A time of change

They're all at it...

So, after spending a few days in among the latest new products, with glimpses of next year’s stuff at the Sea Otter, it is quite obvious that there’s something going on with this 27.5in thing.

So much so, that I can make a prediction: The 26in wheeled bikes on sale now are as good as they’re ever going to get.

Every bike manufacturer currently offering 26in wheeled bikes is actively redesigning their entire range for 27.5in wheels. Companies that mainly do 29in wheels are still looking at 27.5in wheels for their enduro and trail bike models, and even their full World Cup DH bikes. Companies that only do 29in wheels, like Niner, are looking on with interest and puzzlement. The 26in wheel, I’m afraid, is suddenly, inexplicably, going to disappear virtually overnight on production bikes of any quality. This is not conjecture. This is going to happen.

Every wheel company I visited at the Sea Otter, had a 27.5in wheel. Every tyre company. Every fork company. They were all ready for the revolution. “But what about all those great, existing 26in wheel bikes?” you ask. Well, they’re carrying on just fine. Take Turner for example. He just showed his new 29in carbon bike, the Czar. He also had his staple bikes like the 5Spot (26in) and the Sultan (29in) and the Burner (27.5in). Will there be a 26in carbon 5Spot. “Never” apparently. Even if he’d been considering it, to come out with a new 26in model at a time when everyone is promoting 27.5in (and clearing out their 26in models) would be suicide.

Is it a fashion thing? Or is there a real advantage? The less hype-prone riders and journos who’ve ridden both will all agree that there’s not a great deal of appreciable difference. However, they’re bigger wheels and bigger wheels are in. Imagine trying to sell a 26in suspension bike to a customer with a 29in hardtail. They know that they like the bike wheel rolling feel, but not many people can make a long travel 29er that isn’t tandem length. So what’s the shopkeeper to do? How about trying this new inbetween size. It can still behave like a 26in bike, yet it’s an nth better at rolling over stuff.

And what about racers? We know what a fickle, results-driven lot they are. All it will take is for a single race to be won on 27.5in and there’ll be an overnight switch. Teams are already testing 27.5in wheels for World Cup downhills. By Fort William in June, most factory racers will have a 27.5in bike available to them to ride. On the XC side, where many riders are still on 29in hardtails, it’ll be less pronounced. Although Nino Schurter raced (very successfully) on a 27.5in Scott all season, everyone else seems happy on 29ers. However, smaller riders will make the switch, and anyone else lured by the thought of a lighter bike with lighter wheels. Scott reckons the system weight is only 5% more than 26in, whereas a 29er is something like 11% more. It doesn’t alter the fact that 26in wheels will always be the lightest option, but despite that, racers have gone bigger.

The 26in wheel seems set for overnight obscurity. At least, looking around the Sea Otter. I saw one single new 26in bike (a carbon Kona Operator DH bike). Obviously, the UK has always been a bit different. You can buy 26in steel hardtails with 5in forks here – something you’d struggle to find in the US. So the small wheel flame will be held aloft on our little island, especially with the smaller builders. However, the big companies are all, ALL, working on 27.5in bikes. Next year, or the year after at most, I doubt that a company like Scott, or even Santa Cruz or Turner, will have a 26in bike in their range. They’re certainly not going to be launching any new ones in future. Santa Cruz admits that it’s made the new 27.5in 6in travel Bronson purely due to customer demand. And I reckon that when the current Chameleon, or Nomad, sells out, then it’ll be replaced with a 27.5in version. I might be wrong – and I’m not privy to much that any of the bike companies are planning. But I really don’t think I am.

It doesn’t make 26in wheels less great. And you’re going to still be able to enjoy riding your bike as you’ve always done. The simple fact is that when you come to buy a new bike in a few years, it won’t have 26in wheels, that’s all.

It’s going to be very interesting…
Chipps