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26er Versus 29er: The Shootout You’ve Been Asking For

January 24, 2014
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The most frequently requested shootout is a 26-inch-wheeled bike versus a 29-inch-wheeled bike. The opportunity to do such a shootout presented itself when Cannondale Bicycles graciously supplied us with two mid-priced aluminum hardtails that sell for the same suggested retail of $1069. Why offer two bikes at the exact same price? Because the Cannondale Trail SL 2 has 26-inch wheels and the Trail SL 2 29er sports larger-diameter 29-inch wheels.


WHO ARE THEY MADE FOR?
Both bikes are made for the exact same rider. They are basic trailbikes with hardtail frames, short-travel front suspension and proven components. They would be just as much at home on the singletrack of Crested Butte and the serpentine trails of Gooseberry Mesa as they would navigating an urban park’s paths or rails-to-trails networks.

WHAT ARE THEY MADE FROM?
Both models are traditional, double-triangle, aluminum frames. They are manufactured using Cannondale’s double-pass welding technique, which leaves the frame tube junctions coated with a smooth, beadless finish. The 29er’s sloped top tube meets the seat stay so closely that it almost looks like a single tube. Both bikes have 1.5-inch head tubes which means they can accept traditional or Cannondale Lefty forks. The chainstays start out from the bottom bracket ovalized and are swaged almost flat about halfway to the dropouts. This tube treatment, called SAVE by Cannondale, is supposed to strengthen lateral stiffness while offering a degree of vertical flex for a more compliant ride.

WHICH COMPONENTS STAND OUT?

Scanning down the spec chart you will see that these two medium-sized bikes are nearly identical as far as components are concerned. The 26er gets a RockShox Recon fork, while the 29er gets an RST Deuce 29, but both are air sprung and offer external rebound adjustment with some type of external platform/lockout adjustment. You get hydraulic disc brakes, Shimano Rapidfire shift levers for their 3×9 drivetrains, replaceable derailleur hangers, wide handlebars, lock-on grips and racy Kenda Small Block 8 tires.


Cannondale Trail SL 2 with 26-inch wheels.

HOW DO THEY PERFORM?
One of the best reasons to buy either of these bikes is simplicity. Set the fork so that it has 20-percent sag; start with the fork rebound in the center position; adjust your saddle height; check the tires’ air pressures (we set both at 32 psi), and you are set to go. And you only have to do this on the first ride. After that, tire pressure is your only worry.

RIDER POSITION
Trail SL 2: This frame will accommodate proportionally sized riders of up to 5 feet 9 inches. The wide bars are welcome and can be trimmed if that is your preference. Rider weight is positioned well rearward, almost to the point where you feel centered over the rear wheel. The bottom-bracket height feels low before you even hit the trail.
Trail SL 29 2: While the top tube is a mere half-inch longer, the SL 29 will fit a rider a few inches taller more comfortably than the SL 2. While the bar heights on many 29ers feel high, we didn’t even need to invert the stem on our SL 29er because it felt right. Yes, the bar is higher, but it didn’t feel awkward. The SL 29er rider sits in the bike, instead of on top of it, and rider weight feels centered between the wheels. The bottom-bracket height feels just as low as the SL 2? maybe even a tad lower, although it measures higher from the ground to the center of the bottom bracket.

RIDING ALONG
Trail SL 2: The SL 2 shoots down the trail like it would rather be on a racecourse. The wide bars, rigid frame and reliable Shimano drivetrain combine to translate all your legs’ wattage into forward momentum. It accelerates hard while requiring the rider to choose the smoothest line and one with adequate traction. This isn’t a problem, though, because this bike moves around quickly and with agility. The SL 2 rider feels totally in touch with the trail surface’sometimes a little too in touch. There is no cruising along in the saddle over bumpy terrain. The rider must get out of the saddle or suffer a pounding from the rear end. That same rear end, however, makes pumping the trail a delight. Use its rigidity to gain momentum on any size dip or bump.
Trail SL 29 2: The 29er doesn’t jackrabbit out of the gate, but it is far from sluggish. The rider pushes a slightly higher gear across the range, and the increased wheel weight means it will take more effort to get up to cruising speed from a dead stop, but once up to a comfortable pace, the SL 29 holds its momentum far better than the SL 2. Rocks and roots that needed to be avoided on the SL 2 can be ridden over on the SL 29. We are not talking about a subtle difference. We’re talking night and day. Beginners and experienced riders could both feel the smoother ride performance of the SL 29 immediately. “I’m not working as hard to maintain my speed,” commented one crewer. However, that smoother ride comes at the price of a more muffled rider-to-trail experience. Pumping whoops results in a dead feel with little noticeable forward momentum.


Cannondale Trail SL 29 2 with 29-inch wheels.

CORNERING
Trail SL 2: The tighter the better. This is a bike that loves to be flicked around and responds to rider input with a confidence that is only limited by the trail surface and the small-knobbed cross-country race tires. Aside from its quick handling, the way this bike accelerates lends itself to tight and twisty trails where you won’t burn off as much energy getting back up to speed as you would on the 29er.
Trail SL 29 2: The long wheelbase and larger-diameter wheels slow cornering performance, but we have to make it clear that the bike doesn’t come close to feeling sluggish or clumsy?far from it. The additional bite of the tires allows a rider to speed up cornering performance by getting out of the saddle and using exaggerated body English to tuck the bike into tighter corners.

CLIMBING
Trail SL 2: It doesn’t take a lot to break the rear tire loose on a steep climb even in the saddle, and out of the saddle one requires true rider finesse to maintain traction. The rider needs to keep his torso low to the bar to keep the front end from popping up. Where the SL 2 excels is on climbs that require a series of efforts to clear steeper sections. The bike’s lighter weight and better acceleration allow the rider to attack steep sections aggressively. You don’t have to work up these sections; you blast over them.
Trail SL 29 2: Although almost 2 pounds heavier, the 29er has a lot of advantages going uphill. First, it can enter a climb with more momentum. A series of rolling hills that required some effort aboard the SL 2 were easy to clear aboard the 29er. Steep climbs didn’t require the rider to stay seated or even move forward. Getting out of the saddle and remaining neutral between the wheels worked just fine. The longer wheelbase seems to drive the rear wheel into the ground on the climbs. The SL 29 gets a 36-tooth cog on the rear cassette (the SL 2 has a 34) that works fine for extended climbs in the saddle. If you do lose all forward momentum, however, it takes more effort to get the SL 29 back up to a climbing pace.

BRAKING
Trail SL 2:
Both bikes had the same brakes with identical rotors, but the SL 2’s stopping performance felt far stronger than the 29ers. It was easier to lock the rear tire, so the rider had to take full advantage of the brake’s defined modulation to squeeze in just the right amount of lever pressure.
Trail SL 29 2: The brakes felt underpowered on the 29er, and locking the rear wheel took slippery trail conditions or a total lack of braking skills. A rider could grab a handful of front brake without any fear of losing control.

DESCENDING
Trail SL 2: The fork performance, braking power and quick handling help the rider pick the smoothest line down the trail. That quick handling hinders stability, however, making the SL 2’s downhill skills only as good as the skills and bravado of its rider. Even the SAVE chainstays can’t protect the rider from the hits the rear end delivers, especially if the rider hits something solid. The rider must be in attack mode (out of the saddle with knees and elbows bent).
Trail SL 29 2: “This feels like a hardtail downhill bike,” said one crewer after his first descent on the SL 29. The bike offers a far more stable ride on fast descents, making it harder to make a mistake. The fork never felt like it was getting full travel, but the zip tie on the stanchion tube proved otherwise. Rain ruts that had to be skirted on the 26er could be plowed through on the 29er. You couldn’t sit in the saddle, but you could be more relaxed than when on the 26er.


TRICKS, UPGRADES OR TIPS?
Trail SL 2: This bike, delivered with platform pedals, deserves to have clipless pedals threaded into its crankarms. We’d throw a more aggressive trailbike tire on the front wheel (like a Kenda Nevegal or Specialized The Captain) once the Small Block 8 wears out. You could also consider converting the wheels to tubeless, especially if you suffer a lot of pinch flats.
Trail SL 29 2: Just like the SL 2, this bike deserves to have clipless pedals. The tires are perfect, but you might consider converting the wheels to tubeless to save a little weight and guard against pinch flats. If your downhilling skills are well honed, you could consider a larger-diameter front brake rotor if you find yourself bottoming your brake lever into the grip too often. The rebound adjustment on the RST fork is knurled, but we couldn’t get it to budge by hand. We had to use an Allen wrench to make adjustments, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes it less likely that your ideal setting will get switched by accident.

THE SHOOTOUT WINNER

There is nothing we loathe more than “they all do an excellent job” at the end of any shootout. We rode these two bikes back-to-back with one goal in mind: If we were walking into a bike shop with $1069 in hand, which of these two bikes would we pick? And while we are comparing two Cannondales here, after our time on the bikes, we are confident that our recommendation can be applied to the universe of hardtail mountain bikes.

The Cannondale Trail SL 29 2 is our winner for two reasons. If you are new to mountain biking, the Trail SL 29 2 is the runaway winner. It is not even a close race. The 29er does not require the skill set that a 26er rider has to develop to have a good time. The wheels make for a far more forgiving bike and slow up the handling enough to make it harder to make a mistake. Experienced riders will have a tough time giving up their 26ers, because once you have developed the skills, the 26er is a lot more fun to ride. It responds to pumping the trail; it springs out of G-out situations; it bunny hops subconsciously, and it dances around the trail like a puppy let off its leash.

Our analogy is like surfing on a longboard versus a shortboard. The longboard floats the surfer better, is easier to paddle into the wave, and turns slower but with more stability. Once a surfer builds his skill, he is more likely to go to shorter boards that are harder to get into the wave and more skittish but far more fun.

The experienced rider will have more trouble deciding between the two. One of the wrecking crew noted, “29ers do all the boring parts of mountain biking better than the 26er, while the 26er makes the most of the fun.” Another wrote that the 26er was “…more fun and in touch with the trail.” But when pushed, both riders chose the 29er. Why? Because you have to take all the different trails you ride and factor in the amount of time spent “shredding” versus the amount of time spent JRA (just riding along). If the JRA percentage is as high on your rides as it is on ours, get the SL 29 2.

Dig this shootout? It was reprinted from the March 2011 issue of Mountain Bike Action Magazine. Every month (we have 12 issues a year because we never take a month off) contains bike tests, product tests and everything related to mountain biking. You can start a subscription by clicking here.

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