Anyone new to mountain biking may not have noticed that we're in the midst of a mountain bike revolution. While 26-inch wheels have been the gold standard on mountain bikes since the beginning, the 29-inch wheel (or 29er), which has been around for a decade, is really gaining momentum. After helping test a garage-full of 29ers for Outside, I've come to the conclusion that once you get used to the turning radius on tight singletrack, there's a lot to love about a 29er, especially if you do a lot of cross-country riding.
What I noticed immediately with the larger wheels is the obvious: They roll over major obstacles like a tank, especially while climbing. In general, they also offer a much smoother, more upright ride. The tricky part is getting used to a 29er on a trail with a lot of tight turns. I found that I wanted to widen my turn radius, which threw my timing off. You'll also want to be careful on those misleadingly smooth downhills where you can gather a lot of momentum quickly until, suddenly, you find yourself flying over the handlebars.
While almost every major bike manufacturer makes a 29er for men, Specialized is one of the only companies that makes a women's-specific version. While I'm a fan of riding whatever bike fits best, men's or women's, the Specialized Myka HT ($1,200; specialized.com) aluminum hardtail is a great starter mountain bike. Built specifically for a woman, the Myka has lighter custom tubing for faster climbing and acceleration; the lowest possible standover height for more control; women's-specific components like handlebars, grips, and cranks; custom-tuned suspension for a lighter rider; and an anatomically correct saddle, which allows for long hours of comfortable riding. With no rear shock and only 3.1 inches of travel on the front, this bike isn't ideal for tight, technical, steep, rocky trails, but if you want to cover a lot of ground quickly, like on a winding Forest Service road in Colorado, the Myka HT is a good fit for you.