This is an opinion piece by Reno Toffoli. Reno’s opinions don’t necessary represent the opinions of Your Group Ride or its advertisers but I always enjoy his rants.  You can read is first article here: If you’d like to write an article for YGR, please email me at

bike-pileIf you’re a mountain biker, like I am, then you’ve certainly been overwhelmed by the massive wheel size debacle that’s occurred over the past few years. If you’re not a mountain biker, don’t worry, you probably still know what I’m talking about because, well, it’s inescapable.

Mountain bikes had 26 inch wheels for, what, 30 some years? Then it seemed like overnight they were passé, out, gone, dumped in favor of our friend(?) the 29er. Suddenly 26 inch wheels could not bring you any more joy. You were made to think (by those clever marketing folks) that if you didn’t have big wheels on your bike you were nothing, nobody. The reality with the history of the 29er is a little more convoluted than that but you get my drift.

 Now before you think I’m just another wagon wheel hater, I’m not. I own one and have logged thousands of miles on it including XC and endurance races. I also own two 26 inch bikes that I ride as well. Here’s the thing…this isn’t another 26 vs. 29 rant. They’re fine, great, they have their place and honestly, they’re really not that different. In fact, after about 90 seconds, I can’t really tell what size wheels are underneath me because it just feels like I’m riding a bike.

My frustration lies with the industry. In my experience, the bicycle industry is notoriously small but also notoriously good at making you think it’s some kind of really big power player in the world of commerce. I’m not much on conspiracy theories and I’m pretty sure the government isn’t out to get me, even if they are reading my emails and stuff (I’m really not that interesting anyway). I do, however, get the sense that ‘Big Bicycling’(!) is trying to scam me in to buying something I don’t really need, creating solutions to problems that don’t really exist and answers to questions that were never asked. The truth is that every industry, everywhere, ever, does this. Wonderful, isn’t it? I think they call it ‘progress’.

They can do this because humans are extremely suggestible and maybe more than just a little insecure. The human brain is also incredibly powerful. Because of phenomena like The Placebo Effect, your brain can actually change your perceptions, health, and abilities just by receiving the suggestion that item X may lead to result X. The classic example is giving someone a sugar pill, telling them it’s a hallucinogenic drug, and watching them go all crazy because they, like, think they’re high, man.

I worked in bike shops 20-some years ago and saw this all the time. You tell the customer test riding a bike that ‘this steel frame will ride stiff and harsh’ and they’ll come back and say ‘yeah, it does ride stiff and harsh’. Then, they take out the aluminum framed bike and say it rides really smooth after you told them it would. Saw it a million times and could never tell the difference myself…still can’t 20 years later. Never mind that steel is a stiffer material than aluminum but, then, due to the properties of aluminum it can be made in to a lighter, stiffer tube by using a larger diameter and thinner wall, and….you see, it’s complicated. Just tell them the aluminum frame rides better and they will buy it.*

Sound familiar? If should, because the cycling industry, usually without any scientific proof (I’m really big on that) is constantly telling us that ‘material x rides like buttah’ or this head tube is 15% stiffer than the whippy noodle head tube on your old bike. Then people go out and ride (and buy) these things and believe it. Afterward, they parrot things back to their friends or forums, or blogs and say things like yeah, I can really feel the 15% stiffness in my front end. No you can’t. I will maintain that you can’t really feel the difference in frame materials, varying amounts of stiffness in varying places, wheel size, etc. Sorry, folks, but there’s just too many variables…the biggest one being the human riding the bike. Even the same human riding the same bike will never be exactly the same twice and therefore, the result isn’t scientific and therefore it really isn’t true. That’s not to say that the perception isn’t true or valid. That’s the power of the placebo effect; if I believe it’s better, faster, etc., then it is. And sometimes it really is because it influences your brain which can do amazing things.

The one time I really remember being able to tell the stiffness of a frame is when a customer brought some kind of discount store tandem into a bike shop I worked at. The frame was so flexible that when you pedaled from the captain’s position, the chain would fall off. Of course, the customer wanted us to fix it and our reply was ‘we can’t’. He was rather upset because he had paid $400 for this bike (this was 1993) and that was a lot of money. We suggested that if he wanted a tandem that actually worked, he should buy one of the Cannondales that we sold. When he learned the price was $3500, he got rather more upset than he already was and stormed out. In my world, thinking that you can tell the difference in a road frame where the bottom bracket flexes 3mm under load to one that flexes 4.6mm under load is insanity.

I’m still waiting to see a scientifically based, real-world test of 26 vs. 29 inch wheels. To do it, you’d have to remove every variable including the human and make a ‘bike riding machine’…one for the Mythbusters, I guess. If you did all of this, my guess is that all of the theoretical advantages of bigger wheels that you hear parroted back ad-nauseum would be pretty much a wash with 26 inch wheels in the real world because smaller wheels also have theoretical advantages, just different ones. Now apply this logic to anything: tapered head tubes, wide handlebars, wheel size, tire tread patterns, drive train configuration, etc. It all seems to be hype that’s thrown at you without any real data backing it and we all buy it (literally)…it’s crazy. In my opinion, there’s been such and explosion of this stuff lately that it just makes me angry. Headset standards, bottom bracket standards, wheel sizes, through axle sizes, the list goes on and on…all in an attempt to make us feel like we need things that we probably really don’t. Every time I turn around nothing is compatible with anything and the $4k all-mountain bike I bought 6 months ago is essentially obsolete…it’s worse than buying a damn computer.

So now comes the part where you label me as a retro grouch (partly true) and someone who’s against progress and say ‘hey, man, if it was up to guys like you, we’d still be riding Klunkers.’ I’m fine with progress when it’s really an improvement and driven by necessity instead of apparently being dreamed up because someone, somewhere, wants to sell more bikes. You want real innovations? O.K., how about pneumatic tires, diamond frames, the derailleur, indexed shifting, tig welding, aerospace aluminum, front suspension, floating pivot rear suspension, hell, I’ll even throw disc brakes, 15 QR axles, and carpet fiber in there. There’s things I just can’t swallow, though. Wheel size is one of them, big arguments about frame material is another, things like tapered headtubes probably don’t hurt but I’m not exactly sure how much quantifiable difference there is. I suppose if you’re someone who spends 8 hours a day on a bike and make your living at it, then perhaps you have a better feel for these things.

Here’s the thing. If you want to argue ‘well, ride what you like’ you see, that may not be possible because things have been unnecessarily forced into obsolescence by ‘progress’. I sometimes wonder where all these ‘outdated’ bikes and parts go? Where did everyone’s 26inch bikes go when they hopped the 29er train? Goodwill? No, wait, I know where they went. I was out riding a week or so ago and I saw a kid who was probably 12 riding the very same 26” wheeled 2009 Giant Anthem X2 that I still race on. That was a $3k bike that got universally rave reviews when it came out. Now that’s a lucky kid! I bet that bike brings that kid a lot of joy because mine still brings me a lot of joy. Good job, 26 inch wheels.

If you’re going to argue ‘options’ then leave the options open. If you’re going to put things into obsolescence, then make damn sure they’re obsolete and that the alternative is truly better. Example: square tapered cranks and bottom brackets…horrible. New and improved: external bottom brackets, and 2 piece cranks with 24mm spindles…wonderful. Press fit bottom brackets and BB30…back to horrible.

 That’s really what it comes down to for me. My new, 6 inch travel, 30 speed, air sprung, disc braked AM bike bombs down stuff way better than the old hardtail Giant with the 80mm elastomer Manitou fork I had 16 odd years ago when I moved to the Fort. It probably goes up just as well, too. So, there’s progress. I guess maybe years and years worth of little improvements do add up. Keep your options open and have fun. But mostly, don’t believe the hype and don’t get duped in to ‘new and improved’ until it really is new and improved. On the other hand, you can always use that ‘new and improved’ justification and, brother, I’ve been there. Wait, wasn’t I trying to convince you to not buy a new bike?

 In other words, your old bike is probably fine but….

So it goes. **

* In my defense, I wasn’t trying to deceive the customer, I was just young and brainwashed by Big Bicycling(!) I’m much older, more scientific, and more skeptical now. I also still prefer aluminum frames because of their all around value and durability, but that’s another story.

** Thanks to Kurt Vonnegut.