By Josh Patterson, photo by Robert Ligon
From the age of 11 Kirk Pacenti knew he wanted to be a bicycle designer. “I figured the best way to learn how to design bikes would be to learn how to make them,” says Pacenti. He immersed himself in metalworking, machining, and drafting classes in junior high and high school. Following high school, Pacenti did a machining apprenticeship before going to work for Bontrager Cycles as a machinist/welder in 1994. Two years later Pacenti left Bontrager and founded Pacenti Cycle Design.
In 2004, Pacenti was turned on to 650b wheels by Rivendell’s Grant Peterson. He immediately saw 650b, a commonly used wheel size for touring rigs, as a possible solution to the problems plaguing early 29ers—sluggish handling, long chainstays, and poor tire clearance.
Few others in the bicycle industry shared Pacenti’s enthusiasm for this “tweener” wheelsize. For several years it appeared the development of 650b-specific bikes and components would be steamrolled under the momentum of the 29er onslaught. Many observers expected 650b mountain bikes to be relegated to small companies and custom builders. The tide is turning this year, as rumors of big names producing 650b bikes and components are coming out of the woodwork like so many medium-sized termites.
We asked 650b’s biggest advocate for his take on the future of 650b.
For several years it seemed that 650b was stagnant. To what do you attribute the recent revival of industry support for 650b?
What may be viewed as “stagnation” by some, could be looked at as “the calm before the storm” by others. Keep in mind I introduced the first 650b mountain bike tire just over four years ago. When you consider that development of a new product line from big companies can take up to 24 months, and that both Fox and RockShox are releasing 650b-specific forks this year, you can begin to piece together a more accurate picture of how quickly the industry got behind 650b. The other thing people seem to forget is just how long 29ers took to get to where they are today.
I like to think industry support is being driven by the exceptional, real-world performance of the 650b wheel size. In reality, there are probably several factors that come into play, some of which may have more to do with business models than singletrack.
What, in your mind, was the tipping point?
The momentum has been building for a while, but I think the announcement that Fox and RockShox are making 650b-compatible forks will prove to be the tipping point as far as the mainstream industry is concerned.
Why continue to push the development of 650b components when, in the long run, the big names will take over the market?
From the beginning I knew that if 650b was going to be successful it had to grow beyond me or my influence, and that it would take several much larger companies to make it happen. Big names are rumored to be working on bikes now. This will only grow the demand for 650b products and grow the potential market for smaller companies like mine. If I can leverage my role in innovating 650b wheels for mountain bikes, it may pave the way for some of my other design ideas down the road.
Do you think 650b will replace 26-inch wheels?
There is a place for all three wheel sizes. Ultimately the market will sort out which size, if any, will become predominant. The idea that one wheel size could address every need for a machine as varied as the mountain bike is a bit ridiculous. However, I do think the 650b wheel has the potential to become the “preferred standard” because it’s so versatile.
What drawbacks do you see to 650b?
The biggest drawback is the perception that the wheel is not “big enough” to make a significant difference to the ride. It’s difficult to convince people that you can’t judge how a bike will perform by reading the spec sheet—you really do have to ride it to see how well it works.
In the last two years 29-inch wheels have taken over the hardtail and cross-country full suspension segments of the mountain bike market. Do you see the recent interest in 650b changing this?
Twenty-nine inch wheels pretty much own the hardtail market—I don’t see that changing any time soon. But I think 650b wheels are a more rational choice for almost all full suspension designs. In fact, full suspension design was one of the driving factors for developing 650b wheels for mountain bike use in the first place. This will be where the wheel size really shines.
What is holding back the development of more 650b-compatible components? What is holding back 650b in general?
Educating consumers, bike shops, and product managers is always the biggest challenge. It will take a big push on the marketing side to move things forward. When that happens, more products will be brought to market.
Do you think your initial push was too early? That it was competing with 29-inch wheels?
If I recall correctly, 2007 was dubbed “the year of the 29er” at Interbike, just months after I landed my first shipment of tires. That certainly made me wonder if I made the right decision. But I came to the conclusion that if 29ers had finally reached mainstream acceptance in the market, it was the perfect time to start working on what the mountain bike would become next. Only time will tell, but I think the timing is working out perfectly.
Do you have a favorite mountain bike?
I am riding a prototype bike that’s showing a lot of promise right now. But my everyday bike is a Ventana El Bastardo. It’s a few years old, but has always been a solid performer.
What is your favorite place to ride?
Probably the Pacific North West, I love riding in the rain forests of Washington and Oregon. Santa Cruz is a tough place to beat, too.
You are best known for pushing the development of 650b wheels for mountain bikes, but you’ve also had a hand in many other innovations. Which of your designs are you most proud of?
That’s hard to say. Many of the things I have worked on were for other companies. But I think designing the first commercially available, singlespeed-specific mountain bike hub [for Bullseye in 1994] has to be up there. Not because it was all that innovative, but because it was the first of its kind. The basic design has been copied countless times—it created a sizeable niche market.
The one concept I would really like to see take off is my idea for a standardized polygon freehub body (pictured). The big component makers really have no incentive to do this, but if it happened, it would be a real win for consumers.
What, in your opinion, is “the next big thing” in mountain biking?
It’s tough to say. I think we are going to see more refinements and further specialization. “Smart shocks” will likely make a return soon, and electronic shifting systems will probably start making their way into the mountain bike market. I was playing around with a wireless, electronic-hydraulic hybrid braking system concept about eight years ago. I think it can be done, but the idea is too far ahead its time—maybe I’ll pick it up again some day…
What’s next for you?
There’s a lot going on—I’ve been thinking about starting a bike company for a while, the time may be right. We’re working on a cassette mechanism concept that could be a real improvement over current designs. I’ve also been kicking around some ideas for a rear suspension system that I would like explore a little further. And through our association with Oak Ridge National Laboratories, my partners and I are working on a “low cost” carbon fiber, as well as a new method for recycling carbon fiber. I think this is something that’s going to be very important to the bicycle industry in the very near future.