What the Great Depression can teach us about 650b

Firstly I’d like to make my apologies for that slightly clickbaity headline, I just can’t think of a more satisfactory way to describe this article (suggestions welcome).

Anyway, whether you call it 650b or 27.5in, the new in-betweener wheel size has undoubtedly been the biggest mountain bike success story (not to mention controversy) of recent years – and it looks like it’s here to stay.

In fact, the uptake of the slightly larger wheel size was so swift and so comprehensive that some observers have found it a bit suspicious.

Have a look at any bike forum discussion on the subject from the last couple of years (yes, there have been one or two) and you’ll see anger at the industry – probably along with accusations of collusion to make good old-fashioned 26in wheels obsolete.

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You say 27.5in, I say 650b – let’s call the whole thing off…. What do you mean it’s too late now?

They say history is written by the victors, but following the Great Wheel-Size War of 2013 and 2014 (when the plucky forces of 26in resistance finally waved the white flag) the opposite has sort of happened.

Lots of riders feel a bit betrayed and have now decided they don’t trust the bike industry any more, some have even put off buying a new bike – just in case there’s another new standard waiting in the wings, just out of sight for now (did someone say “Boost”?).

Now I could in no way be considered a bike industry insider, but even I can tell that the conspiracy theories couldn’t be further from the truth. And I’m going to try to explain why.

Small potatoes

First of all, as has been pointed out many times before, the bicycle industry is very small potatoes when compared to the oil industry, the tobacco lobby or other sectors which may or may not indulge in shady, cartel-related practices. And MTB is a small section of that small industry.

There are plenty of companies producing bikes, but three main players dominate the market: Trek, Giant and Specialized.

None of these were in the vanguard of 650b, with Specialized actively resisting for a lot longer than many smaller firms.

Giant also hedged its bets for a year or so before capitulating with a mildly embarrassing climbdown that seemed to contradict its previous enthusiasm for 29ers.

Have you ever tried to reason with a conspiracy theorist? Every rational explanation you give is turned around and you’ll often hear things like: “Yes, but of course they’d want you to think that.”

And to be fair the speed that the industry did jump ship to 650b was a bit surprising.

We’re gonna go back, way back

However I have my own theory to explain the sudden adoption of the new size – and I’m going to take you back to the USA in the 1920s to make my point.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “a run on the banks”, but do you know what it actually entails?

The Great Depression of the 1920s saw several big bank runs – when huge demand for withdrawals forced banks into insolvency despite them having more than adequate non-cash resources.

These crises happened because savers lost faith in the banks or heard whispers of trouble, then panicked and rushed to get their money out. This caused further concern and more customers joined them in demanding their cash – forcing the more level-headed punters to withdraw their money as well, because there was now a chance that the bank could actually go belly up.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Spelling it out

Yep, the bike companies are those savers, terrified they’ll lose everything if they don’t act fast.

And the wheel sizes are the banks.

Remember how the change to 650b gained momentum slowly at first, but later it seemed like every other day that another firm was announcing it had done some research and (surprise, surprise) discovered independently that the marginally larger wheels were the best possible solution?

If memory serves there were only two or three high-end 26in trail bikes left on the market by 2015. The Bank Of 26 Inches was well and truly bust.

OK, I’ll stop forcing the metaphor now, but hopefully I’ve got my point across.

I really don’t think the bicycle industry is a sinister and shadowy cartel. Instead it’s just a collection of normal human beings who feel like they don’t really know what they’re doing a lot of the time.

A bit like the rest of us then.

TL, DR version – bike companies get FOMO too.

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