Kirk Pacenti was already an accomplished frame builder by the time the 29er was gaining traction as the cure for all of the perceived ailments of the original 26-inch mountain bike. Pacenti could see the collision course that big-wheel developers were headed towards as the 29er evolved from its hardtail roots to gain acceptance across the entire spectrum of the sport. That traffic jam was designing the 29er to be a viable long-travel, dual-suspension platform. He predicted well in advance, that a mid-sized wheel would make more sense. To back up his well-supported theories, he designed and produced wheels and tires made in the existing 650B size at his own expense, and then visited any bike company or publication that would listen to explain the concept. This is the story of Kirk Pacent's one-man battle to insert a sensible, more user-friendly wheel standard between the existing 26-inch wheel and the relatively new, 29-inch size.
What was the impulse that inspired you to develop a MTB version of 650B?
The prototype 650B hardtail that Kent Eriksen built for Pacenti in 2007 was first shown at the North American Handmade Bike Show. The fork was a custom made White Brothers by MRP and the one-off wheels were made by Cane Creek. Pacenti's tires had not yet been delivered by Panaracer.
The main impulse was driven by two things. First, was my frustration with 29er handling in high-speed, tight corners. Second, were the design hurdles one had to overcome to design a decent handling full-suspension bike with more than 80-millimeters of travel. Today, that might not seem like such a problem, because 29er designs have come a long way with the help of one-by drivetrains, forks with appropriate amounts of offset, and recent trends in frame geometries. But, seven years ago, I felt as if we (the industry) were putting the cart before the horse. In other words: producing questionable full-suspension frame designs just to accommodate 29-inch wheels. I wanted to use the proven frame geometry of 26-inch-wheeled bikes, but fill up the available space in those designs with a larger wheel. If you look at a typical 26-inch hardtail, you’ll note that there is a lot of space between the rear tire and the bottom bracket shell. With a 650B wheel, we can use up that space and we only need to make small tweaks to the frame design - a little more bottom bracket drop, and slight adjustment to the head tube angle to produce the desired amount of mechanical trail.
When was that? What was the landscape of the sport like at the time?
I started messing around with the concept in 2004. I spent two years trying to convince tire manufacturers to make some 650B tires. But at that time, 29ers were really starting to gain traction in the market and nobody was interested. It seemed that the industry thought 29ers were the answer to everything, and were in no way interested in a third wheel size. So, in late 2006 I started developing my own tires and contracted Panaracer to make them for me. I think the timing was just about right too, with the rise of 125 to 160-millimeter-travel trailbikes and Super-D-Enduro type bikes. I knew that this is where 650B made the most sense (to start with) and would really improve the overall performance of these bikes, as well as prove the 650B wheel size as a viable option.
At the time, who did you think were most likely to embrace 650B for mountain bikes?
Photographed a few years later, the same prototype frame, updated and outfitted with a 650B Manitou Minute fork, Pacenti wheels and his Neo Moto 2.3-inch tires. Pacenti now offers a modest range of rims, hubs, pre-built wheels and tires through his web-store.
Initially I approached custom framebuilders. I had a strong customer base through my bikelugs.com site, and I knew they could go into their shops and make bikes pretty quickly. I also thought it would give them a competitive advantage over big brands by being able to offer a real alternative to what the major brands were putting out. But my primary goal was to get small, innovative suspension designers behind it. Companies like Turner, Knolly Pivot and Ventana were some of first to express interest. When I started calling these companies they “got it” before I could even get the words “mid-size-wheel” out of my mouth. These designers understood the implications and positive impact the 650B wheel size would have on full-suspension design immediately. That is when I knew I was on the right track. To a man, they all pretty much said, “If we could get a fork today, we’d build the frames tomorrow." That was about five years ago, and each of these brands have a 650B bike out now.
How did you get tires and rims made?
Did you build your first prototypes for demonstrators?
Tires were the hard part and the key to making the whole thing work. Fortunately Panaracer was willing to produce tires for me in small volumes, and we launched the Neo-Moto
in 2007. The fact that the Neo-Moto turned out to be a great tire was probably the single, most important factor in the success of 650B. Had the tire been a poor performer, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation right now. By comparison; rims were easy, because 650B had already been making strong inroads into the US market with touring and randonneuring bikes. There were already some decent rims available, but I wanted to get some real MTB rims
made, so I made some calls to encourage Velocity and Stan’s to get on board - and they both seemed happy to jump in and support the concept.
Did you just guess on the geometry, or did you have a plan?
No. I designed one bike and had Kent Eriksen build the frame for me. I showed this bike at the NAHBS
show in March, 2007 and then I sent it to Dirt Rag
for a review. I never intended to build more bikes. I wanted to focus on promoting the concept to my framebuilder customers and the industry at large, supporting them with tires and rims. I knew if 650B wheels were going to be commercially successful, it would only happen by getting a lot of other people and companies to produce the bikes.
After building thousands of frames, I pretty much knew exactly what the geometry should be. The difference between 26-inch and 650B only required minor changes from 26-inch frame designs. My prototype has slightly longer chainstays than I would have liked, but we built it before the tires were ready, so we made them a little longer, just to be safe. It also has a steep head tube angle by today’s standards, but I built the bike for me and I like sharp-handling hardtails. If that bike was intended for a customer, the head tube angle would have been much slacker.
Pacenti learned a lot while assembling and TIG welding frames at Keith Bontrager's original operation near Santa Cruz, California. Pacenti's main business is selling hard-to-get lugs, tubes and fittings to custom frame makers. - Pacenti archival image
So, you have wheels and tires, how did you go about convincing people to use them?
I just started sending out rims and tires, and in some cases complete wheels for product managers and magazines to test, and promoted the idea heavily on MTBR. The idea of a mid-sized wheel resonated with a lot of members there. It was a really small, core group of guys that helped convince other riders to experiment with the wheel size as well. It just grew organically from there.
Who were the first adopters?
A few of my framebuilding customers got on board right away. But, there were a lot of end-users converting 26-inch-wheeled bikes. You know, that really surprised me. As a former framebuilder and bike
designer, the idea of converting bikes had never even occurred to me. I just assumed guys would build bikes from scratch, starting with a clean sheet of paper. But, it turns out that converting existing 26-inch-wheeled bikes was probably a big part of why 650B caught on so fast.
Can you relate some stories about your attempts to get the likes of Specialized, Giant and Trek on board?
I just started calling the few contacts I had a bigger companies. I didn't know anyone at Specialized or Giant, but I did know people at smaller companies like Cannondale, Jamis, KHS and Santa Cruz. Oh, and because of my time at Bontrager, I knew a couple people at Trek too. Most of them had a set of my wheels about five years ago, maybe more. But product development takes a long time, and most of them took a “wait and see” approach. Jamis and KHS got on board early and pretty much ran with it from the start. The bigger companies, like Trek and Cannondale, were very tight lipped about it and beyond confirming that they received the wheels and tires, they never did give me any indication that they were (or weren't) working on 650B bikes. I guess that's just the way big companies have to operate. I don’t think the guys at Santa Cruz took it very seriously at the time either - of course, this is also around the same time Rob said: “We will never produce a 29er.” Probably the funniest thing was seeing my wheels on a Santa Cruz pit bike at Sea Otter. I think it had ape-hanger handlebars and a sissy bar on it. I figured that was their way of telling me that 650B wasn't going to happen. Thankfully, Santa Cruz changed their mind.
The 29er almost killed 650B. For a while, it looked like all your efforts would be in vain. What brought the mid-sized wheel back?
The fact that 29ers had become mainstream may have caused consumers and companies to start looking for something new to buy and sell. I also think there were probably a lot of people who bought into the 29er concept early on, but once the honeymoon was over and a mid-sized option became available, they may have realized that 29-inch wheels might be too much of a good thing. I also firmly believe that the more time people spent riding them, the real world performance of 650B wheels was simply too good to ignore. The lull we saw in 650B a couple years ago was probably exact moment big companies really started working on 650B bikes full time. As you know, it can take a couple years to get things from the drawing board to the showroom floor.
KHS was one of the first mainstream brands to run with 650B. The Sixfifty 606 hardtail (top) dates back to 2009. Intense was the first major name in gravity to build a production 27.5-inch DH racer - the 951 EVO. Tom Ritchey's new P 650B is a reminder to all the sport's pioneers of his outspoken belief in 650B back in the late '70s.
Tell us about the highest and lowest moments of your one-man 650B revolution
Now that the big players are busy capitalizing on 650B, has any notable executive or product designer contacted you and expressed sincere thanks?
At Interbike in 2007 someone declared it: “The Year of the 29er.” I had only had tires in hand for a few months, and it was a real gut-check for me. I wondered if I had made a mistake. I should say that I have had doubts that 650B would ever be a commercial success, but I have never once doubted validity of the concept. Orders kept coming in, we were growing and I was convinced it would succeed ultimately. A few years ago I rode a trail I had never been on before and I saw some fresh Neo-Moto tracks in the damp soil at the trail head. That was a really cool feeling - to see evidence of my product being used in the field. But, probably some of the highest moments have come in just the last year or so. Seeing most of the major brands produce a 650B bike is really great for me. The idea that my concept has had such a big impact on the mainstream industry is really gratifying!
Have you profited financially from any of this?
We’ve done OK, but I knew from day one that if 650B was going to be successful, it was going to have to gain mainstream acceptance and grow beyond my control. That also meant that it was going to be very difficult for me to compete against the biggest brands. This is starting to play out, now that most of the major brands have a 650B / 27.5-inch product line. However, I felt that being the guy to innovate the wheel size for MTB use would also open other doors for me. My brand is growing (up 30% over last year) and I think the credibility that comes with the success of 650B will allow me to innovate in other areas. I have a lot of other product ideas that I am working on and want to bring to market soon. I don’t want to hang my entire career on 650B.
No. Not yet. I doubt that would ever happen today. In fact, I knew that if 650B was to become widely accepted, the big players would start lining up to take credit for it themselves. You can see that is happening now - sort of a miniature version of the “who invented the mountain bike” argument. My guess is that half the product managers out there don’t even know who I am. They just know that all their competition is doing a 650B bike and that they need to do it too.
Are there any individuals out there who you are thankful to?
There are more than a few people and companies that made this whole thing possible, and I am very thankful for their support. Grant Petersen of Rivendell introduced me to 650B in 2004, Peter Gilbert at Cane Creek made me the first set of 650B mountain bike wheels, Tim Fry at MRP made me a handful of White Bros. suspension forks, and Panaracer agreed to make some awesome tires for me in very small quantities. I also got a lot of financial support from end users who bought my products. And probably the most meaningful to me, was the moral support I got from my industry peers. Even though they weren't in a position to make bikes a few years ago, guys like Chris Cocalis, Dave Turner, Noel Buckley and Sherwood Gibson all understood how much potential this concept had from day one. Seeing them all produce bikes today based on my concept is really cool!
Ignoring the present three standards, If you could begin with a clean piece of paper and design the perfect mountain bike wheel, then push a button that would adjust and convert every mountain bike to that format, what would it be?
Pacenti was clear when he first began to push the mid-sized wheel concept that its ultimate application would be for long-travel AM/trailbikes, like the 150-millimeter-travel Santa Cruz Bronson. The need for light wheels. lots of rubber and predictable handling is the motivating factor. - Gary Perkin Photo
I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it like that before, but I have thought that if the industry ever got together to really sort this out and decided once and for all what size would work best as a “standard” MTB wheel, I would support the effort. My guess is that we’d end up with something very close to 650B, maybe a little bigger, perhaps 700D or 650A, or some completely new standard. But once you get much bigger than a 595-millimeter bead-seat diameter, you start running into other design problems. Right now 650B wheels seem to strike the best balance between the competing design constraints. As geometry, components and riding styles evolve, wheel sizes may evolve too. For all practical purposes, I think 29ers are about as big as we can go. And I doubt very much that the industry will ever go smaller than 650B in the future.
If you could do it all over, is there anything you might do differently?
If I had it to do again, I would definitely focus a bit more on marketing my products. Design comes easily to me, but sales and marketing is a real challenge. I might spend a little more time and energy on my own products and brand, rather than convincing other brands to jump in, but then again, if those brands didn't get involved, maybe 650B would not have taken off the way it has today? In general, I think things are working out pretty much exactly how I envisioned they would.