Trail Tech: A look at the 650b (27.5in) onslaught

Is this the beginning of the end for 26in wheels?

Another Sea Otter Classic is done and dusted and, as far as new mountain bike technology goes, 650b (27.5in) wheels, bikes, tires and forks could be found at every turn. 29ers also had a strong showing, but brand new 26in models were in short supply. Is 2013 the beginning of the end for 26in-wheeled mountain bikes?

What follows is an armchair assessment of the state of mountain bike technology as it pertains to wheel size, based on conversations with product managers, products introduced this year and last, and a healthy does of personal opinion. 

It is not – we repeat, not – a call to abandon the 26in (or 29in) bike you own and love and run to your local bike shop to handover your hard-earned cash for a new mountain bike with 650b wheels.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at what the future might have in store for the three wheel sizes mountain bikers now have to choose from.

A bit of backstory

Touring and randonneuring bikes have used 650b wheels for many years. The wheel size is nothing new to mountain bikes, either. Frame builders such as Tom Ritchey and Joe Breeze built 650b mountain bikes more than 30 years ago, during mountain biking’s formative years. 

For a number of reasons, 26in wheels took hold and remained the diameter du jour until 29er (700c) MTB wheels rolled onto the scene more than a decade ago. 

It was these – or, rather, the challenges they presented to frame design (rear suspension issues, long chainstays and steep head angles to keep trail figures in line) during their early years – that spurred Kirk Pacenti to develop 650b rims and tires for mountain bikes in 2007. It took a couple of years, but it seems Pacenti was onto something.

Betting on barely bigger

Last year (for the 2013 model year), Norco, Scott, and Rocky Mountain ditched 26in wheels in favor of 650b hoops on at least one of their trail bikes – Norco’s Range, Scott’s Genius and Rocky Mountain’s Altitude are no longer available with that wheel size.

While these brands were touting the benefits of slightly larger (or smaller, depending on your perspective) wheels, the heavy hitters appeared to be watching from the sidelines. None of the Big Three (Giant, Specialized, and Trek) looked as though they were following suit. But then, three weeks ago, BikeRadar was given a sneak peek at several mountain bikes in the 2014 Giant line, and they all have 650b wheels.

Specialized has stated that it has no plans to produce 650b mountain bikes at present. The recent introduction of the Enduro 29 shows that, for now at least, the company is committed to pushing the limits of what’s possible with 29in wheels. 

That leaves Trek. The company would neither confirm nor deny that 650b wheels have a future in its line. We look forward to finding out more about what it has in store in the coming months.

While two of the Big Three are noncommittal, the fact that Giant plans to support 27.5in wheels alongside companies who have already entered the marketplace points to a healthy future for the wheel size. Can the same be said for 26in wheels?

Three’s a crowd?

While the idea that riders now have three wheel diameters to choose from has some appeal, the reality is that it can be a nightmare for bicycle shops and bike companies already awash in competing standards and technologies.

Giant’s global product marketing manager, Andrew Juskaitis, has stated that he feels three wheel sizes are not sustainable. If the growing number of companies redesigning 26in models for 650b wheels is any indication, the general trend is toward replacement rather than the creation of 650b models to stand alongside their slightly smaller brethren.

Several ideas have been floated as to how the wheel war will end. In one scenario, size falls neatly into categories: 29ers for hardtails and cross-country full sussers, 650b for trail and all-mountain bikes, and 26in for gravity bikes.

There are two issues with this prediction. It assumes that XC racers don’t want 650b wheels (although they seem to work well enough for Nino Schurter) and that 26in wheels are better than 27.5in ones for gravity riding.

Many World Cup downhill teams have been experimenting with 650b wheels during the off-season. A product manager, who wished to remain anonymous, stated that his company’s DH racers have seen 1-2 second performance gains from 650b wheels. It almost goes without saying that, in a sport often decided by tenths of a second, this is a significant feat. We’ll keep a close eye on who’s racing what at the season opener, 8-9 June, at Fort William, Scotland.

If 650b trumps 26in, even by margins that don’t matter to the average rider, will that be enough to oust 26in wheels altogether? From new bikes? Eventually, yes. It’s a safe bet that high-end 26in mountain bikes will become quite scarce in the coming years. But will the wheel size die? Not a chance.

It seems much more probable that 26in wheels will simply fade away gradually. There are decades of 26in mountain bikes out there, and they will need tires, tubes, rims and forks for years to come.

As for new 26in mountain bikes, it’s possible that they might become something of a niche market – the way 29ers were in the early years – supported by small companies and custom builders.

What do you think? Is three a crowd? Are 26in wheels here to stay, or will they go the way of the dodo? Let us know what you reckon in the comments area below.

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