Wednesday, May 12, 2010

tech talk: the first signs of 650b squirming

At my previous blog (which I will no longer link to because now LJ won't let you shut off the ad prematurely), I discussed the development, the redevelopment and the future of the 650b wheel size. When I wrote that article, the interest in 650b was approaching the height of its niche popularity. I dismissed it as a cool idea, but unnecessary (and worse, unsustainable) idea. I predicted that the big players in the bike industry would probably never get on board with it, forever relegating the wheel size to the realm of custom framebuilders and affluent bike aficianados with money to spare.

That was over two years ago, well after I'd had ample opportunity to try the wheel size myself (on a prototype Kogswell frame I was invited to build up and test in 2006). I liked the ride quality well enough, and was experienced enough to notice the subtle differences between 650b and other wheel sizes, but because of the customer base our shop serves I felt that 650b woould never really catch on where I work. And so far I've been right. Other than one co-worker and one customer who each built up a 650b bike and a handful of customers who've requested wheel builds and spare tires in the size, 650b has made less than a bonafide splash in our shop. The industry has taken notice -- there are now several 650b touring and off-road treads to choose from thanks to the work of enthusiasts and designers like Kirk Piacenti and Jan Heine. But so far, only one production bike manufacturer has introduced a 650b bike and that was a mountain bike to boot; it remains unclear whether they'll continue production of this model in 2011. Add to all this the lack of interest on the part of biggest players like Giant and Trek, and you have a wheel size that is doomed to stay small and very niche.

Anything that stays small and niche in the bike industry needs a lot of money from a small number of enthusiasts to stay afloat. And I have always maintained that there probably aren't enough enthusiasts with money to keep 650b viable for more than several good years at most.
(I found a little evidence of what can happen without enough customer support here. Apparently, Kogswell is no longer producing 650b frames at all. And since Kogswell was one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of 650b, this is significant.)

Today on the Rivendell Owners' Bunch email list, I saw the first squirmings from the choir of true believers. And I was not at all surprised. But Mom raised me to be polite, so next time a friend rolls up on his 650b I will be kind and hold my tongue in his presence.

Besides, I've still got to go and clean off the mess of last Sunday's caked mud from Stompy -- my 26"-wheeled, singlespeed mountain bike.

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