The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Biking

The Wheel Wars Have Been Won

I’m sick of 26er fan boys hating on big wheels. You hear this spew all the time: “Twenty-niners aren’t quick. They’re not flickable. They can’t corner at all.”

Disregarding the fact that “flickable” is meaningless, Matt Hunter clearly demonstrates that 29-inch wheels are plenty agile. That shot of him going completely horizontal, burying his bars in the dirt while staying upright, shredding like 99.9 percent of us can’t shred? Yep, he rode it on a Specialized Enduro 29.

This footage, this mountain biking, this turn—it’s how we all wish we could ride. It’s the riding we dream of when we sleep. It’s veritable perfection.

And yet some haters have written it off. They’ve said that stunning, beautiful, arcing turn had nothing to do with the wheels but with the perfectly constructed radius of the berm. They’ve contended that you can see the 29-inch wheels flex in the video and argued that 26ers could have done it better. There’s even a thread out there asserting that the video is a hoax expressly because he’s riding big wheels.

The pigheadedness kills me.

A few months ago in Sedona, Arizona, I rode with an excellent rider, a friend of a friend, let’s call him Xavier. He was ripping fast, both uphill and downhill, and, incidentally, he was aboard a 26-inch Specialized Enduro. Twenty-six inch wheels are a disappearing breed*, so I enquired if he’d considered sizing up. Xavier’s reply was automatic, “You couldn’t make me ride a 29er. They’re awkward. Slow.” 

“Have you tried them?” I asked. Of course he had not. Dogma, it turns out, is as blind as it is resolute.

But there are rational people out there, too. I was back in Sedona last week and had the pleasure of riding with an old buddy of mine, Mike Raney, who owns Over The Edge Sedona, and his friend Nate Hill. Raney is an ex-downhill pro, and last year Hill won the overall at the Big Mountain Enduro. Both were riding 29ers, Raney on a Trek Fuel EX 29 and Hill aboard a Yeti SB-95 Carbon. And both charged the trails as if they were aboard motos.

Hill just got his SB-95 a month ago, and it’s his first foray on any wheel other than a 26er. “I’m sold,” he said. Will he race the big wheels this year? “Yes, depending on the race,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll still roll the 26er at some events. But I’m feeling fast on this bike, too. It will make for hard choices.”

That’s the thing. I’m not arguing for 29er supremacy. I don’t really care if you ride 26 or 650B or 29. Hell, if it makes you happy, get a 24-inch bike.

But if you’re one of those people who insists on disparaging 29ers , please stop acting like a stodgy, old curmudgeon and cut the grousing—at least until you’ve given it an open-minded try or three. Actually, even if you try them and hate them, just shut up and ride your 26er. Nobody cares about wheel size but you. 

*Most fork manufacturers have ceased tooling for 26-inch forks. Wheel builders, most notably Shimano, have abandoned the size in their new line-ups. And major bike manufacturers like Trek, Scott, and Giant have all but discontinued 26-inch bikes. If you’re a 26-inch devotee, now would be a good time to stock up.

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From Drug Addict to Ironman

In his new memoir, athlete and coach Shane Niemeyer opens up about his journey from a drug addict and convict to a top Ironman competitor. The Hurt Artist, co-written with Gary Brozek and set to release May 20th, reveals how Niemeyer’s suicide attempt in prison marked a personal turning point. Today, Niemeyer lives and trains in Boulder, Colorado, and has qualified for the Ironman World Championships four times. We talked to Niemeyer about his new book and life story.

OUTSIDE: Was it hard to open up about your past?
NIEMEYER: My past is my past. There are a lot of things I’m not proud of, but they happened. Going through the process with the writer, Gary Brozek, helped me examine my life in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. We talked for hours at a time. I was really open to him. If I were writing the book alone, I would have left some things out. It was painful.

How well could you remember the parts of your life when you were doing drugs?
There was a stretch of my life when the only way I could piece things together was through criminal justice and rehab records. I’d been to three different psych units and rehab four or five times. There was a two-inch file of documentation on just one psych institution I was in.

Why was your suicide attempt in prison a turning point for you?
At that point in my life, I had no hope. I had despair. To look at death by suicide as a viable solution is a really tough place. Having come through that crisis in tact really shook something inside of me. The only thing I had left coming through that was freedom, because I had nothing to lose. Before, I was afraid I’d be a failure. On the other side of that, there was a huge relief, and an emerging sense of hope and gratitude. I realized how lucky I’d been. I knew I needed to quit using drugs and alcohol.

What was it like to start physical training in prison?
Prison is a place to reform yourself. All you have is time. If you can use that time to your advantage, you can really create a new life. In the beginning of me working out, there were no facilities. I was really out of shape. My liver was still swollen. I was really toxic. I was overweight. It was hard in the beginning to walk up stairs.

How soon did you start to see a physical transformation?
In the beginning, progress is so fast because you’re not working from much. For my first workout, I did a few sets of six pushups and a few sets of sit-ups. It was something. The next workout, I did more. In four, five, six months I was lighter and much fitter.

Were you the only one training in prison?
There was definitely a group of inmates working out. I was probably more serious than most. I wanted to be more than fit. I’d developed an urgency that I needed to achieve something great.

Why did you choose Ironman training?
I think I took a very pragmatic approach to taking a new identity for myself. I needed to improve as a person. The physical part was crucial for a lot of reasons. I didn’t know what to do with my guilt and shame, and the exercise became an outlet for those emotions. It was like a release valve. I knew I needed to do something big to swing my life the other way. I wanted to channel my extreme behavior in another direction.

Do you think Ironman training appeals to you because it is another form of addiction?
Everyone who is a competitive cyclist or swimmer of runner is a little bit tweaked in the melon. Distance triathlons definitely suit people who are a little compulsive or imbalanced. Most well-rounded athletes do other things, and Ironman is pretty one-dimensional. I know a lot of elite athletes who freak out if they miss a workout. There’s an obsessive element to it. I try to avoid being too over the top, but if you only want one thing, to be successful you have to be one-dimensional.

How do you avoid fixating too much on your training?
A lot of athletes talk about themselves so much. My training and my workout. They lose touch with humanity and what’s going in the world. I try to make sure I follow the same process I did in prison. I try to stay in the present moment, be aware of what I’m doing, and be aware of others around me. I try to be compassionate. I read a lot and try to expose myself to new ideas.

How has your wife, triathlete Mandy McLane, helped you stay grounded?
She takes me down a couple of notches. She’s a professional athlete and one of the top women in the country, but she identifies herself as a speech and language pathologist first.

What were your biggest mistakes in starting Ironman training?
I read an article in prison that said pros going to Kona biked 280 miles a week, ran 50 miles a week, and swam seven days a week. I tried to jump onto that. I spent a lot of time over-trained. I still tend toward that at times. Another huge gap has been my lack of attention to detail in nutrition. If my caloric intake is off 20 percent, it impacts my entire day.

What was your first race like?
I raced a Half Ironman. It was very demoralizing. I didn’t realize I could have cramps like that. Everything locked up on me. That was five or six months out of prison. I didn’t realize how I could get to the point where I could finish a whole Ironman three months later.

Did you finish that Ironman?
The whole Ironman actually went a lot better. Crossing the finish line was a culmination of 14 months in prison, and all the training I did there. It meant I’d stuck with something, that I’d achieved something. I hadn’t achieved anything in so long.

What are your racing goals this year?
On [May 17] I race Ironman Texas. I want to go Top 15 and get my spot to Kona. I raced and qualified for the Half Ironman Championships a couple of weeks ago, so that is one box checked off.

How have you done at Kona in the four years you’ve gone?
I haven’t had a good race out there yet. I can be very insecure at times, wondering if I belong. I’ve been trying to work on my mental game. The heat also plays a role, and I’m trying to work on my nutrition.

Do you regret any part of your past?
I regret that I hurt people, my family, my community. I hurt society. You’re not making any contribution. The lying and the deception. Not being a good person.

Are you in a good space now?
I am definitely in a good place. My life is the way I envisioned it when I was in prison. My former life seems like a bad dream.

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The AAA Club for Cyclists

Trouble can strike at any minute on a long bike ride, and your contingency plan ought to involve more than just keeping a dollar handy to fix a flat (though you should probably teach yourself how to do that anyway).

Luckily for you, a handful of companies are bringing roadside-assistance services to road cyclists. After all, it's just as annoying to break down far from home on a bike as it is in a car.

Several regional AAA clubs have announced plans to outfit trucks with bike racks—just in time for Bike to Work Day on Friday. Members who find themselves with a bum bike can catch a ride back to civilization and get their bikes repaired.

This is a good idea with some obvious limitations. The trucks can’t access bike paths, so if your derailleur suddenly snaps off, you’ll have to make your way to the nearest real road for AAA help. Plus, options for roadside-assistance services are still slim and dependent on where you live—only six states have AAA clubs that offer bike services. Each club member receives two free calls per year, which some dedicated riders might complain isn’t enough.

But we’re happy to see more organizations looking out for cyclists in distress. Better World Club, another auto club that aims to support sustainable transportation, has offered bicycle roadside assistance since 2012. It's a fairly new offering in the U.S., but a potentially crucial tool for bike safety. "When we talk to cyclists about why they don't ride more often, being stranded is right up there in the key reasons," says Kate Powlison, marketing manager at People for Bikes.

Flaws and all, this month alone we've seen three AAA clubs in six states jump on the bike-assistance bandwagon. Maybe one day you won't have to worry about getting stranded with an unexpected mechanical ever again. Just remember: this isn’t an excuse to leave your flat kit and multitool at home.

For now, here's a breakdown of available services.


Cost: Free, but you'll need an AAA membership, which starts at $15 a year.

What You Get: Call the number on your AAA card and a service vehicle will meet you on any "normally travelled road." If the truck driver can't repair your bike, they'll take you to a repair shop or home for free. You do have to stay within a limited radius, which varies by state but is usually around 10 miles. After that, you’ll have to shell out for the extra distance.

Fine Print: Not all AAA clubs offer this. So far, the list of covered states includes Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington. You also have to have broken down in the state your AAA club covers. And you're only allowed two free pickups a year.

Better World Club

Cost: $39.95 a year, or an extra $17 if you want to add it to an auto membership.

What You Get: Transportation for you and your bike for up to 30 miles for free. If you ask, the service provider who comes for you can bring a spare tire or other basic tools, and you can get reimbursed up to $50 if you have to call a service to unlock your bike. Better World Club services are available everywhere and you don't need to deal with regional clubs. 

Fine Print: You only get two free service calls a year.

Cost: The annual premium starts at $100.
What You Get: Velosurance is a full bike insurance company, so your plan comes with more than just roadside assistance, such as complete cost replacement for anything from failed wheels to a broken frame. 
Fine Print: Not available in Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, or Wyoming


Cost: The annual premium starts at $100.

What You Get: Velosurance is a full bike-insurance company, so your plan comes with more than just roadside assistance. For example, coverage plans will reimburse you if your bike is broken or stolen.  

Fine Print: Not available in Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, or Wyoming.

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Building a Better Lid

Helmets used to be unwieldy chunks of foam that did little more than protect your noggin. But as manufacturers pour money into R&D, they’re getting lighter, more aerodynamic, and safer. Some even include smart electronic functionality. Now if only someone would design one that didn't make you look like a bobblehead.

Future Foams

Helmet maker Kali Protectives bonds a layer of low-density, pyramid-shaped foam to an outer layer of harder foam. On impact, the cones compress and transfer the energy of the crash away from your skull. Inside the shell, memory-style foam improves fit and feel.

Crash Sensors

When an ICEdot sensor detects a critical impact, it notifies your emergency contacts and relays your GPS coordinates via your phone. It also acts as an electronic dog tag, giving first responders access to your medical history. The ICEdot can be attached to any helmet. POC’s Octal comes with an integrated mounting clip.

Heart-Rate Monitors

Built using technology developed for astronauts, a new breed of helmets will embed a heart-rate monitor into the retention system and collect data from your forehead. The forthcoming Lazer Lifebeam Smart will include Bluetooth and Ant+ protocols to beam the info to your cycling computer.

Rotating Shells

By separating the outer and inner liner with a layer of plastic, MIPS (multidirec­tional impact protection system) is the first helmet technology specifically designed to address rotational forces. It allows the shell to move independently, absorbing up to 50 percent of rotational acceleration. Lazer, POC, and Scott all have MIPS models.

Integrated Accessories

More and more models, like Bell’s Super and Smith’s Forefront, have built-in GoPro mounts. Giro’s Air Attack has integrated sunglasses that affix to the helmet with magnets, an option that’s also available on any Lazer helmet. And the Torch T1 has rechargeable lights embedded in the shell.

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