Photos by Shane Edel, Matthew Delorme, Ian Hylands & Rob Rebholz
In 2014, more bike manufacturers than ever are rolling out 27.5" bikes. 650B wheeled bikes are flooding the trail and enduro segments of the market. Some companies like Intense and Trek are even tinkering with the middle wheel size on gravity rigs. There is a ton of hype surrounding 650B's, but is it worth replacing a perfectly good 26" or 29" rig with the new wheel size?
You are not alone in this quandary. Last year around this time when I was eager to build up a 650B rig, but the frame options were still quite limited. I wasn't sure that I would love the middle wheel size, so I modified my Ibis HD to accommodate 27.5" wheels. While the solution wasn't perfect, I was able to get a year in on 650B's without breaking the bank.
After a full season on 27.5" wheels, I found that I was rolling over things more easily and carrying more speed than I did on 26" wheels. 29" wheels roll over things better than 650B's, but I am not a fan of the slow handling characteristics of most 29" bikes. I found that the flickability of 27.5" wheels are very similar to a 26".
In fact, when I set up my Cateye Adventure to time laps, I found that a 2.1" tire set on my Charger Pro SL 27.5" wheelset has the same circumference as a 3.0" tire on a 26" wheel! If you're from the old school and can remember rolling on 3.0" Gazzolodi's tires, you will remember A) how ridiculously heavy they were and B) how well they rolled. So in essence with a light weight 650B tire and rim combo you get the rolling benefits of the increased wheel circumference without the extreme weight penalty.
If you are thinking of making the switch to 27.5" wheels, you have many more options for frames, wheelsets and tires than just a year ago. I recently had a chance to sit down with a diverse group of industry veterans to try and get a grip on why the landscape has changed so quickly and what the future may hold for 650B's. Jeff Lenosky, Iconic Street / Trials Rider & Enduro RacerWhat's your preference in wheel size for trail, enduro and gravity? Where is the point travel wise where the 27.5” starts to outweigh the 29"?
I've spent the most time on 27.5" for trail/enduro type riding and I'm completely sold on the advantages of the size. The faster acceleration is really noticeable as well as the overall agility of the bike. I'm a pretty big guy so I never had a problem riding a 29er but I feel much more confident on 27.5".
As far as XC racing or that type of trail riding I can find advantages to both sized. On my 29er I feel like I'm inside the bike and it has the ability to "keep on trucking" even when you're fatigued. The 27.5" bike is a pure rocket ship, noticeably quicker, but I haven't done more then a three-hour ride on one, so I'm yet to see how it feels when you want to keep it going.
I haven't had the opportunity to ride a 27.5" DH bike but the wheel feels much more similar to 26" than 29" so I imagine it would be rad. After spending the past 6 months riding 27.5" I believe it's the ideal size once travel gets over 120-130mm.You are going to a place like Moab to enjoy long descents, but still would like an efficient machine for the up hills. Do you bring a 160mm 26" bike or a 27.5" 130mm bike?
I've gone to Moab on all three wheel sizes and the most fun I had was last year on my Trance 27.5. It has a 160 fork in the front and 140mm of travel in the rear. It was perfect for long climbs and I'm constantly amazed at the capabilities of a modern trail bike on the way back down! What's the thing you like most about 650B's?
The main thing is the agility compared to a 29er and the ability to run heavier duty ties without the bike feeling so sluggish. On a 29er it feels like every extra gram on a tire is noticeable so I would always sacrifice to make the bike feel quicker, I don't need to do that anymore.Could you ever see 650B's on a dirt jump or street bike? You're a big guy- could it work better for you?
It could work but I think I'd always want to stick with 26". Running larger wheels is all about smoothing out the terrain and on a dirt jump or street bike you're riding pretty smooth terrain so there wouldn't be any real advantage. Fox and Manitou are both offering 27.5" DH race forks in 2014. Do you see 26" wheels as dead in the water?
I've heard that most people testing 27.5 downhill bikes are pretty happy with the results. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw less and less 26” inch downhill bikes.Will all trail bikes under 140mm be 29" bikes someday? What type of riders would benefit more from a 650B over a 29er?
I think it's going to be determined by the type of riding and bike design. In my experience 27.5" is way more agile so for courses or trails that require a lot of acceleration and might be tighter and technical they would excel. 29ers are still great when you have the opportunity to carry speed and keep it rolling.
The best thing is that riders have the choice to have a bike that fits their riding style and the different wheel sizes give designers the opportunity to create bikes that highlight the positive attributes of both wheel sizes. Scott Boyd, Sunringle Product Manager and Ed Kwaterski, Hayes Group Suspension Chief EngineerThe internet trolls say that 650B's are the bike industry's way of 'making' folks buy new forks, frames, etc. Are they right? Why are they wrong?
Scott: I can see how consumers think that way, however the goal is to provide a better riding experience. If 27.5" increases your riding experience, then it’s worth the investment. The industry has had to spend time and money tooling up new parts. This has mainly been fueled by demand not the other way around.
Ed: The industry demands constant innovation. As a company, or as a dealer, if you don’t have something new, you are behind and losing business. This comes at a price, and that price is that sometimes what you used to ride is now unavailable. No company can afford to keep making every standard that has ever been produced. You can’t have it both ways.Which segment of the industry drives what wheel size will be marketed most prominently? Is it frame, suspension or wheel manufacturers? Is it consumers? Or is it a mixture of all of the above?
Scott: Ultimately it’s the frame manufactures looking to make their bikes the best and most desirable. The components that are equipped on the bike are to compliment the design and complete the rider’s experience. You can’t have one without the other. As a suspension provider, what range of travel do you think the 650B's excel at the most? What travel range do you offer 650B products for?
Scott: I feel that the 27.5” wheels will be best on a technical terrain using a 140-160mm travel bike. You get the maneuverability of the 26” with a little extra rolling advantage. However, that doesn’t limit to what we will have available for both wheels and forks to meet market demand. Currently we offer 120mm XC forks up to 203mm DH forks which cover all segments. The same goes with wheels, as we have a complete offering. Is there anything specific to the tuning of 650B suspension? Are the wheels significantly stronger than 29"?
Scott: If all the variables remain the same… hub, rim extrusion shape, spoke type, and spoke count. The 27.5 wheels will have less deflection which relates to a stiffer wheel. Strength will be comparable since the rim design for both 27.5 and 29er remains the same.
Ed: Every suspension and bike frame should be tuned as a unique package for its intended usage.Do you see the 650B's most benefiting xc race, trail or enduro bikes the most? Could they be a big wheel answer for people who are too short in stature to wield a 29er?
Scott: The trail and enduro segments are going to benefit the most. I also agree that a shorter person in an XC race would benefit on a 27.5" bike over a 29er. Ultimately, the 27.5” market is here to stay and it will be across all segments.
Ed: Any place where pure fun over speed is the goal, it seems would be right for 650B. As trails tighten up and travels lengthen, speed might even be better on a 650B than a 29er. In the end, I think people should ride what they like, and ignore trends.Where is the market right now? Do you see an increased demand for 650B forks and shocks this year? Wheel sales?
Scott: The demand is up for sure. At the OEM level, 27.5" wheels and forks have almost replaced 26” sales all together.What is the biggest benefit from switching from a 26" to a 650B? 29" to a 650B?
Scott: 26” – 27.5": Faster rolling. 29”-27.5": Better maneuverability.Biggest limitations of the 27.5” wheel size? Where would you spot the rollability of the 650B's between a 26" and 29" wheel?
Scott: Having more tire choices for 27.5" would be the biggest limitation now. This will improve in a short amount of time. Based on the actual rim ETRTO diameters (559mm – 26”, 584mm – 27.5", 622mm-29er), the rollability of the 27.5" will be closer to a 26” wheel.In what direction do you see the market for 650B's going? Will it cannibalize the other wheel sizes or do you see the market growing in all directions? What will happen to 26" trail bikes going forward?
Ed: There is no need for both 26” and 650B. 26” is already being completely ignored by many frame makers. Products are merely carry-over from prior years.Do you feel 650B's are a way for folks who were late on the 29" train to hop aboard a new wheel size? How much is hype versus a real improvement in riding quality?
Ed: Absolutely I believe this. This is exactly where the consumers mentioned above are right.Carter Holland, Owner of Black Market BikesI know you’ve been tinkering a lot with different wheel sizes on the Black Market Roam. Which wheel size do you like the best?
I almost exclusively ride 650B on my trail bike now. I have been riding 27.5” for a year and a half and I love them. We made the prototype Black Market Roam with modular sliding dropouts so you can run 26”, 27.5” or even 29” wheels. The stock Roam can run 26” and 27.5” at 120mm to 160mm of rear travel and 120mm of travel with 29” wheels. What do you like about 27.5” compared to the other sizes?
They definitely roll a lot faster than 26”, without loosing the handling like you do with 29”. There’s about a minute long downhill near my house that I ride all the time. The first night switching from 26” wheels to 650B’s I shaved 6 seconds off my best time and was King of the Mountain.
I raced downhill on a Roam set up with 29” wheels and I couldn’t control the bike. The bike rolls so fast over stuff that as soon as I made a mistake I was off the course. The biggest drawback to 29er’s is that you can’t recover from errors unless you are really big and can dominate the big wheels. What segment of the market do 650B’s excel?
In the trail and downhill bike segment they are going to take over. In that realm there is no reason to ride 26” again. My advice is to sell all of your 26” and 29” and get a 650B frame and wheels. I was hitting 35-40 foot tables at the Rampage site on a Roam with 650B’s. 27.5” don’t have that weird gyroscopic feel that the bigger wheels do. If 26" are dead, what about 29”?
The hardcore xc guys are always going to run 29” wheels. The guys who are the Strava terrorists only care about how fast they can go, not how fun the ride is. If they come out with 36” wheels I’m sure they will ride those!Will 650B’s ever catch on in the freestyle or slopestyle scene?
I don’t think that bigger wheel sizes can withstand the punishment of slopestyle. If you don’t land a rotation perfectly, a 650B or 29” wheel won’t hold up like a 26”. Also riders wouldn’t want the seat and wheels any higher than they are already. It takes a lot to tailwhip a mountain bike and with bigger wheels it would be even more difficult. That said I have flipped a full suspension 29er!Mark Jordan Fox Racing Shox Global Marketing and Communications ManagerWhat is your personal experience on 650B's? How do you like 27.5 compared to 26" and 29" wheels? Did you have to change your riding style to use them?
I have ridden a few 27.5” bikes – the Santa Cruz Bronson, Rocky Mountain Altitude and the Santa Cruz 5010. I first rode one at the 2013 Sea Otter event. The first thing that I noticed was that the bikes didn’t feel much different than 26” and not nearly as much of a change as 29”. I’d say that I still feel that way. You get the benefits of a bigger wheel without such a big handling, geometry, etc. differences that come with a 29er.
I’ll probably never ride a 26” trail bike again. I like how much better the bigger wheels carry speed without having to fork over some cash for a light set of wheels to keep the weight in check. For me, a 27.5” feels close enough to a 26” that I don’t have to change my riding style at all. I like them and the bike industry seems to be all over them. Which category of bike benefits most from the 650B platform?
In our experience, we see a lot of benefits to bigger wheels – they have proven to be faster in most scenarios. Most of the time we are catering to our customers - bike brands and aftermarket consumers. I think the industry is currently giving 27.5” bikes a shake down in all categories, so we’ll know what is best in a year or two. What do you see as the biggest benefits and drawbacks of making the switch to 650B?
In most cases, riders not only gain the benefits of a bigger wheel size but also a newer frame design. The 26” to 27.5” switch gives riders better rolling without a drastic change in bike handling. It’s basically the same going from 29” to 27.5”
A drawback is the budget in the sense that you can’t put less expensive, heavier wheels on the bigger wheel bikes and have good results. Also, there are geometry challenges with smaller riders. Is there anything specific to tuning a 650B shock?
It’s mostly chassis tuning - stiffness for the fork length and offset for the wheel size/bike geometry.What direction is 650B going? Are they taking over the trail market completely?
Just look at what is offered from the top bike brands. 27.5” is already taking away from 26” and 29” trail bikes. And 29” already took away from 26” XC – so it’s all getting cannibalized and it seems as though this trend will continue. Mark Summers Co-owner of Joyride 150 Indoor Bike ParkWhat's your personal choice of wheel size for the park and for all around trail riding?
For the park I prefer a 26" dirt jump bike. For all around xc riding I use a 29er. I have been riding single speed 29er for 7 years. For me the tires roll great and the large volume tires suck up the trail. What wheel sizes do you see roll through your door on a regular basis?
Definitely the young kids/teenagers are on BMX and that is our most popular wheel size. 3/4 of our riders are on a BMX and maybe 20% on 26". There is a group of the xc crowd who come in on their 29ers. I haven't seen any 650B's come through yet. 26" wheels are beginning to be phased out of the trail bike market. Do you see that as a problem?
Yes, I believe that the problem with moving to the larger wheel size is that they are too big for young kids getting into xc riding or racing. For a kid 10-15 years old, the question is, will you be able to find a decent bike for them in a proper size? So far I know of some brands that have (inadvertently) cut this segment of riders out of the picture. No doubt you need to build bikes to make a profit and reach the greatest market share possible (everyone seems to want the big wheels), but will you sacrifice kids being able to get into the sport to do so? Hans Heim, Partner at Ibis CyclesWhat has your experience on 650B's been?
I have ridden the HD converted, the HDR as well as some competitor’s bikes. I do like it better than 26”, it feels more stable, better traction and confidence inspiring. I understand why people like it. My impression is that the bikes I rode feel like they are better than my 26" bikes, but not quite as confident as my 29" at rolling over things, technical climbing and getting around corners at the limit. I would say 650B’s are roughly halfway between.
Keep in mind this is coming from the perspective of a guy who is riding a 29" that was designed to handle like a 26" and so the typical rider experience will have more positives for 27.5” if coming from a slow handling 29". We think that bad 29" bikes helped give 650B’s a great start.What has the emergence of 27.5” wheels done to the business of frame making?
With the exception of Scott and Giant, the very fast acceptance of a new size and rejection of the old standard put bike makers in an impossible situation, having to scrap existing product, tooling, inventory that can't be sold etc. It has been a hellish upheaval for most companies and the idea that they brought it on themselves for the purpose of selling more is completely wrong.
The consumer's wishes are what drives the products for the most part and in this case, critical mass for 27.5" was reached more quickly than any change that has ever come before. Very few companies were in much of a position to capitalize on the change. When we started shipping 27.5" kits with HDRs for example, there was really only one model tire available.Which wheel size or sizes will be dominant in the various segments of mountain biking going forward? What is driving force behind the change in wheel sizes?
I’m guessing the market will stay about the same and the 27.5” and 29” will take over the 26” in all but the lower price and kid's bike ranges. The ultimate split between them is hard to predict, but physics would seem to dictate that they both have a reason to live in the long term.
The way the market works is that frame builders are responding to what they feel consumers want and the component companies are supporting the bike brands. I think both 27.5" and 29" have a bright future. Consumers ultimately drive it, but the constraints on frame / geometry / fit mean that as the travel gets longer, you will not be able to make LONG TRAVEL small bikes that fit with 29" wheels.
The natural arrangement would end up being long travel bikes, 160mm and above, will have smaller (27.5") wheels. In turn, shorter travel and hard tails would have larger (29") wheels. It makes some sense to change wheel size as you change frame size, but you lose the ability to share parts between sizes and it's much the same as making an entire new model. There will be a lot of overlap in the mid travel range as both wheel sizes can work well.
Keep in mind that a change in tire or tire pressure is often more noticeable than a change from 27.5” to 26” or 29”. Wide rims with lower tire pressure are going to be the next big game changer and it is a more noticeable change to the ride than the diameter changes.How did you manage to make your 120mm 29er, the Ripley work for smaller riders?
In most cases small 29" bikes do not fit small riders very well. It's hard to get the bars low enough, low enough standover, etc. We put special effort into the fit for smaller riders on our 29" since Roxy (our designer) is just over 5'.
We were able to configure the Ripley 29" frame so that it fits people even at 5' 0" tall, due to the new short taper fork steerer and smaller head tube plus designing in lots of stand over. If we made an XS for people under 5', 27.5" wheels would make it possible to get a better fit.What do you see as the biggest benefit to the 27.5” wheel compared to 29”?
Depends on the bike, but typically, you would feel that you can change direction more quickly. It is easier to move the bike around. The bike will feel lighter even if it actually weighs the same amount. These differences are largely related to geometry and wheel / tire weight, so it depends on design and set up. We specifically went after improving these traits on our 29" so it's not so noticeable switching from a Ripley 29" to an HDR 27.5".Do you feel 650B's are a way for folks who were late on the 29" train to hop aboard a new wheel size? How much is hype versus a real improvement in riding quality?
There is an actual improvement in ride quality both perceived and measured (timed runs), so that is not imagined. What is confusing and has really thrown people off is the first round of crappy 29" bikes. 27.5" success is partially a reaction to 29" bikes that didn't ride that well. People associate the ride with the wheel size and decide based on not liking a 29" bike they rode at some point in the past, though things have progressed and the situation has changed as the designs have evolved.
There is also a certain face saving kind of decision, folks who were down on 29" bikes not having to give in to 29" after having spoken out against them in the past. They can get some big wheel benefits without feeling like they are caving in to 29" pressure.
Since both can ride very well, there really aren't any wrong answers or bad decisions. I feel I could be happy and adapt to all around riding on either 27.5" or 29" but I do have a slight preference for 29" at this point. I would choose 27.5" over 26" without hesitation as well.Conclusion
I hope you enjoyed the article as much as I did asking the questions. Thanks very much to all interviewed for taking the time to give us the low down on 650B's.
Thanks to Dustin Brady at Shimano, David Parrett at Thomson, Jeff Wilbur at Cateye, Eric Hauge at Dakine, Karl Wiedemann at Thule, Willie Ford at POC USA and Jeff Kendall-Weed at Ibis. Thanks also to Jeremiah Stich and Colin Hastings at Bert's Bikes and Fitness in Tonawanda. Thanks again to Matthew Delorme for slogging through the snow for the shots of Lenosky and Shane Edel for lugging gear to the bottom of the Niagara Gorge to take some fantastic photos.