It's been nearly four months since Will Sytsma (owner of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange, in Amherst, MA) built a sleek pair of custom 29er wheels for my Salsa Mukluk (which I reported on here). The main reason I've posted so infrequently since then is that I've been out riding the dickens out of them, and having a blast learning to mountain bike.
It's been a gorgeous summer here in New England, and I've been riding a lot on local trail systems large and small, buff and rugged. Here are some of the conclusions I've drawn from the experience.
First, the rigidity: It's wonderful! And... it sucks.
It's wonderful that I have a quality 26-pound, 29-inch mountain bike; it climbs really nicely and the only real limiter is in my lungs, not my legs. It's wonderful when I stand and stomp, and the bike takes off like a rocket. When I lean into a turn, nothing—I mean nothing—flexes. It's wonderful that I got all of this for a mere five or so hundred dollars for the extra wheels and tires.
It sucks when I go over endless tall roots or "bony" (boulder-ridden) trails; my wrists, hands, shoulders, and neck have taken quite the beating this summer. (Though the recent addition of ergonomic grips has helped a bit.) It sucks when I'm climbing for my life, hit a switchback, and my path is obstructed by obstacles; where a suspended bike might allow me to just roll over what's in the way, with this bike, I have to pick a line right at the least opportune moment, when most of the weight's on the back tire, I'm going 2 mph, and I'm already deep into a turn.
I'm a beginning mountain biker and I've been watching how-to videos, sessioning trails, and practicing skills in my backyard for months. As my abilities develop, I've been able to lessen the impact of each of these problems, and I've really enjoyed the ease and pride that come with the achievements. But when push comes to shove, I'm 50 years old, and my body won't take the beating forever. As I get better, I ride more advanced trails, and, around New England, that means a lot of rugged stuff.
That's not changing until the next ice age, which, by all indications, is quite some time off.
This report might be very different if I'd written it about a more forgiving, all-steel bike. My frame is aluminum, famous for its stiffness and harshness, and the Salsa Bearpaw fork is aluminum, too. The custom wheels had to be dishless (because they're built on wider-that-usual hubs to fit the fat bike dropouts), which means they, too, are extra stiff. You can't get a much stiffer bike.
The geometry of the bike does help a little with the rigidity problems. This isn't your typical 29er -- not even a typical fully-rigid one. It's built for unbeatable stability on soft or slippery surfaces, which means that the wheelbase is long, the head tube angle is a bit slacker than usual, and the chainstays are way out there in la-la land. But in the end, the aluminum wins out, because it doesn't flex much no matter how long it is. The long stays and wheelbase do make handling stable—but that can also mean sluggish, especially in moments when I really need a quick response (as on the switchbacky climbs).
One possible bonus to the 29er Mukluk set-up is that the stiffness and lightness help a lot when I'm going straight up. Climbing is fast and made a bit less stressful by the low 22 x 34 lowest gear (suited to heavier tires and wheels).
Am I glad I had the wheels built? You bet. Have I learned more by learning to mountain bike on a set-up that will feed back every tiny decision I make? Certainly. So let's be honest: with all the limitations, I've had more fun than should be legal on this version of the Muk. (The respect and interest it gets at the trailhead doesn't hurt either; I've not seen one other 29er-converted fat bike all season.)
In the end, two facts sum up my rigid 29er Mukluk experience: (1) I've been shopping for a purpose-built mountain bike for a month now; it would be full-suspension if I could afford a decent one, but will likely end up being a hardtail. I'm so looking forward to seeing how that suspension fork eases my riding experience. (Much more on that bike when it comes to fruition.) (2) Once I do find that bike, I really hope I don't have to sell the Mukluk to afford it. I want to keep it, along with both fat and 29er wheel sets, because (apart from the many ridiculous joys of riding fat) there are certain extra-buff trails around here I'm always going to love ripping on my unique, light, stiff 29er.