Monday, July 14, 2008

Alternative Wheel Sizes: Where Is It Going?

There are these things called web trackers that let me know all sorts of cool stuff about the folks that visit here. Nothing personal, mind you, just stuff like how they got here, search engines used, what the searches were about, etc. Lately there has been a lot of activity concerning alternative wheel sizes.

I thought I'd take a look at what is going on with these choices. I'll focus on each individually here.

Half and Halfs, 50/50's, 69ers, 96ers, etc..... First of all, the names for these are about as confusing and mixed up as the genre'. What it usually means is a 29"er front and some smaller wheel size out back, most often a 26"er. Although any mix of bigger front smaller rear falls into this category.

Okay, I have not been impressed (from a 29"er standpoint) as to the effectiveness of these platforms. I will say that in my research the devotees of these bikes almost all agree that a 29 inch rear wheel is too hard for them to pedal, too hard to gear correctly, or doesn't have the correct tire selection yet to satisfy there expectations.

Wow! This is far cry from the propaganda used to introduce the 69er/96er/whatever bikes to the world. Had this sort of discussion been put forth at the beginning of this, the idea would certainly have been looked at differently by myself, and I am sure others. Of the three most prominently found objections to the 29"er found on the forums dedicated to these 50/50 bikes, two of them are being addressed at this very moment in time. That leaves one reason that I have found that makes sense and as I have said, 29"ers are not for everyone.

Where are these sort of bikes headed? I don't think we'll see much more than we already have in terms of manufacturers and choices. There just won't be that many folks into these sort of bikes and manufacturers need market share. They are not going to offer something like Trek's 69er line up just to pander to an ultra-niche market. Trek's 69er offerings are not long for this world either, I am thinking. It wouldn't surprise me to see these cut back to the single speed "Travis Brown Signature" model real soon.

650B: Here we have a real conundrum of a wheel size. Dubbed as something "halfway" between 26 and 29 inch wheels, the reality of 650B is that it is far more like a 26 inch wheeled bike than most devotees of the size would have you believe. I have ridden a few of these rigs and my take is that they are quite nice bikes, but they sure are not anything like a 29"er. Not even close. Are they better than a 26"er? Incrementally at best. At worst, you can't tell the difference, and on a long travel bike, (the very thing that proponents say 650B will shine at), you just can not tell at all that they are anything bigger than a 26 inch wheel.

650B spins up fast and loses momentum just as quickly. It's tire contact patch is incrementally bigger than a 26"ers and at that, a big 26 inch tire will equal that contact patch easily. In fact, a big 26 inch tire has the same outer diameter as a 650B NeoMoto, (currently the only game in town for "real" off roading in multi-condition terrain in 650B size) For my money, it makes more sense to stick with 26"ers for choice of equipment, compatibility of fork/frames, and performance.

Where is it going? I think we're at the zenith for what 650B will have to offer in terms of choices. I expect this to start to fade away in the coming years and eventually become a foot note in off road history. Touring/road/randoneering will continue onwards unabated in 650B. Off road? Not so much. 650B just doesn't separate itself from 26 inch to enough of a degree to justify it as another choice in off roading. Besides that, the retail side abhors the idea of stocking another wheel size. Ultra-niche is where this will stay.

36"ers: Well, if 69ers are "ultra-niche, and 650B is "ultra-niche", then 36"ers are barely a spec on the radar. There is some activity on the development of this wheel size for off roading, but in reality I see this as the ultimate pavement bike for big people. Commuting especially. Will it ever take root, to a point that we see with the other wheel sizes? Probably not, but who knows? Obviously it has a huge novelty factor, but 36"ers are serious bikes too, just like 650B and 69ers are. In reality though, I just do not see 36"ers ever becoming more than an "ultra-niche" thing, if ever it gets that big.

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