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36er mountain bikes: what you need to know

Recently, I’ve found myself harbouring a growing interest in the concept of the 36 inch wheeled mountain bike. Suitable for all but the tallest riders, 36ers are still very niche and require a significant outlay to have one custom-built, yet they could very well be future for taller riders who do longer-distance cross-country riding.

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Truebike_SS_17

The bikes shown above are custom built steel 36er, from Truebike. Go and check out their webpage for prices and further details.

While I’ve been convincing myself to go ahead and get a 36er MTB built (later this year, hopefully), I’ve read up on just about every possible aspect of this type of bike. I’ve weighed up the pluses and negatives, investigated options for suspension, possible tires, frame materials, frame-builders … and so on.

This blog post is an attempt to distill all the relevant information about 36er mountain bikes into a single reference guide, which I hope can be useful for others who may also be pondering whether to try a 36er, or to raise awareness of the great possibilities of large wheeled MTBs.

What is a 36er?

A 36er is, as the name implies, a mountain bike built for 36 inch diameter wheels. This wheel size is not plucked out of thin air at random, but is chosen due to the availability of components for unicycles, which have 36-inch as one of their wheel-size standards. (32-inch is another standard size, for which the same principles discussed also apply, but which won’t be discussed here to avoid complicating things.)

For the wheels, conventional wisdom among builders of 36ers seems to be that a combo such as 36-inch, 36 hole, aluminium rims from Nimbus (the market leader in 36 inch rims), with 14 g straight spokes in a 3-cross pattern, on 29er-specific shimano hubs.

Until very recently, owners of a 36er would have been forced to make do with heavy, and not particularly grippy unicycle tires. But there are already a few MTB-specific 36er tires available now, including this tire being sold by Waltworks, which they describe thus:

Vital statistics:
Size: 36″ x 2.25″
Weight: 1625g +/-40g
Tubeless Ready: Yes
Max PSI: 65
Bead: Wire
TPI: 36
Durometer: 60 Shore A

These tires are significantly lighter (you’ll save more than a pound per tire) than the competition, which help you accelerate more quickly and reduces the weight of the wheel at the rim allowing for faster/longer rides with reduced effort.  They are tubeless ready and setup well allowing for lower pressure and more grip. Bicyclists have found 18-23psi to be a good range while unicyclists have gone a bit higher to 32-40psi.

Tread pattern lies between a Kenda Nevegal and Schwalbe Racing Ralph in terms of tread depth and design, creating good grip across a wide range of terrain and conditions while maximizing speed off-road and on.  Tapered and ramped center knobs along with ramped transition knobs provide traction and control, while tie bars connecting the triangular transition knobs to side knobs help with cornering.

That’s most probably the tire I’ll be ordering for  my 36er.

A 36er MTB is also going to need a frame and fork that can accommodate the giant wheels. At the time of writing (2015), 36ers are a niche variety or MTB that are not manufactured by any of the mass-producing bike companies. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent custom frame-builders to choose from worldwide, working predominantly with steel tubing. Some are even able to adapt suspension and other components for use on a 36er. (At the end of this page I’ve compiled a list of frame-builders who are known to be willing to build 36er frames.)

The other components can basically just be a mix and match of regular MTB parts, depending on your own preference and budgetary constraints. In terms of gearing, a 22 tooth front chainring with a wide range rear cassette (i.e., 11-36) seems to be what many recommend (bigger wheels require lower gearing).

An overall price is hard to define, since it depends on the components and materials chosen, but somewhere in the ballpark of 1500 GBP / 2500 Euro / 3000 US Dollars should be roughly the lower limit for a compete 36er.

Who can or should ride a 36er?

The minimum height to be able to ride a 36er is probably around 5 foot 8 (173 cm). To put things into context, this would be roughly equivalent to a quite short rider on a 29er.

A rider who is 6 foot (183 cm) or taller should have no real problem with a 36er, and anybody above 6 foot 9 (206 cm) or so would probably find a 36er to be their optimal choice of mountain bike.

If in doubt, it may be best to go for a 32er MTB instead.

Summary of the positives (as I see them)

The benefits of riding a 36er ought to be, in effect, an accentuated version of the benefits that 29ers bring:

– The larger wheels give smoother ride (rolling resistance, flexibility, momentum).

– Larger tire contact patch may provide greater traction.

Such a unique bike cannot fail to be a talking point on the trails (I see this as positive, but some may disagree).

Summary of the negatives

Heavier than smaller-wheeled mountain bikes, predominantly due to the larger wheels. Expect a 36er to weigh in at around 30-35 lb (13-16 kg). This might sound like a lot of extra weight, but in mitigation one must consider that the higher body weight of the taller riders who might opt for a 36er makes the weight of the bike somewhat less important.

Their heavier wheels are harder to spin up, and are more difficult to decelerate when reducing speed.

Reduced maneouverability, and more body language required on tight turns.

High cost – the lack of mass-produced frames for 36 inch wheels means having a frame and fork custom made.

Limited choice and availability of rims, tires and spokes. In many cases, these parts are optimized for unicycle use, rather than MTB use.

Normal MTB drive train components can be used, but this may result in sub-optimal gearing.

Except perhaps for giants, even a negative rise stem may leave the handlebars significantly higher than the saddle. Higher bars may not be to the taste of traditional cross-country riders.

A list of known builders of 36er mountain bikes

This is not an exhaustive list, but the idea here is to maintain a list of frame builders who are able to build complete 36-inch wheeled mountain bikes. I’ll add to this over time as I discover more.

Dirty Sixer (USA)

Keener Cycle Works (USA)

Poetry In Motion Cycles (United Kingdom)

Waltworks Custom Bicycles (USA)

Truebikes (Slovakia)

Thomag (Switzerland, links to his youtube video)

Wheeler (Taiwan) It’s not entirely clear right now, but it seems theirs may be the first production 36er MTB to come to market. Very exciting if true!

9 thoughts on “36er mountain bikes: what you need to know”

  1. Wheeler showed a 36″ model recently, apparently as a standar model. Not the prettiest, but it may deserves to be checked

    1. Indeed, a standard model MTB with 36 inch wheels is (would be) a really exciting development. I imagine it could be more economical than a custom-built steel frame, and may also provide some impetus for development of purpose-designed 36er rimss and tires.

  2. I have a 32 inch bicycle I bought at Walmart and have a lot of fun on. Can I put a 36 inch wheel on this 32 inch bike? Thank you.

    1. I wouldn’t have thought a 36 wheel would fit a frame designed for a 32 inch wheel, but you could always measure how much clearance there is with your 32 inch wheel installed and extrapolate from that.

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