By Vernon Felton
Want to know what's happening with Giant in 2014?
Here, I'll summarize it for you—27.5—as in 27.5 (a.k.a. "650b") wheeled bikes.
Giant will distribute (globally) no fewer than 28 different models shod with 27.5 wheels next season—that includes hardtails, Anthem cross-country, full-suspension bikes and several very capable Trance trail/enduro models. The exact same transition is occurring with the bikes offered by Giant's sister brand, Liv Giant.
In fact, the only Giant models sporting 26-inch wheels next year will be the Reign X and Glory. If you're wondering, the Reign will not be available in 2014.
"We are fully committed to 27.5," explains Giant's Global Marketing Manager, Andrew Juskaitis. "We are not introducing just one or two models. We are not testing the waters here. We believe so strongly in what 27.5 has to offer that we've committed the majority of our 2014 line to 27.5—from sport to race. This is the boldest decision we have ever made in our company's history."
While Juskaitis notes that Giant will continue to offer 29ers in 2014, he maintains that 27.5 is the future for the company. "We have not killed 29 in 2014, but it is minimized," explains Juskaitis. "We are not going to turn off the tap entirely this year, but we do have plans to phase it out over time."
So, why is Giant suddenly so hot for 27.5?
Company representatives are quick to point out that this has been a decision long in the making. Two years ago Giant began welding up 27.5 mules and testing them. They liked what they experienced out on the trail, but wanted to subject the bikes to in house testing before jumping in with both feet.
According to Giant, the 27.5 standard has the following things going for it:
1. Light weight (heavier than 26, but lighter than 29)
The conventional wisdom about 27.5 is that the wheel size is the best of both worlds—the nimbleness of 26 and the improved roll-over/efficiency of 29. In other words, 27.5 splits the difference between the two wheel sizes.
Here's the deal: 27.5 wheels don't actually measure 27.5 inches. They are closer in size to 26-inch wheels than to 29-inch wheels. At some level "27.5" is really just a marketing term that's gained currency because "650b" doesn't make intuitive sense to anyone on planet earth and because "27.5" suggests that "best of both worlds" thing.
Giant, for their part, insists that 27.5 wheels don't evenly split the difference between both wheel sizes, but rather cherry pick the best attributes of 26 (light weight, stiffer, easier to accelerate and control) and 29 (improved roll over). If you're tired of this size-wanking discussion, just scroll down to the pictures of the bikes. If you feel like geeking out, read on.
WEIGHT (OR LACK THEREOF)
All things being equal, the tweener wheel size is heavier than 26, but lighter than 29. Holding materials constant, Giant found 27.5 wheels to be about 108 grams lighter than 29er wheels. Similarly, when weighing comparable medium frames, they found 100-gram weight savings over a 29er model.
Giant breaks down efficiency as both a bike's ability to roll over obstacles and to be accelerated. When it comes to rollover, 29ers reign supreme. That's just math for you. Giant contends that 27.5 wheels roll over obstacles nearly as well as 29er wheels. Without having seen any testing data supporting that conclusion (and having ridden a fair number of 27.5 bikes, I 'm not sure I'm buying that. This, however, is beyond dispute—27.5 wheels require less energy to accelerate than 29er hoops. They also feel a hell of a lot more nimble in tight conditions.
Giant breaks down control as being a function of traction, frame stiffness and frame geometry. 27.5 wheels have larger contact patches than 26er wheels. Giant argues that the 27.5 contact patch is closer in size to that of 29er wheels than 26er wheels. I haven't seen the data on that (it defies conventional wisdom, to be sure, since 27.5 wheels are actually closer in size to 26-inch wheels), but that's their claim.
29er frames require longer frame members than 27.5 and 26-compatible frame. Longer frame members flex more. Between 27.5 and 29, the nod here goes to 27.5
Frame geometry—this is hard to argue with. Some companies (particularly Giant) have a hard time making 29ers with short enough chainstays due to their suspension designs. The end result is that these bikes are frequently long in the back and short in the front—sort of like the business mullet of frame geometry. Having it long in the back, however, doesn't make for a party out on the trail. It makes for a bike that feels cramped and cumbersome. And then there's handlebar height… Some 29ers have handlebars that seem to scrape the heavens and this makes for more awkward moments out on the trail. Handlebar height is lower with 27.5 (both because of the smaller wheel and the fork's reduced axle to crown length).
In short, it's easier to make a 27.5-compatible frame that handles well in tight conditions. No argument from me there.
A FEW MORE TWEAKS TO THE FORMULA
Giant repeatedly stressed that these 27.5 models are all brand new creations—they do not share frame parts with any previous Giant bikes–26er or 29er. One new addition to all the performance frames are convertible rear dropouts that allow you to run either 135 (traditional quick release) or 142/12 through-axle wheels. Giant also incorporated cartridge bearings in the upper shock mounts, which they say improves the bikes’ small-bump compliance. Other niceties include improved internal cable routing (which should hopefully reduce the rattling we experienced on our 2013 Trance X 29er test bike), improved dropper posts (the Contact Switch model can be routed internally or externally now and requires less effort at the trigger to get it moving) and, finally, a range of Giant wheels in 27.5 that sport DT Swiss hub internals and convertible rear axles.
PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING
Of course, all this talk of roll over, efficiency and control is just that—talk. The proof is in the pudding. Either Giant's bikes are better in 2014 because of the new wheel size or they aren't. Fortunately, we had plenty of time to find out. Giant held their press launch in Park City—a place that's simply rife with fantastic singletrack.
On day one of our launch we took the bikes up the mountain and down the mountain and up and down and up and down the runs of Deer Valley. God bless the chairlift. There were a few short, punchy climbs, plenty of high-speed mountainside traverses, countless tight switchbacks and a few ledges and technical trail features sprinkled here and there. Day two consisted of blowing a morning and afternoon in fine style by ripping down the Mid-Mountain Trail, a singletrack that's at times blazingly fast, buff, blown out, chundery, blazingly fast again and, in short, a perfect place to put trail bikes through their paces.
I had my choice of several bikes during this launch. The obvious contenders (as a fan of squishy bikes) were the Anthem Advanced 27.5, the Trance Advanced 27.5 and the Trance Advanced SX. Here's a quick rundown on each of those bikes.
ANTHEM 27.5—FOUR MODELS IN THE U.S.
Here in the States, Giant will offer four 27.5 Anthems—three sporting carbon front triangles and aluminum rear ends, the fourth being an entirely aluminum affair. The top-tier Anthem Advanced 27.5 0 Team weighs just 21.54 pounds outfitted with SRAM XX1, a RockShox SID XX and Giant's own P-XCR0 composite wheelset. The frame and shock weigh just 4.56 pounds. All Anthem models offer four inches of front and rear suspension travel.
2014 Anthem Pricing
Anthem Advanced 27.5 0 Team: $8,000
Anthem Advanced 27.5 1: $4,600
Anthem Advanced 27.5 2: $3,400
Anthem 27.5 3: $2,100
TRANCE 27.5—SIX MODELS IN AMERICA
Giant's Trance trail bikes have long been the bread and butter of their dirt line up; no surprise, then, that there will be no fewer than six Trance 27.5 models in the U.S. next year—three with carbon front triangles/aluminum rear triangles and three all-aluminum models. All of the bikes boast 5.5 inches of rear suspension. Giant had a ton of the top-of-the-line Trance Advanced 27.5 0 rigs on hand. Built with SRAM XX1, a RockShox Revelation RLT3 and Giant's carbon wheels, the thing weighs a mere 24.54 pounds. Damn.
One very new, and welcome, tweak to the Trance line is the addition of two "SX" models that possess the same basic Trance 27.5 chassis, but instead of running the stock 140-millimeter travel fork, sport 160-millimeter travel forks instead, which slacken the head angle a degree and give the bike a decidedly more descent-happy bias. The higher-end Trance Advanced SX 27.5 also sports a Fox Float-X CTD rear shock for improved big-hit performance.
2014 Trance 27.5 Pricing
Trance Advanced 27.5 0: $7,500
Trance Advanced 27.5 1: $5,200
Trance Advanced SX 27.5: $6,200
Trance 27.5 1: $3,300
Trance 27.5 3: $2,000
Trance SX 27.5: $3,800
ON THE TRAIL
While I'm intrigued as hell by the SX model, I focused my attention instead on the Trance Advanced 27.5 O model as I wanted to address the real question here: namely, are these Giant bikes better in 27.5 trim than in 29? Since I'd ridden the Trance X 29er this fall, I wanted to spend my time on a bike that allowed for more of an apples to apples comparison between the two wheel sizes.
So, let me cut to the chase—huge improvement in moving to 27.5 wheels on these Giant models. Huge.
I've been fond of Giant's Maestro suspension since it's debut in 2005, but while I appreciated the Trance X 29er's excellent rear suspension, there was no denying that the bike suffered from a really tall front end and a slightly cramped cockpit. Those problems led to some fighting amongst our staff during our Bible of Bike Tests. The 27.5 version, however, soundly addresses those problems.
I make a point of not reading geometry charts before testing bikes—reading angles and frame dimensions can color your perceptions out on the trail. It's better to just let the riding do the talking. What immediately struck me here on the trails of Park City is that the rear end on the new Trance 27.5 felt considerably tighter. There were countless tight turns and high-speed slaloms through the aspens—conditions in which the Trance X 29er would have felt clumsy. The new bike was worlds easier to maneuver at speed. What's more, the bike's front-center felt like it had grown a bit—allowing for a more centered and confident stance.
The one place where the Trance X 29er outshined its smaller-wheeled sibling was in its ability to roll over obstacles. The Trance Advanced 27.5 surprised me a few times with how well it steamrolled through rocky sections, but there’s no beating a 29er in that regard.
It turns out that Giant was able to cleave half an inch off the chainstays by going to 27.5. The front center has been stretched more than an inch. The geometry charts suggest that the wheelbase on the 27.5 Trance is actually more than an inch longer than on the 29er version, but despite that fact, I'd take the 27.5 –flavored Trance any day of the week. The rider's weight distribution is much better on this bike than on the 29er Trance. From a fit and handling perspective, there's no comparison—this bike is better suited to aggressive riding than its 29er counterpart.
While I didn’t ride any of the Anthem 27.5 models on hand, Giant has been able to work the same improvements with those bikes–shortening the chainstays and lengthening the Anthem’s front center. Since the short front center was my chief complaint when I tested the Anthem 29er this year, I’m willing to bet that much of what I like about the Trance 27.5 extends to the new Anthem 27.5 as well.
On Giant’s suspension bikes, the 27.5 wheel size makes a ton of sense. Their suspension kinematics never played as well with 29er wheels as that of other brands. Companies such as Devinci and Specialized are doing great things with the 29-inch wheel and have proven that some suspension designs can make sweet love to the big wheels, even in long-travel packages. I also still shake my head over the notion of 27.5 wheels on cross-country hardtails since those big hoops can be fitted to hardtails without unduly stretching the rear ends, but on the Anthems and Trances, 27.5 is clearly a step in the right direction.
What about Reign X and Glory? Will they remain 26er forever? I think the writing is on the wall here. For Giant Bicycles, at the very least, it’s quickly becoming a 27.5/650b world.