Words and Photos by Vernon Felton
I'm at my local trailhead after a long, solid day of riding, and I'm strapping my bike onto the hitch rack when a car pulls up alongside me and a rider climbs out.
"Hey, is that the new Santa Cruz?" This guy ambles over to me, just brimming with enthusiasm. He's eying my ride with evident lust.
"Uh…,” I manage, "well, it's sorta new. It came out a year ago--this is the Tallboy LTc."
The model name clearly means nothing to this guy who interjects, "The 650b bike, right? I really want one!"
"Er, no, this bike is their long-travel 29er."
The moment that last word leaves my mouth, the guy just deflates. Pure disappointment. "Oh...well, I guess that's a cool bike too...." He lamely offers this sentiment the way you might congratulate a sick friend on his rad new sequined colostomy bag or the way you might praise a three-legged dog that can still hobble out the door and fetch the morning paper. In other words, you can hear the pity in his voice, plain as day.
When did 29ers start sucking so bad? I mean, sure, they went through about a decade of actually sucking, but then they truly got a whole lot better and, up until a year ago, about half of American mountain bikers wanted one. Now? Not so much. If it ain't 650b, it seems, it just isn't cool anymore.
That kind of stuns me. Still.
It shouldn't, I know. I've seen this 650b/27.5 train a coming for a couple years now, but what blows me away is how fast the general public clambered aboard. I'm not about to heap a bunch of hate on 650b--there are plenty of good 650b bikes out there (and 29ers and, for that matter, 26ers too). I'm just shocked that the healthy dose of skepticism that normally accompanies one of those this-is-going-to-cost-you-a-lot-of-money innovations, just sort of went on vacation this time around.
Let me add some context here.
I remember walking into the Bicycle Trip in Santa Cruz back in 1992 [insert old-timer, prospector voice here] and staring at the RockShox hanging on the bike shop’s wall. A suspension fork? It seemed the height of stupidity to me. I'd been riding for years without one--as had every other mountain biker at the time--and none of us had said to ourselves, "What we need right now is a squishy thing spearheading our bikes." If you had an iota of handling skill, you didn't need that kind of contraption. Everyone knew this to be true.
This line of reasoning was, of course, utter bullshit.
We may not have known that we needed suspension forks, but once we eventually rode them, it was immediately obvious--you could go a lot faster and not feel, at the end of the ride, as if someone had beat the hell out of you with a sack of oranges. It took a few years for everyone to jump on board, but we grudgingly accepted suspension forks.
But rear suspension? Oh, hell no. No way. That was just a crappy idea. Definitely. And we had proof this time. For years, the bikes were heavy, creaky, unstable, over-sprung, under-damped, wobbly, flexy piles of crap. They climbed horribly. They did evil things to you while you tried to descend. They, in a word, sucked. Real riders rode hardtails. It said so in The Bible (that’d be the book with the floods and rains of fire and plagues and other fun stuff…not to be confused with our humbly-titled gear guide issue). That was good enough for us.
Again, we were wrong. By the late 90s, full-suspension bikes stopped (for the most part) sucking. They actually became a lot of fun. Eventually, the weight dropped, the pivot points got worked out and you started to look at hardtails as, well, sort of masochistic. This transition to full suspension, however, took a long time. Years and years before the bulk of riders would hand over a month or two of wages for one.
Disc brakes were like that too. That early RockShox brake? Some of the early Formula cable-actuated models? Terrifying. You could hardly bring a bike to a stop on a bike lane, much less a technical downhill when you squeezed either of those early disc brakes. And the brakes that did work were heavy. Sometimes the hydraulic lines snapped. Some of them bled monthly. And a lot of people stuck by their V-brakes for years. But, as with every other technological advance, the product improved, riders saw the light and they slowly made the shift.
It all seems so obvious now--suspension forks, rear suspension, disc brakes--these were all huge advances in performance. And, yet, when each of the technologies debuted, they were met with serious resistance. People bought Girvin flex stems instead of forks. They swore off full-suspension for a decade. They hoarded Avid Arch Supreme brakes. It seems ludicrous now, but making the jump to these new technologies generally required that you buy a new bike and that's always a hard pill to swallow.
Sure, we might all want a new bike, but that's a very different thing than waking up, opening a magazine and finding out that the bike industry has come up with some new gadget that will require that you buy a new bike in a season or two. No one wants to be forced to open up their wallets like that. Sometimes new products feel less like progress and more like extortion. In the long run, we can appreciate the innovations, but when they first get unveiled, we--the mob--tend to meet them with pitchforks and torches.
Except for 650b. That's what has me boggled. Maybe I live in a corner of the world that isn't representative of the rest of the globe, but everyone I know from the Canadian border on down to San Diego seems to want jump on the 650b bandwagon, even though doing so will require a new frame, fork and wheels. In today's market, those things add up to a whole hell of a lot of money--a minimum of two grand. Realistically, you can expect to pay twice that.
Again, I'm not slagging 650b here. I'm just amazed that this time around there seemed so little resistance to what amounts to a sea change.
Let me add some more context here.... At the 2013 Bible of Bike Tests in Fruita, we had just three 650b bikes on test--26ers made up the bulk of the new models. At this year's Bible of Bike Tests, the scales were reversed. Aside from the DH bikes, there was just one 26er rig in the field (the Evil Uprising). That's a monumental shift in a remarkably short period of time. I've been writing about bikes for 15 years now and I've never seen anything like it.
I hear some people arguing that all this wheel-size talk is just crap. I understand that sentiment perfectly. It truly doesn't matter what wheel size you're riding, so long as you are actually out there riding. I get that completely.
I'm simply interested in the tipping point and how we reached it with so little debate this time around. Twenty niners had to fight for every inch of acceptance they got. It was a long, hard road for the wagon wheel, but 650b breezed in this year and pretty much got a big, sloppy kiss from the mountain biking world when the vast majority of riders had never even had a chance to ride one of the things yet. People loved 650b without even trying it. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it's just a sign of the times. Maybe it doesn't mean a damn thing.
It is, however, a whole lot of strange.