The arrival of the 27.5 (650b) wheel size has added further debate to an already dynamic industry and confusion among consumers is at an all-time high. We break it all down to deliver some clarity on the issue. – By the TREAD editors
So the wheel size topic has heated up again following the launch of 2014 ranges from big brands including Giant, SCOTT, Trek, GT and Specialized.
The shift to 27.5-inch (650b) has been nothing short of rapid and widespread and not that long after the big 29er shift, which really only took hold globally from 2011.
SCOTT was the first big brand to embrace the ‘in between’ wheelsize when it launched Genius trail bike models in 29 and 27.5 for 2013. The Swiss-based brand has extended 27.5 commitment for 2014 into it’s Spark and Scale ranges.
Iconic American brand, GT has shifted its Sensor trail bike and Force all-mountain bike onto only 27.5 wheels, while Giant, from a numbers perspective, probably the world’s biggest performance bike brand, has launched a significant 28 models in the 27.5 wheel size for 2014, marginalizing its 29er models quite noticeably in the process.
Trek meanwhile showed support for both wheel sizes and launched 27.5-inch platforms in its Slash (all-mountain) and Remedy (trail) models, the latter giving a second option to the existing 29-inch wheel size. Trek also added the 29-inch platform to its Fuel EX range to complement its popular Superfly 29er model.
Specialized, meanwhile, has maintained its stance that there’s no need for a 27.5 inch wheel size by bolstering it’s 29-inch range further for 2014. But it hasn’t ruled out the 650b completely. Specialized, remember, rubbished 29er as a wheel size option initially too, but has been spotted testing 650b wheel bikes in North America. And we hear that Cannondale is working on 27.5 development for it’s mid and longer-travel models.
South African-born brand, Silverback, has been among the most progressive with the in-between wheelsize, delivering six 27.5 models in its 2013 range. And local brand, Momsen, has embraced 27.5 with it’s range of carbon hardtail frames as well as having a 650b in it’s new VIPA model to ensure smaller riders aren’t left out.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
“We’ve been prototyping 650b bikes. Is the industry completely ready for it? We don’t think so. We’ll let you know if and when we bring out a 650b,” said Specialized’s mountain bike product marketing manager Sam Benedict. – www.bikeradar.com
“We are fully committed to 27.5,” explains Giant’s Global Marketing Manager, Andrew Juskaitis. “We are not introducing just one or two models. We are not testing the waters here. We believe so strongly in what 27.5 has to offer that we’ve committed the majority of our 2014 line to 27.5 – from sport to race. This is the boldest decision we have ever made in our company’s history.”
While Juskaitis notes that Giant will continue to offer 29ers in 2014, he maintains that 27.5 is the future for the company. “We have not killed 29 in 2014, but it is minimised,” explains Juskaitis. “We are not going to turn off the tap entirely this year, but we do have plans to phase it out over time.” – www.bikemag.com
“Wheel size is like a shoe size. What is comfortable for one isn’t necessarily comfortable for another. That is why we have 27.5 and 29 versions.” – Pascal Ducrot, SCOTT Sports Vice President
“With the amount of money that it costs to do years of research and development, prototyping, and production, this is definitely not a marketing ploy. We’ve been studying the viability of 650b wheels for quite some time and decided that it works well for some applications, but that 26 and 29er wheels still offer advantages over 650b for different ride styles and applications. This is just another choice for people who are looking for a certain type of performance.” – Chris Pomering, Engineering Manager, Trek Bikes
“There is no such thing as one wheel size for everyone. It’s horses for courses – long live variety.” Victor Momsen
Choose your weapon
A quick recap on the benefits of each, which have been researched and repeated by most of the big brands:
Advantages of 27.5 (650b) over 29
- Stiffer, more responsive frame
- Less geometry limitation to allow more suspension travel options
- Lighter weight (wheels and bike)
- Faster acceleration
Advantages of 29 over 27.5 (650b)
- Better obstacle roll-over
- Bigger tyre traction contact patch
WHAT WE’RE SAYING
In 2010 we spent a considerable period riding and comparing 29-inch wheels to 26-inch wheels for our ground-breaking feature MAKE DA CIRCLE BEEGA, where we concluded that 29ers were better overall, here to stay and would become the dominant wheel size within a few years.
For most of 2013 we have been comparing 29-inch wheels to 27.5-inch (650b) wheels. Obviously the difference is smaller than that between 29 and 26, which has made delivering a straight verdict about as simple as the Proteas winning a major cricket tournament title.
This is one area where South Africa is markedly different to the rest of the world. Well, except perhaps Australia. Nowhere else in the world is marathon racing and stage racing as popular as it is in South Africa. And with this kind of race comes relatively non-technical trails where speed trumps skill 80% of the time. Make that 90% of the time actually…
We test rode SCOTT’s new 650b models in the Swiss Alps. We test rode GT’s new 650b models in the Rocky Mountains in the USA. We have been riding Momsen, Silverback, Morewood and Pyga in South Africa. We have ridden in Gauteng, North West, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and Mpumalanga. We have raced XC, Enduro, Marathons and Stage Races.
Except for Specialized digging in its heels, the global trend is undeniably towards 27.5 (650b) wheels. And that’s really great, if you ride the steep mountain slopes or the technically advanced trails so prevalent in the USA and Europe.
But we live in and ride in South Africa, where trails are largely non-technical. And where there are steep, tricky trails, they’re ridden by a small percentage of riders.
We spent a few days in Karkloof, KZN recently where we rode a Pyga One Ten 29er and a Pyga One Ten 650b. Bottom line: The 650b handled better overall and was more maneuverable than the 29er through the forest singletrack, of which there is a lot. On the more open sections, the 29er was obviously in its element. Both appeared to manage rocky or rooty straight trail sections equally well and surprisingly, when freewheeling on long descents, the 650b rolled as well as the 29er, actually even quicker at times. The 650b was a better climber overall, scaling steep ascents with more ease than the 29er.
This wheel-size shift hasn’t come from consumer demand; it’s come from industry command. But then mountain biking isn’t even 40 years old yet and is still evolving. It’s a high-tech sport and in high tech sports, the industry is – like it or not – built on business principles, not passion and soul.
Looking for a new 26-inch mountain bike? If you find one, you’ll get it at a steal. Incredible to think that three years ago, that was the dominant wheel size…
Which is the best wheel size for you?
We think 29 will remain the dominant wheel size in South Africa due to this country’s unique riding/racing patterns. But we love that 27.5 offers bigger-wheel benefits for smaller people and those that just love to shred.
Here are our suggestions:
You should ride 27.5 (650b) if you are:
- Small-to-Medium sized (kids, teens, most women, short men)
- Riding mostly steep or technical trails
- Racing a lot of Cross-country
- Getting into Enduro racing
You should ride 29 if you are:
- Medium-to-Large sized
- Extra Large sized
- Doing a lot of marathons and stage races
- Riding mostly dirt roads and uncomplicated trails
- A strong, competitive male or female marathon/stage racer
Originally published in TREAD Issue 25, 2013 – All rights reserved