Is 26″ finally dead?

Yes, it’s that time again. It’s the ‘clip show’ of bike articles. It’s the the question on nobody’s lips. Is 26″ finally dead?

TLDR: No… yes…. maybe.

So it’s been a little while since I’ve been on knobbly tyres since Ard Moors left me truly ruined for a few weeks. I decided after my body and bike took repeated beatings that I’d give both a little bit of time off, and rightly so. The Starling’s still up on blocks after discovering yet another dead bearing and seized bolt after a slightly more thorough check-over, and given I’d fobbed off the previous weeks’ ride with a sore head, I’d run out of excuses. No dramas, I’ll just take the little Surge out for a spin.

The Surge for me embodies the hardcore hardtail beloved to many a UK rider; after earning their chops on the likes of the 456 and Ragley Bluepig, many sought to rekindle that love that brought them to mountain biking in the first place. It’s nearly always as a second bike, so of course the build has to be cheap, cheerful, and undoubtedly steel. This for many means harking back to good old 26″ wheels and whatever drivetrain bits you’ve got cluttering the garage. This essentially describes my journey into ownership of the NS Surge albeit with a view to finally getting airborne and nailing those 20ft doubles. Note: I still can’t jump.

I will state outright for the record, I do love my hardtails. Where the full squish screams business, the hardtail screams of stupidity and a sore coccyx, so it’s worth noting that I don’t believe many (if any) of the downfalls of the ride were down to the rigid rear end.

Due to a slightly strange parking place to meet up with photographer extraordinaire Mojomccoy (go check out his work), the local Cannock Chase loop started immediately with a short but determined switchback climb. Nothing particularly out o’ the ordinary, although trying to find a comfy position on a bike with sub-400mm reach after getting so used to the Starling certainly took some shuffling around on the creaky saddle. The real strangeness started into the first descent. Everything felt… difficult.

Riding berms on the 26er
Higher damnit – it’ll look cooler in the edit!

Trying to maintain any sort of real speed felt like struggle, even to the point where brakes were checked to make sure they weren’t binding. Every stone, root and bump seemed to steal precious hard-earned momentum. True, the huge 29er wheels and wide rubber of the Starling had spoiled me somewhat, but this was just difficult! The quick fun-blast before heading over to the Monkey trail for some photography work had dissolved into a battle of grit between trail, bike, and rider. After finishing the loop in a reasonably short stint, it left me feeling drained, not just physically, but mentally.

I’d loved this bike. It’d served me well the past couple of years; getting me through bleak winters, trail centre jaunts, Peak District epics and everything in between, but something was different now. Had I just spent too long on the big bike? Had I not been showing the hardy little hardtail enough love over the summer months? Although I suspect a very latent urge for the new Surly Karate Monkey may be festering away somewhere in the back of my mind trying to force my hand, something felt very amiss about the ride.

With the recent not at all very recent development of larger and larger wheels, we may have been spoiled. It’s easy now to jump aboard a mothership-sized big wheeler and plough your own line through the countryside with little regard to the trail ahead, rather than thread a tiny-wheeled needle through whatever gap will hold onto you. The question remains though, if big-wheels are the future of mountain biking, does it serve any purpose to hold onto nostalgia other than to sit in a damp pub with an even damper whippet and moan at how these young’uns never had it so easy.

If I had to pick one bike to rule them all, the much-maligned quiver-killer, I know I’d be reaching for my 29er in a breath. But if progress is so great, why do we love classic cars so? Can’t we finally just admit that the bigger wheels are inherently better on a mountain bike? Yes.

No.

Err maybe? Just one more ride than I’ll really know… (Rinse – Repeat)

Leave a Comment