Rolling with the Big Boys

Rolling with the Big Boys

By David Cohen
Maryland-National Capital Park Police

Ed.’s Note:  The title of this article was inspired by a workshop conducted by Don Coppola, PCI #1079, whose research prompted IPMBA’s approval of the 29er for public safety use. 

I am a volunteer with the Maryland-National Capital Park Police in Montgomery County, Maryland.   Volunteers help patrol the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s 405 parks and properties, acting as additional “eyes and ears” for the uniformed officers.  I do most of my patrolling on bicycle, on both paved and natural surface trails.  As a senior volunteer, many other volunteers seek my advice on equipment and other bicycle-related matters. 

Long before I started volunteering with the Park Police, I got hooked on mountain biking.  I have owned several different types of mountain bikes over the years, from rigid single-speeds to geared, full-suspension bikes.  My first patrol bike was my 1998 Klein Pulse Comp, which I adapted for patrol duty simply by adding a Topeak Beam rack.  After a year of patrolling, I had identified the Klein’s deficiencies and compiled specs for my ideal volunteer patrol bike:  multiple speeds, front shock with 100mm travel, and disc brakes, preferably hydraulic.  I found the right combination in a Trek 6500, and that has been my faithful patrol mount for the last three years.

Recreationally, I have been riding a Trek Fuel full suspension bike since 2005.  After seven seasons, the full suspension bike was getting pretty worn out and I began shopping for a replacement.  For years, I had been watching the development of the 29-inch wheel mountain bike from what I considered an oddity, to what I considered it a fad.  Finally, I realized that the 29er is here to stay.  This was reinforced during the Montgomery County Epic, a fund-raising ride for the local mountain bike advocacy group. 

I was patrolling a section of the trail during the ride, and as we watched the riders, it became apparent that 29ers outnumbered their smaller-wheeled cousins by about a five-to-one ratio.  There had to be a reason for this, so I began looking seriously at the larger-sized bicycles. 

Instead replacing my Trek Fuel with a full suspension, I decided to go with a hardtail 29er, a Felt Nine Sport.  For just under $1,000, it came with a 100mm Rock Shox fork, hydraulic disc brakes and Shimano Alivio derailleurs (you can opt for better specs at the $1,599 and $2,299 price points).  I have fallen in love with this bike.  It does everything well, and I have even been thinking of utilizing it in the patrol role.

In the past, the suggestion of patrolling on a 29er would have raised eyebrows.  One of the concerns expressed was that they could not fit smaller riders.  If a smaller rider wanted a 29er, he or she would have to go to a custom frame builder, which is impractical for most police departments. 

However, the 29er has evolved considerably over the last few years, and these frame geometry issues have been resolved.   29ers are now available in the same 15.5” (small) frame size as the venerable Trek Police bikes.  I am 5’ 6” tall, and the 29er fits me like a glove.  When I am in the saddle, the difference in the wheel size is indiscernible.

Another concern was the lack of wheel and tire choices.  Over the last couple of years, the selection of wheels and tires has exploded to include a wide array, from slick and semi-slicks to knobby tires of just about any kind of pattern imaginable.  You can now get virtually any tire that is available in the 26-inch size in a 29-inch size.  The wheels have become stronger, lighter and more durable.  

Mountain bike manufacturers have caught onto the skyrocketing popularity of the 29er, and the high-end “26er” is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  For instance, Specialized, which pioneered the mass-produced mountain bike with the 1980’s Rockhopper, now offers seven models of 29-inch mountain bikes, but only three 26-inch models.  Just as most police departments are dealing with the reality of finding replacements for the ubiquitous Ford Crown Victoria, they will someday have to embrace the 29er, which is becoming the preferred platform for the majority of mountain bikes.

Now that the disadvantages of the 29ers have been addressed, we can focus on the greatest advantage:  the ability to roll over obstacles with greater ease and stability than one could on a 26er.  Here is a perfect example.  I was on a night ride at Little Bennett Regional Park in Clarksburg, Maryland.  We were descending the Tobacco Barn Trail, which has some “old school” railroad ties in the trail to help manage erosion.  The trail was covered with leaves.  As I approached a railroad tie, my front wheel fell into a deep rut.  All I had time to do was slide back in the saddle, utter an expletive, and wait for the inevitable over-the-bar when my bike impacted the railroad tie.  However, the “endo” never happened.  The 29-inch wheels simply rolled over the railroad tie.  Had I been on a 26-inch wheeled bike, the story would have been very different, as evidenced by another rider, who caught the railroad tie with his back tire, causing him to slide out and crash. 

The geometry on the 29er has gotten so good that it has become a remarkably stable platform.  Steering response has been quickened with the use of 72-degree head angles.  I have found that the 29er is able to stay upright at extremely low speeds, and excels at maintaining traction on steep upgrades.  To use another example from my ride at Little Bennett Regional Park, while I was climbing an 18% grade, my rear wheel spun three times on loose ground.  Each time, I was able to recover and continue my climb.  Climbing that same hill on a 26er, I have never been able to recover after my rear wheel spun out.  With the added stability comes increased officer safety. 

29ers also have a reputation of not being able to turn as quickly as 26ers.  This is not the case.  I will admit the 26-inch wheeled bike feels quicker, but there isn’t anything that I was able to do on the 26er that I can’t do on a 29er.  The 29er can handle “the box” and other cone courses with ease at low speeds and is still very maneuverable at higher speeds.  The 29er has a larger contact patch, so the tires give you more “bite” when maneuvering at speed, which can negate any maneuvering advantages a 26er may have. 

With its larger wheel size, the 29er is able to cruise at higher speed, and uses less energy to maintain lower speeds.  The gearing on a 29er is no different than on a 26er; you still have the standard 44/33/22 front triple chainring mated to the 11–32 rear cassette.  However, each rotation of the cranks gives you an additional 11.5% more distance than a 26-inch wheeled bike in the same gear.  I have had no trouble maintaining a steady 15 mph on level ground without significant exertion.  Less exertion means patrolling with less fatigue.  It also means that when a situation calls for maximum speed, the 29er is going to provide more top-end speed than the 26er, which could mean the difference between making an arrest and having one get away.

While some departments may still regard the 29er with some trepidation, there really is no need to do so.  Since its debut, bicycle manufacturers have listened to the riding public and addressed the weaknesses and disadvantages the bikes had four years ago.  The 29er’s ability to roll over obstacles more easily than 26er, excellent stability, good maneuverability and more efficient drivetrain, make it clear that the 29er is now the superior patrol platform and should be considered the patrol bike for the future.

David Cohen has been a volunteer with the Maryland National Capital Park Police, Montgomery County Division, since 2007.  In 2011, he was awarded the Maryland Recreational and Parks Association Agency Volunteer of the Year Award.  David leads group night mountain bike rides by Special Use Permit as part of a collaborative effort between the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) and Mid-Atlantic Off Road Enthusiasts (MORE), the local mountain bike club.  When not volunteering, David works as the Chief Financial Officer for Washington Talent Agency, and plays keyboard in the band Onyx.  

© 2012 IPMBA.  This article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of IPMBA News.

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