Big wheels for little legs?
As a diminutive female, I’ve always been adamant that 29ers aren’t for me. At just under 5’3”, I can barely straddle a 29 inch wheel, so was understandably dubious as to how well I’d be able to control two of them under me on the trail. Besides, I absolutely love my 27.5 Juliana Roubion, which climbs well, is super-capable, easy to maneuver, and loads of fun.
However, when Juliana released the Maverick, sister to the much-loved Santa Cruz Hightower, I was desperate to try one. On paper, the big wheels teamed with 150mm travel up front and 140mm in the rear, and progressive geometry make it the perfect race bike for an enduro rider like myself, so I was keen to see how it shaped up in practice.
As always, the guys at Jungle Products were happy to oblige, and sorted me out with a demo bike to try for a few weeks. Like my Roubion, it was a Small X01 Reserve build, which comes with a Carbon CC frame, Rockshox Lyrik Ultimate fork, Rockshox Super Deluxe Select Ultimate shock, Sram Code RSC brakes, Rockshox Reverb dropper post, and Santa Cruz Reserve carbon rims on DT 350 hubs.
While this top spec model retails at £7799 (£6599 with alloy rims instead of carbon), there are also two other builds available; R and S build, which come in at £4499 and £5399 respectively. Check the Juliana site for full specs.
Whichever model you opt for, it comes in the stunning ‘Hot Tomato’ colourway, which gets a lot of love from both women and men alike.
Unlike other Juliana models, which come in a size range of XS to M, the Maverick comes in S to L, which confirms my reservations about 29″ wheels being too big for very short riders. However, with the Small supposedly suitable for those from 5’1” to 5’5” (155-165cm), I made the grade, with one and three quarters of an inch to spare.
Anyway, there was only one way to find out – ride it! Despite my determination to be open minded, I was still a little uncertain as to how I’d fare on the big wheels, so the first ride was a fairly standard Lake District loop around the bridleways near Ambleside – nothing overly tech, but with plenty of rocks to hop up and blast down.*
As expected, the bigger wheels rolled over rocks with ease, making both climbs and descents effortless; smashing down the rocky, loose singletrack descents at breakneck speed, without ever feeling out of control. For a big bike, which I expected to be more plougher than playful, it was surprisingly agile and hopped easily off bigger rocks, drops and side hits.
The only issue I encountered was pedal striking on rocky climbs, which I realised must be due to the fact that I had the bike in the ‘low’ setting. As with many new models in the Santa Cruz/Juliana range, the Maverick has a flip chip on the link where the shock mounts, which alters the geometry slightly depending on the position. The low setting slackens the head angle from 65.5° to 65.2° and lowers the bottom bracket from 344mm to 340mm.
That 4mm would be enough to make a noticeable difference on the rocky climbs that are the norm round here, but I decided to leave it in the low setting for its next test, on the tech, tight and twisty enduro trails in Grizedale forest. With much of the climbing on forest fire roads, pedal strikes weren’t much of an issue, and I wanted to try the bike in the slacker setting on the steeper, more technical descents.
Intrigued by how well the big wheels would fare on tight, twisty forest singletrack, I headed for the tightest, most twisty trail in Grizedale. I’ll admit that I didn’t have high expectations, but was amazed at how easily the big wheels got round the tight, steep corners – just as well as my 27.5 Roubion. In fact, the Maverick made light work of anything I threw it down, from steep rooty chutes to chewed up rocky gullies.
For its final test, I wanted to try it on some proper Lake District tech, which is the type of terrain I ride most frequently. The first box to tick was hike-a-bike-ability, which it passed easily, not being all that different to my Roubion. This time I’d switched the flip chip to the ‘high’ setting, so had far fewer pedal strikes on the sections that were actually pedal-able.
I was dubious as to how well it would cope with negotiating technical rocky descents, where accurate line choice and maneuverability are key. However, once again it surprised me with its agility, and on less precarious sections, I was just able to point it down and let it go, as if there was nothing in its way.
After putting the Maverick thoroughly through its paces, it was time to reflect on whether or not I’d consider trading in my beloved Roubion for one. The fact that it had excelled in every challenge I’d set it made it hard to argue against, however, in between test rides on the Maverick, I’d find myself gravitating back to my Roubion, which was probably an indication of the way I was leaning. There’s no question that the Maverick climbs extremely well for a big bike, and blasts down the toughest trails with ease, without compromising on manoeuvrability. The thing is, I also find the same with my smaller-wheeled, but longer travel Roubion, and have the added bonus of it being more playful.
It may be down to the fact that I’ve been riding the Roubion for much longer, and have become accustomed to its geometry and smaller wheels, but I just feel more comfortable on it, and find it suits my riding style better. It may also come down to my size, but I must stress that I was very surprised at just how at home I felt aboard the big wheels of the Maverick, and would say that shorter riders definitely shouldn’t be deterred from upsizing.
If I was purely looking for a race bike, the Maverick would probably be the sensible option, given that the laws of physics dictate that 29″ wheels are going to roll faster than 27.5″ ones, and playfulness is less of a priority. This isn’t to say that the Maverick isn’t an all-rounder, as it definitely is. As with any bike, it very much comes down to personal preference, and it’s been great to discover that 29ers are just as valid a choice for smaller riders as they are for tall ones. I certainly won’t rule out a switch down the line, but for the time being, I’m just gonna roll with the Roubion.
* All testing was carried out prior to the Coronavirus lockdown.
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