By STEPHEN KRCMAR
Are bigger wheels on mountain bikes better? This question has been floating around the dirtmosphere unanswered for about a decade. Specifically, there are standard 26-inch mountain bike wheels and the more recent 29-inch variety.
Opponents scoff at the heavier, flex-ier 29-inch wheels. But proponents like Velo News technical writer Lennard Zinn feel otherwise. “The size is perfect for tall riders,” Zinn has written. “I have one myself.” (He is 6 foot, 6 inches tall.)
Zinn wrote this in 2002. He continued: “They make a tall bike look normally proportioned, they roll over obstacles way better, and, best of all, they improve the position for tall riders.”
I came to many of these same conclusions after putting a few months on Kona’s King Kahuna (www.konaworld.com), the flagship bike in Kona’s 29-inch hard-tail line. Retailing for $2,299, it’s light and complete with a solid parts group. It’s my first 29er, and like all firsts worth waiting for, I have almost nothing but good things to say about it.
Although I’m partial to steel, the King Kahuna’s butted scandium frame is stiff and light and feels lively and solid whether you’re railing into a turn or stranding up and honking out of one. The top tube and down tube are cube-shaped and make the rig look even more stout than most fat-tubed aluminum bikes.
Standing a hair over 6-foot-2, with a 33-inch inseam, the 19-inch Kona bike fits me perfectly. And the hard-tail fits my riding style, which errs on the side of speed rather than tech.
The bike handled just about everything I pointed it towards, whether it was an uphill-intensive Tuesday night XC race series I participate in, Mammoth’s legendary downhill Kamikaze course, or a four-hour ride with rolling hills.
The Fox F29 RL shock performs admirably. Spend a few minutes tweaking it to your preferences and forget about it from there — the shock handles big hits as well as the brake ruts that those pesky downhillers leave in their wakes.
Spec’d with a mix of SLX/XT/Kona-branded parts and a pinch of Deore (chain and cassette), the bike in my time so far has been virtually maintenance free. With hundreds of miles on the bike, I’ve only had to lube the chain. There’s not even been a brake or derailleur adjustment, and nary a spoke wrench has come near the FSA XC-290 wheelset that’s still true.
Is a 29er for you? You should definitely consider one if you’re in the neighborhood of 5-foot-10 or taller and you lean towards XC riding that’s anything but super, low-speed tech pedaling. (East Coast, off-camber, tech pedaling masochists, I’m looking in your direction.)
And for those in the 29-inch marketplace, the King Kahuna should be at the top of your list of bikes to test. If it’s a little too rich for your blood, the company sells a pared-down model, the Big Kahuna, for $1,499. The entry-level basic Kahuna is $999. Fat wheels at 29 inches around are included across the board.
–Based in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., Stephen Krcmar has written about cycling and gear for publications like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Outside magazine, and Bicycling. He has been mountain biking since the early ’90s and has managed numerous bike shops in New England.