What’s Driving the 650B Explosion? Interviews, Tech Breakdown & More!
Seems there’s no hiding from 650B discussions these days. Depending on who you listen to, the sudden explosion is either driven by consumers looking for something better or industry folks trying to drum up new business. In reality, both are true, and 650B / 27″ / 27.5″ mountain bikes are headed to bike shops this fall. What’s surprising is the “explosion” part. Unlike the slow adoption and cautious market entry many brands practiced with 29ers, no one wants to be left behind the latest craze.
We talked to a wide variety of domestic and foreign bike, component and tire brands to get the scoop…and they opened up pretty well! Interviews after the break, but first, a little primer on the wheel size.
The 650B size isn’t new. In fact, it’s been used for decades on cruiser and commuter bikes in France. Originally, the 650 number referred to the outside tire diameter with different letters (A, B, C or none) referring to different size tires and rim widths. Note that the number doesn’t refer to the rim’s diameter. To make matters even more confusing (or nonsensical, depending on your point of view), 650mm equals 25.59 inches, which isn’t remotely close to the 27″ or 27.5″ English conversion we’re seeing on parts. It’s a rabbit hole, and if you’re interested in the red pill, MTBR recently posted a nice timeline on 650B’s modern evolution into mountain bikes. Sheldon Brown also has a few good articles on tire size and rim measurements.
The short of it is this: With 26″ and 29ers, those numbers generally refer to the outside diameter of the tire. With 650B, most manufacturers we talked to are leaning toward calling it and marking their parts with 27.5″, which should not only reduce consumer confusion, but also more accurately portray the tire size…sort of. Much of it depends on the tire’s width. Put a 1.75″ slick on your 26″ bike and you’re probably rolling on little more than 25″ of outside rubber. On the flip side, run something like WTB’s massive Weirwolf 2.5 29er and you could very easily be around 30″. As you can see from the images in this post, 650B is actually much closer to 26″ in diameter.
We pitched the following questions to a wide range of product and marketing managers. There’s a bit of redundancy (and a few surprises), below are their unedited responses. When I started the conversation with the brands, it was with the assumption that the industry was driving this, and in some cases they agreed. Naysayers may cry foul, that they’re just trying to boost business, but I think this quote from Paul Aieta, MRP’s VP of Sales, puts a better perspective on it:
“The industry is fueled by thousands of enthusiasts (like me) who strive to make a better bike. The victor is the consumer because they keep getting better and better bikes and gear that they didn’t even think to ask for.”
WHAT’S DRIVING THE SUDDEN EXPLOSION IN 650B?
SPECIALIZED (Sam Benedict, MTB Product Marketing): It’s not new to riders, we looked at, and tested, it years ago and continue to pay attention to it. This latest surge is coming from the manufacturers though, not the riders which is interesting.
SRAM (Tyler Morland, MTB Communications Manager): There’s a few different factors coming together on this. As 29” bikes have gained momentum, there’s more interest in bigger wheels. However, particularly at longer travel, many frame designers feel challenged in designing a full suspension bike with 29” wheels. 650B allows the designer to take advantage of a “bigger than 26 inch” wheel without the same design challenges as a 29” wheel. Weight has also played into the discussion as well. While at the premium level, weight differences between 26” and 29” component parts and frames have narrowed, at the mid and entry level there’s still a big difference. 650B allows the creation of a lighter weight “bigger than 26 inch” wheel bike at these price points.
CONTINENTAL (Brett Hahn, US marketing): Actually not all that sudden, been around for a long time and used more recently by smaller, custom builders like Pacenti or more mainstream like Jamis. Basically the limitations of 29 with regard to frame design/geometry have been fully-realized and it’s time to fix it.
PIVOT (Chris Cocalis, founder): I think the sudden interest in 650B is a combination of things. Some companies have seen where there are limitations to where we can go with travel and frame sizing on a 29er and 650 offers a good alternative to this. Also, some of the European countries really have not bought into the idea of 29ers and this gives them an option to go bigger without following the 29er trend. I think there has been swelling interest for quite some time, but we all needed Fox and Rock Shox to develop some product to make this happen.
CANNONDALE/GT (Bill Rudell, PR manager): I think this is driven from three directions: 1) Riders seeing the benefits of 29” wheels on hardtails & short travel bikes and wanting those benefits on their longer travel bikes that face fitment challenges of the big wheels. 2) Shorter stature riders wanting to reap some of the rewards of bigger wheels, but who can’t fit on 29ers. 3) Euros.
AMERICAN CLASSIC (Bill Shook, founder): With the increased popularity of the 29er people are realizing there’s something to the easier rolling of large diameter wheels. The 29er doesn’t fit into long travel suspension frames. 29ers weigh more than 26. Some people are too small to really benefit from 29. So 650b is in between 26 and 29. It addresses all these issues. 650b’s roll well, they are lighter and fit long travel forks/frames (not DH travel).
SCHWALBE (Sean Cochran, Field Marketing): This is an interesting one because several years ago there was a push from the US to create this wheel size but nothing really played out. This year it seems the main interest is coming from Europe. I believe it’s because they found themselves behind by not investing in 29ers and now they don’t want to make the same mistake twice.
KENDA (Ben Anderson, MTB PR): The sudden interest in all being driven by the OEM segment of the market. Aftermarket and end consumers are not the driving force and are in some cases sitting back, puzzled by this sudden burst of excitement in 650B. Jamis and KHS as the long standing supporters of 650B are continuing to push forward on it, and now we are seeing the increased interest from OE accounts globally. I think that part of the mad dash from OEM’s is in some way driven by all the product managers not wanting to potentially miss the boat on this like some companies may have with 29’ers. Tack on to that the fact that Nino Schurter is killing it on the World Cup circuit on 650B (tubulars no less).
MRP/WHITE BROTHERS (Paul Aieta, VP Sales): Not sure, really, maybe because the White Brothers LOOP 650 fork helped Jamis get a great review from Mountain Bike Action (Ha!). Or because the word got out that one of the “majors” was going to get into it, and then everybody rushed to design their bikes and components.
SCOTT (Adrian Montgomery, US Marketing): First, we call it 27″. #keepitinches because all the other bikes in the category are measured in inches, we need to look forward to the retail and customer conversation and keep the units of measure the same. I think that both suppliers and consumers have had a taste of the Big Wheel (29″) and like all the benefits it offers but 29″ doesn’t suit all riders or all bike types. For instance, you cannot build a bike with more than 130mm of travel with 29″ wheels because the BB offset and the rest of the geometry would be WACK. So, some are considering 27″ as an alternative to 26″. #keepitinches
TOMAC (Joel Smith, Owner): Companies looking to grow their sales and differentiate it’s brand. It’s obvious the 29er market has matured and is saturated, so there’s few places to go to grow sales. I mean, bigger than 29 isn’t going to happen, and you’d get lynched for something smaller than 26. It seems natural to go big for 650b, especially when the market is developing and you can be seen as “innovative” for even making a 650b bike.
SANTA CRUZ (Mike Ferrentino, whose comments were presumably vetted by suspension engineer Joe Graney, who is on the record as not looking forward to 650B): First, i do not entirely agree with (the premise that the industry is driving this). I think consumers are a big part of this interest bubble right now. According to francis at MTBR, “650b” is the second most popular search term on their site at the moment, and the 650b forum traffic is showing huge growth. It is valid to argue that the industry is at fault for even beginning to entertain the idea of 650b wheels, but consumers are clamoring right now for what they perceive to be the next better mousetrap. Another thing to consider – IF this takes off, does anyone realize how much crow the industry is going to have to eat listening to grant petersen saying “I told you so?”
I think on the consumer side there is a desire for some sort of better mousetrap/magic bullet – a wheel size between 26″ and 29″ that will combine all the positive attributes of both into one bike that will do everything. That desire is a bit naive, but people go down that road all the time.
At the industry level, you’ve got the fading popularity of 26″ wheels on hardtails and short travel xc applications butting headfirst into the very real packaging issues surrounding use of 29″ wheels for long travel, high abuse riding. I think within the industry, for some companies at least, there’s also a pretty heavy fear of being left behind if the ‘tweener wheel takes off, and somehow becomes the miracle wheel that everyone defaults to. You know, some sort of amplified 1992 syndrome – fear of being left with a giant pile of 1″ and 1.25″ threaded headsets, right around the time that 1 1/8″ threadless steerers became the industry default. Okay, maybe not.
LAPIERRE (Serge Lopez, Product Manager): There is no doubt now that 29″ wheels are helping a lot but that you can’t design a long travel frame with 29″ wheels. So everybody is trying to find the best compromise and in some cases, 650B could be the proper dimension.
JAMIS (Sal Crochiola, marketing): We saw the sudden explosion with Rockshox and Fox announced that they’d have forks. A lot of brands were watching the market, watching us and KHS do it, and maybe started developing a couple test bikes, and maybe that’s what spurred the two fork leaders to be on board, then that allowed it to explode. Then the tire guys, then rim and wheels guys followed suit. And that was really only in the past six months! We watch the forums a lot, and it seems like people are showing more interest as they’re hearing more about it and as our bike tests start showing up in more magazine tests. And people have been retrofitting their 26″ bikes when they can, and that’s been silently growing. We’ve been explaining it for years, but with 650B, you really have to ride it to get it. I think it’s taken the last few years for the product managers and engineers to get a 650B bike under them.
If your brand is getting involved, when and why? What’s the strategy behind your timing – are you taking a wait and see approach or looking to lead the segment?
SPECIALIZED: We will continue to look at it but right now we are not getting involved.
SRAM: RockShox is currently in production with a Revelation fork in 650B, and our 650B Rise 40 wheelset will start production in June. Across a number of OEM brands, there were clearly expressed desires to create 650B bikes, but key components like suspension and wheels were missing from the market. With both these products, we were driven to produce these products by the requests from our OEM partners. At SRAM, we pride ourselves on offering choice to the market, and creating 650B options felt like it was supporting the idea of choice.
CONTINENTAL: Way too big to ignore, every major interest is taking the step. We plan to support the dimension with multiple patterns, widths and versions.
PIVOT: We will be in this segment for sure, but it won’t just be a 26” bike adapted for 650. I consider it an all new platform that needs to be developed properly from the ground up.
CANNONDALE/GT: GT is actively looking at 650B for the future for potential use, but it’s a little too early to say if/when these would make our product line.
AMERICAN CLASSIC: We have had 650B for about + 3 years. This is our SECOND generation of 650B. We have 3 new wheel models and one rim only model coming out at Eurobike and available for early autumn 2012. Wheels are RACE 650B tubeless, All Mountain 650B Tubeless, Terrain 650b Tubeless and the new tubeless rim project “Disc 101” tubeless 650B 32h.
SCHWALBE: Schwalbe released its first 650B tire in 2009 the Racing Ralph we did not receive a whole lot of requests for the tire and we almost retired the mold this year but with all the interest we decided to keep it. Schwalbe has always believed in being an innovator we started working on other options last year which is why we will have a full complement of 650B tires in 2013.
KENDA: We are already in the market with the Nevegal 2.10 and 2.35, we never stopped production on it. We are also developing three new tires for the 650B segment, the Karma 650Bx2.00 having already been shown at Sea Otter this year, in both tube type and tubeless ready SCT constructions. As one of the leading tire manufacturers we plan on being a leader in the 650B segment too.
MRP/WHITE BROTHERS: White Brothers helped Kirk Pacenti pioneer this segment by doing the first 27.5” x 100mm travel fork in 2006.
SCOTT: Our involvement has been limited to producing a prototype Scale frame for Nino Schurter to race the World Cup. We opted to make this for him to provide any advantage possible for the Olympic year. The reason we made him a 27″ Scale is that he wanted bigger wheels but had real fit issues on our Scale 29″. If you remember Kulhavy was smoking fools on the 29″ bike last WC but he’s over 6′ tall so it worked for him, it did not work for Nino.
TOMAC: We will do it, because I have learned that missing trends is missing sales and no bike company today can afford to miss sales.
LAPIERRE: We are already testing a lot of things since a few months and, obviously, we are here to lead every segment! When? When we’re happy with the way our samples work… and we’re not far from that. Why? Because we’re convinced that in some cases, 26” are not the best compromise and 650B could help.
JAMIS: Obviously we’re looking to lead it. Last year we introduced two 650B hardtails and that was consumer driven. Our full suspension bikes came in 2009, but shops were asking for hardtails. We’re going to add more models for 2014, we’re developing more for sure.
If you’re working on it, how long has 650B been on your radar as something you wanted to bring to market?
SPECIALIZED: We have tested other manufacturers’ bikes as well as built our own as far as three years ago.
SRAM: We first started fielding requests for RockShox forks about 5 years ago. However, at that time the requests were all over the map in terms of intended use, travel and price point. Some brands were looking for longer travel forks, while others viewed it as a potentially lighter weight alternative to 29” for race bikes. Last summer (2011), interest began to consolidate around the trail bike segment, in the 140/150mm travel range. We formally launched the development project in September of 2011.
CONTINENTAL: 3-4 Years.
PIVOT: I tested with 650 wheels 4 years ago and at that time pushed hard for both Rock Shox and Fox pursue it, but 29ers were just really gaining steam so it wasn’t in the cards at that time. The announcement about 8-9 months ago that both companies were going to be developing forks changed the game. We will have something special when all the testing is done and we are happy with the end product. I think this is a perfect application for longer travel designs (more than 5.7”) where 29ers have some issues.
CANNONDALE/GT: Personally, 650B has been on my radar for the past 5 or 6 years and on the GT brand radar for the past 18 or so months. I’ve personally always looked at 650B as the size the industry should have done, but didn’t.
AMERICAN CLASSIC: About 1 year or so for this second generation.
KENDA: With the existing Nevegals going as far back as the end of 2008 it has been on our radar for a while. However, the new interest has been something that we have been watching and preparing for, for the last year.
MRP/WHITE BROTHERS: Since 2006. In 2011 we introduced the LOOP 650, the first dedicated 650B series of forks, from 80mm to 150mm.
SCOTT: So far it is not on our radar to bring to market. We’ve been testing since last summer for Nino’s bike and we have some real good data on how the wheels accelerate, the size of their traction patch and their improved rollover when compared to 26″ but at this point we are not planning to make a 27″ production bike. We’ll read through the comments on this story to gauge the market input.
TOMAC: It’s been on the radar for a long time, but the components to build the bikes have been somewhat limited. That’s changed in the past 6 months, which makes it much easier to put the bike you want together.
LAPIERRE: Approximately 1 year, we’ve started to push some of our suppliers because we need them to bring the appropriate products/parts to the market.
JAMIS: We started developing the first 650B bikes in late 2008 and in the market as a 2010 model year. We started with a 5″ travel full suspension bike because we were getting a lot of pressure for a full suspension 29er. Once we hit 130mm travel, it was so difficult to get a good full suspension design, but the 650B wheel size worked, so that’s how it came about.
Assuming the wheel size takes off with rapid consumer adoption, how do you think it’ll change the retail landscape? In other words, if it’s successful, what sort of bikes do you think we’ll see on IBD floors in three years?
SPECIALIZED: The retail landscape will not change too much. Shops will still carry mountain bikes and help people get the best ride for them, cross country, trail, DH, etc. Mountain biking will still be a lot of fun. The tricky part will be what shops stock. Most shops have expressed to us that they are not interested in carrying three wheel sizes. Too hard to explain, to carry everything they need, and service new and old bikes. Shops will probably pick two, maybe even one wheel size and focus on what is best for their area.
SRAM: If rapid consumer adoption occurs, there’s a few different scenarios that could play out. It’s entirely possible 650B could become the dominant wheel size in a few years’ time. While I don’t expect to see 26” or 29” disappear entirely, we could see a shift to the point where most “mountain bikes” would use 650B. While short term this might be a challenge for the IBD, a few years out this could actually reduce the amount of variation and complexity in the mountain bike world. Alternatively, it’s possible that wheel size could become a part of intended use, similar to travel. So, shorter travel XC bikes would be 26”, mid travel and all mountain bikes would be 650B, and longer travel bikes would be 26”. Of course, all this depends on the bikes being offered providing a real advantage that the consumer can appreciate. That still remains to be proven.
CONTINENTAL: 26 will remain the longest in the gravity segment, and 27.5 and 29 will merge in the 80 – 160mm travel world, with XC hard tails and shorter travel trail bikes in 29 and the rest 27.5.
PIVOT: In the next couple of seasons, I think there is going to be massive confusion at the shop and rider level with 3 wheels sizes. That part is impossible to get around. It’s pretty clear at the long travel end of the spectrum. Just like now, about ½ the riders like the maneuverability of 26” wheels and the other half like the big wheels. In the longer travel bikes, we will have two options. At the XC race level, the 29er wheels hold a clear efficiency advantage for many riders on most race courses, but it doesn’t have a weight advantage and there are some sizing restrictions so it will be interesting to see how the war wages on the XC front. I think the trail bike (5-under 6”) of travel will have 3 wheels sizes existing for awhile. This category is still dominated by 26” wheel bikes for a reason. They are fun, light and capable. In any case, we are excited to be a part of it and when we release something in the 650 wheel size, it will be incredible.
CANNONDALE/GT: If it takes off as some are predicting, I could realistically see 650B taking off for most dual suspension bikes globally and on hardtails in Europe. For the US, I think we’re solidly in love with our 29ers and it might take a rebirth of Heston himself to pry them from our cold dead hands.
AMERICAN CLASSIC: IBD’s will ultimately go to 650B and 29er bikes. 26” will eventually become a “big box” store item as time goes on.
SCHWALBE: In North America 120mm-160mm bikes for sure. Europe may be a little different in they will most likely have both trail and hard tail race bikes. One things for certain there will be one hanging in my garage.
KENDA: If this is successful, there will be eventual acceptance from retailers who may be initially reluctant to stock an additional tire size and range of product offerings in their shops. In time you may see each of the three main tire sizes become a dedicated tire to a specific type of riding, with some overlap between the categories. 26” tires will remain the tire of choice for downhill, 650B will take over the Trail/All Mountain segment, and 29” will be the tire of choice for cross country in the US. Obviously there will be some overlap, potentially seeing 650B in XC for smaller riders. Additionally, we are already seeing that in Europe there is push for 650B in the XC market too.
MRP/WHITE BROTHERS: 650 could realistically take over a large slice of the pie. 29” hardtails for racing (except perhaps in the smaller frame sizes) and 26” for DH will remain unaffected.
SCOTT: I think if we do see another wheel standard take hold then retailers will have one more exciting product to sell, and consumers will have more variety. Think about it like this, kids get 12″, 16″, 20″ and 24″ bikes to fit, why should adults only have two sizes? We come in all shapes and sizes and have varying interests. The ballon tire (26×2.125) standard has been around for about 75 years, isn’t it time we challenge it? I mean we’re not all running around on 1″ threaded steerers anymore, and our BB’s come in varied PF sizes and our FD’s have more mounting types than I care to count. We’re already challenging convention in MTB, this is just another step.
TOMAC: Well, it’s hard to say. I don’t think anyone 2 years ago would have suspected we would be talking about nothing but 650b in 2012. But, here we are, and there’s not denying all of the hype is creating a market for something no one knew they needed two years ago. And you can imagine some brands will do different wheel sizes for different travels, or different wheel sizes for difference height riders, but in the short term it will just be more options for consumers, which is always a good thing.
SANTA CRUZ: IF it takes off, it makes sense that ‘tweener wheels would find acceptance in the mid-travel AM-ish trailbike segment, Nino Schurter notwithstanding. the same people who want that elusive jackalope of a do-it-all 6″ travel bike that is their one ride, they’ll be the prime target for the wheel size. 29″ wheels will continue their crushing of everything at the hardtail and short travel xc end of things, 26″ wheels will still have primacy in the world of DH. But what the hell do I know? I remember thinking hydraulic disc brakes were a fad.
LAPIERRE: That’s a little bit strategical and maybe a little bit early to reveal it at this moment. But if you take a look at what will be happening to Lapierre entry level bikes next year, then, you’ll probably understand where we want to go with the wheels sizes…
JAMIS: In two years and beyond, I think we’ll see a lot more 650B bikes from other brands. A lot of guys are testing prototypes now, as are we. Five years down the road, when you walk into a shop in the US, you’ll probably only see 650B and 29er. When you go over $700 retail today, about all you see now is 29ers. For brands that were considering a high end full suspension bike, you’ll see 26″ go away, replaced by 650B.
What do you think? Are you interested in riding 650B? Where do you see bikes headed in three to five years? Leave a comment, the industry’s listening!