Following Nino Schurter’s World Cup win on a prototype Scott Scale 650b (27.5-inch) in Pietermaritzburg, Bicycling asked Scott Sports marketing director Adrian Montgomery about the future of the middle-sized wheel.
- By Chris Lesser
Pic by Lee Ann Cantrell // www.csharpphotos.com
Bicycling: How did Scott start looking into the 650b wheel size?
Adrian Montgomery: We all know the benefits of a bigger wheel size, but we have discovered that the bigger wheel size sets some limits when designing longer-travel full-suspension bikes, or smaller frame sizes in general. We also found that when testing with Nino Schurter that there were some fit disadvantages for a rider his size as well as power disadvantages. That’s when we opted to test the 27.5-inch wheel size. We’re currently testing bikes from hardtails to full-suspension models to obtain data we can compare to our current line.
The term “650b” is an established standard going back decades, and 27.5-inch, while descriptive and fitting within the 26-inch and 29er naming convention, is sort of a made-up standard. Which one do you think the industry should adopt?
In this crazy mix up of standards I think we should look ahead to the potential buyers and the retail conversation and continue with the same units of measurement for the entire MTB category. Inches. Period. 26, 27.5, 29—these are all the same unit of measure. Don’t start skipping back and forth between European units that are comfortable in road bikes. This would create a larger problem like convincing the U.S. to adopt the metric system. I’m kidding…but seriously.
As bigger manufacturers first started entering the 29er category, it seemed everyone started with a token hardtail—is that what we can expect with 650b? Wading in with a hardtail?
I don’t know if the consumer market wants a 650b hardtail. A case can be made for smaller-sized hardtails, like the 13- to 15-inch frame sizes as these are many times very young buyers with families hoping to get the kid on their first 26-inch for a long duration, having just been pummeled with years of buying the 12-inch-wheel walker to the 24-inch-wheel geared bike.
The reality is that 29-inch hardtails fit so much of the market. For new users, the big wheels help roll over obstacles and maintain momentum. So if you’re buying a cheaper hardtail, 29 is great. All of our testing so far with the 27.5-inch wheel diameter has been most interesting when the travel increases beyond XC measures. You simply can’t design a 29-inch FS bike that handles well when the travel is over 150mm.
So where do you see new bike development in the 650b category?
As we grow into bigger-travel full-suspension models, for example the Spark 29 with 110mm of rear travel, we have noted that if you go very far above 110 mm [of rear suspension] you lose your BB height, or ‘offset’ as we like to call it—the relation of your BB in relation to the centre of your axles. When the bike’s centre of gravity gets too high then the benefits of the rollover are decreased. Likewise, when you shorten the headtube too much, you lose material to weld the top tube and downtube, so you can only go so short—especially now with tapered headtubes, because you have to allow room for the actual taper. Headtube heights and BB position are very important to Scott. We believe the stack and reach and centre of balance are very important factors in the bikes’ handling characteristics.
Any rider can benefit from a better handling bike. It takes less energy to control the bike and is less fatiguing, and so from new riders to pros, everybody wins.
When creating bikes with longer travel, you can’t just plug 29-inch wheels into a longer-travel design as so many have tried to do. And, maybe trail-category buyers don’t want that big of a wheel. Even at my height (6-foot) I can’t break the wagon wheels loose. I feel like a passenger on a 29er. That’s great for a hardtail or race bike, but I don’t feel in command of it for aggressive trail riding. There may be a market of people who feel the same.
It seems that, counter to the 29er example, European and US companies are really pushing 650b. Do you think there’s room for another standard in the market? And if so, where do you think 650b will take off first?
I think it will be global, and I think we’ll look back on this time as a period of indecision and inconsistency. Look at how many bottom bracket and headset and rear axle standards there are. We’re in such a state of disarray right now. It almost makes sense to throw another wheel size in there. Think of it this way, North America brought the 29er to Europe, a very important global MTB market. As the standard globalized, some regions have questioned whether 29-inch is too big. There has been a slow acceptance of 29-inch in certain countries but also in Asia.
The problem becomes analyzing how a new wheel standard will impact the market. If 650b bikes launch in 2013, or 2014, we’ll have to wait for the new standard in sales figures, and we might not see real stats on sales until 2015. My guess is that it might help the trail bike category break out a little.
We seek a new adventure as mountain bikers—one that’s more experience oriented and not as competitive. Also, much of the MTB product that was purchased pre-recession is ready for replacement, that’s the nature of mountain bikes, they become obsolete when new technology is introduced and they deteriorate with use.
The new “experiential trail rider” has made the “trail” product segment the most popular—it’s a “point of entry” MTB category that covers a broad spectrum of uses, compared to, say dirt jump, downhill, freeride or even cross-country. Simply put, it’s made for use on any trail, any time. The 27.5-inch phenomenon could just be the perfect storm—a need for new equipment, need for a new story, and the introduction of a new class of bike—it could all be enough of a kick for a new wave of mountain bikes.
What do you mean by “a new story?”
When 29ers came out, they had the advantage by default. Say there are two bikes side by side at the bike shop, equal in spec, both at the same price. The retailer would say, well, they both have the same components, but this one is new. It’s a 29er…. Retailers starve for exciting product stories that are easy to tell. “Look, this wheel is actually bigger than the bike next to it.” And that’s kind of important to keep the segment alive.
How do you respond to those who say Scott was late to the 29er game?
We were actually timely for delivering 29ers. We waited for [the category] to mature, and in 2010 we entered one alloy bike into the lineup, for the U.S. market only. The next year we added a carbon version, and developed the line into alloy and carbon with a variety of models. Fast-forward to now, we’ve done a full line of full-suspension 29, in carbon and aluminum. I think we’ll be on the pulse with any new wheel size, and I honestly think we were on the pulse with 29. Had we done a 29er in ’07, ’08 or ‘09—we would have had to update the design, resulting in a shorter product life span.
Why did we wait? We didn’t hesitate; we struck like a Cobra. Why jump in too early and waste energy and resources on a product class that wasn’t ready? When we delivered the bike, weight and geo were spot-on, and the market was ready and we sold out.
Any comment on what Scott has been doing as part of its R&D?
We started by building aluminum prototypes and testing those. Now, as you can see from Nino’s bike, we have some carbon prototypes. Call it an absolute admiration of the sport of mountain biking and its pure, technical nature. As mountain bikers we began as tinkerers and developed a new sport and it has not yet fully matured. It still has room to grow. We just spent the last decade focused on suspension and braking and even tyre compounds, but never doubted the marriage to 26-inch. Now that we’ve tasted bigger wheels, we’re ready to tinker with diameters.
Hypothetically, will bikes with this “new” wheel size that Scott may (or may not) be developing for production be available globally?
For sure, a global line is the most efficient way to run a global brand. One of the indicators that 27.5-inch would be ready for market is that it would be a globally accepted standard. It makes no sense to chase small, regionally specific opportunities.
How soon can we expect to see 650b/27.5-inch-wheel Scott bikes?
Wait and see.