Size Matters

Big-wheel bikes gain momentum

Jul 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
What if everything we knew about mountain-bike geometry was wrong? For years, a small cadre of boutique builders has argued just that: Off-road wheels should be 29 inches—the size used on cyclocross bikes—rather than the ubiquitous 26. While the number of so-called big-wheel rigs sold annually by smaller, high-end outfits such as Willits, Moots, and Vicious ranks only in the double digits, a certain off-road industry potentate with pull at one of the nation's largest bike companies is set to change all that.

In recent months, Gary Fisher, the president of Trek's Gary Fisher Bikes division, has been testing a big-wheel prototype near his Marin County, California, home. "If it is faster in some [types of terrain], then we'll just make a few models," Fisher says. "If it is faster in enough places, we will plan the demise of the 26-inch wheel."

That's sweet music to the big-wheel crowd. For years they've argued that their bikes ride smoother, climb over roots easier, and—because more rubber meets the road—grip like barnacles. And, gushes Mountain Bike Hall of Fame codirector Don Cooke,"as soon as you start riding downhill, these wheels instantly go to speed—they wanna roll, fast and true."

Of course, not everyone is sold. "It is a last gasp of some out-of-touch people who are trying to move the market in a direction that it has no intention of going," says GT Bicycles marketing manager and 25-year industry veteran Bob Hadley. Hadley says he has seen the future of off-road biking, and it lies in the aerial acrobatics of European dirt jumping. "If you run a big wheel and try to do that, the wheel collapses," he notes. Other knocks against big-wheel rigs are that short riders find the frames ungainly and that large-circumference wheels perform poorly on hairpin singletrack because they require more work to get up to speed.

Big-wheelers clearly have their work cut out for them. It's going to take a full-fledged grassroots movement to break the hegemony of the 26-inch wheel—a vestige of Schwinn kiddie bikes, they sniff. But with Fisher contemplating a few models for 2002, the paradigm may be on the verge of a sizable shift. "The big wheel is something we all know about. It is legendary," says Wes Williams, owner of Willits Brand Bicycles. "But elsewhere it is a brand-new concept. And it is hard to change things."