650b mountain bike wheels: looking at the trends

What the industry is telling us for 2013

Call them what you will, but 650b (27.5in) wheels are poised to shake up the mountain bike world in 2013. If you haven’t been following the resurgence of interest in the middling wheel size, we’ve already detailed the advantages, drawbacks and history of the 650b mountain bike.

The rumors of a revival started swirling this spring, at Sea Otter, with a smattering of prototype frames, suspension forks and tires, along with some off-the-record information about what would be coming down the pipeline in the coming months. 

And this summer’s press camps and tradeshows, such as Eurobike and Interbike, revealed that many companies have been focusing their energies on developing bikes and components around the ‘tweener’ wheel size.

Pacenti has been making 650b wheels for years

Are options good or is three a crowd?

As interesting as many of the 2013 650b bikes look, many manufacturers and retailers seem to think the marketplace will become too crowded with three wheel sizes, and that one will eventually have to give way. 

“Dealers will have the unfortunate challenge of potentially having to carry and sell three wheel sizes on their floors – complete bikes, tires, tubes, wheelsets. That’s a lot more product to place on the floor,” said Trek’s mountain bike brand manager Travis Ott. 

A wealth of 29ers have already pushed 26in wheels out of the short-travel end of the sport. Are 26in-wheeled trail bikes the next victim? What might be most telling is the fact that a few companies – Scott, Rocky Mountain, and Norco, to name a few – have abandoned 26in wheels on some of their 2013 models. 

Scott did away with the 26in Genius, choosing instead to focus on 650b and 29er versions. Rocky Mountain will only offer the 150mm-travel Altitude with 650b wheels. Norco's 140mm Sight will come in both 26in and 650b versions, while the 160mm Range will only be sold with 27.5in wheels.

The Scott Genius in its 650b form, called the 700

Pushing 650b in the trail category is a logical move for two reasons. First, it makes fiscal sense for companies to lead with 27.5in-wheeled trail bikes, as they comprise the biggest chunk of the market. Secondly, while 29ers have come to dominate the hardtail and cross-country full-sus portions of the industry, the longer-travel (140mm and up) realm is where 29ers appear to have stalled in terms of development.

“Builders seem to be finding the limits of creating playful and aggressive all-mountain bikes with 29in wheels. The 650b size offers many of the benefits of the 29in size but in a slightly smaller package, giving longer-travel bikes a lively feel over a 29er of similar design,” said Schwalbe’s marketing manager Sean Cochran.

Scott’s marketing director, Adrian Montgomery, agrees: “29in wheels cannot be placed on a bike in the ‘trail’ segment (140mm to 165mm) without compromising geometry. Big wheels are great, but having a bike that handles well is just as important; 27.5in wheels offer the benefits of the big wheel with longer travel than can be attained with a 29er.”

What’s missing?

In terms of technology, the answer is not much. Big hoops, which took the better part of a decade to gain widespread acceptance, paved the way for the acceptance of alternative wheel sizes. All the forks, rims, wheels and tires needed for 650b wheels are readily available, or will be in the coming months.

Here’s a rundown of some of the new 650b products we’ve highlighted this year: American Classic wheelsDT Swiss wheels and Schwalbe tiresFox Racing ShoxHutchinson tiresIntense 650b DH prototypeIntense TracerKTM 650b trail bikeMagura forksReynolds wheelsRockShox 650b forksSun Ringle wheels and the Turner Burner.

RockShox and SRAM are tag-teaming the 650B push for 2013

What are missing are three of the bike industry’s heavy hitters – Trek, Specialized and Giant have yet to introduce 650b wheeled bikes.

“The mainstreaming of 29ers has made alternative wheel sizes more attractive as a business strategy. With 650b, it’s been largely an industry-driven phenomenon to try to recreate the 29er boom by manufacturers that missed out initially,” said Trek’s Ott.

Specialized offers a similar opinion – that 29ers had a passionate and vocal following, whereas the 650b movement appears to be largely driven by bicycle manufacturers. 

“It’s hard to see where 650b will go,” said Specialized’s Sam Benedict. “When 29ers were coming around, it was the riders that were creating their own 29er rigs and feeling the benefits firsthand. Those benefits of a 29er became very apparent, and the riders began pushing us to deliver the next wave of innovation; it really was demand created by the riders. We don’t see the same thing happening with 650b.”

Beyond trail bikes

The bulk of momentum behind the recent interest in the long-standing 27.5in wheel size is focused on mid-travel bikes. But ‘tweener’ wheels are also being tested on the cross-country and gravity ends of the mountain bike spectrum. 

Nino Schurter proved the viability of 650b wheels at the World Cup level by winning the first event 2012 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, aboard a 650b equipped Scott Scale. The Scott-Swisspower team found 27.5in hoops offered some of the rollover advantages of 29in counterparts while allowing the 5ft 8in Schurter to dial in his preferred low and aggressive position, a fit he was unable to achieve on his 29er race bike. 

On the gravity side, Logan Binggeli recently piloted his prototype KHS 650b downhill bike to a respectable third place at the Red Bull Rampage. Admittedly, freeride competitions are a poor litmus test of 650b DH race performance, though we won’t be surprised if we find 650b bikes being tested on the World Cup circuit next spring. While there will be a weight penalty associated with the slightly larger wheels, they could provide a bit more rollover ability.

Stan's NoTubes ZTR Flow 650b wheels on Logan Binggeli's prototype KHS DH bike

What do you think? Will 650b become the predominate mountain bike wheel size? Do you think the format offers tangible benefits over 26in or 29in wheels? Chime in with your thoughts below.

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