I have been riding the Nail Trail 29er for the last 5 months, and want to offer my opinion of the bike. I know that for some, the allure of riding the big wheeled bike has been amazing. There are many, however, that have not taken the plunge. I would like to remedy that by offering what I hope is an interesting review of Marin’s flagship 29 inch wheeled bike.
After riding a 26 inch wheeled bike for so many years, the 29er seems strange. How can bigger wheels really make a difference? Why does the bike ride so very differently? And lastly, can I get a tube that size?
We all know the reasons for NOT riding a 29er, but let’s list them anyway. 1. Big wheels must be slower. 2. Must handle slowly, or turn sluggishly. 3. Gotta be a fad, no one’s gonna ride these in two years, then I’ll be stuck with this thing, like the betamax or a palm pilot.
At first, I am sure that 29ers were just regular 26 inch bikes with extra clearance, so people stuck the 29 inch wheels in the drops and, viola, there was a 29er. Then, manufacturers just enlarged a frame so that they could fit 29 inch wheels into any bike. Now, 29ers are built and engineered from the ground up to take advantage of the benefits of the big wheels. Today, there are many companies that have a fleet of 29ers and many companies just built around the big bikes. Marin offers four different 29 variations, with more to come. I ride the Nail Trail 29er, which is their best spec’ed offering.
Looking at the bike, you can see the differences, but you have to look closely. If I put the Nail Trail in a stand near the window, with no other bikes around it, you can’t tell visually that the bike is different from a 26. It all looks proportional, even though I ride a 20.5″ model. The wheels don’t look like they are on a jacked up 76 Chevy truck, or 20’s on a Camaro. The bike has a visual distinction, but it isn’t out of place. The bike flows very well, and the top tube curves gracefully away from the handlebars and joins the seat tube for a comfortable stand over height. The seat stays and chain stays are attractive as well, they are built of tubing, but squared up, something that Marin calls E4 antiflex chain and seat stays. The downtube is huge where it butts up against the head tube and amazingly wide at the bottom bracket junction. Read more about this here: frame technology
One great thing about the bike is that you feel like you are in the bike, not on it. You really have the ride one to understand this. The axles are higher than the bottom bracket, so your center of gravity is lower on the bike, but you still have incredible ground clearance. You kind of sit down in the bike, not on top of it. Next, the wheels are taller, so you increase you angle of attack. Liken it to this, which would have more momentum? Rolling a tennis ball over a speed bump, or rolling a basketball over the same speed bump? The basketball hits the bump higher up, so it continues to roll, keeping the momentum as it goes over the bump. No longer do you have to pick and choose your line as you rip down the trail, you can just go over things more easily. Stutter bumps and roots no longer stop you in your tracks, you just flow over them.
Another thing about these big wheels– with some simple math, a 26 inch wheel has a circumference of about 81 inches. The circumference of a 29 inch wheel is 91 inches. Wow. That means for every pedal stroke, you gain 10 inches of travel on your smaller buddies. (You get the idea, you go further using the same energy.) So, now you get to go further and keep your momentum, which means you will be faster.
Let’s now talk about turning the big beast. The bigger wheel will indeed cause you to turn more slowly, since the larger tire will increase your turning radius. The Nail Trail 29er has a very fast 71.5 degree head tube angle. Now the rocket science. The steeper the head tube angle, the faster you can turn the bike. So, the bigger the number, the faster your bike turns. (Ceteris peribus. I love Latin.) It feels snappy in the turns. Out at Tsali, on the fast, banked turns, the bike carves! It really amazes me and other people at how quickly the bike changes direction. It doesn’t plow into the corners, you just point it, and it flows along. Like water in a chute. It just goes in the right direction. It never feels like you’ll slide out or go through the turn. That might also have something to do with the center of gravity thing, but mostly, the bike actually goes where you point it, and quickly.
Last wacky notion we have to dispel- That this is just a fad. I liked my palm pilot. Thought it was a cool idea. Just never liked having to put that much information into it so that I could use it to remind me of all the things I just put into it. I like my 29er. I like that it is different, and I like that it makes me a better rider. Could it be a fad? Well, my friend Mac Brown tells me that when he was adventure racing back in the late 70s and 80s, he and his buddies were cutting up road bike wheels and making them into 29er wheels, cause they knew they were faster. That nattily attired Gary Fisher has been making 29 inch bikes for how long? 20 years? Maybe more. Fad? I think NOT!
I suspect there are many places where the 29er won’t work so well. First, on steep climbs. The gearing isn’t right. If you use a gear calculator, you will find out that when you ride a 29 inch wheel with a 34 tooth cog, you are the same as riding a 26 inch wheel with a 32 tooth cog. You turn the extra circumference at the same speed. So, to fix this, you either need to get stronger, or you have to find Shimano’s newest invention, the 12-36 29er cassette. This will give you the same gearing speed as you had on your 26 inch bike. The second place there might be a problem is on tight switchbacks. Sorry, can’t help you there. Get better balance, or something. But, with the new cassette, you can accelerate out of the turns just as quickly.
The bike has been great to date. Marin has a lifetime warranty on the frame; if you break it, just send it back and they replace it. Which is good, since my first frame failed. No worries, Marin said I was the first to break one. I ride pretty tame, no more racing down boulder strewn mountains or 6 foot gaps. Just mostly cross country riding, a little of the all mountain up and down, but nothing too taxing. The components are worthly of a high priced steed. The cranks are Shimano Hollowtech II, the brakes are SLX, the rear derailleur is an XT. The front fork is a Fox R. Let me tell you, a Fox fork is worth every penny. Soaks up the bumps so well, it’s like they aren’t even there. The wheelset leaves me scratching my head, though. A rather unflattering set of WTB laserdisc 29s on Shimano hubs. I blew out the back wheels within 2 months. I actually downgraded to a lower priced WTB wheel while trying to decide on new wheels, and it works better. No truing, no floppy spokes. Maybe a bit heavier, but really, not much.
Marin added something pretty cool to the new 2010 version- an integrated headset. I like the thought of this, since it spreads the stress of all things turning related out over a larger area in the head tube. Should make the beast more sturdy. I don’t know about it, since I am still riding my 2009. I would love to ride this bike with a 20mm through axle or a Maxle, something else to reduce the wiggle in the front forks. But, I am a big dude, so I guess it might not bother a lighter weight rider.
I love my bike. It does make me a better rider. It handles great, it feels great, and it looks good doing it. It’s fast, it gets over bumps with less effort, and I feel very secure on it. Try one out at our shop. In the spring we’ll have a whole fleet of them for you to ride, or just trust me and buy one. You won’t regret it.