26″ Vs 27.5″ Enduro Bikes – Opinion
Not long ago, Pinkbike in collaboration with I-MTB and Massa Vecchia explored the differences between different wheel sizes on All Mountain full suspension bikes on the trails of Punta Ala. The point of the exercise was to understand the differences between each standard on neutrally comparable bikes with reference to standardised geometry and component setup.
Fast forward almost a year and nearly all the bike manufacturers are launching their new 27.5″ wheel size and removing 26″ general availability from their new All Mountain bike line ups. In order to try and understand this move and what motivates it we spent some time asking some professional Enduro riders what is happening and have researched the web extensively trying to understand what and why it is happening.
At a recent press conference before the Mega Avalanche wheel size was debated with a number of the athletes and why many of them were now on 27.5″ wheels. The general consensus between all the athletes we spoke to including, Max Schumann, Nico Lau, Joe Barnes and a few others, was that the 27.5″ wheel size in racing is a more stable wheel size at speed and helps smooth out the track and maintain momentum. However when speaking to Nico Lau and probing further into the issue it was clear there are exceptions.
Nico Lau commented on the issue, “On a tight twisty technical track there is no doubt 26″ wheels have an advantage. If I want to have fun then 26″ wheels are a good option. 27.5″ is my race bike setup.” This opinion was also put forward by Joe Barnes, who said, “There is no doubt that the 27.5″ wheel size gives increased stability and an advantage when racing, especially on tracks like this at the Megavalanche. However for having fun away from racing, there is no doubt it is easier to move about a 26″ bike on the trail and play with it.”
What is happening then to the bike market? Well looking back to the Pinkbike testing that we did back in November 2012, it was clear that the 27.5″ bike felt smoother on the same trails compared to a 26″ bike. In corners the 27.5″ required more readjustment to ride as it was slightly more sluggish to put into the corners than a 26″ bike. Once though on trails like stage 1 from the Enduro World Series in Punta Ala, it did feel slightly easier to go down the track compared to the 26″ bike. Was it more fun? No it wasn’t, out of the three testers riding, two commented on how the fun factor in everyday riding was more important in this case and both gravitated back to the 26″ bike. Even today as one of the testers it is still possible to say that the feeling on the 26″ bike was more about fun, although the 27.5″ bike was good to ride, it was always more fun when jumping back on the 26″ bike.
The key word here is fun! Especially if fun means for you the ability to ride and play with the track. The answer though to our question, What is happening with the market? It is simple, the majority of riders that will be buying and enjoying the 27.5″ bikes this year are looking for an easier feeling more stable bike, that allows them the ability to ride down more difficult tracks with less stress. As most of these riders pedal up, they want a bike where momentum is conserved. The bike makers have realised that the big wheeled 29″ form factor is not popular with all, but the customer likes the idea of 27.5″ so the bike makers have jumped on the 27.5″ bike market as a way to generate more sales and feed the perceived demand. Remember fun for this type of rider might be just making it down the track, not playing with it and finding new lines.
One of our local professional guides has probably been one of the most prolific testers of the different wheel sized concepts. As a guide and extremely good rider, he rides around 50-70 km a day every day off road. This year, 2013, when provided with the new 27.5″ wheel sized bike, initially he used it, then after a short while switched back to his previous years 26″ wheeled bike for guiding. His motivation was simple, the form factor for his physical size was too big, the 27.5″ wheels didn’t fit. He also preferred the ability to play with the 26″ wheel bike, however he did say, “When looking at wheel sizes from the point of view of guiding and maintaining speed on long distance rides with clients, 27.5″ bikes are definitely easier and require slightly less effort to ride along at 25 km/h on gravel transfer roads or long rides etc, when compared with the 26″ wheeled bike. However I will use a 26″ wheel bike for as long as I can as it is more comfortable for me.”
Thinking back to the Megavalanche and a conversation with Max Commencal, Owner of Commencal Bikes, ” Going forward into the next year we will continue to produce the 26″ bike where especially in Europe there is still a market for them. Our team riders have the ability to choose which bike they want to ride with Remy Abasalon choosing a 27.5″ and Nicolas Quere choosing a 26″. There are advantages for both sizes.”
With the massive amount of new bikes recently released it seems then that the whole world is thinking 27.5″, with some small companies maintaining some 26″ lines, but that is the world according to press releases and magazines. In the real world 27.5″ has made very little headway yet, as riders have not upgraded to the new wheel size. There is no doubt that the market is changing and 27.5″ is going to start to rule the All Mountain and Enduro part of the market with new product sold. It is going to take a while though as 99 percent of all the everyday bikers out there in the All Mountain market that we see on the race tracks and trail areas, especially in Europe, at the moment are on 26″ wheeled bikes. The parts availability for 27.5″ wheels is still very low, with limited tyre choice possibly limiting equipment centric first adoption riders, who might make the switch first. So the motivation then seems to be market adoption,and people asking for them, it is though in our experience unclear at the moment which segment of customers are the ones wanting the 27.5″ bikes, those that we have seen are those in the lower level amateur market so far.
In all of this 29″ hasn’t been mentioned. 29″ has been around for a while and has a strong hold in the cross country market. It was evident at a European Enduro event 29″ was very low in presence. Many riders commenting that at the level they are riding at the 29″ wheels aren’t quite stiff enough or strong enough with an acceptable weight, to be the rider’s Enduro wheels of choice. Bikes like the Specialized Enduro 29″ though do change that somewhat, however again this part of the market hasn’t been popularised significantly yet here in Europe, the only notable riders at recent Enduro races on 29″ are Curtis Keene, Cedric Gracia, Brain Lopes and Tobias Woggan. The number of riders at the top level of competition are thin on the ground with 29″ wheels. At an American Enduro event these numbers change with a different style of Enduro trail present in general and a different market, the 29″ wheel rules. It will be interesting to see at the first USA stop of the Enduro World Series what the line up is like.
Concluding then with a few Enduro racing European results. Jerome Clementz won the Megavalanche in 2013 with a 26″ wheeled Cannondale Jekyll. The current leader of the Enduro World Series is Jerome Clementz with the same 26″ bike. Yes his close competitors are on 27.5″ but in the end it is the rider not the bike that seems to make the difference at the highest level. The top riders of the Italian Superenduro series are all currently on 26″ wheels, including Italian champion Alex Lupato, despite LaPierre having a 27.5″ variant available.
It seems then in our opinion it is a bit of a mistake to completely reject the 26″ wheel size and just produce 27.5″. Yes the current sales numbers or future expected sales numbers might tell you to only make 27.5″ wheels, but surely keeping some 26″ availability makes sense at least for those that want to have fun and not just race.