Test bike courtesy of Conticomponents

As if the world of mountain biking is not complicated enough with all the different choices of suspension travel and gearings. Now, we even have to re-think the sizes of the wheels we put on our mountain bikes! What exactly is a 96’er?  Simply put, it is a bike with a 29-inch front wheel and a smaller, 26-inch rear wheel. But why do they do it?

The idea of running different wheel sizes has its roots in motorcross; Cannondale and Ibis had experimented with the idea in the ‘80s – using a smaller 24-inch wheel in the rear. The larger diameter front wheel rolls over obstacles easily and once the front has cleared a given technical section, the rear would most likely follow through. It is therefore thought that, it is not necessary to have the same diameter wheel in the rear, which will weigh the bike down and cause it to feel more lethargic. In addition, unlike traditional 29ers, having a 26-inch rear wheel would allow the bike to maintain the pedaling crispness of a standard mountain bike and improve its handling, given its shorter chainstay length.

Carver recognized this niche back in 2005, during the early development of the 29er concept. They have since devoted their entire product line around this market. Furthermore, apart from the 96er frame, they are also known for their Eccentric Bottom Bracket (EBB) design, which was able to eliminate the creaking sound in some of the earlier designs, and they are also responsible for the EBB found in Gary Fisher’s bicycles. Incorporating their expertise in these two areas, Carver has a winner not to be reckoned with.

My First Time

To be frank, this is my first time on a 96er and I really had no idea what to expect before receiving the review bike. My 16.5” Carver 96er, which belongs to Joshua himself, came fully decked out with some of the latest gadgets, notably the SRAM XX Reba fork and disc brakes. Drivetrain duties are handled by the trusty Shimano XTR groupset, save for the SRAM Attack shifters. The cockpit is decked out with an Easton carbon stem, Ritchey Pro flat bar and Crank Brothers Iodine headset. Finishing touches from KCNC, Tune, Hardly and Stan’s complete the bike, each chosen for their durability and low weight. The review bike tipped the scale at just below 10.5kg – the frame contributing 1.4kg.

The frame’s front triangle is welded from triple-tapered 7000 series aluminum and has a curved top tube for better standover clearance. Head angle is a cross country-ish 70 degree and short effective top tube length of 21.75”. The chainstay length measured 16.75” from the centre of the bottom bracket shell to the axle with 0.25” of adjustment either way via the EBB. The frames are designed around 80-100mm of front suspension travel and come in 6 different sizes to suit the ergonomics for a wide range of riders. The other unique feature on this frame is the EBB, which allows rider to custom build their ride in many ways. Single speed, fixie or geared – the choice is entirely yours. That is not all there is to the EBB. Depending on the terrain you are riding on, you may shift the EBB to the highest point for more ground clearance or to its lowest point to lower the CG and hence better control.

Best of Both Worlds

Hopping onto the Carver, one can feel the higher front right away. But just as advised by Joshua, a flipped Easton stem (giving a negative rise position) partially offset the effect. This has no major effect on the ride characteristics. Also, when the front is not lowered, rider will be faced with a lifting front when negotiating steep climbs.

The bike sprang forward in a lively manner upon my first stroke of the pedals. The bike pedaled as what it was designed to be. There is no evidence of sluggishness in this department as opposed to a standard 29er. The larger wheel upfront gave the bike a wider turning radius – but do not mistake that for slow steering. This frame handles beautifully in local terrain just like any good old XC hardtail should. Although the fork is set at 100mm, I keep feeling that I have an extra inch or two of travel upfront and that gave me that added confidence when going down slopes. The front wheel just kept eating bumps for breakfast and smoothed any bumpy trails in its path. But here comes the catch – with the added confidence from the front wheel, I grew to ride more aggressively and quicker with the bike. While it is true that the smaller rear wheel will follow in the path of the front, it is also a fact that it does so with less grace. In the end, I kept having an unbalanced feel between the front and the rear when going fast over bumpy terrain due to the different-sized wheels. I highly suspect that this would be less of a problem if the Carver was a full suspension frame instead.

On the climbs, the larger front end continued to be an asset as the bike ramped through trail clutter with ease. You simply point to where you are heading and pedal on except for the trickiest climbs. While the front end adds stability to the climb, the extra weight from the bigger wheel can be a minor drawback, and prevented the Carver from climbing like a mountain goat.

Conclusion

Personally, the 96er has opened a new dimension of mountain biking to me. I have always wanted to try out the 29er but hesitated due to my height and the high clearance on the 29er. The 96ers’s lower clearance (because of its curved top tube and smaller rear wheel) was like a dream come true for me and has allowed me to tap on the benefits of a larger front wheel and much more.

While it is not a thoroughbred racing machine, it is a really fun bike to own. It is essentially a jack-of-all-trades and is at ease with any trail situation. The front wheel’s ability to track a given line is exceptional. Top that with its lightweight, crisp pedaling efficiency and forgiving rear end – this is one frame I would consider seriously if I could only have one bike.

The frame retails for $700 and comes with a 1 year warranty from the local distributor – Conticomponents. It is true that the frame is made in China, but there is no denying the brilliant engineering and design work that went behind this frame. Carver also has a Titanium 96er, and also custom-make Ti 26er frames. Both can be purchased at Conticomponents for SGD1800.