We've been saying for awhile that one of the big stories in cycling for 2013 will be the rise of the 650B wheel in mountain bikes. Of course this 'tweener wheel size that splits the difference between 26 and 29 has been around; we've been impressed for years by Jamis' forays (such as the Dragon and Dakar). But with component giants including DT Swiss, Fox, and Rockshox set to unveil full 650B suspension and wheel offerings next year, medium-size wheels are poised to go, ahem ... big.
We've already seen 650B salvos from smaller companies this season (such as the forthcoming Turner Burner), but two weeks ago in Sun Valley, Idaho, Scott became the first major bike manufacturer to get behind the trend. In conjunction with the second annual Ride Sun Valley Bike Festival, timed around the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships, Scott launched the 2013 Genius 900 (29er) and Genius 700 (650B, or 27er in Scott speak). The two bikes replace the existing Genius, with the small wheels (and pull-shock design) phased out, though the all mountain Genius LT goes forward as a 26er.
For anyone still scratching their heads over the 650B, which is based on a decades-old French standard that had fallen out of favor, the size lies between 26 and 29. It's 27.1 inches to be exact, but Scott is wisely pushing hard to christen this the 27. Manufacturers say the middle ground melds the rolling benefits of a bigger wheel with the quick handling of a smaller one. And the intermediate size should shine where 29ers are challenged, namely in fitting small riders and integrating into longer-travel full suspension designs. "Just like the 29er, which has its benefits, our testing has shown some distinct advantages of the 27—in both fit and power," says Adrian Montgomery, marketing director at Scott USA. "We're not approaching this as an either/or thing. All three wheel sizes have their applications."
Another wheel size has long struck us as a bit excessive—is it really necessary?—which was why I was so curious to ride the bikes in Sun Valley. Scott rolled out both bikes for me to test back-to-back, which made for very close comparisons. And the first thing I noticed was the consistency in fit and feel, which was a major aim in creating the Genius. Both 700 and 900 adopt the successful shock configuration of last year's brilliant Scott Spark 29er, and both get the company's smart TwinLoc system, which yields three modes of travel controllable from a single bar-mount unit. To keep the saddle position, bar position, standover height, and wheelbase virtually the same between the two bikes, the 900 was limited to 130mm (5.1 inches) while the 700 gets 150mm (5.9 inches).
Apart from those intrinsic differences, the two bikes I rode in Sun Valley were spec'd virtually the same. They were hung with full SRAM XO drivetrains and brakes, and the remaining bits and pieces (stem, bars, seatpost, saddle, and wheels) were carbon fiber parts from Syncros, which Scott recently purchased. The biggest spec difference in the two bikes were the forks, with the 700 getting a Fox 34 and the 900 getting a Fox 32 (more on that difference in a minute).
First up for me was the Genius 700, which I rode on day one on a swoopy loop from town called Fox Creek as well as on day two at Greenhorn. Having ridden a number of 27-inch bikes in the past, I didn't feel strange or like I had to really adjust to the new wheel size. In fact, the most striking thing about this size was just how balanced and at ease it felt on the trail. Unlike on most 29ers, where I often slide forward on steep climbs, I stayed firmly in place on the 700 and floated even steep pitches. Downhill was even better, with the wheels noticeably quicker and lighter feeling than a 29er, but not as twitchy or nervous as a 26er. This bike will surely crush it on downhills and bike parks, as I found myself really wanting to jump over obstacles and hop through turns. And the 34mm fork, combined with the thru-axle front end, felt totally confident. All said, I was pleasantly surprised how much I liked this bike.
If the 700 was good, the 900 blew me away. It climbed just as well as the 700—perhaps even a bit more nimbly, which I attribute to the lighter wheels. Paradoxically, though the 29er wheelset should weigh a bit more than the 27s because of the tire difference (the 700 has 2.4-inch Schwalbe Nobby Nics, while the 900 has 2.25-inchers in the same tire, the largest available for the 29), it was actually just the opposite. The 900 was lighter overall as well because of the 32mm fork (versus the 700s 34mm). Weight weenie that I am, I'd still have rather had the added solidity and control that the bigger tires and sturdier fork would have yielded on the 900—but that's more an issue with the overall market than with this bike. And in spite of those niggles, on the techy, rock-garden descent at Greenhorn, I was faster on the descent on the 900. In short, the slacker angles and longer travel of the 900 bring the aptitude of the Spark platform to a broader trail crowd.
This is not intended as a full review. We'll be taking possession of these bikes later this fall for comprehensive head-to-head testing. It's simply some first impressions based on a couple of solid, but quick rides. Truth is, both bikes rode very well, and my preference for the 900 may simply reflect my overall comfort on the big-wheel platform. (I switched from 26 to 29 in my primary bike five years ago.) I can see a space for both of these wheel sizes in the market: The 29er is perfect for endurance riding and less techy courses, while the 27 feels a bit quicker and suits steeper, wheels-off-the-ground styles of riding. And though purists and the DH crowd will likely roll their eyes when I say it, in the long run the real question in my mind isn't if there's a place for 27, but whether or not there's a future for 26.