01.26.2012 - Mountain Bike
2012: Year of the Dragon.
2013: Year of the 650b Bike?
One thing’s certain: The bike industry is betting big on mid-sized wheels.
By Chris Lesser
A veritable tsunami of 650b bikes and components is bearing down on
the global mountain bike market. Even though the wheel size—halfway
between a 26-inch wheel and 29er—is not new, the product category has
been relegated to the fringes of the market. But the flood is coming.
Both Fox and RockShox are making all-new fork models with
650b-specific lowers for 2013, nearly every tire manufacturer surveyed
for this story acknowledged they have new 650b product in the pipeline,
and even though they won’t fess up to it this early in the game, some
of the biggest bike brands in the industry are already on board. Expect
to see some unexpected companies field their first 650b bikes in 2013,
followed by some serious market saturation in 2014.
screengrab from SRAM's OEM-only Choice Factory site shows a 2013
RockShox Revelation 650b fork, already for sale to bike manufacturers.
Besides this 130/140/150mm entry, expect to see 650b product from Fox in
the 140/160mm range.
[UPDATED: RockShox has weighed in with the following
statement: “There’s definitely been an increase in interest and
discussion over the 650B wheel size. At RockShox, we’re always exploring
the possibilities of any new standard or technology, wheel size
included. We’re not ready to reveal our 2013 line at this time, but
whether or not there’s a 650B offering, you can be assured that we’ve
taken the wheel size into consideration.”]
/// Everyone’s Doing it ///
Big suspension companies don’t just decide to start making a whole
new class of product on a whim. Creating the tooling and setting up
manufacturing for a new fork is prohibitively expensive—unless of course
you’ve got customers lined up and know demand exists. So, who done it?
“Trying to pinpoint who is doing it is the wrong approach. It’s more
like: Who’s not doing it?” says Joel Smith, the general manager of
X-Fusion suspension and owner of Tomac bikes. “This is coming up fast.
Everyone’s doing it, or they’re at least riding prototypes.”
“With 29ers there were so many companies that were slow to get to it,
and they missed out on sales. So everyone’s going gangbusters for what
they see as the next big thing,” Joel added. “The funny part is a that a
bunch of these OEMs are going around as if it’s a secret. Everyone’s
acting like they’re going to be first to market. They’re trying to keep
it quiet. ”
Since rumors first started swirling after the Taichung Bike Week
trade show in early December, not a single bike brand has confirmed that
they will offer a 650b bike in 2013. And no one can blame them for
wanting to concentrate on selling 2012 models before tipping their hand.
That said, Scott is a likely suspect. DT Swiss is confirmed to be
working on 650b wheels, and considering that it’s hard to find a Scott
mountain bike that doesn’t come with DT Swiss parts, it doesn’t take
much to connect the dots. As one industry insider put it: Scott was late
to the 29er game, Scott is massive in Europe, and Europeans are insane
about weight. Officials at Scott have not confirmed any details of their
2013 bike line or beyond.
Specialized was rumored to be working on 650b, but there’s no
evidence it ever got past the prototype stages, and the company has
categorically denied it’s making 650b bikes, which makes sense
considering the company has radically revamped its product line over the
last few seasons to crown itself king of the hill in 29er world.
Giant will not have any 650b bikes in 2013, but according to Andrew
Juskaitis, Giant’s global product marketing manager, 2014 is another
“For Giant, 650b is, for the foreseeable future, an intermediate
wheel size, filling in those gaps where we can improve the ride of a 26”
wheel but can’t fit a 29er wheel,” says Juskaitis. “650b belongs in
certain applications—most likely, longer-travel applications where 29er
wheels can’t/won’t fit properly. One thing is sure, we still believe in
the 29er wheel size where it can fit.”
What about Trek, America’s largest bike brand? Mountain bike brand
manager Travis Ott says he doesn’t see 29-inch wheels being displaced
“We’ve been doing 29ers since 1999 and a lot of the original
objections—that they’re heavy, the wheels were too flexy, the steering
sucks—have been overcome,” says Ott, who points to the success of the
now-six-model lineup of Superfly 100 bikes as evidence of how far the
product has come. “You have to place a bet in terms of where you’re
going to put your resources. Our bet is that we’re going to keep making
29ers better in terms of further knocking down those objections.”
26-inch-wheel frames accommodate bigger wheels, and riders have been
putting together 650b "conversions" like this Ibis Mojo HD for some time
now. Pretty soon they might have purpose-built frames. Credit: Derby @
Ibis has sanctioned running its Mojo HD 140 with a 650b-specific fork
and wheelset—although clearances do get a bit tight with a Pacenti Neo
Moto 2.3 in the back, says Scot Nicol of Ibis. And you can bet every
other mountain bike product manager worth their salt has already checked
650b bottom-out clearances on their existing product. Mongoose (whose
product manager came from Jamis) also likely has 650b bikes in the
works, but unfortunately the brand is taking a hiatus from the U.S.
market, so if you really must have a 650b Teocali you’ll have to pay for
it in Euros.
/// “Why and What’s the Reason For?” —Bob Dylan ///
Could Mountain Bike Nation really be headed toward becoming a single-wheel-size state?
While some companies still talk of making a 29er downhill bike, and while others insist that 29er all-mountain is not an oxymoron,
there are plenty of frustrated frame designers who would generally
agree that pushing much past the 120mm mark with a 29-inch wheel
produces diminishing returns—not to mention it’s just damn near
impossible to get everything crammed into that space. With 29er
full-suspension bikes winning World Cup XC races,
though, the big wheel size certainly isn’t going anywhere, but for
argument’s sake let’s call five-plus-inch 29ers an evolutionary
The best looking 650b bike available today is arguably a hardtail
(the Jamis 650b Reynolds 853 Dragon), but 650b’s future looks brightest
in the longer travel full-suspension category. Some of the best minds
in the business are saying that there’s a good chance that those
looking to buy a 100, 125 or even 150mm-plus bike will likely be
shopping middle-sized wheels by the middle of this decade.
can likely expect some company in the 650b market in the coming years.
And chances are many of the new bikes will be of the mid-travel
full-suspension trail variety.
“Twelve months from now, 650b is going to be all over the place,” says
David Turner, whose strongest selling bikes are currently the 140mm
26-inch-wheel Turner 5.Spot and 125mm Sultan 29er. “The MTB bus is
running right into a swarm of 650b—and it’s going to be all over the
The two new forks would seem to back that up: The 650b fork that Fox
is working on is reported to be in the 140 to 160mm ballpark, while the
RockShox 650b Revelation will have 130 to 150mm of travel.
“I definitely still see the 29er thing being XC focused, but I see
[650b] positioned as a replacement for 26-inch-wheel bikes—from
hardtails all the way up to 140, 150, 160mm even,” says X-Fusion’s Joel
Smith. “It’s going in a clear direction toward the elimination of the
26-inch-wheel market, minus DH.”
Say it ain’t so, Joel! Even though X-Fusion stands to benefit from
this development—all its forks are convertible to 650b—Smith doesn’t
whitewash the industry’s fast-tracking of 650b.
“There are going to be some underdeveloped bikes out there because
everyone’s rushing it. I think it would have been wiser to trickle it
out over time. Remember that it took a long time to get a 29er bike
that people could really ride. Then you talk about suspension mountain
bikes that have taken 20 years to develop, and they’re not even
perfect yet,” said Smith. “I know why everyone’s doing it—nobody wants
to be late to this party. Nobody wants to be the guy who poo-poo’d
/// Another very good question: Why Not? ///
In a vacuum, the benefits of 650b are fairly obvious: More
roll-ability than a 26-inch wheel, more nimble handling than a 29er—best
of both worlds, right? Not so fast.
“Squeezing the third wheel size in between creates more chaos in the
market, and makes things more difficult for everyone—including the
consumer,” says Santa Cruz product manager Josh Kissner. “I feel sorry
for bike shops these days! They are already dealing with two wheel
sizes, three rear-axle standards, three front-axle standards, countless
headset and BB standards—and of course single, triple, and countless
double drivetrain options. That’s a lot of stuff to keep in stock, and I
imagine it’s quite hard for consumers to find exactly what they’re
looking for at a bike shop these days. Even distributors seem to have
trouble keeping up.”
Kissner says Santa Cruz is not currently developing a 650b bike,
although they haven’t ruled it out in the future. Right now he says it’s
splitting too fine a hair.
“The cool thing right now is we have both sizes, and they appeal to
different people,” says Kissner. “Both camps have their fanatics—and
it’s not just emotional. The bikes do ride differently.
Why would we try to cram all of these people on the same bike
(650b) when we already have these sweet choices?”
/// Suppliers Ramping Up For The Rush ///
The philosophical debate aside, 650b is coming, and while bike brands
are loathe to spill the beans, parts makers are much more open to
talking about 650b product in the pipeline.
“The feeding frenzy for 650b is on!” confirms Ellen Kast, general manager at American Classic,
which already supplies 650b wheels to KHS and Jamis. “To my surprise,
we are getting many requests from [other] OEs for 650b wheelsets.”
American Classic already has two new tubeless-ready 650b wheelsets on
deck for 2013. Kast said that many of the requests AC fields are for
bikes with longer-travel forks, and so the company will offer a
28mm-wide all-mountain wheel as well as a budget-oriented XC option.
White Brothers is starting to look quite prescient by making its new LOOP fork 650b
compatible, and if one were to ransack certain bike company offices,
evidence might just surface that at least one high-end component brand
has already built the first 650b carbon mountain bike rims—the current
pinnacle of after-market mountain bike upgrades. Yup, it would appear
that this 650b thing is for real.
Kenda’s Ben Anderson, who handles marketing and product development
for the brand, said that in addition to its Nevegal tread now available
in 650b x 2.1 and 2.35 sizes, Kenda has four additional 650b tires in
the hopper—a mix of existing tread patterns and brand-new concepts, in a
variety of widths and casing options.
“The amount of requests for and conversations about 650b tires has
tripled over the last six months,” says Anderson. “Even with a number of
650b bikes in the market already, the growth of this segment is going
to be 100 percent OEM driven.”
That idea marks a shift from what we saw in the development of 29ers,
where a vocal group of true believers slowly pestered manufacturers
into making 29er products.
sales prompted Schwalbe to shelf its 650b Racing Ralph tire—but six
months ago the company brought it back, along with this updated
530-gram, 127-tpi tubeless-ready version, because OEMs started asking
Furthermore, while 29ers were a decidedly American trend that only
recently gained global acceptance, it appears that 650b is coming on
fast from both sides of the pond. In addition to Jamis, the best-known
bike brand already offering 650b models, Anderson said Kenda is working
closely with no fewer than nine major bike brands from both North
America and Europe.
“I cannot think of too many [bike brands] that are not at least
designing a couple of 650b bikes—whether they bring them out or not in
2013 is the big question,” says Jake Scott, Kenda’s OEM sales manager,
who declined to disclose customer names.
/// Third Time’s The Charm? ///
The 650b wheel has failed to take off twice now—first back in the
early 20th century when the French first developed it, and then again
five years ago, when it was re-launched like a bottle rocket that
failed to get any real altitude.
Unless you count MTBR threads,
most riders aren’t exactly clamoring for the new wheel size. Instead,
development is being driven exclusively by bike manufacturers. Even
manufacturers that introduced, then discontinued, 650b parts are jumping
“We had a Wolverine 2.2 tire and a LaserDisc rim three years ago, but
they didn’t really sell that well because not that many 650b bikes
were being made,” says WTB’s OEM sales manager Jason Moeschler. In
fact, after a 650b production run delayed a big order last year, WTB
decided the anemic 650b sales weren’t worth it, and killed the products.
“But now that the fork makers are in it, we’re totally
re-evaluating,” Moeschler continues. “A lot of bike brands are talking
to me now, asking what the plan is. But our part of the game is easy,
we just make tires and rims. The real question is how are the dealers
going to position these three wheel sizes against each other? What I
would love to see, when all the dust settles, is one wheel size win out
over everything. And in my opinion, 650b could be that wheel size.
It’s a happy enough compromise.”
That’s high praise coming not just from a component sales manager, but someone who has won the Downieville Classic three times.
Schwalbe experienced a similar stutter in the market. After
launching a 650b version of its Racing Ralph tread three years ago,
sales were so poor Schwalbe shelved the model. But when OE interest
picked up six months ago, it re-opened the mold, and added an updated
tubeless-ready version that sports a revised tread pattern and a higher
Before those of you long-time 650b-wheelers (650b’ers?) fall out of
your chair in apoplexy, let’s get this out of the way: No, 650b wheels
are not new. In fact they’ve been around for the better part of a
“We can trace the wheel back at least to the 1920s,” says Jan Heine, editor of Bicycle Quarterly. “French ‘rough-stuff’
bikes, which in many ways were forebearers of mountain bikes, used 650b
wheels. So there is a 80-year history of riding 650B wheels on
As Heine explains, early British bike makers championed the 27- and
26-inch wheel sizes, while the French used the metric 700c and 650b. The
700c standard was adopted for road bikes, the 26-inch wheel was taken
up by mountain bikers, and the 27-inch wheel fell out of favor.
Left to Right: a 26-inch rim (ISO/ETRTO size: 559mm), a 650b rim
(ISO/ETRTO: 584mm), and a 29-inch/700c rim (ISO/ETRTO: 622mm). Photo
Several European brands produced 650b bikes through the ’50s, but then the wheels fell out of favor until Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycles
began producing 650b tires for throw-back randonneurs in 2003. (One
exception was the Raleigh Portage, a touring/mountain bike from 1989
that inexplicably came spec’d with 650b wheels.)
Ancestor: The 1989 Raleigh Portage with 650b wheels
One persistent bit of folklore suggests that if the Russian military
hadn’t hoarded the entire supply Nokian Hakkapeliitta 650b tires back in
the early ’80s, mountain bikers may have used 650b wheels from the
beginning. But of course our clunker-riding forefathers settled on
26-inch wheels, thanks in part to a ready supply of alloy rims from
Japanese brands like Araya and Ukai. And so for a long while 650b was
banished to obscurity—and women’s triathlon bikes.
[Correction: Apparently women's triathlon bikes occupy their own obscure corner of the cycling world - 650c.]
2007 marked the second coming of the 650b wheel—and the first documented modern mountain bike application—when frame designer Kirk Pacenti debuted
his custom 650b hardtail at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show.
The bike used a custom White Brothers fork, custom wheels from Cane
Creek and modified 29er tires hand-stitched to size.
produced the first full-suspension 650b-specific bike with its Sonix
650b, but then killed it—followed by most of the rest of its mountain
bike program—for lack of sales.
Pacenti later began producing 650b tires (and recently, rims),
and a couple dozen small frame-builders started making bikes. Jamis is
the best known, biggest and so-far most ardent advocate of 650b wheels,
followed by smaller brands KHS and Haro (R.I.P., MTB Division).
Pacenti has been leading the 650b charge since he unveiled this
first-known modern example back in 2007. Photo: BikePortland.com
While the first Pacenti bike ushered in the modern era of the 650b
mountain bike, the movement fizzled nearly as quickly as it started. By
then, advocates of 29-inch-wheels had already worked themselves up to a
fever pitch. There just wasn’t enough oxygen in the room to support
arguments for two new wheel sizes, and manufacturers increasingly
focused on the larger of the two.
Whether there’s room to shoehorn a third wheel size standard into the market now, or in the coming years, remains to be seen.