Cosmic Compromises

On Friday NSMB.com published Wheel Wars I, a brief overview of some of the new wheel size offerings, prototypes, products and perspectives on the practical implications of an ever-expanding wheel size catalogue. On Thursday we followed up with Cosmic Compromises: Is 650b Just Right or is it All Wrong?

Rumors and speculation have abound on the internet about the introduction of another wheel size – 650b or 27.5” – but at this yearʼs Sea Otter, concrete evidence of its widespread adoption surfaced. It was not unsurprising to see some 650b product in the booths but, more interesting, that there was quite a lot of talk by component manufacturers about this new standard. We decided to ask around to find out what people of influence actually think. With pen in hand we set about wandering the grounds of Sea Otter asking battle-hardened industry personnel and the average rider on the trails what their opinions were about the growing number of wheel sizes.

The following is not an entirely objective or fully representative selection of opinions, as we gave preference to people whom we could be sure to give eloquent and thought-provoking personal opinions on the most recent front in the wheel size war. We would admit to being unable to have predicted the responses that people gave, but some of their answers are interesting indeed.

SYSTEM OF SEMANTICS

A standard – in mechanical, scientific or production terms – relates to sets or systems of universally accepted norms, measurements, or models. Based on this definition, the plethora of “standards” in mountain biking might seem a oxymoron, especially if we look at the variety of standards in wheel sizes. However, they really are all standards. 26” and 650b are both standardized yardsticks, 25mm apart in diameter.

Just imagine if every wheel builder made wheels different sizes each time they built them; how would we find tires to fit if we ordered a wheelset and one was 25.9” and the other was 26.3”? Perhaps the problem is the term “standard”. The above is a semantic argument but it does perhaps point out that “industry standard” is not the most accurate term to describe the changing bicycle components landscape. Sure, we donʼt have a standardized wheel size for mountain bikes any more but the sizes we have all match the design parameters of a preset measurement.

650b is yet another standard that feels to some like it is being pushed into a marketplace where consumers are resistant to having standards pushed on them. One person we spoke to, who wishes to remain anonymous, pointed out that Eastonʼs announcement of the new 35 bar and stem combo (35mm bar clamp diameter) was greeted coolly at first, when the word standard was associated with it – but since Easton has stepped back from that one dirty word and emphasized the mechanical advantages of their “system”, customers have warmed to the idea.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

“[Laughs] I think itʼs funny. Itʼs a never ending cycle to find more money.” – Carter Holland, owner of Black Market Bikes and rider of all sorts of bikes.

Carterʼs statement seems to echo the sentiments of some of the riders we spoke to over the weekend. The average guy on the street who perhaps feels “the man” is trying to bleed him dry. However, innovation doesnʼt have to always be driven by the profit motive all the time. Man wasnʼt put on the moon and the iPad3 wasnʼt developed because of the need to make a dollar. Was it?

“Itʼs funny to see people talk like itʼs a conspiracy and that the industry wants people to buy more stuff. The goal of everyone I know that works at a company isnʼt to sell stuff and trick people into buying it; they just want to improve our experience on bikes. I think thatʼs whatʼs happening. It is a little crazy that there are three sizes now – kind of confusing perhaps.” – Shawn Spomer, head of VitalMTBʼs evil internet empire and former ringleader of Littermag, the counter cultural pamphlet that promoted rebellion, anarchy and resistance to the system.

JUST ONE MORE TIME

One wonders perhaps what will happen when a new rider walks into a bike shop for the first time and is bombarded with a confusing collection of digits and numerals – all of which, to a gaper, could be utter nonsense or utter meaningless gobbledegook.

“Iʼve met riders who donʼt know what 29er even means. It makes sense to us mountain bikers who are indoctrinated into the system of signs and language, but what about the novice rider? They donʼt care or care to know, yet.” – Mark Jordan, former magazine editor turned marketeer for Fox Shox.

But this difficulty and challenge isnʼt just for the customer on the street; there are issues for the local bike shop too.

“I wonder about the shops. What about the inventory they have to carry already and now theyʼre having more product forced onto their floors. The industry needs to think about and support those guys.” – Paul Guebara, DT Swiss communications manager and good samaritan.

“On a professional standpoint Iʼd like to see the wheel size thing settle down a bit if just to make my life easier.” – Jeremiah Boobar, SRAM product chap and rider of mountain bikes.

“I think it will be interesting to see what happens. I think we need more sizes though [laughs].” – Andrew Shandro, X-Games ice biking champion, fatherly freerider, and owner of fast legs.

DISBELIEF

“Iʼve owned 26 and 29 but my personal feeling is that it will settle out in a few years at 27.5.” – Cosmic, a real world rider we met with an out of this world name.

“Itʼs the first time that customers have ever come to us asking about product rather than us marketing it.” – Pete Stace-Smith, legendary nice guy, 70s mountain biker and Norcoʼs media liaison.

Is it a case of Goldilocksʼ porridge? 26” is suddenly regarded as too small, 29ers are just too big and clumsy, but 650b is just right: the middle ground, the compromise, the best of all worlds. There is a high chance that this is true, however, it didnʼt work for 24” – the grotty little half way house between BMX and MTB freestyling – so there is perhaps chance that it wonʼt for 650b.

“Why is everyone so eager to just drive nails into the coffin of 26” wheels? What did it ever do wrong? It never hurt anyone or did anything wrong. 26 inch is good, 29 inches are good, so why? Why?” – Mike Ferrentino, Santa Cruz Bikes communications warrior.

Ferrentino gets at an important point: larger wheels donʼt have to – and most likely will not – replace the 26” wheel, but rather they will supplement it. The constant refinement of frame design is helping us learn that each wheel may have its place in the market.

“Personally I own a lot of 26” bikes and I love them – they are fun to ride. Iʼve ridden 29” and they are awesome too. So Iʼm not really sure what the purpose of 650b is. Do we need another wheel size? Really? What is wrong with 26 and 29?” – Ian Hylands, professional photographer and child of the North Shore.

TAG, YOUʼRE IT!

So who is in and who is driving it? That remains to be seen but it appears as if it is the Europeans and late comers who are most keen to jump on the mid-sized wagon wheel wagon.

European riders, magazines, and brands were very skeptical about 29ers when they first came out. In fact, it has taken them up until about four months ago to find out they actually really like them. However, no one likes to be proven wrong, especially by oneself. In order to save face, the Euros appear to be extra-eager to take 650b into their bosom. This way they can get their cake, eat it and still make it look like the 29er riders were wrong all along – even though everyone has been every nice and held off on saying “I told you so”.

But it isnʼt just troublesome Europeans that are happy to swing a baguette over the top tube of a 650b bike now; itʼs also all the companies that showed resistance to building 29er bikes and waited till it was too late. In the North American market, for the last two years now, if you werenʼt building 29er bikes you were feeling the hurt. These companies donʼt want to miss the gold rush but most of the good stakes have been claimed by companies who invested the time and money in developing good 29ers earlier.

But that has meant that late adopters are even more earnest about 650b, leading to them prematurely ejaculating at the orgy. SCOTT is one company that was slow on the 29er market and has a big Euro following. Obviously, they are one of the main culprits for the 650b charge.

Big companies like Trek and Specialized got it right with 29, both in timing and product, and donʼt seem to be bothered about this new wacky wheel size – but we suspect they have got eyes and ears to the ground and a finger hovering over the big red button on the product presses if 650b does happen to take off. SRAM, Fox Shox, X-Fusion, DT Swiss and Sun Ringlé, amongst others, have developed 650b specific product, bowing to the demands of the bike brands with buying clout.

As we reported in Wheel Wars I last week some of the component companies we spoke with at Sea Otter were cool to the idea of 650b. Easton is saving resources at the moment and has no plans to develop a wheel with a whole new wheel size; Mavic says they could produce a 650b wheel soon if they wanted but we wonʼt see anything before at least 2013; and Continental is playing the waiting game, more eager to get their existing product honed before fiddling with a possible stillborn wheel size.

TO ABORT OR ABANDON SHIP, THAT IS THE QUESTION

This conversation wonʼt end just yet and the battle has just begun. The rules of engagement are not yet clear and the battlefield is still undecided. The victor will be decided in the LBS and on the trails, maybe not this year, maybe not next but one day. Perhaps.

Until then, letʼs move on.

“I think Iʼd like to go one hour without talking about the different wheel sizes.” – Peter Vallance, Rocky Mountain Bikesʼ wheel-weary communications chap.

“Everyone makes too much of a big deal about it. Itʼs all good. If it works for you, great. If it doesnʼt then donʼt use it. It is like abortion, if you arenʼt for abortion donʼt get one.” – Joe Parkin, Bike Magazineʼs editor and former roadie (in both meanings of the word).

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