Interview: Kirk Pacenti

Meet the man who was designing and marketing 27.5-inch wheels nearly a decade before they became mainstream.

Kirk Pacenti never gave up on his idea for 27.5-inch mountain-bike wheels despite the many years it took for the industry to widely accept the concept. Photo by Dan Barham

Kirk Pacenti never gave up on his idea for 27.5-inch mountain-bike wheels despite the many years it took for the industry to widely accept the concept. Photo by Dan Barham

Chances are you haven’t heard of Kirk Pacenti. Chances are you have heard of 650B, or 27.5, the wheel size between 26-inch and 29ers that the industry can’t seem to get enough of right now. Save for Specialized and Cannondale, 27.5-wheeled bikes have become the dominant choice on the majority of all-mountain, 5- to 6-inch trail bikes for most brands. Some, like Giant and Scott, have almost entirely foregone both 29ers and 26-inch wheels to focus on designing frames around the mid-sized hoops.

Amen. For Pacenti, that is, who showed the first production 650B mountain bike at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in 2007, practically eons ago in technology years.

As a longtime designer and welder whose résumé includes stops as the head frame builder for Bontrager and custom frame designer for Merlin, buy-in from the broader industry equals validation for an idea he’s been advocating for nearly a decade.

Before most brands were even considering 29ers, he was sending his 27.5-inch wheels and tires to product developers at Trek, Giant, Cannondale and Santa Cruz, trying to get them to bite on the wheel size he saw as the natural evolution in line with modern suspension design. Most didn’t. A few did. Craig Hoyt, for example, then in product at Jamis Bicycles, saw the benefits immediately and, in 2009, that brand was one of the first to bring a 650B mountain bike to market.

The 27.5 faucet remained at a trickle until 2011 when the wheel size started catching on in Europe, where consumers were more familiar with the wheels due to old touring rigs outfitted with the same size spinners. By the following year, parts and accessories like wheels, tires and suspension forks from well-known brands were readily available and bikes really started flowing into retailers.

Now you can’t throw a dart at an industry catalogue without landing on something 27.5 related. Pacenti now owns and runs the Pacenti Cycle Design boutique in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which designs wheels (in all three sizes), hubs, rims, tires, chainrings and frames. Pacenti is also planning to sell frames from Foes, Ibis, Intense, Morewood, Ventana and those under his own name outfitted with Pacenti-branded wheel sets.

We recently caught up with Pacenti to hear his thoughts on the proliferation of 650B wheels.

It must be nice for you, after advocating this wheel size for nearly a decade, to finally see industry/consumer validation. Did you feel crazy at times, or that, perhaps your intuition was wrong about this wheel size?

Validation for my concept from industry peers and the bike industry as a whole is incredibly gratifying. I’ll admit that there were times when I thought the mid-sized mountain bike wheel might end up a commercial failure, but from a real-world performance standpoint, I have never doubted the merits of the concept.

Along those lines, why now do you think the industry is latching on to this so strongly now?

There may be something to the idea that Europe didn’t want to “miss the boat again.” [Europe was late to catch on to 29ers]. I had a feeling early on that Europe would pick this up much faster than the U.S., but it’s hard to say with any certainty what the real reason is; there are probably a dozen reasons. I’d like to believe it’s because other designers and product managers in the industry saw the obvious and positive impact 650b wheels would have on mountain-bike performance.

Whatever the reasons were, I was not surprised at all when European companies ran with the idea. In fact, the main reason I stopped pushing ’27.5′ and went with 650B is that all of Europe is familiar with the 650B wheel size. Calling it 650B eliminated a major hurdle to educating potential customers to the benefits of this ‘new’ standard. Today, I am happy to call it whatever the industry settles on.

Do you think 27.5 will take over the DH market as well? With the development of a couple new dual-crown forks from Manitou, X-fusion and DVO, it seems like DH is also headed in that direction?

There will be race courses where 26-inch wheels may still hold and advantage, but I do think 27.5-inch wheels will become the norm in the DH market pretty rapidly. Again, there are probably several good reasons for this, but I’d like to think overall performance will be driving the trend.

P & A for the size is coming along, but there still seems to be a lack of options for wheels and to a lesser extent, tires. Is everyone scrambling to get product to market now? With the costs of molds, it seems there has been some hesitation to invest until there is more proof the wheel size is here to stay.

Think about it this way: Company ‘X’ decides to drop everything they are working on today to go in a new direction with a product line. Given the lead times in our industry for design, development, testing and manufacturing, would mean that you might not actually see that product on the showroom floor for 18-24 months, sometimes longer. That means what you see happening with 27.5-inch wheels today, was put into motion quite a while ago. It’s actually a testament to validity of the mid-sized wheel concept that things are moving so quickly. How long did disc brakes take to catch on? And 29ers?

Progression starts with the small brands, innovators and early adopters such as yourself. Is there any concern your brand will get lost or not benefit from the popularity of 27B now that all the big companies will flood the market with product?

Yes, that is a concern and it could very well happen, but it’s a problem I am prepared for. I knew from the outset that if 27.5-inch wheels were going to be successful, they would have to grow beyond my ability to ‘control’ it. The 27.5-inch wheel concept is only as viable as its commercial success in the market. By definition, that means it was going to take some very big companies to get on board with my idea and push it, and that meant it was going to be harder for me to compete, even if I was the originator.

The other thing is that I don’t feel the market owes me anything just because I came up with a good idea. It’s my responsibility to run a good business, and come up with more good ideas. What I most hope to get out of developing a new, commercially successful wheel size, is that it will open other doors for me in the industry; that my next designs will be more readily adopted in the market, or by the industry. I’ve got quite a few more ideas I’d like to explore—I have no intention of hanging my whole career on “650b”.

You’re obviously a guy with pretty good foresight. What’s your prediction on where the industry is headed next?

Thirty years ago mountain bikes were a novelty. Fifteen years ago it was big business. Today it’s a fully mature industry with products that rival the sophistication and performance of automobiles and smart phones. What we are seeing today with the level of industrial design, function and systems integration is just the tip of the iceberg. Electronic shifting, electronically controlled smart shocks (that really work), or maybe even my idea for wirelessly controlled electro-hydraulic braking systems-it’s all coming, and the bar will continue to be raised. It’s a really an exciting time to be working with bikes.

For more on Pacenti’s work go to www.pacenticycledesign.com.

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