2 Wheel Fetish

29ers and Childlike Joy: A Belated Discovery

KHS 29er in Crownpoint, NM

Above: Wow, what a dramatic pose even for a 29er. Would you believe I rode it into that position? I didn't.


A good twelve or thirteen years after their general introduction, I finally got a 29er. It's a KHS single speed with Paragon Machine Works dropouts and a Surly Karate Monkey fork: utterly simple, no boing, just 2 cogs and 2 rings for 2 gear choices: a 36x16 for on road; and a 32 x20 for offroad. Complete it with a Salsa drop bar and stem (thanks, Raina), Tektro brake levers (thank you, Gavriel) and vee brakes, and platform--pinned pedals (thanks, Jorge!): you just hop on and ride, regardless of clothes, shoes, etcetera. 

I finally put it in its offroad gear, the 32x20 after using it in the 36x16 since I built it a few weeks ago. It still feels overgeared, but in the past months I've not been riding enough, so maybe it's just my legs that are weak or maybe it's the altitude. I've been doing little mini loops here in Crownpoint, New Mexico, at about 7000 or so feet above sea level, and despite my residual cold and resulting hacking cough, it's a complete blast. I sneak out of the office between classes and student appointments, hitting the dirt, practicing dropoffs, and seeing how steep run ups I can get up before the soft soil sucks in my back wheel to the degree that my legs and lugs bog down.

 This bike in this terrain is all about stealth and smarts, not speed, at least for my level of fitness: picking a line between medium sized rocks; aiming that 2.3 inch front tire off the lower part of the ledge before hitting the steep drop off; reading the soil so you avoid the clingy deep soft stuff and stay close to the dense pack where tires won't bog down. The simple frame and fork, the lack of any suspension except air in the tires make me rely on long-ago-learned but half-forgotten skills and only minimally on the bike, which is just a platform for exercising continuous somewhat informed judgments connecting soil color, rock size, ascent and descent angle and the line of both front and rear tire, all the while paying attention to that internal gauge that makes some risks fine, while others are too much for now. 

This is not to say that 29 inch tires don't handle terrain differently than do 26 inch ones: they do. They roll more easily over rough terrain so I worry less about their suddenly stopping rotation because of a medium sized rock or rut that I somehow missed as I chose a line.  In general I have a lot more experience with 26 inch knobbies, having ridden them for nearly 30 years now; and I convinced myself that part of the reason for building this bike was to see just what some love so very much about 29ers.  I tell myself that this bike is like a science experiment where you need to limit the number of variables. I've ridden single speed 26ers before, also featuring steel forks and no suspension at all (except of course fat tires, flexible knees, flexible elbows, and my ass as rear travel limit stop). This bike changes only the tire size; the rest is more or less the same. No doubt I'll someday, in a fit of pointless late capitalist consumerism, buy a 650B mountain bike frame, or convert one of my existing frames to such a purpose, since this seems (according to the experts over at Bicycling magazine) to be the coming "must have" in 2013 for a bunch of manufacturers, even though the initial effort at establishing this French touring bike tire size from the early 20th century as a new off road standard seemed to have flopped a few years ago. But given my usual retrogrouch-conservative time frame, I won't be ready to try 650B knobbies until about 2020 or so.

But that science experiment description above is to some extent a rationalization, even if partly true. I love riding this bike because it's a whole lot of fun. It makes me feel like a kid with a shiny new BMX bike on Christmas day, at the onset of a winter  warm spell. Those winding dirt roads and paths invite all kinds of exploring, all kinds of adventure. No shifting, no special clothes; just you, the bike, the dirt, and the magic that results.