This diminutive black and yellow pot contains a substance with such a distinctive taste that it polarizes food lovers. We attribute the word ‘Marmite’ to things or people which divide opinion. Jonathon Ross, Russell Brand, Andy Murray are all described as ‘Marmite’ people. You either love them or hate them. If you work in the bike industry you don’t say ‘Marmite. You say ‘29’er’.........or ‘Lance Armstrong’. Talk to mountain bikers about 29’ers and for every rider that opens their eyes with enthusiasm for a 'fast, stable, more forgiving' bike another will frown, draw air through their teeth and murmur about 'heavy, lumbering and unresponsive heaps’. Being in privileged position of having a fleet demo bikes to ride and develop opinions of I have found myself in the saddle of various 29’ers over the past year and I’d have to admit at being sceptical about their benefits. I found myself grinning as I freewheeled downhill over pitted tracks. Gathering speed and feeling planted as the wheels ate every piece of loose mud, dirt, gravel and pothole then grimacing as I leaned in to take the approaching bend. The bike turned nowhere near as much as it should have done and left me overshooting the corner. Not a problem on track through an open field but put a tree in the way and it gets a bit more serious. The traditional sprint finish across the Grafham water dam was also tempered by the 29’er's acceleration. It was perfect for gradual build of speed but if you leapt out of the saddle to quickly launch it forward it didn’t seem to respond. It was like an ageing Labrador being lead into a veterinary surgery.
I didn’t put it down to them being bad bikes. I've always been a roadie at heart and my off road riding stemmed from a desire to pedal with some company and chatter through the winter months and I put down my lack of warmth to the 29'er as maybe I just wasn't very good on them. They just weren’t for me. ‘Maybe you just aren’t that type of rider’ was a colleague’s opinion.
Last week I walked into the hire bay of the Grafham prior Wednesday night Grafham water run. My own bike was having repairs carried out which meant I would be riding one of the demo bikes. Due to a number of bikes being test ridden by customers I found the only hard tail in my size. It was easy to spot. It had bigger wheels than everything else. I slid the bike from the shelf. It was a Trek SuperFly. I sighed, resigned myself to an evening of slowing woefully for corners and wheeled it into the shop. It wasn’t badly equipped. It had a Fox Float 29, Shimano Deore XT rear mech and it was light for an aluminium frame 29’er. I checked the retail price. £1300. I checked again to make sure they were definitely a set of Fox Floats. £1300. That was pretty good value for money. I strapped a U.S.E Maxx-D and a U.S.E Joystick to my helmet just in time for the others to arrive. They expressed disbelief that I was going to ride a 29’er, and we headed out.
The ride started predictably enough. We rode from the shop and headed counter clockwise and soon reached the gradual down hills that signal the start of the track. Again the bike picked up the speed. As the others chatted I began to hang back and eyed the approaching sharp right through the narrow gateway. I swept wide to the left and the bike did exactly what I would expect a 26 inch wheeled bike to do. It swept wide then turned in tight and sailed through the gateway. I tentatively opened one eye to check I was through the gate then opened both in surprise that a 29’er had succeeded in such a tight turn. It didn't stop there. Every tight turn on the track the bike sailed through. Even the turn before the climb to the pylon which is very, very sharp. The Fox Floats were as plush as you would expect from Fox. Coupled with the larger wheels it gave an eerily comforting gliding quality to the nights ride. The Superfly had proved itself on the turns and redeemed 29'er handling in my mind. However the part of my mind that had been put to rest by the swerves and turns wasn't the back of my mind. The back of my mind is the part that thinks about the weekly tradition of sprinting on the home stretch across the dam.
It doesn't matter how hard or easy the nights ride has been, how good or bad I am feeling or what bike I am riding, I sprint on the dam with the others and I will try to win it. I may even say to another rider “I don't think I'll bother with the sprint tonight. I don't really feel up to it”. But they know as well as I do that when we get on that one kilometre of flat a little switch goes to 'ON' in my head. They know this because it's happening in their heads too. Once after a mud plug through the notoriously boggy three shires way my bike picked up so much mud that it doubled its weight and left me exhausted from the effort of forcing it up hills. I still sprinted with a cloud of mud and grit going into my face. I had as much chance of winning as that bloke in the deep sea diving outfit had of winning the London marathon but the switch still went to 'ON'. Graham and I had a gentlemen's agreement that we wouldn't sprint until the last marker. We watched each other’s front wheels as we picked up the pace (I'd like to think this was because we wanted to make sure that we didn't accidentally edge past each other but probably has more to do with us not reckoning much to the other being a gentleman). The last marker came and I leapt from the saddle. The bike surged forward and didn't stop until I was dribbling over the handlebar. The Superfly won. I held the gate open for the others and we ambled back to the shop.
Once I finished washing the bike down I looked at the frame. The Head tube seemed to be very short to counter the gyroscopic motion of a larger wheel which would account for the handling difference and the down tube flattened out to an oval shape as it reached the bottom bracket. It’s the same system that they use on the standard setting Madone road bikes and gives the bottom end stiffness of the frame a boost which would explain the response to a sprint.
I wrote the 29er off too early really. I could walk among ten 26 inch hard tails and tell you differences between them but had always lumped 29'ers together instead of looking at them individually. The best way to find the one that suits you is of course, to try them. Our Fineshade store is giving you the opportunity to try many different manufacturers’ models on the trail there. So if you're interested in buying one or, like me, you are sceptic waiting to be convinced the best way is to ride them. After the ride I sat and looked at the Superfly and found myself seriously considering buying one as I quietly mouthed the words “all for thirteen hundred quid”. It’s a lot of bike for the money and whoever is lucky enough to snap it up at an ex-demo price is going to get one helluva bike. Mind you. I wonder what it’s like in carbon.
Mark is based at the Grafham store, would sprint across the dam even if dressed as a wookie and likes 29 inch wheeled bikes.