything -- Going into this ride, I really hoped I would be able to clear PA#3 and #4, which I had been unable to clear on my 26. However, I couldn't. I've seen other guys ride these areas (on 26ers and 29ers). I'm just not good enough to ride these areas (yet). My opinion is that if you don't have the technique/strength/finesse/whatever to ride a section, bigger wheels aren't going to compensate for that.

    Claim #3: Big wheels have a larger "contact patch" and can handle turns better -- As mentioned above, there were some spots on the trail that I was able to corner with much more confidence on the 29er. I'm not sure if this is due to the larger contact patch or if my tire selection on the 29er is better-suited for this terrain. It sure did feel good to take those turns like I was on rails, though. The downhill switchbacks (i.e., PA#5) didn't feel any differently on the 29er, though. Again, maybe I need to work on technique rather than try to rely on equipment to fix my riding problem.

    Claim #4: A steel frame is like having 3" of travel -- OK, I've seen this claim a few times on various message boards. This claim is what swayed me to buy a steel frame hardtail in the first place. I gotta say, in my opinion, it's 100% B.S. While a steel frame may take the edge off a bit (compared to an aluminum hardtail), it is nothing like having full suspension! If you are debating whether to purchase a steel hardtail because it's cheaper than a full suspension bike and you believe that steel will be just as comfortable/forgiving as full suspension, you will be disappointed.

    Claim #5: 29ers are cumbersome in tight, twisty singletrack -- While Flat Rock Ranch doesn't have a lot of tight, twisty singletrack, I have ridden my 29er at a park near my house (OP Schnabel) where there is a lot of twisty stuff. I have not noticed that it is significantly more difficult to navigate tight, twisty singletrack on th 29er.

    Overall, I realize this study wasn't exactly scientific given that the bikes compared didn't have the exact same equipment. But that was kind of the point... people ask the "should I buy an apple or an orange" question all the time. I have both and have to say that I prefer the apple (26" full suspension). I turned faster lap times with less effort. My fastest lap of the day was the last lap I rode and it was the hottest part of the day. I will continue to ride my 29er, though. It's a great training vehicle. When I switch back to the 26" bike, I feel like it weighs nothing and rides like I'm on air. If you are buying your first bike or you aren't an overly strong rider (like me), or are buying a bike for comfort and fun, I'd recommend a 26" full suspension bike. If you are already a strong rider or are buying a bike for fitness reasons, I'd recommend the 29er.

  2. #2
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    Interesting results especially since you don't have steep climbs in your area. Steep climbs seem to be the area that 26 can out perform 29 and more rolling terrain seems to be the area that 29 out performs 26.

    I wonder how much of the differnce was in the weight difference between the bikes? Usually you would expect a 29 HT to be as light or even a bit lighter than a 26 4" bike.

    Recently here in SLC, UT there was a road bike hill climb up Little Cottonwood Canyon (10 mi & 3500') and for those super humans there was an added MTB climb from the top of the canyon to the top of Snowbird ski resort (4 mi & 3000'). It seems due to the steepness of the MTB section most everyone competed on a 26er HT in the 18 - 20 lb weight range. I don't know how much of this was just having the lightest bike or was it more of a gearing issue?
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  3. #3
    FKA Malibu412
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    Great report! Confirms it's still apples and oranges and more about rider skill and conditioning than anything. I would surmise the higher HR on the 29 was due primarily to the two factors of greater bike weight and having to work your legs more as the rear suspension.
    "I love the bike. It's my meditation. I think I'm bike-sexual." -Robin Williams

  4. #4
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    Thanks for posting.

    However, for every experience like yours there is one like this:

    Now Willow on a 29er...

    A completely opposite result on the same type of equipment. It has long been established that a full suspension bike will do better than a hardtail in more technical conditions. I have read more than one trial using similar equipment, except for rear suspension, for a single manufacturer and the same components. A full suspension always seems to be better/faster except on the most groomed tracks.

    A few comments:

    Claim #1 & 2. No-one said that a 29" wheel soaks up more bumps than suspension but it does seem to soak up more than the same configuration 26" bike. A 26" wheel will still fall into a 27" hole.

    Claim #3. 29" wheels do not have a larger contact patch. They have a longer and narrower patch. The area is identical at the same tire pressure. The longer patch does tend to bite more.

    Claim #4. I fully agree with you. Based only on frame material there is no reason one frame should be better than another. There will be more give and compliance in the tires, seatpost and saddle than the frame. Here is an article from the late and highly respected Sheldon Brown on the subject of frame material.

    Claim #5. Agree with you on that one also. There may be some 29" bikes with long wheel bases and long chain stays that are not maneuverable. My Banshee Paradox is as good as any 26" bike I've ridden. Not all 29s are born equal.

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  5. #5
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    So would a 29er FS give you the best of both worlds?

  6. #6
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    Attention Moderators:
    This post has "DATA" and must therefore be removed from the 29er forums. I'm starting to feel a bit whoozy?!

  7. #7
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    Apples, Oranges & Avocados...

    Quote Originally Posted by gearjunkie88
    I've never ridden this loop on my 29.
    Ride the loop on your 29er regularly until you have a good rhythm, pace, cadence, idea of shifting, momentum, etc. This could effect your outcome. Next time around do lap 1 with the 29er and see if you clear the PAs. Lap 2 & 3 on the 26, lap 4 on 29er...report back, I'm interested & curious.

    I appreciate your write up, review & the time you spent investigating. Thanks.

  8. #8
    the train keeps rollin
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    Hardtails stink.
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  9. #9
    FKA Malibu412
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    Quote Originally Posted by OverTheHill
    So would a 29er FS give you the best of both worlds?
    What two worlds are you refering to? The 26 v 29 world? The fs v ht world? The buff st v technical st world?

    I think the answer to your question is yes and no. On any given day, on any given trail or course with any given rider, on any given 26 or 29 whether ht or fs,results will vary.

    I think th OP's intent was to discover for himself the truth about the 26 fs v 29 ht debate and used this particular course and methodology to do so, not to come to any conclusion as to whether it would be better or more effective to throw 29 fs into the mix. We often see here and other places the claims about how a 29 ht is as effective as a 26 fs on most trails for most riders. Depending on the various data produced and studied, his results and conclusions partly supported and dispelled these.
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  10. #10
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    I agree with a lot of what the original poster says. I ride both a rigid 26er and rigid 29er, both 1x9. 26er is around 21lb. 29er is around 24lb. I ride both frequently offroad and commuting.

    I have very little issues with anything "twisty". It takes a tad bit more work on the 29er, but nothing terrible at all. I climb far better on my 26er... not even a comparison really. However, I descend much better on my 29er. I feel like the bigger wheels take the edge off everything. It's nothing like having FS. It's like having big wheels and fat tires.

    The biggest thing I personally gain from the 29er is stability. Don't know how or why, but I am twice as stable on a 29er. Makes commuting nicer and bikebacking more comfy.

    Otherwise, 100% honest... I have not seen all of these benefits people speak of. I have never seen any peer reviewed research showing a true advantage one way or the other.

    I've own 29ers for the past 5 years because:
    1. Stability is just off the charts for me for some reason.
    2. 29er hardtails are the future for anyone over 5'-6". No sense bucking the trend.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Malibu412
    What two worlds are you refering to? The 26 v 29 world? The fs v ht world? The buff st v technical st world?

    I think the answer to your question is yes and no. On any given day, on any given trail or course with any given rider, on any given 26 or 29 whether ht or fs,results will vary.

    I think th OP's intent was to discover for himself the truth about the 26 fs v 29 ht debate and used this particular course and methodology to do so, not to come to any conclusion as to whether it would be better or more effective to throw 29 fs into the mix. We often see here and other places the claims about how a 29 ht is as effective as a 26 fs on most trails for most riders. Depending on the various data produced and studied, his results and conclusions partly supported and dispelled these.
    I was genuinely interested to know whether or not the OP (or anyone else) would be able to extrapolate the advantages of FS over HT combined with the perceived advantages of 29" wheels over 26", might give you a better ride than either. That seems to be the way that many manufacturers and racers are going so is there any point in buying a 26" FS or 29" HT if a 29" FS is better?

  12. #12
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    OP: Interesting comparison. I think it would be neat if you could repeat the test with wheelsets built to be comparable in rotating mass. I'd almost bet money that the biggest weight difference was in tire/rims, second in the frame, and at Flat Rock the wheel weight would definitely be a factor.

    I've actually ridden at FRR "quite a bit" - a few Guts n Glory events, lots of weekend trips from Austin, etc. and have ridden 26er FS, HT, and rigid (alum) but never actually spun around it on a 29er for some reason. FRR is a place where the climbing bike will be at an advantage more-so than pretty much anything else, IMO.

    There are also rarely any "technical climbing" zone (last I was there) other than the last couple hundred feet going up Pipeline hill (and a couple spots on the other loop).

    So I am really not surprised you turned better times for yourself on your lighter bike.

    But.

    After having been riding a (nice) rigid 29er for the last 15 months as my main XC/AM bike (steel with carbon fork), even with phat tires (Nevegal 2.2" before and now Advantage 2.4", all tubeless) I'm definitely in the camp that steel-29er-tubless any suspension.

  13. #13
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    I agree with this report 100% and have found similar results on the trails after 4 years of riding both 29ers and 26ers concurrently. Simply put a 26er is faster and less effort, yet at mile 30+, I can still be riding with plenty of juice and feel burned out on the 26er. The 29er seems to be just way more comfortable, more upright, and better body position for distance riding. I am not convinced of any of the touted benefits of the bigger wheels, but am a firm believer in comfort equaling better performance especially during endurance events. I've since hung my 26er on the wall and focused more on my riding and less on the split times and HR.
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  14. #14
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    29er for me

    Interesting subject and a good report from a real world example.

    I own a 26er FS and a 29er HT both similarly specced but the FS is approx. 600g lighter. I've also been fitted to both by a pro setup guy.

    Most of my riding is around 3-5 hours on loose over hardpack on jeep, forest and singletrack with nice long climbs and a couple of tricky steep technical descents and ascents. All are regular routes that I ride 3-5 times a week.

    My findings are that I definitely prefer the 29er. Not necessarily because it is faster but I just feel way more confident riding it. Interestingly my average heart rate is approx. 10% lower riding the 29er over the same course and time.

    This one's a bit like tire choice....very subjective...but good to hear real world experiences.

  15. #15
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    Very interesting results. I too am a "research whore" and find that there is much out there that gives way to either side. Personally I will find out in a month or so here how things truly are. I am a complete newbie to mtn biking and have been borrowing my brothers FS Rocky Mountain Element 5.0 for that time and riding occasionally. I am 6ft tall, 190lbs and looking at 29ers since this seems to be the "way of the future." Once I get my new bike I will ride the same areas that I have been riding to see what the true preference for me falls. The bikes will not be evenly matched (because I cant afford $2500+ for a equal 29er fs) so it will be a true apples to oranges comparison. Conversely, I will be able to compare with my buddies that have standard hardtails that are in the same price range, only from different companies!

  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by bear
    OP: Interesting comparison. I think it would be neat if you could repeat the test with wheelsets built to be comparable in rotating mass. I'd almost bet money that the biggest weight difference was in tire/rims, second in the frame...
    I am also curious about the wheelset and tires used on both your 26" and your 29" bikes.

    The OP's results may be skewed somewhat unless tires and wheels are comparable in weight and rolling resistance.

    Still, a very informative post by the OP.

  17. #17
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    Nice, test it's not perfect and although the tires may vary which will effect the result a lot both bikes have the tires you like to run I presume so thats kind of a mute point as tires are limited on 29ers, comparing the best you can find on both is a better real world test.

    Part of this might be gearing related issues bigger wheel and all, how much time do you spend on the big ring at the back or worst still Granny Front / Big rear where you might benefit from a 10% lower gear on the 29er ?? if not much / at all then also not a factor really.

    Claim #4 Correct, Steel frames generally have low seat tubes and 27.2mm posts the post is where the comfort comes from, my steel frame doesn't move at ALL, bunny hoping down kerbs with a 20stone mate on it watching real close, NOTHING.

    I ride a 26er or 69er and swap between the 2 regular as I'm undecided after many years of 69er loving, best tire I can find on both not same tire ( 29" Ardent 2.4, 26" RQ 2.4 ), I can run the 26" much softer without the tire rolling around and becoming vague, I've always had to run 29" quite hard, annoyingly so

    I theorize the lesser angle from the rim doesn't hold the tire on as well, requiring higher pressure to counter this.

  18. #18
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    Man. I had my heart set on buying a 29er Now I am confused again.

  19. #19
    FKA Malibu412
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    Quote Originally Posted by OverTheHill
    ...is there any point in buying a 26" FS or 29" HT if a 29" FS is better?
    I understand. My 29 FS rocks! I feel rolling benefits on ascents, flats and I'm much more stable and fast on descents. But perhaps this is partially due to the fact that my 29 has more travel and is more plush than my 26 FS (has a brain rear shock for the more buff treads).Maybe better geo as well. For my "serious" riding, I won't go back to 26, even on a similar grade of bike as the 29.
    "I love the bike. It's my meditation. I think I'm bike-sexual." -Robin Williams

  20. #20
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    I wouldn't let this thread steer you away from a 29er. Give one a ride and draw your own conclusions.
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  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by joepa150
    Man. I had my heart set on buying a 29er Now I am confused again.
    You don't have one yet?
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  22. #22
    illuminator82
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    1lbs is worth 30 seconds on sustained climbs of about 20-30 minutes. analytic cycling can help you do the math.

    that would be 1.5 minutes per lap...so this means......

  23. #23
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    I found the opposite on my 29er HT. I cleaned stuff I had to dab with the 26er. On a 13 mile loop near here, I am considerably faster on the 29er (~10 mins on average). This loop has good climbs, a bit of tech stuff and mostly fast rolling trail. Perhaps the HT vs FS (though with a Brain) is the biggest difference, I don't know... I just know I'm faster on the 29er on the same trails.
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  24. #24
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    1) howdy from a neighbor that also lives near, and rides at, OP Schnabel AND enjoys Flat Rock.

    2) cool back to back test. thanks for sharing.

    3) seems like the person that will benefit from your results will be you and that's what really matters most, right?

  25. #25
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    I have a 9 mile loop that I ride/race on that is pretty fast/flowing but also somewhat twisty. It has one mediocre climb with a really long false flat at the top and another climb that is pretty long and has 3 short sections halfway up where it is both steeper and loose. I've gone out and rode fast laps on a 26" HT, 26" FS (Pivot Mach 4), rigid 1x9 29er, rigid SS 29er w/both 32x18 & 32x20T gearing and a 29er HT 3x9.

    Doesn't seem to matter what bike I choose, my average speed is ALWAYS within 2-3/10ths of a mile per hr of one another. However, I do feel less fatigued when riding the SS 29er with 32x20T gearing.

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