Awhile back you might remember cyclingnews.com revealing that they had two Seven Cycles hardtails set up as identically as possible with the "only" difference being the wheel size. One had 29 inch wheels and the other had 26 inch wheels. A hue and cry went up immediately from the 29"er camp, ( including myself) that the 29"er was designed incorrectly and was limited by gearing issues in comparison to the 26"er that they had set up.
Well, to their credit, cyclingnews.com has stepped up to the plate with a totally revamped 29"er to compensate for the differences. They started by having a frame made with more "proper" 29"er geometry including a steeper head angle which brought the trail figure in line with the 26"er. (Interestingly, the bike developes a bit of toe overlap, thus pointing out what 29"er afficiandos have said all along: we need a different 29"er specific fork offset!) Also, they shortened up the chainstays just a bit to get the wheelbase in check. These changes have resulted in a noticeable difference in handling according to their tester, James Huang, who was also quick to point out that the "wheels are still awfully big and substantially heavier".
One of the interesting notes was the "appologetic" on the first iteration of the test 29"er:
"While it is true that our 29er does require a smidge more conviction to snake through twisty terrain, I didn't necessarily find the handling characteristics to be particularly objectionable and I have yet to blow a corner as result."
And that was with 18 inch plus chainstays and a "slack" 71 degree head angle! Maybe 29"ers aren't all that and a bag of chips, but this would indicate that even a poorly concieved example can ride quite well, thank you!
So, it would appear that the new 29"er being tested has narrowed the gap on handling substantially, normalized the test example to better reflect current 29"er frame design, and should result in a more reasonable test than the first bike would have provided us. However; the cyclingnews crew wasn't done yet. They added power meters to both bikes! Kudos!
Now the last hurdle will be the most troublesome and subjective of all: Handling the quirks and characteristics of 29"ers. That's going to be on Mr. Huang's shoulders and whether or not he can manage to learn the nuances of 29"er handling in a reasonably short period of time to allow this story to be completed on schedule remains to be seen. Quite frankly; we may never know the "true" outcome of that question. I assume that he is a quite talented rider, but the 29"er is going to require that he "un-learn" some habits from his 26"er days to get a "fully objective" look at the 29"er, and then we'll all know what works best...........for him!
While I applaud cyclingnews for going above and beyond the call of duty here. While I admit and declare that this might possibly be the very best test of 29"er vs. 26"er to date: There is only one thing we will know without a doubt afterwards. That is what bike James Huang works best on. You see, we humans are all different. (sorry about the "Mr. Obvious" stuff here, but it doesn't appear that this is obvious!) A 29"er won't work for everybody. A 29"er doesn't do "everything" better than a 26"er. Horses for courses. Some folks power output will be maximised on a 29"er at certain courses and on others it might be a 26"er. To make it painfully obvious: You wouldn't attack a DH course on a fully rigid cyclo cross bike, right? Of course not. There is a correct tool for that job.
That is what we hope to find out from this testing. Not which wheel size is "best" as in "overall best", but where 29"ers shine better than 26"ers and vice versa. Perhaps this will begin to show that there is a place for each wheel size in your "quiver" to accomplish different tasks. Personally, I feel better on 29"ers. I like them much better for almost all of my riding. You might disagree, or have different needs. That's okay too.
I'll be watching this test with interest. How about you?