Southwood Says: Ball of Confusion

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Words by Chris Southwood | Images by Flowtographer

‘What do you think about 27.5?’ – It’s a question I find myself being asked half a dozen times a week. Either that or the close variant, ‘which wheel size should I get on my next bike?’ And to tell you the truth, I don’t even know any more…

It used to be so easy – you picked a bike with the right amount of travel for your trails and riding style, fitted your favourite 26″ tyres to your 26″ wheels and got down to business. Then came 29ers, but it really was still pretty easy to understand: If you wanted to ride cross country and keep your wheels on the ground, you got a 29er. Like to get your wheels off the ground or fond of a little radness? Your 26″ bike sir/madam.

It started to get murky as 29ers began moving into ‘trail’ territory – suddenly you had to make the choice between a long-travel 26er, or a long-ish travel 29er for your all-mountain-ish riding.

And then came 650B. And now it is just doing my head in.

I’m not anti-650B, not at all. I understand that products evolve, things change. There are sound engineering rationales for the middle size wheel. And even if it does seem like a mighty lot of work to increase the diameter of mountain bike wheels (or one variant thereof) by a centimetre and a bit, well, that’s ok. The bikes DO ride better. But all I can say is thank god I’m not working on a bike shop floor on a Saturday trying to explain to a second-bike-buyer what wheel size does what. Because frankly, I don’t know anymore. And neither does the bike industry. There is simply no logical narrative around wheel size any longer.

Let’s look at three of the biggest brands in the world by way of example: Trek, Giant and Specialized.

Trek have taken the approach to 650B that I envisaged would be most widely adopted. Their bikes with 120mm of travel or less have 29″ wheels, while their more aggressive bikes (the Remedy and Slash) now have 650B wheels. This makes sense in many regards as fitting a bigger (29″) wheel into a long travel package is hard to do without stuffing the handling or ending up with a massive boat of a bike. Trek maintain that 29″ wheels are ideal for cross country and some trail riding, but not so much when it comes to getting really rowdy on the trails… Well, at least that was the case until they unveiled the 29er Remedy, which kind of stuffs up the simplicity of Trek’s overall approach. Oh well… onto Giant.

Giant had taken the more common path when it came to 26/29″ wheels. Sure they had the Trance 29er, but most of their 29ers were cross country machines, and anything vaguely gravity oriented was a 26er. Simple. But then came 650B/27.5″ and Giant  grabbed it like a pit-bull, adopting the wheel size in a wholesale fashion for 2014. Not only have they all but eliminated 26″, but it would seem that they’ve begun the machinations to kill off 29″ bikes from their lineup too. In Giant’s opinion, 27.5″ is THE wheel size for mountain biking. Imagine, a single wheel size for all styles of mountain biking – crazy! Oh wait, that was 2007….  So let’s have a look at Specialized’s approach.

What do you know – another story once again, and this time not a 650B bike in sight. As far as the crew at the big red S are concerned, if it ain’t got 29″ wheels,  it ain’t right. Ok, ok, there are a couple of exceptions, but Specialized are overwhelmingly massive believers in massive wheels. From their cross-country racing hardtails, all the way up to the their 155mm-travel Enduro, it’s 29″.

Then of course there are other versions too, being espoused by all kinds of manufactures. For instance, the idea that smaller riders need 650B as 29 won’t ‘work’ for them, while taller riders need a 29er. Or the notion that cross country racers are better served by a 27.5″ for quicker acceleration, while marathon racers need a 29er…thanks Nino. And for every argument put forward, there’s an engineer or marketing person telling you the exact opposite somewhere in the industry.

I understand change, I’m not resistant, I like development. We don’t always know what’s best – sometimes it takes engineers to show us. We can have 650B, 29 and even ‘old-school’ 26″ bikes, that’s all fine, I like them all and think they’ve all got a legitimate place.  But unless, at the very least, we can start agreeing on what wheel size is right for what style of riding…well, the confusion is just going to end up turning people off the sport, and that is the last thing I want.

 

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