IN THE MIDDLE. Mountain bikes that have wheels that are 27.5 inches in diameter hit the market 3 years ago; now, the majority of new mountain bikes include 27.5-inch wheels. (Such bikes also are known as 650Bs in reference to a French sizing standard.)
In the past year, the three largest bike manufacturers in the United States—Giant, Specialized and Trek—started to phase out 26-inch mountain bikes from their lineups.
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Giant believes so strongly in the 27.5-inch wheel size that its entire 2015 mountain-bike lineup (save for its least expensive entry-level model and one specialty model) uses either 27.5-inch or 29-inch wheels. Specialized’s 2015 mountain-bike collection includes only five bikes that have 26-inch wheels. Only 11 of Trek’s 98 mountain bikes use 26-inch wheels. The rest are split between 27.5-inch and 29-inch wheels.
“It’s increasingly rare” to find a 26-inch bike among midrange or premium models, says Todd Seplavy of GT Bicycles, which is a bike manufacturer.
We found that mountain bikes that have 27.5-inch wheels feel more stable and roll over obstacles more easily than do models that have 26-inch wheels. We found that 27.5-inch-wheel models are easier to maneuver than are mountain bikes that have 29-inch wheels, which typically weigh 2 pounds more than do mountain bikes that have 27.5-inch wheels. We also found that mountain bikes that have 27.5-inch wheels are more accommodating to riders who are shorter than 5 feet 4 inches than are bikes that have 29-inch wheels, which typically have a higher top tube because of the larger wheels.
The average cost of a mountain bike that has 27.5-inch wheels is roughly $150 more than that of a comparable 26-inch mountain bike but $150 less than that of a comparable 29-inch mountain bike, says Matt Wiebe of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.
In addition to 27.5-inch wheels, the latest mountain bikes now include at least 5 inches of suspension travel. (Suspension travel is the vertical movement of a wheel from the top of its shock to the bottom.) In other words, today’s mountain bikes are able to absorb bigger bumps than ever before without jolting the rider.
Most mountain bikes still have 4–5 inches of suspension travel. In general, bikes that have at least 5 inches of suspension travel cost $100 more than do comparable bikes that have less.
Previously, mountain bikes that had at least 5 inches of suspension travel were considered too sluggish for all-around use. They not only were heavy, but we also found that they required more pedaling energy to move forward.
However, advancements over the past year in frame construction decreased the average weight of the newest mountain bikes by as much as 1 pound. Also, the latest forks and rear shocks protect riders from impacts better than ever before. As a result, we found that the new crop of mountain bikes that have at least 5 inches of suspension travel can climb hills as well as dedicated cross-country race bikes do and still have enough handling to steamroll downhill trails.
Another up-and-coming feature that we believe is deserving of serious consideration for mountain bikers: a seat post that can raise and lower instantly at the push of a lever. These so-called dropper posts add about a pound to a mountain bike’s weight, but we found that they deliver a tremendous boost in confidence and safety on tricky terrain. That’s because most dropper posts lower the saddle 5–6 inches, which gives the rider much more room to maneuver and also lowers the rider’s center of gravity for more stability.
Dropper posts typically cost $100–$500 when they’re purchased as an accessory. Many 2015 models include them as standard equipment, and those models cost $100 more than do bikes that have comparable specifications but no dropper posts.
E-BIKE INROADS. E-bikes, which are popular in Europe, emerged in the United States in the past 2 years. They look like traditional bikes, but a rectangular motor and battery pack typically are attached to the frame near the rear wheel. E-bikes start at $1,000, but the average price is $3,000. As of press time, Specialized and Trek were the only major U.S. manufacturers that made e-bikes.
We found that an e-bike feels like a regular bicycle, except that you can go much faster with a lot less work. Most e-bike models can boost your pedaling power by as much as two-fold, so if you typically cover 15 miles in an hour on a traditional bicycle, an e-bike would allow you to travel roughly 30 miles over the same time.
An e-bike’s battery range is typically a little more than 30 miles before you have to recharge the battery. The battery and motor make an e-bike heavy—at least 40 pounds. After the battery is depleted, you have only your legs to drive all of that extra weight.
Nevertheless, we found that e-bikes are tremendously fun, and we believe that prices will fall in the next 3 years as the category evolves. In other words, more riders will be able to afford an extra boost.
James Huang is the technical editor of BikeRadar.com and Cyclingnews.com. He has written about bicycles for 10 years.