Wes Williams was right. In the late 1990s, the tiny custom-bike builder in Crested Butte, Colo., developed a cult following for his odd Willits mountain bikes with their weird, 29-inch wheels — 3 inches taller than those on standard bikes. He told everyone that "29ers" would take over the industry some day. When mountain-bike icon Gary Fisher rolled out his own 29ers, his dealers laughed at him — until customers started clamoring for the monster-truck tires that fly over rocks, mud and sand so much faster and easier than little wheels. Today, big wheels have become the hottest story in the bike world. And Williams has a mile-long waiting list for his prestigious, all-titanium 29ers.
FOR THE RECORD:
Mountain bikes: In the Oct. 18 Health section, the Gear column's review of 29-inch-wheel mountain bikes said that one drawback of the Cannondale Flash Hi-Mod 29er model was that its suspension fork made it harder to repair a flat. The design of that model's Lefty suspension fork actually makes it easier to repair a flat. —
The sweet spot
Specialized Camber Elite 29er: Handsome, value-oriented full-suspension aluminum cross-country bike with wide appeal.
Likes: The ultimate Everyman 29er. Great price, looks and performance hit the "sweet spot" for a majority of riders. Includes a comfy 4 inches of front and rear suspension cushion, a fork lock-out for fast climbing and a Shimano XT/SLX 27-speed drivetrain. Also nice: room for a water bottle within the frame. Slightly relaxed geometry makes it more comfortable for daylong rides than an all-out race bike. The higher-end Camber Pro has better shocks and brakes and a lightweight 20-speed XTR drivetrain. Lower priced than similar 4-inch dual suspension bikes from other major brands.
Dislikes: Lacks common front-end strengtheners like the tapered head-tube and through-axle hub, though the handling remained tight.
Price: $2,050; Pro, $2,900. ; http://www.specialized.com
Plush and fast
Cannondale Flash Hi-Mod 29'er 1: Ultra-light carbon-fiber hardtail (front-suspension-only) bike with unique comfort.
Likes: Hardtail speed and simplicity with great built-in rear-end shock absorption — far more than any hardtail I've ridden. Credit Cannondale's SAVE (system active vibration elimination) system, which gets vertical flex but side-to-side rigidity from flattened sections on the seat stays, chain stays and seat post. It definitely takes the edge off bumps and saves weight; with a carbon Lefty suspension fork and SRAM's svelte, superb 2-by-10 20-speed XO drivetrain, the bike's a feathery 21 pounds. The Flash 3, with a heavier grade of carbon and an aluminum Lefty, weighs just 23.2 pounds. With great power transfer from the burly front triangle, it flies, making it a rare hardtail you could race or ride comfortably all day.
Dislikes: The 90-millimeter Lefty, though super-stable, has 10 mm less cushion than the Specialized Camber and requires tools for wheel removal, an inconvenience when transporting the bike or fixing a flat.
Price: $5,899, Flash 3 is $2,999. (800) 245-3872; http://www.cannondale.com
Niner Jet 9: Finely detailed dual-suspension race/endurance bike with a unique suspension design from a company that makes only 29ers.
Likes: Great climbing, solid handling. With an instant reaction to pedaling input and minimal bob, it almost feels like a hardtail. Credit a massive, 1.5-inch tapered head tube for solid, precise steering; a fat down-tube; burly, friction-free pivot linkages; and Niner's CVA (constantly varying arc) suspension, which uses a floating link under the bottom bracket to isolate drivetrain torque from the movement of the solid rear triangle. Like a high-end sports car, there's nice attention to detail, from the handlebar-mounted fork lockout button to strong, smooth double-pass welds and a New Belgium beer bottle cap over the headset bolt. I recommend the 100 mm fork over the stock 80 mm.
Dislikes: The wheels' perplexing, plastic, hard-to-use DT Swiss quick-release skewers take more time to change than normal QRs.
Price: $1,749 frame only; $4,427 full bike with 30-speed Shimano XT. (877) 646-3792; http://www.ninerbikes.com
KHS Tucson 29er: Basic, well-appointed aluminum hardtail
Likes: A profound joy going so fast on a bike so uncomplicated. Makes you wonder why you need the fancy stuff. Perfect for any new 29er rider. From a solid but low-profile company, this bike has good parts — a 27-speed SRAM X7/Shimano Deore drivetrain, cushy WTB saddle — at a fair price.
Dislikes: The 3-inch RST fork is about an inch short of comfy.
Price: $1,099. (310) 632-7173; http://www.khsbicycles.com
Roy M. Wallack is the co-author of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times