For the past couple of months, I have been exchanging e-mails with Kirk Pacenti about 650B wheels. Kirk, who makes some of the nicest lugs on the planet that are used by some of the world's best frame makers, has been a driving force behind the 650B movement and has been a great source of information.
Based on Haro's success in the 29" wheel market with our line of "Mary" steel hardtails and the fact that 29ers just ride so damn nice, I was naturally intrigued by the whole concept behind 650B wheels. With 650B wheels measuring 27.5" in diameter, they are halfway between a 26" wheel and a 29" wheel.
From a manufacturer's standpoint, the real advantage behind this "tweener" size is you can run a 650B wheel on a 26" wheel bike with very few modifications to the frame itself. 29" wheel frames require a whole new drawing with revised geometry to accomodate the larger wheel size. And then there's the tooling costs associated with a new frame design.
From a rider's standpoint, I was really curious to see how a set of 650B wheels would ride. I'll admit that I was hugely skepical of 29" wheels (like many people were/still are) until I rode one. After you throw a leg over a 29er, it doesn't take long to realize the obvious benefits that 29" wheels have to offer. However, 29ers do have their pitfalls (not many, but they do exist). They are a little a little harder to get started from a standstill and they don't really excell in really tight technical sections and switchbacks. Would 650B be the solution?
I ordered a couple sets of Neo-Moto tires from Kirk and 2 sets of the new "Blunt" wheels from Velocity. Based on the rim and tire dimensions we got from Kirk, it looked like this tire and wheel combo would work on our 6" travel Werx Xeon all-mountain bikes without any modifications, so we could start testing right away once we received the wheels and tires. It would be close, but at least we would have to wait for sample frames to be made.
Pacenti Neo-Motos on Velocity "Blunt" wheels.
Last week, it all came together. We got 650B wheels and tires. Product Manager Pat Crosby mounted them up to a Werx Xeon and they fit. Tightly, but we have clearance, Clarence. The Fox Talas fork had about 1/4" to spare between the tire and arch. The swingarm yoke is also tight...about a 1/4" there too. The front derailleur clearance is real tight. Better hope I don't pick up a stone in the tire or the FD will be toast.
Today I decided to do a little test. I took two Werx Xeons out to a local trail that has a little bit of everything on it: climbing, semi-technical descents, switchbacks, flats, etc. One bike had the 650B wheels on it and the other had stock 26" wheels on it. I have to note that although these were both the same model bike, they weren't spec'd identical. One had a Fox Talas while the other had a Fox 32 Float. One was SRAM X.O, the other was new Shimano XT. Both had RockShox Pearl 3.3 rear shocks, which I set up as close to identical as I could.
I took the 650B bike out first. The first part of the trail is an off-camber rolling singletrack section with a few little rocky sections here and there to negotiate. So far, so good. The bike really felt smooth and hopped over the rocky stuff easily. Not much elevation change of any great consequences, but wheels rolled confidently on the small descents and climbs.
As I pedalled along a wide-open flat section, I was amazed at how fast I was going with what seemed like very little effort. Much like a 29er, even though bigger wheels might be a little bit harder to get rolling, once you do get them going, it doesn't require much effort to keep them going at a good clip.
I negotiated a few flat but soft sweeping corners in both directions. The bike felt ultra-stable and the Neo-Moto's hooked up really well. I didn't feel nearly as squirrely as I sometimes do on a 26" wheel bike in these corners.
The true test was going to be the switchback section up ahead. They aren't terribly steep, but they are a bit tight and they tend to be loose from everyone skidding through them on the way back down. On a 26" wheel bike, I rarely have a problem through them, but on my 29er, it's 50/50. Sometimes I clear them without dabbing and other times I'm not so lucky. Today on the 650B bike, I sailed right through them. I'm impressed.
Just up the trail a bit is another uphill switchback I've never been able to clear on a 29er and sometimes I even dab it on a 26" wheel bike. It's a real tight one...almost tighter than 90 degrees with a little wood water bar step right in the apex. Again, sailed right through it on the 650B bike.
After this weird little switchback, there's a fairly steep climb with some loose sections and rocks in it. The tires are hooking up like there's no tomorrow, even in the loose stuff. Am I on a 29er? Hopping up an over the rocks was a breeze. At this point, I hit a few rock gardens on the way back down the hill...again, I'm asking myself whether or not I'm on a 29" wheel. The 650B's are rolling through stuff like it doesn't even exist.
I rolled back down the same switchbacks I just got done riding up, and the bike did equally well on the descent. The most impressive thing was the feeling of control through these switchbacks. Since I went into them with much better stability, I didn't find myself getting squirrely through them and skidding around as much in the loose stuff. It sort of felt good to know I was minimizing the impact on the trail!
Time to give the 26" wheel bike some love. After swapping bikes out at my car, I rolled down the hill to take the same exact loop I just finished on the 650B bike. As I suspected, the 26" felt twitchy and small. On one of the little rock sections in the off-camber singletrack, I actually dabbed...just didn't have the momentum to get through it. The beauty of 650B and 29er wheels is you need FAR less momentum to get through the choppy stuff!
As I cruised along, I made notes of some of the differences I felt. Cornering wasn't nearly as stable. Climbing didn't feel as efficient. The switchbacks were just as simple to negotiate on the 26" wheel bike as they were on the 650B. The technical downhills definitely weren't as smooth.
Overall, my first impressions of 650B wheels are pretty good. Very similar to a 29er, it just gave the bike a nice, stable feeling. The best thing about it was I was on a bike made for a 26" wheel, so I didn't feel like I was riding a stretch limo. I'm eager to get more rides in with the wheels; the first day was awesome. Do I think the 650B wheels will replace 26" wheels? No, but they did make me love riding one of my favorite bikes even more.
It's also good to know that from a manufacturer's standpoint, there's very little we'll need to do with our 26" wheel frames to make 650B's work. All we have to do is lengthen the stays a bit. I don't have a high comfort level with the amount of fork arch clearance we have, so the choices will be to either spec a 29er fork or hope that fork manufacturers will see 650B's as an area of opportunity and provide for more clearance in their castings. As mould charges are quite high for those castings, I don't know that we'll see that happening in the very near future or not.
One last impression I'll leave you with is the overall look of bikes with 650B wheels. They just look so balanced! 29er's often look they are all wheels. I know that's sort of a "chick" observation, but I'd like to think overall aesthetics do play a roll in the function to a certain degree.
Nice and balanced!
So are you curious yet? If you'll be attending Interbike's On Dirt Demo, we'll have 2 Werx Xeon bikes out there set up with 650B wheels. Come on by and take one for a spin. I'd love to hear as many opinions as possible on this to help us decide if it's something Haro should put into our line.