650b Mountain Bike Wheels: Technological Advancement or Marketing Gimmick?

Bicycle Wheel Size Comparison

26 is dead. This phrase has been uttered on the internet, on bike rides, and in bike shops all across America.

Log on to forums like MTBR or Pinkbike and you’ll read hundreds of posts bemoaning the loss of the 26″ wheel size and declaring that 650b is a marketing gimmick crafted by the bike industry to sell more stuff. You’ll also read posts from hundreds of riders who’ve just converted to the “Goldilocks” wheel size. So which is it? Let’s check some facts and then attempt to speculate.

Marketing

Is 650b an effort to sell more stuff? Of course it is. The entire bike industry spends an awful lot of time thinking of ways to sell more product. For the vast majority of us, riding bikes is a leisure activity. We don’t need a new bike, we don’t need lighter handlebars, we don’t need an extra 10mm of fork travel. We buy these things because we want them. And despite the fact that our current bikes are perfectly good, we’ll always drool over a bike that’s newer and better. The industry would be foolish not to recognize this and capitalize on it.

Mountain Bike Marketing Department

Typical marketing department at a bike company.

 

That being said, some comments would lead you to believe that the marketing departments of bike companies are board rooms full of fat men in suits smoking cigars and trying to think of the next way they can screw the consumer to make a buck. That simply isn’t accurate. Sure, companies like Specialized, Trek, Cannondale and Giant have large marketing departments and have a big advertising budget. Every business has acquisition costs and for manufacturers of that magnitude, they are high. Realize too that a ton of marketing money is spent in ways that benefit riders (bike parks, events, races, etc.) In general, the people that work in the industry are riders too and their focus is to make better stuff, because better stuff sells.

 

 

Sales

Right now 650b mountain bikes are selling. Not just selling, but selling like hotcakes. In a thread on the MTBR forums John Pentecost, International Sales Manager for Yeti Cycles, claimed that Yeti’s 27.5″ wheeled bikes were outselling their 26ers at a ratio of 50 to 1. I’ll repeat that: 50 to 1. With statistics like that, any bike company would be foolish not to increase sales 5000% by offering a 650b model. The buying public has spoken with their wallets and 650b is the size they want.

Mountain Bike Crash

This guy clearly has the wrong wheel size.

“The Butt Test”

Saddle time and the butt test are what really matter. Santa Cruz claims that they test rode prototypes with both wheelsizes back to back and didn’t notice any substantial difference. They suspected that 650b would sell better, so that’s what they went with. The key factor to keep in mind is that the bikes certainly won’t ride poorly. Worst case scenario, there’s no noticeable difference from a 26″ bike and that won’t necessarily deter riders from buying one, if they’re already in the market for a new bike.

 

Numbers and Statistics

Anecdotal evidence aside, is there a quantifiable performance benefit? Let’s look at some numbers and dispel some myths. While “650b” may be confusing to consumers, the alternative is downright misleading. 27.5″ would indicate that the wheelsize is smack dab in the middle of 26″ and 29″ which is not true. Let’s compare the effective rim diameter (ERD) of the three wheelsizes.

Mountain Bike Wheel Size Diameter Comparison

Image Courtesy of BikeRumor

26″         559mm     (100%)

650b     584mm     (104.5%)

29″         622mm     (111.3%)

 

As you can see, a 650b rim is 4.5% larger than a 26er. Compare that to a 29er wheel which is 11.3% larger and 650b is not the Goldilocks wheelsize that some would suggest. Secondly, these calculations only take into account rim diameter and do not factor in variations in tire size, sidewall height or rim width. A 26″ wheel with a large tire can come very close to the overall diameter of a 27.5″ wheel with a slightly smaller tire. 29ers still have a significant size advantage over both wheelsizes, regardless of tire size.

The 650b Trend

So how did we get here? 650b has gone from niche fringe category to unbelievably popular in less than a year. Compared to the ten plus years it took 29ers to become truly mainstream, that’s unheard of. Consumers claim that they’re buying 650b because the 26″ option is gone and it’s being forced upon them. Manufacturers claim that consumer demand has driven the development of the wheel size. It’s truly a chicken-or-the-egg scenario and there’s no definitive answer.

I hypothesize it’s a combination of both. In this fast paced industry where developments occur rapidly and components can become outdated in a calendar year, consumers are tired and leery of investing in products that they suspect won’t be supported in the near future. They’re looking at the writing on the wall for 26″ wheels and spending their money on what they think will be the most future-proof.

Some hypothesize that to avoid more lost opportunities, bike companies have decided to jump on the 650b bandwagon early. A lot of manufacturers played the wait-and-see game with the 29″ wheelsize and lost out on potential sales because they had no bikes to offer and were late to market.

 

 Conclusion

Let’s just ride our bikes, OK?

Chris Berkley

About Chris Berkley

Chris is a digital marketing consultant specializing in SEO and Analytics across industries including healthcare, education, finance and others.

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