By Vernon Felton
While forums continue to be full of devoted 26-inch wheel fans who swear that they'll only give up their beloved 26-inch wheels when you pry them from their cold, dead fingers, almost every single product manager and engineer from every bike company I've talked to (and I interviewed all of the major players in the mountain bike market) freely admit that virtually every bike in their line-up with five or fewer inches of travel will be a 29er within the next few years.
In other words, if you want to buy a cross-country or trail bike a few years from now, odds are good it will be a 29er. Like it or not, that's how it's shaping up.
The part of the story where the crystal ball gets slightly fuzzy, however, is when you start asking about 650B (aka, 27.5) bikes. Bike and component manufacturers all agree that 27.5 is the big story for 2013 and that's been clear for months now. Every fork manufacturer and wheel manufacturer at this show is touting at least one—and in most cases, a veritable crop, of forks and wheels designed to play nice with the in-betweener wheel size. And while it was once just crazy Jamis and Kirk Pacenti acting crazy and blowing the 650B/27.5 trumpet at the masses, now almost every bike manufacturer who wants to sell something to you is rushing to trot out something in 27.5.
Well, from a marketing perspective, the answer is pretty clear: this is the wheel size that could be "the best of both worlds". 27.5-inch wheels roll over rocks and logs more easily than traditional 26-inch wheels, yet (all other things being held constant) weigh less and flex less than 29er versions of the same product. That "perfect porridge", "best of both worlds" rationale has already got the gram-counting euros across the pond salivating. And besides, 70 percent of the bike industry still feels like dipshits for not jumping on the 29er bandwagon quickly enough. No one wants to be left out in the cold this time around.
But is the in-between wheel size it really better than either 26 or 29?
The engineers I spoke to at Kona, Specialized and Trek (three brands that are not showing off 27.5-inch models at this show) all gave me the same general answer: that (and I'm paraphrasing here) they'd built and tested 27.5-inch bikes and their testers came back lukewarm on the concept. The wheels did roll over rocks more easily than 26ers and, yeah, they do give a bike a more playful and nimble feel than a larger, 29er wheel, but they also aren't as outright fun as either wheel size. In short, testers preferred the very nimble 26er wheel or the very stable 29er wheel. 650B/27.5 was just sort of…blah.
So, why are we seeing a veritable crapload of these wheels, tires, forks and bikes in the Sands Convention center, here in Vegas?
Well, there is that already-mentioned "selling crap to the Euros" issue that I mentioned earlier. There's also the "I still look like a douchebag for jumping on 29 so late." factor. The more compelling motivation, however, is this: most manufacturers are struggling to shod their longer-travel (I'm talking about six-inches of travel and more) bikes with wheels that are larger than 26ers. You try and put 29er hoops on a Giant Reign or a Trek Remedy or a Specialized Enduro and the wheelbase gets so long that you might as well be pedaling a tractor-trailer through the tight and twisty stuff. Chainstays go way north of 18 inches and that leads to some very shitty handling, indeed.
Riders, on the other hand, have been squeezing 27.5-inch wheels onto frames designed for 26er wheels for years now, which means that, with very little modification, bike manufacturers can graft 27.5-inch wheels onto existing all-mountain designs and still have a bike that handles well, yet benefits from the bigger wheels' improved angle of attack.
And this is why I, personally shake my head every time I see a 650B/27.5 hardtail (I'd prefer a 29er for any kind of riding other than dirt jumping), but I am honestly intrigued by the new crop of 27.5 all mountain bikes.
Which bikes look promising? Here are a few.
Norco Range Killer B
Perhaps the most rugged, brawny looking 27.5 on display here at Interbike, the Range Killer B packs 160-millimeters (6.3 inches) of travel and was designed on the North Shore. There will be three models for 2013. Norco claims that, while the new model may look like the old 26er version of their Range, this new Killer B version was completely redesigned around 27.5 wheels. It features new suspension kinematics, short chainstays (the Small and Medium-sized Killer B models actually have shorter rear-centers than the old 26er Range), ISCG05 mounts, bash guards, travel-adjust forks… It's a fairly impressive bike. Norco will also offer a 140-millimeter travel bike in 27.5 trim next year (the Sight), which is like a slightly scaled down version of the Range Killer B. We'll be testing both shortly.
Intense Tracer 275
Jeff Steber and company showed off this model off at Sea Otter, way back in April. Intense took their longstanding Tracer 2 all-mountain model and improved the bike's ability to monster truck over braking bumps, rocks and roots by adding bigger, 27.5-inch wheels to the rig. The Tracer 275 is made from aluminum, but you can convert the company's composite Carbine model to 27.5 by simply bolting on Intense's optional G1 conversion dropouts. Sweet. This should make everyone who bought a Carbine last year or who want to swap back and forth between the two wheel sizes, fairly stoked.
Rocky Mountain Altitude
Rocky debuted the Altitude 275 at Crankworx Whistler—with its SmoothLink design, the new bike resembles their Element models, but packs 150-millimeters of travel and an ingenius RIDE-9 geometry-adjusting system. In essence, buy rotating a pair of chips in the upper shock mount, you can adjust head angle from 66.6 to 68.3 degrees and raise or lower the bottom bracket half an inch. The new Altitude is more of a long-legged trailbike, than a dyed-in-the-wool, uber-burly all-mountain rig. There will be five models for 2013 (three carbon and two aluminum versions).
Will 26-inch wheels disappear from the landscape entirely? Not likely. They're nimble, light and still make a ton of sense for long-travel bikes, but it's entirely conceivable that they might become the minority within the next five years.
So, how do you feel about it all?
Do you want to give 27.5-inch wheels a try or are you just sick and tired of all this wheel-size drama?