Tuesday, June 21, 2011
I've been riding the Airborne Goblin 29er hard and often (insert crude joke here) since I received it back in early May. Aside from riding and training rides, I've also had a chance to race the bike in 2 Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike Series (WEMS) endurance races as well a 15 mile CAT 2 Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS) race. After all this riding, I feel I'm ready to render an opinion on this 29er phenomenon sweeping the Midwest and on the Airborne Goblin specifically.
You have probably heard a million different opinions on 29ers just like I have. "They climb great," or "they are harder to climb" or "it has the equivalent of 1 inch of travel due to the larger wheel size." I set out dismissing everything I heard about 29ers so that I could form my own unbiased opinions about the bike. The following thoughts are from a guy who was a bit of a skeptic on the 29er thing who loves riding technical terrain on a 26 inch full squish bike.
I left my bike mostly stock until shortly before my first race when I replaced the stock WTB Laser Disc wheels with super light Sun Ringle Black Flag Pro's and the WTB grips with Ergons. I didn't find the weight of the Laser Discs bothersome like others have, I just wanted something to make the bike really fast for racing. Thus the change to the Black Flags. As for the grips, that's just a personal preference. But now onto the bike.
First and foremost, the Goblin is a 29 inch bike that is also a hardtail and none of that "built in travel due to the larger wheel size" talk will make you forget it. Not that there is anything wrong with a hardtail. My last race bike was a hardtail and I can tell you it was very fast and efficient and I can definitely say that about the Goblin. It is a fast, fast bike; faster than my previous race bike.
Why is it faster than my 26 inch bikes? I think there are two reasons for that. Firstly, the momentum of the wheels tend to make them roll over things a little better and therefore loses less speed over bumps. Of course, the flip side of this is you have to develop the fitness level necessary to get and keep those big wheels rolling, but it doesn't take long. The second reason is the 2x10 SRAM X.7 drivetrain is a perfect match for this bike in my opinion. With a 39 and 22 tooth sprockets in front and a 11-36 cassette in the rear, I've never had a problem finding just the right gear. The only thing I didn't initially like was the big jump from the big sprocket to the little one. However, as you train and ride the bike you start getting a better feel for when to shift, you'll lose less and less momentum due to that big jump. In fact, now that I'm used to the 2x10 drivetrain, I found I hate the feel of my 3x9 setups. I just can't seem to find the right gear to keep my speed up at my desired cadence. I'm sure that's because my legs are now conditioned to the new gearing.
Like I said earlier, I've had a chance to race the Goblin a couple times. I did a 3 hour endurance race on a very rocky course that was probably a better fit for a full suspension bike. I did well in the race and turned decent lap times. I did, however, feel quite beat up on the last lap and after the race. A lot of that had to do with the previous condition of my back (which had been giving me problems leading up to the race). The bike actually had no problem handling the rocky course and I knew that going in from previously riding the trail on the Goblin. But riding for 3 hours straight is a lot different than regular riding and that's why if I did a race that long on that rocky of a course, personally I would choose a full suspension bike.
The 15 mile WORS race was a lot of wide open fire road with small sections of really technical singletrack peppered in. It was the perfect bike for a course like that. I flew through the wide open sections and easily rolled through the technical stuff. The Rockshox Reba fork proved competent through the technical sections and the lockout feature was invaluable on the fire road and climbs.
The second WEMS race I competed in the Goblin shined again. I turned my fastest lap times on my home trails ever (and did so lap after lap) and turned in a WEMS personal best 4th place finish. I did this 50 mile race as part of a duo. That means I had about 50 minutes between laps to recover. This was a really great opportunity to see that the bike does more than just feel fast. Seeing my lap times proved that the bike really IS faster on my local trails. While these trails are not the most technical or rocky trails around they have plenty of rocks and roots to keep things interesting.
Speaking of climbing, you can add that to another thing this bike does well. Provided you condition your legs to keep the wheels rolling and to the 2x10 gearing it's easy to fly right up hills. I'm by no means a strong climber, but the Goblin allows me to get to the top at a decent pace without blowing myself up.
Another thing I like is how this bike corners. Due to a relatively low bottom bracket this bike feels very stable while cornering. The Kenda Small block 8's do their job well, too. They work very well on hardpack and even do okay in looser stuff. Due to the small knobs, the tires obviously don't do well in mud, but as tires go you can't have everything. I think the Kenda's are a decent choice here.
Now, I realize I'm talking a little bit out of both sides of my mouth here because the low bottom bracket lends itself to great corner, but at the same time it makes the bike prone to pedal strikes. This does does get better with more time in the saddle and you learn where you can pedal and where you can’t, but this is at the expense of losing pedal strokes through certain sections.
The other complaints I have, which is a general 29er complaints, is its ability to handle tight and twisty singletrack. The bigger wheels make it harder to time turns through narrow corners. So generally, I feel a little slower through those sections. I expect this to improve slightly over time with more practice, but I don't think the Goblin will ever be as nimble as my 26 inch bikes. It also doesn't necessarily like to be in the air. It's hard to explain, but the bike feels like it would rather roll over small ledges, jumps and drops rather than being launched into the air. My riding style is not to just roll over things. I like to jump on, off and over obstacles. While the Goblin does all of this, it just seems to take more effort and ability to do so.
This last quibble is pretty minor, but I think it is worth mentioning. I wish the water bottle cage mounts on the seat tube were lower. As is sits right now its a tight fit for a 16oz bottle and getting a 24oz water bottle in there; forget about it. I'd like to see these mounts on future models pushed as low as frame design will allow (assuming they are not already).
There are a lot of things this bike does well and I can see why someone would want to add this high speed weapon to their arsenal. I'm really happy to have it in my collection and will most likely be using it as a race rig and at my local trails going forward. I will also be gradually upgrading it as funds allow. The intent strictly being to shed weight from the bike; not to gain any functional improvement as I'm very pleased with the performance of the stock components; especially considering the price. That said, my 26 inch bikes are not going anywhere. I find the 29er a nice addition as it does something different than anything my current group of bikes, but it is not the end all be all of mountain bikes as I've heard others claim.
My advice regarding 29ers: Don't believe the hype about 29 inch wheels. Ride one and find out for yourself!