650b wins second world cup – wheel size debate hots up - UPDATED

Nino Schurter shocked the mountain bike world when he raced to victory at the opening world cup event in South Africa aboard a Scott Scale with 650b wheels. Normality resumed (sort of) when Julien Absalon proved there’s still a place for 26in wheels at the second round in Belgium.

Then, at the weekend Nino once again claimed top honours on his 650b Scott as the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup took place in the Czech Republic, further igniting the wheel size debate.

The wheel size debate is big this year

2012 is threatening to mark the biggest upheaval in the development of the mountain bike since, and the debate is all about wheel size. From the beginning, despite a few brief flirtations, the mountain biking industry settled on 26in wheels, and in the couple of decades since we’ve been blissfully enjoying 26in mountain bikes. In recent years the subject of the best wheel size for mountain biking has risen to the top of the agenda.

Why are we even on 26in wheels in the first place? The reason the Repack riders used 26in wheels back in the 70s and not the more common 700c road wheels around was down to one simple thing: tyre choice. There simply weren’t suitable tyres for off-roading in the larger size. Cruiser bicycle manufacturer Schwinn however produced bikes using 26in wheels, which came shod with fatter tyres, much more suitable for blasting down the tracks those long haired guys were racing. In those early years mountain biking moved swiftly, and there was very little discussion about wheel size. 26in was simply adopted as it proved to work reasonably well. 30 years later and that debate is now raging.

In the years since the first mass produced mountain bikes, there’s been some who have held firm that 26in isn’t the best for mountain biking. 650B is claimed in some quarters to be the best size for mountain biking. It has long since been the solve resolve of French cycle tourists, but if we go back to 1951 we discover that a young group of cyclists, the Velo Cross Club Parisien (VCCP) could claim to have invented mountain biking. Only they never realised it.

They adapted their 650b touring bikes for off-road use  - there’s even YouTube footage of those early cyclists in action. Suspension forks were borrowed from mopeds and improved brakes and gearing were the main changes that allowed these pioneering cyclists to embrace the essence of mountain biking that we take for granted today. If this movement had gathered a little more momentum who knows how the sport might have developed. It could have been very different. Maybe we would all be riding around on 650b mountain bikes already?

Instead the industry continued with26in. Then, along came the rise of the 29in wheel size, in recent years we’ve seen an explosion of 29er bikes. 2012 really does seem to be the year of the 29er.  Gary Fisher pushed the concept of 29in wheels, larger at 622mm diameter than the 559mm of 26in wheels and 584mm of 650b.

The first manufacturer to attempt to bring a 29er to market was Bianchi in 1989, when it brought out a bike with 700c wheels and components like flat bars, thumb shifters and a triple chainset that we would recognise today as standard equipment. It didn’t catch on. By 1995 it was quietly dropped from the Italian company’s range. Gary Fisher, an early adopter and pivotal to the rise of 29ers, brought out his first big wheels bike in 2002.

Now, with the support of most US brands, 29ers are going global. European brands have been forced to follow suit, with 29ers featuring in the catalogues of most medium to large size companies. They’re creeping into more bike shops and more bike sheds and garages across the country, and more people are considering a possible purchase.

So 29ers are the future? Perhaps not, as a 650b mountain bike (a Scott Scale) has just gone and won the first round of the UCI World Cup. This sent shock waves through social media networks like Twitter over the weekend as thousands visibly recoiled in disbelief. Is the future now 650b?

Does 650b offer the best of both world?  That’s the question on many people’s lips. The handling could feasibly feel more akin to a 26in (as it’s only marginally better) but with some of the highlighted benefits of 29ers; increased rolling speed, momentum, smoother and more stable ride over rough terrain, more traction. Another advantage of the 650b wheel is the more vertically challenged people will be better able to get a good fit – we’ve seen some drastic solutions taken by sponsored riders forced to ride 29ers to get the handlebars low enough to replicate a fit they happily achieved on their previous 26in bikes. And we know how racers like to slam their handlebars and get as low as possible.

That’s largely a reason  Nino is said to have chosen a 650b from a choice of three wheel sizes. And of course there’s the weight advantage, there’s no getting away from the fact smaller wheels are lighter.

What does it mean for mountain biking though? Is there space for three wheel sizes, is the industry really wanting to offer the huge range of bikes that the three sizes would clearly need?

And do the public have the appetite for three wheel sizes? Is the industry gambling with people’s patience and money? Or is this leading us to have a debate about the size of our wheels that we’ve never properly had in our young sport.

What do you think? Have your say below:

Photos © SCOTT/ Gary Perkin

  1. Richard Stannard

    I have long held the belief that wheels size should be dependent on the size of the rider. Any one over 6ft should consider 29inch or 650b and any one under consider 650b and 26inch. There will always be exceptions, whether or not the industry can handle some many choices awaits to be seen.

    I love my 29ers and hope they are around for years to come, I am 6ft 2 inches tall and they make sense for me. Each rider is different but if you are racing the wheel size which goes fastest for you is the best, I would love to see taller downhill riders race on bigger wheels it would be an interesting experiment.

    1. Markus

      I agree. Nino is not very tall. So the 650b fits him perfectly.

    2. Mike

      I agree:

      IF YOU WEAR S-M SIZE CLOTHES = 26
      IF YOU WEAR M-L SIZE CLOTHES = 27,5
      IF YOU WEAR L-XL SIZE CLOTHES = 29

      WHY IS IT SO HARD TO UNDERSTAND?!

      THERE IS NO BENEFITS/DISADVANTAGES VS SIZES WITHOUT TAKING UNDER CONSIDERATION YOUR FREAKING BODY TYPE!

      SIMPLE

  2. Paul Ahart

    While I think 650b is a terrific wheel size, especially on touring/randonneuring bikes, adding it into the mix for mountain bikes has nothing to do with “choice,” but is all about getting someone, already satisfied with what he is riding, to say, “It’s new! Gotta have it!.” It’s like Apple coming out with a new Ipad every year: it’s about dumping what was perfectly good and getting the latest…whatever…
    Bicycling should be more about sustainability, about lowering one’s carbon footprint. Instead, it’s just like most other industries: an obsession with growth anyway they can get it.
    They aren’t going to reinvent the diamond frame, so they gotta grasp at whatever new thing they can. Get Joe Sucker to dump his bike and jump on the latest, preferably yearly.

  3. KEN JOHNSON

    650B is the future its as simple as that, lots of advantages over 26 and 29 wheels.

  4. Kurt

    Alternative wheel size wins World cup shocker.

    What happens if a 26″ wins again we will have to burn all the 650b’s and the 29ers and go back to baby wheels.

    Me thinks it has a lot more to do with the motor on the day and Nino was on the gas that day and had been probably two inches taller he’d have probably been on a 29er anyway according to the post race blurb.

    Anyway variety is the spice of life……

  5. damo

    650B wheel just look right!

    not too big, not too small just right:-)

    also i agree the single win so far has much more to do with the guy on the bike and not the wheels.

    I have just ordered a pair of 650′s as I’ve been very interested in this size for some time and now it looks like it will go i’m well looking forward to this option and no its not just about greedy corporate fat cats, 95% of riders will stick with what they have.

  6. cypher

    think that most of the discussion on wheel sizes is powered by magazines and websites that need to fill their pages and companies that have a vested interest in getting people to buy the newest bling.

    i’ve ridden 29″ and enjoyed it, but when i’ve got a load of gear thats 26″ related, as i imagine many who have been riding for years have, then i’m not just going to bin that and swap over to 29″

    variety is the spice of life and the more choices people have the more interesting things will be but despite riding at least twice a week all over the place 29″ bikes are still rare enough to cause a double take.

    And apparently wheel size has been the next big thing for the past 3 or 4 years.

  7. Tim

    I think if you put that guy on anything he would have won.
    Yes there are advantages to every size out there, did this size make the difference this time?
    I see wheel size going the route of the mountain bike. More specific for a given situation, Like mountain bikes are today.
    XC,AM,FR,DH
    29er,650,26″,26″ or 24″
    I love the 29er, wish they would make a 32″.

  8. oldnick

    “a 650b mountain bike (a Scott Scale) has just gone and won the first round of the UCI World Cup”

    Funny, I heard there was a bloke riding the thing.

    There is so much total w**k spouted about the apparently enormous differences between wheel sizes that I won’t buy anything bike related until they invent the variable size wheel so that my kit is perfectly matched to the terrain/trail/humidity/global economic situation/phase of the moon.

    Or I could just go ride my bike in the sure knowledge that the rider makes the most difference.

  9. Nobby

    For many years those I have spoken to that are involved in the design of mtb’s have all said that their ideal wheel size was 650B but, as noted in this article, 26″ wheels came to be the standard by default.

    At that point it was nigh on impossible to convince people to make the (relatively) small change however, the advent of the 29er has opened peoples eyes to the benefits of a bigger wheel.

    Both 26″ and 29″ have their weaknesses but 650B is a balanced compromise which brings most of the benefits of both sizes together.

    There are a few available in the States (and have been for many years) and I tried to demo one when there in October only to find a 9 week waiting list for both the HT & FS I was interested in.

    From my own perspective, I prefer a 26″ to a 29″ but feel something in between would be ideal.

  10. pat couser

    quite a generalisation but:
    the taller the rider and the bigger the bike, the bigger the wheels. If the bike has suspension, the wheels will probably be smaller compared to a bike without (especially at the rear where you need more space).
    650B just gives riders more choice and a better chance of finding their ideal bike.
    I ride 24″, 26″ and 29″, Im 6 foot and consider 29″ ideal for XC style riding that I do most of the time, but for the BMX track I prefer 24″

  11. Chris Juden

    Ah me… I remember my young friend James at our wedding in 1979, riding circles around us as we walked down the field from Chapel to Hall, on a ‘rough stuff’ bike he’d had built by Jack Taylor around fat tyres on 650B wheels.

    1. Graham Wallace

      Indeed. Even if we exclude cyclocross, the idea of using big wheels for off-roading goes way back to the 70s and 80s. Not for racing but for off-road touring. Jack Taylor and English Cycles both made 650b bikes, Whilst Cleland and Highpath made 650b and even some 700c bikes based around fat Finish made snow tyres. Only now have the mainstream manufacturers caught up with what the designers of these bikes knew.

      Which wheel size is fastest? Well each size has its advantages, so ultimately it depends on the nature of the trail being ridden. In my opinion proportionally, 29ers look big, 26ers look small, and 650b look about right.

  12. Storm Ferguson

    The size of the rider is immaterial; Ned Overend rides a 29er as does Burry Stander. Didn’t Annie Last ride one too? I just hope the 650 wheel dies quickly as all it will do is rapidly increase the cost of bikes and their components. Perhaps the manufacturers of the components can kill it so Scott stop the rot?
    Have you done a cost/value exercise of bike against motorbike? We’re paying way over the top already!

  13. RonnieScale

    In the interests of balance perhaps mention of the fact that the leading women in the Pietermaritzburg race were on 29″ wheels. “Maja Wloszczowska wins Women’s XCO World Cup in Pietermaritzburg.”

    http://www.scott-sports.com/global/pt/news/bike/Grand_Slam_Saturday/

    As a matter of fact Maja was on a 29″ Scott Scale. Emily Batty in second place also rides a 29 and I believe that she is about 5′ 2″ tall.

    “Batty finished second, just four seconds back with Pendrel rounding out the top three 23 seconds down on Wloszczowska, who pointed out that she appreciated the 29-inch wheels on her Scott Scale.”

    The following quote from Maja is of interest.

    “The bigger wheels are perfect for this course. Made it much easier to take the jumps and ride the rocks and logs. The courses are getting more and more technical and I’m impressed with how we women are handling them.”

    1. Kielder

      Interesting, I `m 5`2″ but feel I`m not strong enough to power a 29-er up the climbs(but then I`m not an elite rider!)
      I`m a light weight freak so the cost of anything desirable would be unthinkable!
      But maybe the 650b is the answer?

  14. Bigtwin

    To me geo makes more of a difference than wheel size. Ridden a 29 Spesh Carve? It’s like riding a canoe. Ride a 29 Superfly – it’s excellent. You’d swear they had different size wheels.

  15. Henry

    I like the poster further up the list here, have a real problem with the “29er wins world cup” or like here “650B wins world cup” NO! Nino Schurter wins a round of the would cup on a 650B bike.” (even stating he won the world cup is wrong! He won the first round,yes I know I am being picky!).
    The rider makes the big difference, I am not saying we shouldn’t be interested in the bikes these guys and girls are using but the credit should go t the rider not the bike. Last year there were endless posts about “29er wins world cup/world championships” “You know 29er is fastest, have you seen Kulhavy?” e.c.t; Kulhavy was so strong he could have won on anything, within reason. He also had a really strong year in 2010, 2011′s progress I think was far more down to increased fitness, confidence and just general progression not an extra 3 inches on each wheel. I am not saying that the 29er bike doesn’t suit him and thus aid him in making use of his power but it didn’t win the race for him.
    And it’s the same with Nino, people posting else where about how 650B allowed him to attack the rock garden faster than anyone else on 26 or 29er, RUBBISH, again maybe helped a tiny tiny bit but the main thing that allowed Nino to attack the rock garden faster than anyone else, skill. Nino Schurter has won DH enduro’s beating the likes of Remi Absalon, he just very skilful and he rode the same section last year with the same speed (although had changed his line this year slightly).

    Again I am not saying that it’s not interesting that different wheel sizes are gaining popularity and might filter down to “us” and make for better bikes. But lets not credit wins to wheels.

    There is specific, scientific research, and studies that say 26 is the fastest and most effective for xc. I think probably open to debate and will vary from rider to rider. Myself I am increasingly in giving bigger wheels a go but under no illusions despite what some forum users say, expect to being riding that much faster;and certainly don’t expect it to have more of an effect on my riding speed than spending a few extra hours on the road bike or at the pump track.

    1. Mike

      Bullshit. All depends on body type and endurance and NOT tyre size.

  16. GREG

    650 is the Goldilocks zone between the 29 and 26.

    I want my 650 titanium slope stylee full susser, and I want it NOW!

  17. Greg C

    29″, 27.5″(650B), 26″, 24″… all choices and should be up to personal preference – I don’t mind if they develop them as an option and let the riders choose which is most popular … what I DO mind is all this daft hype about it being the ‘future of mountain biking’ with all the main manufacturers clamouring to be part of the ‘revolution’ (i.e. make as much money as possible before it dies down)… come on lets keep it about the fun of riding no matter what you’re riding – to me 26″ with decent size knobblies is perfect – you can ride a penny farthing round the local trails or win the world cup on it and I’ll cheer you on – just don’t go telling me my bikes obsolete because of it.

  18. MMMlicious

    Boo Berry is delicious, so is a fish taco.

  19. Andy

    Rider size, riding style and bike geometery are all important factors, but in my experience the type of terrain may be the most important consideration. I have been building and riding big wheeled bikes as well as 26ers for quite a while. For flat out speed on a flowing trail I’ll take a 29er. But on a very tight, technical trail I would prefer my 26er any time.
    ( I am 5’10″).
    If I could have only one bike, considering my ability and the trails I ride I would make it a 650b. I just built one for my wife, who is 5’4″ and very athletic, and she absolutely loves it.

  20. Alex
  21. simon spragg

    VHS or Betamax? VHS won Betamax was better.

  22. Ash Kirk

    Julien Absalon, arguably the best / most successful rider on the racing circuit. He still rides 26″ and he won WC XCO2 just last month and is the favourate to win the Olympics.
    I think the addition of these new wheel sizes are a marketing ploy, which is working – people are buying it. At the end of the day the rider wins a race…not a bike. Nino would of still won at WC1 and WC3 on a 26″ or 29″ – he is a world class rider.

    In conclusion its the meat in between the two wheels that counts.

  23. Ian Leitch

    Completely with Kurt. I love my 29er and the way it rides but is it really faster? – Of course not! Absalon is winning on 26 – Schurter would have won on 26. For riders it is about what feels best, for manufacturers and marketeers it is about shifting more product and for world class race heads it makes absolutely no difference.

  24. Ian Leitch

    sorry I meant Kirk! need more.. precision.

  25. Brian

    “There is no more sure sign of insanity than to do the same thing over and over an expect a different result.” Think of it as the Jeet Kune Do{ Quantum Perspective} for mountain bike dynamics; always evolving,for this the natural rhythm of life.

  26. akaflash

    Take your best full suspension 26″ bike, put a 650b wheel up front and roll-on. You’ll still climb like a goat!
    I have tried that on many super rough miles with a 29″ wheel. It was just a little too much.

  27. Gavin Rogers

    just a thought but in the latest xterra world champs the top 4 woman were on 29ers and they are all under 6ft some even as small as 5ft3,so reckon size of rider has nothing to do with it,all bikes are going to have pros and cons ,let the individual rider decide.

  28. Bru

    Damn! Now I want a 650b…no wait, I want a 29er… no wait, I wanna 69er, ha ha ha! No wait, I want a 89er… oh, that’s a penny farthing.

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