For a long time, I've liked the theory and ideas behind 29ers but not been so enamoured with the real world experience. Lower rolling resistance and better bump absorption from the larger wheels appealed but had found that all the 29ers I had test ridden had all failed a crucial test – they were less enjoyable to ride, feeling rather like a steam roller, able to roll over terrain well but slow to respond to steering inputs particularly on twisty singletrack which is my particular preference.
I’ve also been sceptical over many of the claims made about 29ers, particularly that they suit tall riders better than 26” bikes, being unable to see any real logic to it other than that they look more in proportion.
I tried out a friend’s Swift at the Bristol Bikefest this year (though I only realised at the last minute that it was fully rigid and singlespeed – fine in itself but not really my choice for racing) and finally seemed to have found a 29er bike that I did enjoy riding.
A few weeks later and I now own my own Swift, built up with a Suntour Epicon 29er RLD fork with 100mm travel (see review below), and a mix of parts that is pretty mainly average in terms of weight with an aim to being reliable rather than super lightweight though there is a reasonably amount of XTR and SRAM990 in there. The bike weight is around 28.5lbs (based on my spring scale calibrated against an aerospace industry calibrated scale which showed it to be accurate to around 1lb).
The first thing to state is that the frame was probably the neatest/best finished non-boutique frame I’ve ever seen, this on the back of 15 odd years of experience of building bikes both professionally and for myself and friends. All threads were neat, the head tube and seat tube both very accurately reamed and the paint finish very good (until I hit it with an adjustable spanner...). Top marks so far.
The current Swift is designed to run as either a singlespeed or geared (unlike earlier models which were either singlespeed or geared specific) and as such, the cable routing is neat but maybe not perfect. The brake hose runs along the top tube while the gear cables run along the down tube, all with braze-ons to hold the hoses/cables with zip ties or the included plastic clips (though the clips won’t work for running both front and rear mech cables – you’ll have to use zip ties). This is actually my preferred gear cable routing but the front mech cable is designed to be run as a full length outer to the stop on the underside of the bottom bracket shell which results in a loop of cable running up to the stop – this seems like a good place for any water that gets into the cable to collect. I would have preferred a stop for the front mech on the head tube (or top of the down tube) and then just exposed inner to the front mech but this would leave a visible unused stop if running singlespeed and I imagine this might be one of the reasons for the routing being as it is.
The frame’s shape is pretty conventional with the EBB nicely finished and held securely by two grub screws which stayed firm and prevented any movement. On this point, in order to fit a double-specific SLX front mech for the 22/32 chainset (no big ring), the EBB had to be rotated to put the bottom bracket into the highest position since the front mech hit the chainstay in the small ring position otherwise.
The head tube on my XL frame is 140mm long which lead to a very high front end with the 90mm stem with 5 degree rise and flat bars. As a result, I had to flip the stem over to give negative rise and with it right up against the headset (an FSA XLII which is pretty low at 27.5mm stack height) it was just about right. I think I may well swap the stem for a +/- 10 degree rise one to allow it to drop a bit further still. It’d be good to see the head tube shortened a bit though in the future to account for people using forks longer than the 80mm that it was originally designed for.
I made a point of testing the bike on some of the trails where the other 29ers I’d tried had failed to provide the spark I was looking for – one specific trail being the ‘Upper Quarry Trail’ in Ashton Court (part of the Bristol Bikefest course) which I know extremely well having ridden it for years on all manner of bikes. On this, the Swift really quite surprised me. I’d been hoping that the bike would feel quick enough through the tight turns but smoother over the roots/rocks than a 26”. What actually happened was that I felt like I was riding a bike built for just having fun on and I ended up jumping off/over all manner of trail obstacles. Having never ridden this trail in that way before, I actually went back and rode it again just to check it wasn’t a one off. It wasn’t.
So, it was fun on moderately bumpy, twisty trails. What about the rest?
On flat or downhill trails with obstacles up to around four or five inches high (eg most rocks/roots), it was noticeable that the bigger wheels were much smoother than an equivalent 26” one would have been – this is where it actually did feel quite similar to riding a 4” rear travel 26” bike. Once the obstacles got bigger though, the feeling did revert to being more hardtail like with momentum quite obviously being lost on the bigger impacts. Maybe not surprising since it’s ‘just’ a hardtail but certainly a consideration if you’re looking at a 29er hardtail as an alternative to a 26” full susser.
On smoother fire road type climbs it felt very slightly quicker but disappointingly it didn’t feel or seem any quicker on more technical climbs where roots/rocks that tend to hook the back wheel felt much like a 26” bike rather than a suspended rear end which prevents the loss of momentum you get when the back wheel hooks on something.
Riding down really steep trails, I can’t say that I felt any significant difference to other good 26” bikes but it certainly managed them without problem.
One other thing to mention is flex in the wheels. I found this quite noticeable. As an experienced wheel builder I made a point of building the wheels up tight and stiff but I still found the wheels noticeably flexing when pushing them hard though fast but tight singletrack bends which was quite disconcerting as it felt very much like a flat tyre (to the point that I checked them several times just to be sure they weren’t losing pressure which they weren’t). This was particularly noticeable at the rear. I’m not really sure what to do here other than get used to it and not worry about it (it didn’t actually affect the grip but it was disconcerting).
Conclusions? Simple really. It does what I was hoping it would. It’s fun to ride and it’s smoother over moderately rough ground compared to 26” hardtails. Does it prove that 29ers are better than 26” bikes? Not inherently I reckon though for me it does show that a well designed and put together 29er can be a really nice bike to own and ride.
Frame: Singular Swift 29er, steel
Fork: Suntour Epicon 29" RLD 100mm
Wheels: Hope Pro2, Bontrager Mustang OSB 29er rims, DT Swiss DB spokes, Michelins AT 2.0 rear,Maxxis Ignitor 2.1 front
Drivetrain: XTR rear mech, SLX double front mech, XTR 970 chainset (22/32), LX shifters, SRAM PG990 11-34 Cassette
Brakes: Hope Mono Mini 2008
Seatpost: Race Face Evolve XC
Saddle: Specialized Phenom
Stem: Easton EA50 90mm -5 degree
Bars: Bontrager Carbon flat bar 24" with XTX bar ends
Headset: FSA Orbit XLII
Suntour Epicon 29” RLD fork 100mm travel
I’ll admit that the main driver for me buying this fork was price. At £190 (less a 10% discount CRC were offering) and with Rockshox and Fox 29er forks being in the region of at least twice as much or just a bit more expensive but very heavy, I thought I’d give them a go.
First impressions are good with the fork nicely finished, good paint quality and some neat touches like a proper hose guide and a clever QR15 axle (more on this though). Weight wasn’t measured but they didn’t feel significantly different in weight to a set of 2007 Rockshox Revelations. The remote is a nice clicky design though the clamp is a bare metal band which seems a little basic but does work fine. That’s maybe just being picky but no cable outer being included did seem a surprising omission. The remote lockout mount on the top of the fork is a little fiddly with a small grubscrew that’s easy to lose but nothing overly complex.
Once fitted, the pressure was set and that was it (apart from some QR15 axle issues – see below). Rebound damping is adjustable and liking my forks to be active, I set it as a fast as possible and haven’t felt the need to change it since.
Onto the ride, with pressure set at 100psi (I’m 16.5stone), the fork felt good straight away, working well over bumps and largely staying in the background and just working well. The only real downside to the ride is that the fork is very linear meaning that with sag set properly, it doesn’t take huge impacts to bottom out the fork with the zip ties attached to the leg showing that full travel was being reached on medium sized hits. That said, on larger impacts, I never felt the fork bottoming out so it’s maybe not a huge issue. I think that in the longer term, I’ll experiment with adding some oil to the air chamber to reduce its volume and to make it more progressive (eg it’ll become stiffer towards the end of the travel).
Onto the main issue with the fork, the QR15 axle. The Epicon has an axle included that automatically locks in position once it’s through both sides of the fork. To release, you push the end opposite to the QR lever (which needs to be flipped open first) and then push the axle though the fork/hub to release the front wheel. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work and it will do so on hubs that have a continuous 15mm axle though them – like Shimano. What doesn’t work is if like many hubs, the 15mm version is a 20mm hub with adaptors. In this case, where the adaptors end, the lock opens out once you’re past the first adaptor and you can’t then get the axle into the second one. The only way to get it out then is to poke the end of the axle with a screwdriver or similar to retract the locks. A bit of a pain to say the least. I’ve bought a length of 15mm tube so that I can poke the end of the axle to release it but this is really just a bodge. A better solution will be to get a 15mm internal diameter tube and leave it inside the hub to prevent the locks springing back out once they clear the adaptor or to have adaptors that span the whole width of the hub.
Overall, a good fork but with an issue for the QR15 that will affect some. Obviously overall durability and reliability will need to be tested to be seen.