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It’s probably just me, but the whole world seems intent on squashing us into smaller and smaller places and the furnishings with which we pad our lives seem to be following suit. Remember the days when big was better? Big cars with fins. Big mega houses were a symbol of status. Big fat people were healthy people (or so my mother always maintained: we pudgy kids just had big bones, you see…). Big surfboards, big hair; big expeditions into the wilderness, big spending.

Big equalled grand. Big was achievement. Big talent. Big success. Being a big sponge for resources was appropriate; all backed up by economic theory and the machinations of marketing wisdom.

It might be easy to blame the Japanese for the shift. Remember the Sony Walkman? It’s appropriate to reflect on that momentous technological achievement on this, the occasion of Sony’s official proclamation of the Walkman’s demise (just last week). The Walkman was what the boffins call a paradigm shift. With the Walkman, the world shifted a bit to one side of where it was before. The Walkman was a catalyst to miniaturisation and the henceforth inevitable pairing of the concepts of ‘small’, ‘convenient’, ‘desirable’ and ‘high tech’.

Look how small our convenience toys have become these days. Check out the latest iPod nano. Nano indeed. Check out the computer on which I am writing this post: the new Apple Macbook Air! It would take around ten of these dinky little things to fill up the space of the very first Macintosh portable computer, (6,000, 1989 dollars’ worth of what seemed like 20kg of wishful thinking portability). There’s more power squashed into our modern miniaturised devices than the design briefs for their predecessors could have ever dreamed.

What’s at the top of the pecking order these days? Look how small Ferrari’s have become (lifeboat size to the ships most of us still drive). The further up just about any product range you go these days, the smaller the top-end stuff becomes (except farm tractors and television sets, it seems). Smaller and lighter is the mark of technological progress these days.

But you have to have a laugh. Because while our toys are shrinking, most of us who use them are not. Bigger fatter, larger, taller. We humans are gaining the heft we eschew for what have now become the devices of our delusions. There’s something vaguely tragic about the way our fingers and thumbs struggle to fit the devices the boffins are designing for us these days. It’s almost as though there is some kind of universal plot to inflate our sense of insecurity through deflating the things to which we aspire. I wonder if our self-image somehow becomes more … concise … as we seek to join in this modern miniaturisation crusade. After all, the marketing guru’s can hardly be wanting us to self-imagine ourselves as King Kong struggling with toys too small by half – if they want us to buy their goods. Maybe the ever increasing density and compactness of technology is cunningly conceived to drag our personal identity of space down to a more amenable size. If small is good, and smaller toys make us feel smaller too, then what we have is a cunning marketing plan.

If our self-perceived sense of personal space becomes small enough, then we will all start feeling better about what the airlines offer us these days by way of seating space! Maybe we might feel better about living in ever the more compressed living spaces to which most of us are compelled by finances and urban planning design. Our aspiration is to reduce the size of our environmental footprint; despite the fact that every new generation seems to exhibit larger and larger feet. I wonder if the act of buying a small compact car makes their big flabby drivers feel, somehow, more petite?

All of which contexts my recent foray into the world of 29 inch wheels. Roadies might wonder at all the fuss wheels this size are making in the world of mountain bikes. After all, 29 inches is (roughly) what we have on our road bikes and have done for years. But for mountain bikes, 26 inches was the traditional call. Largely via the inspiration of mountain bike visionaries like Gary Fisher, the 29er mountain bike has been simmering away for a few years now. Only very recently has the simmer started to boil. Nowadays, we see bike retailers specialising in these things. They are making a claim to around 60 per cent of sales in some places (mainly in the USA and now, here in Australia).

29er mountain bikes are big. They look big. Counter-culturally big (in these times when every thing else is getting smaller). Intimidatingly big, perhaps. Even to a roadie like me, these things look big. The forks are longer to take up the extra inches of wheel. Chainstays are longer, and sometimes bottom brackets are further up from the ground. The wheels are definitely big. With those big fat mountain bike tyres, the actual outer wheel circumference dwarfs any road bike hoop.

So, consider the challenge to your average smaller-is-good indoctrinated punter these days. 29er’s break the mould of just about every social meme out there these days. Going bigger is entirely a journey away from the promised land of contemporary marketing spiel. That’s even more the case when you consider that one of the biggest advantages of 29er’s is their relatively more compliant ride; they particularly suit the hardtail form. With our almost pathological fixation on suspension these days, moving upwards and outwards back to a hardtail bike seems like an odd step to take.

But, based on my experience with the just released 2011 Felt Carbon Nine Team hardtail 29er, the journey is the best one I have ever taken away from sealed roads. It only took one ride to convince. That extra 2 inches is 2 miles of difference to the way these bikes perform. The hardtail packs the punch of power to the ground and the extra wheel size gloves that punch with the feel of a couch. The ride is a revelation. Fast, secure, precise, comfortable, dynamic. Everything my exotic 26 inch, fully (cross country racing) suspended Fisher Procaliber is not. If you, like me, are used to riding your mountain bike with the suspension dialled out when the going becomes faster and smoother, you will love what a hardtail 29er can do. But you might also love what happens when the trails turn rough.

I never did get used to riding tight, rough tracks sitting down. That’s from my road bike heritage, I guess. I like to stand and power over bumps and sharp short hills. A 29er rewards preferences like that. Or at least, this one does.

Let me summarise it this way. The 29er mountain bike is the hybrid vigour you’d get from crossing a cyclocross bike with a cross country racing mountain bike. All good, nothing bad. A winning genetic improvement all around. This mutant is acceptable all around.

My task here is not to review the Felt Carbon Nine. Rather, it’s to contemplate the breathtaking adventure that the 29er mountain bike represents in terms of today’s cultural and technological norms. It’s a trip sideways and outwards from the usual path (which, by the way, is called ‘lateral arabesque’ in marketing speak). I love stuff that pushes the groove of life into a space two steps removed. Those two inches of extra wheel represent a mighty leap into a place from which we can refresh and reinvent all those things that attracted us to mountain biking in the first place. I recommend the trip.

One Response to “Riding Against the Tide”
  1. Doutrich says:

    Good blog – I’ve had 29er FS MTB for 2 yrs. Love the feel and ride quality, but it looks like a Hummer compared to other traditional bikes. Considering how I feel about Hummers, that makes me a little self conscious.

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