27.5″ wheels are dead…
At least in the eyes of the big brands in the industry anyway. Lately, I’ve had a handful of conversations with folks on the product side who have all essentially told me that the end of 27.5″ is near. It was hard to believe at first, but the claims were validated across a few brands who manufacture various products. Starting with a couple of bike brands, I was told that virtually everything is going 29″ for next year and that 27.5″ will be offered for some smaller sizes and women’s models. Then to back this up, I heard the same thing from wheel and parts manufacturers who were surprised at the fact that 90% of their OEM orders were for 29″ and the remaining fraction were for 27.5″. They were all rather caught off guard by this.
Hopefully this doesn’t sound too alarmist – after all, if you’re somewhat resourceful you can still get a fair amount of quality 26″ parts, and they’ve been phased out for quite some time now.
This comes down to two main factors: speed and safety. To expand on that more specifically – speed for racing, and safety for consumers.
29″ wheels are simply faster – sorry, but the clock doesn’t lie. Even Sam Hill has made the jump. As for how they work for regular Joes, well…between improved roll over, greater stability and increased traction, they make it easier to navigate difficult terrain with less risk involved. As much as everyone loves to hate on bike brands, believe me those brands don’t want people getting hurt, particularly on their bikes. It’s a competitive marketplace – so just like automobiles, no one wants to be last to have the latest and greatest safety feature on their vehicle. An interesting caveat is that bikes rolling on 29″ wheels can get away with less suspension, which means they’re also more efficient and require less pedaling energy, thus lowering the barrier to entry from a physical fitness standpoint. Although that’s another story for another time.
But wait a minute – 29″ wheels were around WAY before 27.5″ wheels. How the hell did we get here and why does it seem like we’re going backwards? Personally, I think we can look at 27.5″ wheels like they were just a big multi year distraction for the bike manufacturers. Many of whom thought they had stumbled upon the magic bullet…I’ve got news: there usually is no magic bullet…for anything. When 27.5″ wheels burst onto the scene they received all of the developmental attention in terms of perfecting geometry. So 29″ got put on the back burner for a bit. Remember when Giant stopped making 29″ bikes, even for cross country racing, famously declaring 27.5″ was the be-all, end-all? Whoops!
27.5″ Plus was another speed bump that just got in the way and slowed down the inevitable perfecting of 29″ wheeled bike geometry. Remember when all of the geniuses in the industry swore that it was the future? We were supposed to believe it was the future, despite the fact that NO pro level racers whatsoever wanted anything to do with the clown tires. They were so sure it was going to be the next big thing. Right…
Anyways, when 29″ first came out it rode like shit because getting the geometry right hadn’t been figured out yet. It had absolutely nothing to do with the wheel size itself, contrary to popular belief. Chainstays were too long, seatstays were too slack, head angles were too steep, reach was too short, stems were too long, fork offset numbers were too high. Basically just about everything was backwards and has gone in the opposite direction as things are improving. Even the physical parts needed time. Everyone thought they were being sold a bill of goods with Boost spacing, but I bet you’d hate to ride a bike with the old spacing standard. Why? Because the wheels would flex more, and you’d be stuck with longer chainstays and less tire clearance and there wouldn’t really be room for a 500% range 1X drivetrain.
I’ve got news though – while it seems like we’re finally “here”, with amazing geometry that plays nice with wagon wheels, the perfection seeking will never end. It’s human nature to constantly improve things. Just look at the surf world – shapers all across the globe are constantly innovating, tweaking and whittling away in search of better. And that all occurs on a simple piece of foam that doesn’t hold a candle to the complexity of a bicycle. But to a surfer millimeters also matter – especially on the world stage, just like in EWS and DH racing.
So now that it’s almost 2020 – it’s time to embrace big wheels or stock up on 27.5″ Minions and spare rims. Just remember you heard it here first…