Rider Question - New Bike - Carbon & Wheel Size?

It's been a pretty busy August with Instruction and we're getting a lot of questions from students.   We are regulalry asked, "Should I get a new bike?" and "What should I look for in a new bike?". 

Bike tech has changed a lot in the last 10 years.  Almost nobody ran dropper posts 5 years ago, and now we have multiple confusing wheel and tire sizes, and a resurgence in hardtails designed for hard riding.  I'm still riding 26" wheels, but I am looking for a new machine.

There really is no RIGHT answer.  But you can learn about things and decide for yourself.


Rider Question:

If you don't mind, I do have some more questions, especially given your familiarity with the trails that I'd be riding :)

Carbon vs aluminum.
If I was looking at full suspension (or fat bike) is it worth the extra investment to go with a carbon frame?  I kinda understand the notion on snow in that it might be easier to stay on the top of the snow courtesy of the reduced weight (if I can justify the increased investment), and snow seems a little more forgiving in terms of impacts to the frame so I wouldn't have to be as worried about how well carbon can hold up (not sure if this is a legit concern at all).  For a summer-oriented full suspension at a place like SMH, these considerations are not as obvious to me.  Note I'd like to have a more honed skill set under my belt by the time it comes to pull the trigger, as I know my current abilities would not justify anything beyond aluminum :)

Wheel size.
One thing I seem to be noticing is that, though my 27.5" x 2.8" tires give me lots of cushioning, I don't see a lot of trail bikes with tires this wide.  And I have seen recommendations that people practice with narrower tires to help build their skill set.  Then on top of this I see that some of the more expensive trail bikes come with 29" tires  Is there an ideal tire size for me to be learning with on my hardtail?

G - Ottawa, South March Highlands


What does Mike say?

To carbon or not to carbon?
Can you afford carbon? If yes, then there are some benefits (generally): slightly reduced weight, and stiffness where it adds performance (so they say).   For a dynamic structure such as a full squish bike, stiffness and ride quality have a lot more to do with the design of the system linkages and pivots in my opinion.  Every full-suspension bike rides differently and has tradeoffs built into it.  At the extremes of suspension, you have 100mm travel XC bikes which have limited travel but are still efficient for racing and climbing, and 220mm travel downhill (DH) bikes with lots of travel which are not intended for climbing at all.  Frame materials may enhance certain qualities of any bike design, but an intermediate rider may never notice.  For most of the riding I do in Ottawa-Gatineau, I'd say a 150mm trail bike is the sweet spot for travel.  The tradeoff are better overall climbing and efficiency with 150mm versus greater speed and control on rough trails with 160mm.

For a hardtail, carbon can feel pretty nice being light and stiff.  For a full suspension bike I think it matters much less.  Most of the instructors I've met from Whistler ride aluminum bikes because they say don’t trust carbon not to crack on a crash.  Cracked carbon is toast.  Dented aluminum is just dented and not usually a problem for strength and long-term durability.  My 2006 Santa Cruz Nomad has been dented since 2008 with no perceptible change in performance.

Do you need a carbon fatbike in winter?  Not necessarily.  I ride an XL 9:ZERO:7 aluminum fatbike with aluminum wheels with 5” tires and I can climb pretty much everything in Gatineau Park.  I ride it all summer too with a Manitou Mastodon fork and it is a nice change from full squish sometimes.  The lighter weight of the Panorama Chic-Chock fatbike I rode on my bikepack trip through Charlevoix last summer was nice, but Sandra rode her 9:ZERO:7 aluminum fatbike and cleared most of the huge climbs I did too.  Maybe the engine is more important than the paint job?

Just like buying a car, I suggest you set a budget and stick to it.  Test drive in your range and decide what you like.  Then ride it like it's your last bike. 

Tire Size?
2.8” tires provide a MASSIVE amount of traction, flotation and great cushioning (free suspension) and are fantastic for some riders.   Full suspension bikes provide traction via suspension, so you can use narrower tires which have less rolling resistance, less weight and can allow for more angulation and cornering traction.  Can you combine both?  Sure, but you add weight for traction and flotation which you generally don’t need.  (It’s nice for bikepacking).   2.6 tires are becoming a norm which is more than enough for trail riding.  2.35 tires are still the norm for most riding.  With respect to instruction and practice, larger 27.5" tires can help a lot with skills where traction is important like climbing and cornering.  I'm not sure there is any downside to learning on plus-sized tires.  4" and 5" Fatbike tires are quite a bit heavier so I wouldn't suggest doing your instruction on a fat bike, unless it was your primary mountain bike.  a solid base of fundamental stills will allow you to adapt to any bike and trail.

Wheel Size?
29” wheels have some advantage to rolling over things but make bike taller and more sluggish in my opinion.  Depending on how you want your bike to perform, you can try 27.5 too.   I’d say smaller is more versatile.  That said my next bike will probably be a 29” x 160mm rear travel because I can probably manhandle it to do what it want.  Try some different wheel sizes.  (Your 27.5+” is the equivalent diameter of 29” btw)

What About Geometry?
Most bike brands spend a lot of time and effort selling buyers on their specifications and component list, but the truth is, all the stuff above is not nearly as important as bike geometry.  You can put brand new components and carbon wheels on a 10 year old frame and see some improvements to your ride, but the frame is still going to be the same frame, based on the thinking and designs form 10 years ago.  Some of the old designs remain pretty good for a long time.  But things have changed and the industry is building a lot of cool bikes that are fun to ride.

Check out this article by ZEP Mountain Biking about bike geometry.  It has a lot of good information.  And I highly recommend talking with your local bike shops to find out their opinions on what their brands have to offer. 

ZEP Mythbusters: An Intro To Buying Bikes Based On Geometry 


Bikes I'm considering

The Kona Process 153 is available in 29 and 27.5 and in al and carbon.  I rode this at the spring Camp Fortune Demo Day and it seems like it will do anything and go anywhere fast and hard.  I know 4 people on Process bikes and they love them.  I might buy the 29”.  (Tall Tree, Full Cycle)

I haven’t tried it but I’m told by podium Enduro racer, Matt W. that the Norco sight is killer on downs.  My pal Christian L. rides a Norco Range and seems to be on another riding channel this season.  Both high on my list try. (Full Cycle, Rebec & Kroes)

I like Santa Cruz.  The new Bronson or Hightower LT are big and slick.  Mike McL. has been consistently crushing his own Strava records all season on the LT at Mont Ste. Marie and all over Gatineau park.  He was previously on a Pivot and says, "No comparison."  And SC bikes are very easy for home mechanics to work on. (Rebec & Kroes)

For great value, Trek’s Remedy series is tried and true with great suspension performance.  Trek's demo fleet manager, Taylor C. rides all kinds of bikes and raves that the Remedy feels and rides like a bike with 2" more travel. (Bushtukah)

I’d also like to try an Evil Reckoning and maybe Marin Wolf Ridge.  Joel and Pat from La Shop tell me that both bikes will change the way I ride.  They rode them at the recent Marin Wildside Enduro at VeloMSM.  Go big or stay home is how they roll in East Gatinaeu.  (Velo La Shop)

I probably can’t afford another Yeti, but Kent at the Phat Moose keeps threatening to order and XL and hang it in the shop because he knows that someone from the Tribe will take it home.  I wouldn't have to replace any clothing if I stick with an SB5.5.  (Phat Moose)

Now go ride bikes.