650b And The Luddites

Unlikely Bedfellows

Words by Cam McRae. Photos by . Video by . Posted by
August 5th, 2014

It’s an unlikely battlefield for the purists’ last stand. Having dismissed the 29er, those of us who have clung to the belief that 26 inch wheels can rotate as well as other circular structures find ourselves cozying up to an unlikely bedfellow; the 650b wheel. What sense does that make? If we didn’t think it was worth it to move to a larger wheel size that has well-documented advantages in many situations, why would we forsake two six for slimmer margins and advantages that are less easily felt or measured?

At least it’s not a 29er? Is that our point? For some reason we’re okay with a little bit bigger, almost independent of performance. If we can’t get a new 26″-wheeled bike, and if we own one that will be an even trade for a dropper post by October, 650b must be the way forward? It seems that 650b has profited from the 29er backlash that persists among a stubborn, (curmudgeonly? pig headed?) portion of our ranks.

So how did this squarely grumpy group managed to fit into a 27.5” hole? Early believers in the 29er fought long and hard to convince riders, but once big wheels arrived in full force the middle size gained market share without breaking a sweat.

This hasty acceptance of mid-sized wheels might have little to do with our affection for their circumference. It’s said so often it’s long past cliché; mountain biking is a lifestyle. Many of us live and breathe this sport. We pay attention to trends and changes, buy and sell parts and frames often, and we want to be able to get value out of the stuff we’ve lost our affection for.

Vinyl didn’t disappear overnight but CDs did. This process is happening faster all the time. We’ve learned that we hang on to standards at our peril. Wish you had sold your film camera when it was worth something? How about those 205 cm race skis? Now it’s 26” carbon wheels that are losing value faster than Nigerian currency. Even Yeti decided to fire sale their remaining stock of the popular and much-loved SB66 platform rather than get burnt later on in the sales cycle. Consumers want to feel as little of that heat as possible. This is a great time to score a deal on a used two sixer.

Don’t call me a hater. I am starting to get along better with two nines. They require more man-handling than smaller-wheeled steeds and while I haven’t completely figured it out, I’m getting there. There’s no denying the way big hoops hoover up bumpy terrain, forcing me to appreciate their straight line appeal, both climbing and descending, but I’m not a fan in the corners. When the bike tips over I seem to be more in the bike than on it. It just takes more force to maneuver them; more freight train than go kart.

There are even categories of big wheeler that I like. If I find myself doing the BC Bike Race I will likely choose something like a Specialized Camber. A capable XC machine that goes up and down well and is surprisingly fun to ride. XC bikes needed to get better at descending and rolling over obstacles. But from trail to DH, which is about 95% of the riding I do, I’ve yet to be swayed.

And here on the Shore speeds are often slow. Wagon wheels generally lift your bike, raising your centre of gravity at the same time. Creeping into a steep switchback on those big hoops doesn’t inspire my confidence. On tweener wheels I feel just as comfortable as I do on 26.

And big wheelers don’t dance. At least at the speeds I’m capable of the bike doesn’t get loose underneath me. That moment when the bike gets light and gallops through a violent section of trail while the rest of your body feels motionless – that’s it. It’s on the list of moments that keep me coming back to the bike. And wagon wheelers don’t get me there. Not yet. I’m not seduced by the ‘they are just faster’ argument either. Maybe they are, and maybe they would even be faster under me with a little more experience, but maybe that’s not why I ride mountain bikes.

Of course I want to keep up with my buddies, or on the occasional golden day make it hard for them to keep my wheel on the way down. That’s fun. But it’s not nearly as fun as feeling your bike working beneath you, being able to flick your bike from one side of the trail to the other with subtle inputs. Tossing the bike around with a little anger and having it feel every ounce of your pain. That is two six to me. And if I can’t have it sixfitty may be the next best thing.

If I was a racer I just might see things differently, but I’m one of those saps who believes there are times when the fastest way to the finish line may not provide the most juice. When savouring each moment is more important than being King Of The Mountain. And if easier was always better why do so many riders have steel hardtails in their quiver?

Am I romanticizing the original wheel size and transferring that affection to twosevenfive? Yup. May I be proven wrong and eventually become a two nine evangelist? I wouldn’t bet against it. I’ve frequently been skeptical about the next big thing. I thought dropper posts were a stupid idea and now you’ll never catch me without one. I’m used to eating crow, and I’m comfortable with those lumps. But now that I’m forced to go bigger I’m choosing, in my pig-headed and curmudgeonly way, to go just a smidge bigger.

  • Harvey


  • chubby5000

    Well said Cam! My bike ain’t broke either!

    Without your permission, I’m going to add this to a list
    I’ve very recently started:

    “That moment when the bike gets light and gallops
    through a violent section of trail while the rest of your body feels motionless
    – that’s it. It’s on the list of moments that keep me coming back to the bike.”
    -Cam McRae.

  • Bill Eey

    650 b is silly. These days one could probably put together a sweet 26″ carbon ride with 26″ carbon wheels for the same price as an entry into the 650b market with low to moderate spec. I would wager that the effects of getting into an all carbon set up would have a far larger effect on your riding and fun factor on the trails than just jumping into a bigger but crappier wheel. The value is always to be had in the #$%^ people don’t want anymore. That being said….if I had the $ I would definitely be on the waiting list for one of the new Devinci crbn sprtn,, mmm mmm new hotness!

  • Aaron Fowler

    jesus some of you need to watch the fucking world cup

    • awesterner

      I just watched Windham this morning. Two years of technological advance basically yielded the same times as 2012, on the same line, with arguably a more competitive field.

      • Jan

        Yep, and the track was more straight and faster, so technically they should have shaved time… And just a few weeks back the top 2 were still on 26.

  • Wayne Lee

    Based on the title, I swore this was written by Seb Kemp. First time I ever heard the word Luddite…..Keep up the good work Cam…

  • Jerome Varriale

    Ride an Ibis Ripley, then tell me 29ers aren’t playful/flickable.

  • Twenty Six

    650b is marketing genius. People think they are getting a wheel that is 1.5″ larger than 26. They are not. Not even close. Maybe 1/2″ or 3/4″ difference depending on tire. Everyone is drinking the koolaid. 650 is being forced on the consumer. Some of us like 26 just for compatabiliy. 27.5 does not really offer much advantage, nor disadvantage but great for bike sales $$

    • Morgan Taylor

      The bead seat diameter is 25mm bigger. That’s an inch. Given the same tire, it’s an inch.

      • Fab

        1″ more on the diameter is 1/2″ on the radius of the wheel, which is what count when it comes to handling, geometry, rolling over gnarly stuff, etc… 😉

      • Morgan Taylor

        You’re not wrong, but when everyone else is speaking in terms of diameter, it’s an inch.

      • Paul Burns

        I am on 26 and most bike still are.

  • Maybe it’s my height and size (6’4″ 250+lbs) but the moment I got on a 29er I felt at home. I don’t notice any of the negatives you mention on my Banshee Prime…it does everything my 26″ Rune did but just better and faster.

    I will say that the whole wheel size debate is getting old…a wheel is a wheel and I have had fun on all sizes. Shut up about it and ride. Ride what you like and stop over thinking everything.

    • Spencer Burns

      It’s all about geometry. I’ve never understood this debate, since it assumes wheels are one-size fits all. If you are 10% taller than the average rider, of course you will be more comfortable with 10% bigger wheels. I’m 6’2, love my 29er and encourage anybody tall to ride 29ers; but I am mystified by why anybody would buy a small-frame 29er.

      • Cam McRae

        Solid points gents. At 6’0″ I’m not quite in that longfellow zone.

      • Morgan Taylor

        My legs are slightly shorter than yours but I often prefer the big wheel. I just like ’em big.

    • Cr4w

      Someone who can’t accept that 29″ wheels are good for some people in some situations probably isn’t someone you want to have a reasonable conversation with.

  • rob

    So seriously tired of this conversation.

    • t.odd

      bingo, everyone just needs to STFU and ride what they want….I don’t care that you think it’s a conspiracy, or useless, or the best ever, or not that different. Whether you’re referring to 9’ers, 27.b, or 26…..the horse corpse is a bloody pulp that no one can recognize anymore. Bikes are fun and different people like different things, so deal with it.

      • DominicBruysPorter

        What if what I want isn’t being made anymore because of delusional evolutionary misdirections like this?

  • Bill Ayotte

    I tried to go 29er, but with an inseam of 28″ and being all of 5’6″, every small sized big-wheeler I’ve ridden handles odd to me. Like uncomfortable, eat-the-ground every time I demo one odd. After finally riding a 650b last weekend, I felt right at home. All of the things I like about the 26er I’ve got, with a bit more speed and smoothness to it. It also handled as I expected it to, which was a welcome change from the 29ers I rode. I guess where I am going with this is that for us shorter guys this is kinda the best of both worlds from my experience.

  • SeaSpider

    I gotta say I absolutely love 650b….on the road. I can run a nice fat, super supple Grand Bois Hetre that makes rough pavement disappear and allows me to easily do rides that are a mix of pavement and dirt roads/fire trails. That said, I really don’t see the point of 650b for dedicated trail riding. If you want to ride a rigid bike or race XC then 700c/29″ makes more sense. If you want to ride technical trails then 650b offers nothing over 26″. 650b on dirt just doesn’t seem to be difference enough to make a difference. Also the name – 27.5″ – is stupid. Then again so is 29″. There’s no need to make up a new name for a size just because it’s intended for the dirt.

  • JCL

    ” Wagon wheels generally lift your bike, raising your centre of gravity at the same time.”

    Come on Cam that really is a luddite statement 🙂

  • kain0m

    So the reason we’re supposed to like 650b is because it isn’t too much of a difference from 26″.

    But why on earth did we have to kill 26″ in the first place?

    • The Big Picture

      Too make more money

  • Rassclat

    You forgot to mention that 29ers look shit.

  • 20 Niner

    “And big wheelers don’t dance”

  • litespeed74

    I’m holding out for the 39’er. That’s where it’s at.

  • Matt

    I built up a Knolly Chilcotin, my 26″ dream bike with 90% new parts for under 4 grand last fall. Reverb, Pike and CCDBA, XT everything, WTB I25’s on Hope hubs. A build like that in 650b? Upwards of 7500. Screw that, my bike beats plenty of 27.5 and 29″ wheels at every race I take it to. Plus I could damn near buy two for what most of those people paid.

    Sad thing is, my next bike will be 650b. It’ll pretty much have to be if I want parts. The bike industry is playing us all.

  • DominicBruysPorter

    You know what I think the real reason is? Unless there are more mountain bikers who read Bicycle Quarterly than I thought, it’s the same desire for tyre choice flexibility that worried people about 24″ back in the day and then 29″ later. The most underrepresented argument is that 29″ is still clearly wrong for frames designed for humans of average height or less. I don’t think there’s any arguing that, with headtubes that are too short for the length of fork, fiddly shit to get the driveside chainstay past both a tyre and chainring, and toe overlap on a mountain bike(!!!!) it’s an evolutionary crescent if not cul de sac only really suited to those looking to shave seconds.

  • tashi

    If you base your idea of how niners handle based on what was out there just a few years ago than I’d say that Cam is spot on. IME The niner Spec’s I’ve ridden (Epics and Cambers) were plow machines. Very very fast ones. Perfect for their purpose. My Tallboy was a different story however, as is my Rootdown. Those niners can dance and they give you the stability to go faster. Ideal IMO.

    What current niner designs have you ridden Cam? You may owe it to yourself to try an agile one like the Tallboy, Honzo, Surface, etc.