I don’t spend a lot of time in bike shops these days. When I do go, it’s usually to buy a part I forgot to order or to say hello to a friend.
It happened the other day that I was in a bike shop actually shopping for bikes. The last time I did that was so long ago I can hardly remember, back in a different era of human history. A good friend of mine has a soon-to-be eleven year old son, Ethan, and I was at the shop to pick out a bike for him for his birthday. Ethan and his family are moving to Bend, Oregon this coming summer. When talking to anyone who’s spent time in Bend, there are mainly two things they talk about; cycling and skiing. I don’t know how it is for the skiers, but when people talk about their experiences mountain biking around Bend, their eyes get this far off look and they perceptibly begin salivating. They talk about it like it’s something out of a dream. Anyway, my friend William plans to introduce his son to trail riding, and to do so he needs a bike. The criteria for the bike were pretty simple: Suspension, knobby tires, good brakes, room to grow.
William and I had talked about my building a bike for Ethan, but he’s just getting to the age where he (Ethan) is growing an inch or so every couple of months. Shoes come and go faster than the seasons change. We thought it might be smarter to wait on the custom bike until he’s gets to whatever height he’s going to stay at for a while.
William’s wife, Natacha, met me at the shop. She, too, will be riding some trails in Bend with the family, and so would be looking for a bike. Nothing fancy or high end for either of them. We chose an extra small adult bike for Ethan. It’s basic, satisfies the needs, colors and graphics not too offensive, ready to ride at under $400.
When looking at bikes for Natacha, who is about five-foot-eight, we looked at the “entry level” mountain bikes, i.e.. inexpensive. It still blows my mind that you can buy a perfectly good new bike for under $500. If you consider the price mark-ups at each point from the factory in Asia where the bike was made to the port and then distribution center(s) in the USA, including the paint, shipping costs, any tariffs, parts and assembly, and then there’s the mark up at the shop where the bike is being sold to the consumer — if you work backwards to the beginning of all those costs, all the way back to the factory, it means that the bike, complete and ready to ride originally cost under $50. Probably more like $20. That’s for the whole bike. For $20 I can afford one mid-quality top tube. I don’t want to bitch about the economics of bicycles, and cheap imports in general, but when I’m faced with the truth of it it’s somewhat mystifying.
But anyway, while shopping for bikes we were helped by a very friendly salesperson, I’ll call him Stephen. When picking out Natacha’s bike, one of the first things that Stephen told us was this: “All the bike companies are transitioning over to the 650b wheel size. 26 inch wheels are going to be obsolete.” I did a sort of auditory double-take. “What?” I thought. “Are you serious?”
Looking around, it seemed that he was. Serious, I mean. All the newest adult mountain bikes on the floor of the shop had 650b, or 27.5 inch wheels. I don’t read the magazines, I don’t follow market trends. I’m around bike people enough, and have plenty of friends working at shops, so I’ve heard talk about the rise in popularity of the 650b wheel size. But not on this scale, or maybe I wasn’t listening very well. We’ve been talking about this wheel for several years now. Coming to find out that this once very niche market has gone totally mainstream and now in fact has supplanted both the 29er and the 26er wheel sizes seemed a little crazy. Like, if you’ve got a friend who’s always turned up his nose at grape Kool Aid, ever since you can remember he went for either cherry or lemon-lime, ever since you were little kids. And now, suddenly he’s got the tell-tale grape mustache, and all he ever talks about anymore is how grape Kool Aid is the shit, it’s the only beverage worth drinking, he won’t let his mom buy anything else, there’s nothing else like it, etc., etc.. It makes you shake your head because there’s something kind of sad about it. And in fact it might hint at some sort of, I don’t know, instability in your friend.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with 650b as a wheel size. I personally really like it for the applications that I use it for. To my mind, and in my opinion, for most people who ride bikes as commuters, go on light tours, or for whom a bike is very part time recreation, for anyone buying “entry level,” or even “mid level” bikes, and even many versions of the “high end” bikes, wheel size ought to be proportionate to the frame size. Smaller bikes, smaller wheels; larger, larger. That’s a general rule of thumb, not a law set in stone. In this way, you can nail the frame geometry and get the best ride quality and most desirable handling characteristics. There’s some room to play in bike design, of course, and the way a bike feels is very subjective. To my mind, again, the way a bike handles is way more important than the way a distant factory is tooled, and the consequent pushing and shoving of marketers.
When the entire market shifts in this way, and broad claims are made, such as the one that “twenty-six inch wheels are on their way to obsolescence,” I immediately become suspicious. Was that just a blanket statement by a salesperson who was more concerned with selling his shop’s products? Or was his statement an example of the voice of the industry?
These industry-wide re-inventions seems to happen in regular enough cycles that it might be possible to name it. There’s a sort of herd-induced excitement whenever anything “new” catches on in the bike world. In very loose historic terms, in the 1970’s and 80’s it was BMX; in the 90’s, mountain bikes and a little later downhill bikes; in the early 2000’s, 29ers were all the rage (before hitting the main stream, that was most of what I built); mid-to-late 2000’s hand made custom bikes became very popular; and somewhere in there plastic bikes started to really take off; in the early 2010’s it was fat bikes, commuter bikes, and especially in Europe and Asia, electric bikes. And now, here we are in 2015 and our wheel size has settled into the era of the 650b. That’s great. A new trend has arrived. No judgement, I’m just noticing.
In all these words I’ve written about this I don’t offer much in the way of specific guidance. I really am just taking note. I think maybe my only real message is to keep your eyes open and think for yourself. When the market tries to push anything on you, take it with a grain of salt. Educate yourself and formulate your own conclusions. Which, in this case, is another way to say, get on a bike with 650b wheels and ride it. Your ass will tell you what it thinks.