There are a lot of misconceptions about 29ers, but the fact that they don't accelerate as quickly as smaller wheels is not one of them. This is particularly true if you're talking about the wheel size's agonizingly slow crawl into acceptance.
First, it was like, "It'll never be viable for mountain bikes." When 29ers practically took over cross- country racing, we said, "Yeah, well, it'll never work on trail bikes, especially full-suspension ones." It did. Next, everyone said, "Okay, but it'll never work on downhill bikes." Ask Greg Minnaar, who piloted the first 29er to World Cup downhill victory this year, about the viability of the wheel size.
A lot of people are owed credit for the advancements that brought 29ers to where they are today, but it's possible none of it would've happened if one company hadn't taken a chance back in 1999. "WTB has always been a roll-the-dice kind of company," says co-founder Mark Slate, after I ask him if he did ROI calculations before committing to make the first commercially available 29er tire. I suspect if he had, the NanoRaptor 29 would not have been made.
Wes Williams, Bob Poor and Gary Fisher were among the first advocates of the wheel size, but the biggest roadblock was the lack of a proper 700c mountain bike tire. Someone who made tires needed convincing.
"Wes put a lot of personal energy into [the wheel size]. He brought a bike out and left it with us," Slate explains. "I rode it and thought, 'This is pretty cool.' Pretty cool?" That's it? Honestly, I was expecting the guy who pulled the trigger on making the first 29er tire to be more enthusiastic about that first ride. Slate goes on to talk about the trouble he had coaxing the bike though tight corners, and I'm thinking, so why on earth did he make the tire?
"But, yeah," he continues, "It was cool. I'm a pretty easy sell. I figured we could give it a try. It's just a tire mold—let's see what happens. There wasn't a lot of feeling inside WTB that, 'Wow, this is the next big thing.' It was more like, 'Eh, let's throw the dice,'" he says nonchalantly, as if tire molds grow on trees.
Gary Fisher was pushing for the Velociraptor tire pattern to be the first 29er, but that tread has a lot of big lugs and Slate thought they'd come out too heavy so he decided on using the lighter NanoRaptor pattern. The first sets rolled out in 1999 to tens of enthusiastic 29er converts. It would take another 10 years for 29ers to really catch on.
"It was a little disappointing," says Slate. "We had a bike at the Taipei Cycle show in 2001, two years after making the NanoRaptor 29, and literally nobody was interested. People just walked right by it."
He admits that it's cool to finally see such widespread acceptance. "I think it had to find its own life over time, and it has done that. With downhill, the clock can show it's really faster. I believe it will continue to prove itself as a viable—maybe the—choice."
But if he hadn't made that gamble back in '99, we might not have ever had the choice at all.