On my last 2 rides I used bikes with 29” then 27.5” wheels. For comparison, today, I chose to ride one of my classic mountain bikes which has old school 26” wheels. This is the wheel size used in the embryonic Californian scene which developed into mountain biking as we now know it. I rode my 2004 Whyte JW4 today, partly to compare the wheels and tyres to modern, larger sizes and also to makes sure the bike was running well in case I can ride the 47 mile ride which I’d hoped to do last Friday. I had to call off the long ride because of the rain.
I wanted to ride the same descents on our local hill, Healey Nab, but also do a trail ride. I started through Duxbury Woods where I’d walked my dog, Freddie, earlier. The ground has dried up well, especially in open areas. There’s still some mud under the trees. I rode 3 laps of a short but exciting circuit just after I entered the woodland to get the feel of a different bike. The JW4 rides higher than modern bikes from the last 5 years or so and the front wheel feels tucked up under your handlebars rather than being out in front of you. This is the way that bikes have been going and it’s like a mantra to the mountain bike press. “Longer, lower, slacker!” The wheelbase of bikes is longer, the bottom bracket, where the pedal cranks attach to the frame, is lower to the ground and the angle of the steering head is less steep, pushing the front wheel out in front of you. It’s all about making bikes more stable and the theory works. You’re far less likely to go over the handlebars on a modern bike and the ride is smoother. The down sides are that you clip your pedals on the ground, especially on rocks, far more often. The steering on tightly twisting track is not as fast and retro fanatics will tell you that older bikes are more exciting to ride.
On my 3 short laps I ran off line on the main corner on lap 1. By lap 2 I was getting used to the bike and felt it slither a little on the fast left had corner. On lap 3 I went a bit faster and found the limit of grip. The front wheel slid briefly but with my extended left foot tappng the ground I had a big rear wheel slide. The tyre vibrated the whole bike as it slid. This could have been caused by too much tyre pressure or a badly set up shock absorber. When I stopped I turned the damping down a couple of clicks.
After Duxbury Woods I rode through an open field and stretch of woodland to Ellerbeck, a former coal mine. Here I tried a downhill segment which was an old favourite but today, under the trees, it was too muddy to enjoy so I rode a few more miles of mixed trail to Healey Nab. The 26” wheels were unable to offer the same level of grip which I’d got from the bigger wheel size on the last 2 rides. There’s no doubt that it’s thrilling to try to achieve the same speeds by riding far closer to the limit of performance but I’m sure that accidents are more likely on such a bike. I had a couple of big slides which I wouldn’t have expected on a more modern bike and it was certainly harder to keep the bike accurately on line. The app. Strava informed me later that my times for the downhills on my 2 laps were very much the same as I’d managed on the other bikes. It’s just harder work but I do love the excitement.
I’m trying to find a way to ride the 47 mile Mary Towneley Loop on Sunday. I’ll have to start negotiations with my wife if the weather is due to hold!