Handbuilt Bicycle News


Matthew Butterman

Tuesday 09 August 2016

The renaissance of the 650b wheel

Matt Butterman takes a look at influences that helped the present popularity of the 650b wheel. Updated August 9th with Tom Ritchey's contributions to the development of the 650b's use in mountain biking added.

The renaissance of the 650b wheel
Kirk Pacenti's prototype 650b/27.5" wheeled mountain bike.   Photo courtesy of Kirk Pacenti

Since first publishing this article, it has come to my attention that I'd left out the efforts of Tom Ritchey in the story of the 650b wheel in mountain biking. I've added this important information to the narrative here, and will address this aspect and the many other contributions of Tom Ritchey to the development of mountain biking in a separate article, to be published shortly -MB

Renaissance is a French word meaning rebirth, and yet we most often speak of the Italian Renaissance, at least in terms of art. But over sixty years ago, French bicycle builders, notably the builders known as les constructeurs, adopted and promoted the use of the 650b wheel. Wheel components and tires became widespread throughout Europe for 650bs, although their use was largely confined to randonneuring, touring and utility bikes.

So within this historical context, the current proliferation of 650b, or 27.5” mountain bike wheels is not a new trend, but a renaissance. And given the 650b wheel’s national origin, it’s a French renaissance. But how this rebirth happened across the Atlantic is an interesting story with a couple of different angles.

Our first one comes to us from American mountain bike pioneer Joe Breeze. Breeze wrote an article about the Velo Cross Club Parisien, a group of young cyclists from the Paris suburbs who engaged in a form of off-road cycling during the early 1950s that had little to do with cyclo-cross, and a lot more to do with mountain biking that emerged in Marin County, California some 25 years later.  According to Breeze, in the VCCP, “the spirit, purpose and passion of mountain biking were there.”

VCCP members took their 650b-equipped touring/utility bikes and fitted suspension forks from mopeds. Breeze writes, “Frame gusseting, handlebar-mounted derailleur shifting, and improved braking were common to most of these bikes.”

As humans the world over are wont to do with any sort of vehicle, these hybrid machines were put to the test in competitions. The sport was dubbed Velo Cross, and races often took place during breaks in motocross competitions throughout Paris and environs.

Like many human achievements, the development of mountain biking was not a linear evolution with all the players working in concert to develop a new sport, but instead a collection of individuals working independently until geographic proximity and sheer happenstance brought them together. Northern California was a nexus for these independent thinkers, and the famous annual Repack downhill race was an occasion that brought these pioneers together and provided the necessary cross-pollination of ideas that eventually produced consensus and the development of a new cycling discipline and a new type of bicycle for it.

Tom Ritchey was one of these Bay Area pioneers. Ritchey had been building all kinds of bikes since the early 1970s, and his use of welded joints, and not lugs, meant that he could experiment with different geometries and wheel sizes more easily than builders who used traditional lugged construction. This penchant for experimentation, combined with a racing pedigree, lead Ritchey toward the use of 650b wheels for off-road bikes early in the 1970s.

It was first-hand experience in cyclocross racing, and knowledge of the inherent efficiences of a larger wheel that drew Ritchey to the use of the 650b wheel. 

"I came from cyclocross, racing 700c cyclocross bikes and riding road bikes off road, and I knew what it was like to ride a road bike off-road and the value of a bigger wheel versus a mountain bike wheel. It's not just that, it's the physics, the scientific advantages of using a larger wheel," said Ritchey.

So why not use 700c wheels then?

"700c was too big of a jump in terms of fitting the range of riders at that time that were, in my opinion, going to put a lot of miles on a bike. We didn't have light tires back then, we didn't have much understanding of the capabilities of mountain bikes, and so 700c was of course a standard, but it was not an existing standard with any larger tires, so the 650b with the Super Champion rims and the tires that were available through Hakka, it was like a 1.75" and it to me made more sense than 26". I could build a higher performance bike," said Ritchey.

An early, 650b Ritchey off-road bicycle.  Photo courtesy Tom Ritchey

Ritchey ended up building many 650b bikes in the late 1970s before the mountain bike was really regarded as a subset of bicycles. One of these early 650b off-road machines ended up in the possession of another tall framebuilder, Lennard Zinn, who apprenticed with Ritchey in the early 1980s (both Ritchey and Zinn stand well over six feet tall). But market forces were pushing other mountain bike builders toward 26" wheels, despite the fact that these were heavier and less efficient. So the Ritchey 650b mountain bike went into latency for about 25 years before the industry re-awakened to the advantages of the larger wheel size.

Our next stop in the evolution of the 650b wheel’s use in mountain biking takes us to Britain, where bike builder Geoff Apps of Cleland Cycles did his own independent experimentation. Apps grew up riding around the fields in his boyhood home in the Chiltern Hills northwest of London, and he adopted Raleigh touring bikes for off-road use, mixing in a cocktail of moped, motocross and BMX bicycle parts. Wanting to refine his mongrel prototypes, Apps searched far and wide for a framebuilder willing to build his design concept, and eventually found a willing collaborator in Jeremy Torr of London-based English Cycles. Apps started to produce the Cleland Aventura, built around 650b wheels, in the early 1980s.

Cleland Aventurer

Cleland Cycles Aventura by Geoff Apps, first made in 1982, featured 650b wheels, a short, upright position and high bottom bracket.  Photo: Geoff Apps

Apps settled on 650b wheels for the simple reason that he had Continental sources of thicker tires for this wheel size, notably 2-inch wide snow tires made by a manufacturer in Finland named Hakka. But Apps also experimented with 700c-wheel prototypes for all the same reasons that larger wheel sizes eventually came to be embraced by the mountain bike world two decades later: a smoother ride over bumps (especially on bikes without suspension), and much improved traction in loose dirt.

In the early eighties, almost no one produced a truly suitable off-road tire in 26” or 700c sizes, and the few tires that were slightly applicable came in 650b sizes. Apps was the first person to initiate the 650b wheel’s connection with the American mountain bike scene when he sent some of the Finnish Hakka tires to American pioneers Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher in California. As the return letter below indicates, he received a warm reception to the use of 650b wheels.

Mtn Bikes letter

Photo courtesy of Geoff Apps

Ultimately, it was tire supply issues that put the 650b - and the 29-inch wheel as well - on the back burner for about 20 years. The 26” wheel thus became the industry standard as mountain biking took off and flourished worldwide.

Kirk Pacenti, Grant Peterson, and Jan Heine are three key figures in the rebirth of the 650b wheelsize in the U.S. The first two, Jan Heine and Grant Petersen, are key players in randonneuring and touring bikes. Heine runs the well-respected publication Bicycle Quarterly, and has competed in the Paris-Brest-Paris multiple times. Petersen is the man behind Rivendell Cycle Works, a company that has offered lugged frames, wool cycling clothes and luggage since the 1990s. Petersen was the first to bring the 650b to the U.S. marketplace, as he explains.

“It was 2003, when we made a bike called the Saluki, named after the famous dog breed. Our versatile road frame at the time (and it's still popular) was called the A. Homer Hilsen, and it was all 700c. At the same time we introduced two mixtes, named the Glorious and the Wilbury. As far as I know, these were the first modern semi-widely available 650b bikes. Maybe a frame builder in Maine or Iceland was making some in his garage, but it was all under the radar and uninfluential.

Rivendell Reader, 2004

Rivendell Reader #33, Fall 2004. Photo courtesy of Rivendell Bicycle Works

"But 700c doesn't work for small bikes, and I didn't want to go to 26, because a skinny-to-medium 26 is a pretty quick little wheel: too quick, all else equal. I could get two 650B tires from Japan, and rims were barely available from France... Rigida,” says Petersen.

The anchor chain pulling at the proliferation of 650b wheels was a lack of tires. Petersen overcame this deficit the way he had with many other bike components that he wanted but which were not readily available: he made them himself.

“I didn't want to saddle anybody with a bike that required dying and hard-to-get parts, so we designed and opened molds for our own 650B tires, and Panaracer made them. They were also the only tire maker in the world who was willing to sell us molds for $5,000 each and do runs of 300 tires. Everybody else we asked wanted like $40,000 for molds and minimums of 10,000. So, a gigantic share of the credit goes to Panaracer. Reluctant to do their own, but wonderfully willing to go along and allow it to happen with reasonable rates and minimums. It had to be that way. We're small, and none of the big companies were interested or even aware.

Another gigantically helpful partner was Velocity, the Australian rim maker. Just as the tires never would have taken off without Panaracer's assistance, the rims never would've happened without Velocity. They were so cool. They said 'sure, tell us the bead-seat diameter and the cross section you want, and we'll do it.' It's like they had this outlaw, cavalier, Australian-bushman attitude about it. They didn't care that they'd be the only ones. They didn't get nervous. They just... went to making the rim,” said Petersen.

If Petersen made the necessary investments and found the right partners to bring the 650b wheel to market, he gives credit for the inspiration to do so to Jan Heine.

“Any history of the resurrected 650b is a big fat lie and a sin of omission if it doesn't harp on these two companies (Panaracer and Velocity), and I'd be just as foul if I didn't mention my own influence: Jan Heine. Jan and I go back a looooong way, and because he jogs left where I go right, or the other way around, on techy issues people often try to throw us in the ring together. Jan and I don't see it like that. My respect for Jan, and knowing he was a 650b advocate, gave me the confidence to say, 'screw the mainstreamers!' and dive in. So, although Jan is probably regarded more as an advocate of 650b than a pioneer, and he in fact was not in on the development, and there wasn't a lot of development anyway, I wouldn't have had the confidence to pursue it without Jan's enthusiasm,” said Petersen.

About the same time Heine and Petersen were developing the 650b, certain American mountain bike builders were again experimenting with oversized, 29-inch wheels, and a young bicycle designer named Kirk Pacenti took a job as a custom frame designer for Litespeed and Merlin at their Chattanooga, Tennessee facility.

Pacenti is the leading figure behind the 650b wheel’s rebirth and widespread adoption by the mountain bike world. As a bike designer, he was well-acquainted with Grant Peterson’s work as marketing director for Bridgestone, and later as head of Rivendell Bicycle Works. While Petersen’s use of the 650b wheel was for touring and randonneuring bikes, Pacenti took note, and found it to be a good solution to a developing problem in mountain bike design.

By 2004, the 29-inch wheel had gained a foothold in the mountain bike world, but the frames designed for the larger wheels had a number of flaws. The chainstays were lengthened for the bigger wheels, and the bottom bracket height wasn’t lowered appropriately. “Everyone was trying to make a 29er that wouldn’t handle like a pig,” writes Pacenti, who had left Litespeed and started his own company, Pacenti Cycle Design.

Pacenti points out that over thirty years of development, the perfect mountain bike geometry had already been arrived at, independent of wheel size.

“The chainstay being 16-3/4” long has nothing to do with the tire being 26”; the chainstays could have been much shorter—but I realized that a 27.5” wheel would just about use up all the available real estate in a 26” wheel frame. It was the biggest wheel size that would fit into these proven geometries that had evolved over almost 30 years. All we had to do was drop the bottom bracket a little bit, and tweak the head angle to maintain the trail number”

The fact of the easy convertibility of current frame designs to 27.5” wheels was a key to the wheels’ relatively quick acceptance by his peers in the mountain bike industry, as Pacenti explains.

“Like most new things there was a lot of resistance at first. But because it was relatively inexpensive to build a set of wheels, many end-users and enthusiasts tested the concept by converting 26” wheeled bikes. Being a frame builder and designer, this was something I hadn’t considered trying, and had a purpose built bike made, including hand sewn tires, one-off forks from White Brothers (now MRP) and wheels by Cane Creek. But a large portion of the successful introduction of 650b into the market is likely due to conversions. It gave people a way to prove the concept’s worth in their own mind for very little money.”

Pacenti debuted his one-off 27.5” wheeled bike at the 2007 North American Handmade Bicycle Show, and since then, it’s seen a steady acceptance by not only custom builders, but also major manufacturers. Indeed, the future looks bright for 650b/27.5” wheels.

“Five years ago the future of 650b (27.5”) was still a big question mark in most people’s minds. But today, I think the future of 650b is quite secure, as most of the major manufacturers have embraced the wheel size over the last few years. Giant’s MTB product line, for example is almost exclusively made up of 650b (27.5”) bikes, with the exception of a few Cross-Country racing bikes. The 27.5” wheel size has been very successful by any metric; and as an industry professional, having made an impact on the bicycle industry has been very gratifying,” says Pacenti.

From its humble and forgotten origins in Parisian fields sixty years ago, to the little-recognized but groundbreaking efforts of Geoff Apps, and to its rediscovery across the Atlantic by Jan Heine, Grant Petersen and Kirk Pacenti over ten years ago, the 650b wheel has been given new life and a new application in MTB use, and its future as an industry standard looks secure... at least in the foreseeable future.