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Shorties on big wheels: Is a 29er practical for the vertically challenged?

Willow Koerber on a 29er MTB
Willow Koerber, pro MTBer, is not much over 5' and she does alright on a 29er.

We've spent years reading about, listening to and enjoying the benefits that 29er mountain bikes have to offer us. Larger wheels roll over obstacles more easily and lose less speed on rough terrain, and these days most manufacturers have the 29er geometry sorted.

Some of the drawbacks relate directly to the rider of smaller stature - trade-offs with regard to toe overlap, handlebar height and standover - which begs the question:

Can you be too short for a 29er?

Firstly, as with all size bikes, there will be short people who LOVE 29ers and there will be short people who hate 29ers. Professionally, there are plenty of shorter riders (under 5'5") who race them and do just fine. In researching, it quickly became clear that this topic is far too emotive to write based solely on opinion. So, I interviewed a professional bike fitter, Helen, to get a perspective based on biomechanics and geometry.

In her words, "there is no such thing as normal." In a good way, she reassured me. We are all unique in how our bodies are put together, so it's only logical that we are all going to be unique in the way our bikes are put together.

For the sake of affordable consumerism, bike manufacturers need to make a range of standard size frames and components. And just as in clothing sizes, a small for one brand might be quite different to a small in another brand.

What does this mean in the real world though? Even for a person of average height riding a medium 29er, there are several modifications that ideally should be made for the bike to fit YOU perfectly.

For short people, modifications become increasingly difficult and even limited as the frame size reduces. For the most vertically challenged among us (5'2" and under), modifications on 29ers are ultimately limited by a few things - namely a minimum headtube size, a minimum steerer length, and the amount of material needed in the front end of the bike to make it a safe leverage point for the fork.

Helen the bike fitter said that while she wouldn't discourage shorties from buying 29ers, if asked she would definitely recommend some brands over others based on their specific body geometry.

"Not all XS 29ers are created equal," she says. "Essentially, it's not just about the height, it's about the reach."

"For mountain bikers, you aren't just sitting on the bike fairly stationary as you would be on a road or time trial bike. When you're descending or unloading the front tire to navigate an obstacle, you need to be able to have your butt way back off the seat. If the bike frame is too large, which for people under 155cm it often is, you may be able to reach the handlebars while sitting on the trainer in the bike shop, but not out on the trails where it matters."

Difficulty cornering is a common theme amongst those under 5'5" who ride 29ers. Why?

"Again, it's all to do with the reach", Helen says. "On a 29er, the handlebars are wider than on a 26" or 27.5" to account for the larger wheels. If you're turning right, for instance, and your reach to the handlebars is already strained, you will struggle to get full extension of your left arm while remaining in the correct position over the rest of the bike. This puts you in a 'difficult-at-best', 'dangerous-at-worst' position if you're navigating technical stuff."

Provided the frame is the right size, there are plenty of easy-to-implement modifications for short people wanting 29ers. These include shorter cranks, a downward-sloping top tube, an adjusted stem and seat position. These, coupled with a bike fit from a knowledgeable and experienced mountain biker, will make your riding much more enjoyable and ensure you aren't compromising the amount of power you're able to put through the pedals.

At the end of the day, riding should be enjoyable. If you prefer a 29er and the necessary modifications can be made to ensure you have a pain-free ride with full function and movement - ride it like you stole it!

A few extra hints from Helen:

  • DO: See a professional bike fitter no matter what height you are to make sure you get the most out of your riding.
  • DON'T: Assume that you can't ride a 29er just because you are short.
  • DO: Test ride out on the road/trails to get a good feeling about handling out of the saddle.
  • DON'T: Assume a 27.5" or 26" can't be as much fun - particularly if they allow you to handle the bike with ease!



Read 'Bike Setup: The benefit of a professional 'shop fit' and some DIY alternatives'
Bike Setup: The benefit of a professional 'shop fit' and some DIY alternatives
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Img 2717Author: Jordana Blackman
Jordana is an avid road cyclist, mountain biker and cyclocross fanatic living in Brisbane, Australia. She is very involved in the women's cycling scene, supporting beginners of all ages to take up life on 2 wheels!

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