Two weeks ago, one of our own did the unconscionable. After much teasing of bits and pieces on social media, the greatest mountain biker South Africa has – and likely ever will – produce did what many considered impossible. He introduced 29-inch wheels to the discipline most resistant to it. That category of our cycle sport where you need a full-face helmet.
Downhill racing remains the truest test of material quality and design survivability in all of cycling. If it works on the impossibly steep, near-apocalyptically technical courses of UCI Downhill World Cup racing, there can be no argument of a trend being mere ‘fashion’. Downhill has remained the last vestige of smaller diameter wheels and an environment forbidden to the 29er. Until now.
Of all downhill racing teams who could, it was always most obvious who would. Santa Cruz’s Syndicate has captured the imagination of mountain biking over the last decade and if fans were going to gift anyone the generosity of judgement to debut a 29er downhill rig, it was them.
The Bus that Greg built
Campaigning the winningest bike in downhill racing history (the ever-evolving V10), the 2017 World Cup opening round in Lourdes, France, saw Greg Minnaar and his teammates on a 29ers. Neutral observers noted it as an inevitability of evolution. A triumph of scientific method and mechanical engineering principles: bigger wheels roll faster, calming trail chaos – and in the category of mountain biking where winning requires wheels to calm outrageously technical trails, 29 downhill bikes were predictable.
Component scarcity and frame packaging were the historical issues preventing 29ers on the chairlift. Fox’s appropriately sized dual-crown 29er fork and committed component reengineering from suppliers enabled Greg’s titanic V10. A massive downhill sled with no less than 1300mm between the axles.
For Minnaar, the V10 29er is a unicorn of his youth turned to reality. Greg’s career is a staggering palmarès of achievement, but for the first time, after nearly two decades of downhill racing, 2017 is the year he’s riding a bike which finally fits him properly. An unusually tall rider (1.9m), Minnaar has quested after longer, larger bikes for years, forcing Santa Cruz to engineer custom frames to his requirements. Finally, he can now bolt-through wheels which are proportional to his skill and size.
Tall downhill riders have yearned for 29er frames, but none had the power of persuasion to influence an industry into supplying the required components and framesets. Minnaar’s power of persuasion is simple: he wins. When he requires something, it’s not for fashion, it’s for function. There is a tremendous clarity of purpose about his limousine wheelbase V10.
After the first downhill World Cup of 2017, we do know that these 29er downhill bikes from Santa Cruz are plenty fast. And they’re not only fast when being piloted by someone of Minnaar’s size and leverage strength. His two young teammates, Loris Vergier and Luca Shaw, resemble the physiology of Tour de France climbing specialists, yet they were even quicker than Greg during qualifying. Vergier first, Shaw third and the great man timed through in sixth.
Of course, we all know the inclement weather in Lourdes ruined any closure concerning the actual race pace of these 29er downhill bikes, but there were no rim failures in qualifying. Or the race. The worst fail being a flat for Greg during qualifying.
What 29 downhill bikes mean for the rest of us?
The market for 29er downhill bikes will remain very small. A true example of that marketing phrase we often use without consideration: niche.
What these 29-inch downhill bikes will mean for the greater mountain bike community, is quite a bit more significant.
Nothing validates product strength and design integrity quite like downhill. If Greg can’t break it, you surely won’t even trouble the warranty department - ever. And whilst Fox 40 forks are hardly going on your next 29er trail bike, the real benefit for tall (and heavy) stage racers and Enduro riders alike, will be immensely improved wheels and tyres.
Larger diameter wheels flex more. They have greater susceptibility to buckling. In World Cup downhill racing those characteristics are intolerable. Rim suppliers, and the tyre brands who collaborate with them, are now poised to produce products capable of withstanding a calibre of rider abuse you could never replicate – in the diameter you ride.
For those larger riders who compete at South African stage races, courageously training with great intensity but destined to remain 100kg+ riders no matter how diligently they Bant, the promise of 29er rims capable of withstanding Greg at full gas will be tremendously heartening. What Minnaar subjects a wheel to during a weekend of downhill racing, is certainly equal to years of regular use.
If you are a former competitive rugby player, with the knee problems to prove it, and have discovered the allure of mountain biking, 29er DH bikes are going to make your trail riding and stage racing experience greatly more enjoyable. How? By providing wheels and tyres which won’t prejudice their performance or longevity due to your size or weight.
It’s all courtesy of that great man we never quite sufficiently credit for being so effortlessly calculated, technically astute and ridiculously fast. The greatest of all time. Greg. The boy who was born to race 29ers. And has had to wait a very long time to.