XTaCy in God's Country - My race test of Giant's take on 27.5"'s
I am officially old school. Not "old skool" or "olde skule" or however the hipsters spell it, but quite simply...I'm old! I got into mountain biking in the late 80's, like, when "SIS" was new, 21 speeds was a lot, rigid bikes were only option, Chromoly was the frame material of choice and oversized headsets first came around. Throughout the years, technology has done amazing things for the sport, but I've often resisted: I fought off the suspension "craze" until the Mag 20's turned into Mag 21's. I replaced Rapidfire controls on any new bike with thumb-shifters until that was no longer possible. My only leap of blind faith came in the form of SPD pedals & shoes, but that was only after years on the road and finally giving into the ski-binding pedal idea that had taken over, there.
Fast forward a few dozen bikes (and 20+ years!!) and I finally found myself giving in to all the hype about 29er's. I was intrigued by the claims, and it seemed a sensible option for my next bike back in 2010 - a bit smoother ride from a hard-tail & XT-level components at a reasonable cost. I couldn't get both out of a full suspension 26" for the same coin, so into the 21st Century I jumped. I spent nearly 4 good years on that 29er and while I very much appreciated the smooth roll and momentum of the big wheels, my wheelie-riding, trials-inspired style sure missed the shorter chainstays of my 26" wheeled hard-tails of old.
I started hearing rumors of some "'tweener" wheel size - 650b, or 27.5" - something precisely between 26er's of old and 29er's that seem to be setting the current standard. Of course, I shrugged it off as some marketing ploy to get me to add a THIRD wheel size to my off-road fleet. Great gimmick, but was it really necessary? I mean, could this compromise between handling and roll-ability really be the promised land touted to be "best of both worlds"???? Then, I started seeing more data from Giant, (I LOVE data!!), about weight, approach angles, wheelbase impacts, etc. My eyebrows lifted from scrawl of doubt to genuinely curious. Then...I saw "her": the 2014 Giant XTC Advanced 2. Wow...what a looker!!! Full carbon hard-tail frame, trusted XT components (w/ XTR rear derailer!), proven Fox fork, AND, she was wearing a magnificent pair of those 27.5" hoops - all at what is a very reasonable price by today's standards. Yeah, it was love at first sight.
I finally pulled the "buy trigger" in mid-February and when it came in I was instantly pleased with her looking even better in person than in photo's. Hanging her on the scale just made my grin bigger and about brought a tear to my eye: 23.95 lbs for a Large with 2 bottle cages, inner tubes and basic (heavy!) set of SPD's. Yum. Unfortunately, buying a new MTB in mid-February Missouri meant it was nearly a month before I could take it for a ride! If it wasn't so darn pretty, it'd been excruciating to just sit at look at it, but...even that wasn't so bad.
First ride was in anything but perfect conditions: 11-15 degrees & frozen Stocksdale trail that had been used too much last time it was wet. I couldn't wait any longer, though, so this had to do. The trail is pretty smooth by design, but completely covered in frozen foot, paw and tire prints. This made for rather annoying trail chatter, but an excellent first test of how the 'tweener wheels rolled and how the full-carbon hard-tail absorbed. Both passed with flying colors! What the first few short uphills unveiled, though, was even better: the bike flat rips under power while keeping the rear wheel pretty well planted!! It felt 29er stable & smooth, but tricked-out 26er quick, light, and responsive. Even in a semi-frozen state, my smile grew. It was a miserable day, but I rode until the skin on my toes was black simply because I couldn't get enough of this new-found balance of speed & comfort! I hadn't even finished tweaking riding position or finding "right" tire pressure - all very good indicators of what this bike brought to the party.
A month, a few miles, 2 rides of position & air pressure adjustment later and I'm lining up for the God's Country Time Trial at Lawrence River Trails. I'm a bit under-trained, it was 38 degrees with reported "slick as snot" sections of trail, yet I was itching to go all out on this new rig for 10-ish miles of tasty twists, turns, short ups & downs. Now granted, this trail was extremely smooth and mostly un-frozen, but I was still surprised at how comfortable AND fast this Giant carbon frame was. I'm not a carbon fiber expert, but for much of my riding career you could have carbon stiffness & acceleration OR you could be comfortable. Giant delivers both with this bike, and by the 27.5" wheelbarrow full!
Seemed every valuable ounce of leg put into the pedal was making it to the rear wheel. Small roots, ruts and holes were only minutely more noticeable on this bike than my 29er, but both the out-of-saddle efforts and cornering ability (aided by the OverDrive 2 steerer) far exceeded anything I'd experienced on the bigger wheels. Heck, even on some pretty fancy-schmancy 26er's! Of course, the sensible-which-makes-it-pretty-affordable components also shined for amazing function. Shifts were quick & quiet, braking was precise, and the ride position was aggressive enough, yet totally comfortable. I cannot wait to get more dry/thawed trail miles on this thing. I'll be going tubeless in the next few days and can only imagine that will make all the above shining highlights of this scoot even brighter. This is an out-of-the-box-in-stock-form hot rod. In my relatively well-educated experience & opinion, the 27.5" wheel does seem to live up to all the hype. The chassis Giant built around it, though, still confuses me as I truly didn't believe this combination of comfort, handling and brute acceleration were actually possible. Win. OK, well, a 2nd place finish for me, but the bike itself is a pretty big victory - check it out:
*** I wanted to also send out a huge Thank You, Well Done, and Kudos to all The Wheel Cyclery & Cowtown folks who made this past weekend's event what it was. Those I know that competed in the duathlon were thrilled with the setup. Me & my OCD self were quite impressed with how smoothly the rider-every-30-seconds time trial was organized, run exactly on-time, and quickly scored. ****