I'm so glad someone jumped on this topic, and I can cut to the chase and say I agree with everything you have said and stated so well. What follows is the longer version...
I don't buy new bikes often, but when I do, it seems I always come in at the tail end of things simply by waiting so long. Bicycling has always been viewed a little differently on this side of the pond than it has in the UK or Europe. I think the bicycle has not been as widely accepted as a societally-integrated form of transport here, in the modern era, because of a) the typically vast distances in the US and lack of village-model community development, b) urban sprawl, and c) because a) and b) contributed to the widespread use of the automobile and an infrastructure that supports it, rather than cycling. We also lack inter-urban mass transit. The buses or subways may run in the cities and towns, but they typically don't connect towns. The national rail system is largely in ruins, which is a shame; rail cannot be matched for per-wheel efficiency in the ground transport of goods.
In my view, the vast majority of people here in my lifetime (I'm 51) have tended to view bicycles as either toys, sports/fitness equipment, or expensive toys as
sports/fitness equipment, in much the same way skiing or tennis went from human-centered pursuits to equipment-driven, with costs to match. We seem to be headed more and more in that direction. There's the Wal-Mart Specials for <USD$200-$300 and then there's a gap till the LBS bikes at around $800-$4,000, followed by a much larger gap that is filled by the truly high-end full-on customs by independent one-man builders where the frames seem to start at about $1,800 and go quickly skyward from there. There's a few exceptions -- I did see a Giant TCR Advanced SL 0 advertised north of USD$10,000 at a LBS up the Valley from me.
When I started cycling "with intent" (sounds less pretentious than "cycling seriously") in 1977 as physiotherapy for car-accident injuries, it was almost impossible to buy a fully-equipped touring
bicycle from any dealer in the country. Despite Bikecentennial being in full swing (an effort to make transcontinental touring possible by linking rural roads...part of the nation's bicentennial celebration of independence), there weren't bikes ready-made for the purpose. People riding through Eugene had a terrible time with broken spokes and if you saw a cyclist by the roadside, you'd also see the tell-tale sag of a derailed chain. Racing bikes had become the model to emulate, and manufacturers produced "10-speeds" by the bucketful, simultaneously creating and satisfying demand. Despite most having the equivalent of gas-pipe frames, nearly every one was a stripped-down edition -- no fenders, no racks, steel corrugated-sidewall rims with Maes-bend drop handlebars and those horrid "safety levers" to keep us allegedly "safe". At the time, tubular sew-ups were racing gear, and those used 700C rims. Clinchers evolved here as alternatives for training and offered the convenience of quicker and easier flat repair without the worry of sewing and gluing. Except for some truly horrendous lumps of massive, dead, quick-rot rubber labeled "balloon tires", every other tire for the mass-market came in 27". Through 1984, my really nice Japanese touring bikes were built for and came with those 27-inchers, the Touring Standard.
The only bicycle I can remember from that era that came equipped with a steel-rod rear rack and alu fenders was one model Peugeot. It even came with Soubitez sidewall generator lighting. And, of course, it looked like a tank compared to the lithe, racing-oriented "10-speeds" sitting next to it in the floor displays. I remember one at a LBS that languished on the showroom floor for more than five years. A lot of dreck was rushed to the market to meet consumer demand. It wasn't until decent-quality bikes of the same basic design (Fuji, American Eagle, Nishiki, Maruishi, Miyata, Centurion) arrived from Japan that ridable stuff became widely available here on the West Coast. Better quality-control on the Asian bikes was reflected not only in better frame materials and assembly; the suppliers and sub-contractors stepped up the game as well. Firms like Inoye Rubber Company (IRC) equipped the bikes with decent tires. Nylon skinwalls replaced what looked like burlap dipped in some sort of golden confection only loosely resembling "gum rubber" that immediately developed gaping cracks before the bikes left the showroom floor. Japanese production and imports really made a positive, quality difference in the midst of the so-called Bike Boom. The Japanese manufacturers also had the production capacity and a favorable yen-dollar ratio to make their bikes appealing.
Custom-builder Bruce Gordon was the first domestic builder I knew personally to equip touring bikes with 700C tires, and he seemed like a nutter at the time, when 27" was the touring norm. We spoke at length about it at his home-shop past the airport on Clear Lake Road and when he spoke to my touring classes at the university. As it happened, he was prescient beyond what anyone could see, and soon the selection of quality 27" tires was so poor, I had to switch to 700C myself (not an easy task, thanks to brake reach and such) just to get something that would hang together. Unfortunately, we weren't quite there yet for touring, so those high-quality tires were all narrow, and suffered from label inflation. Most of my touring through the '80s and well into the '90s was on tires labeled 700x28C, but were in fact only 24-25mm in cross-section. Marketing was still race-driven and truly wider tires suffered in the weight comparison when everyone sought ever lighter equipment. Gram-weenies ruled the day and the drillium craze came and went, only to be replaced by the Next Big Thing -- aero. Cheat Gravity gave way to Cheat The Wind. To protect the rims under touring loads and on rough roads, I hammered 125psi into my 1-inch skinwalls and they handled like rubber-coated rims, with no suspension or compliance. I found the only way to manage in gravel was to hover above the saddle and go like stink on a hot summer day -- fast as fast could be so I had some floatation on the loose stuff. A bit like cyclo-cross, gravel-dirt-off-road touring involved a lot of dismounts and lifting. Axles suffered, but Phil Wood saved the day with his oversized design and sealed cartridge bearings. Yay, Phil!
Then, when everyone was tired of being beaten to a pulp on bikes that were almost never really
raced, the Mountain Bike Craze hit, parallel to the rise in SUV popularity. These bikes sat people upright so their hands and necks didn't hurt, and the wide tires meant they could be ridden into, over, and off curbs with nary a care. The early mountain bikes were akin to the balloon-tires bikes of the '50s and '60s, but lighter, more rugged, and geared for easier pedaling. Of course, they got better and lighter and faster with time, and finally eclipsed the sale of virtually every other sort of bicycle here in the States before exploiting every possible sub-category including downhill, cross-country, and whatever. A horse for every
course, even if there wasn't one -- just go out and hammer in the mud and dirt or ride to the local college/uni campus. They saturated the market as thoroughly as the 10-speeds of the bike-boom era. When little kids drew pictures of bikes here in 'Merka, they drew Mountain Bikes, "the regular kind", not drop-bar road bikes and certainly not fully-equipped, pannier-laden world tourers and trekkers.
The US mass-market seems bifurcated between racing-oriented road bikes at one extreme and some flavor of mountain-bike at the other, and guess which one has taken on the role of all-'rounder?
Currently, there are a few dedicated, road-oriented 700C touring bikes in the US, but it seems to be more of a niche as far as the mass-market is concerned. Surly's Long Haul Trucker leads the pack by a wide margin and now comes in a variety of flavors including a 26-incher, trailed by the Trek 520 and more distantly by offerings from REI (Novara), Jamis and Fuji. Few-to-none of these bikes are pre-equipped with bottles, fenders, lighting, or tubular-steel racks; at most, they might include an aluminum rear rack and a bottle cage. There really is nothing like the Sherpa; the 26" Surly is as close as we get, with a few exceptions. To get a "complete solution" tourer means stepping up to a true custom, or equipping it yourself. Lots of people own bicycles, but in terms of the larger population, very few actually ride regularly or commute. Despite some really wet weather, Portland and Eugene see comparatively large numbers, but compared to car drivers, it remains miniscule. A recent PBS program on the topic referred to a figure no higher than 5% for bike-commuting nationwide. The overall average is far below that.
Oregon has become a hotbed of custom builders, and that extends up through Washington and down through California and across the nation. Led by the custom-builders, 650B is seeing a resurgence, along with low-trail frame designs oriented around the huge handlebar bags you mentioned, Relayer. I thought 650B tires had truly died out, never to be seen again, and now there is this resurgence among custom-built bikes here in the States. Rivendell has embraced the size, and so have a number of others. The trouble is just as you've said, Relayer -- the infrastructure, supply chain, and availability just isn't there. It is virtually impossible to stop at some rural US shop and get an in-stock 650B replacement. It wasn't till this year I saw a 700C replacement tire (by the Slime tube-sealant company!) available at Wal-Mart, widely regarded as the nation's largest discount retailer. Till now, it has always been low-quality 27" or 26", with the latter being dominant and only available in a knobby, lugged tread.
650Bs do split the difference between 27"/700C and 26" in size, and I can see they might ride well, perhaps even be the Golden Mean their proponents claim. Unfortunately, as someone who has seen fads come and go and some really nice bikes (including older European-built 650Bs individually imported to the States by individuals back in the late-'60s-'70s) obsoleted by the lack/unavailability of good tires, it seems a bit like the Next Big Thing all over again, a way to differentiate product in a market where profit margins are notoriously low.
I think 650B is a movement and tire size that at present favors custom-builders, who can create frames with the proper clearances and with geometry optimized for the tires. There is also an element of nostalgia driving the process, and some of the results are exquisite, as if Rene' Herse or Alex Singer had come to life and produced frames anew. Boulder's come to mind, among others. I have one that resembles these, a 1980 Centurion ProTour I promptly turned into a 700C, Japanese-component-equipped version of a 1948 Herse Le Campeur (pic). Still have it, but it isn't suited for expedition touring. Tubing and geometry are all wrong, and the platform I started with is so stiff and upright, it beats the snot out of me on rough roads. I get off the bike feeling as if I'd been dragged behind a truck, achey and not at peace. No, looking the part is not enough, and these 650B builders are at least turning out Complete Solutions, thanks largely to the tire size and resultant geometry needed to accommodate them. They are tapping into a market; in this case, randonneuring. The trouble is, it is a niche market for builders and buyers at present, a "high-E" market, to borrow a term from Grant Petersen -- a market that requires a lot of Education and Explanation to make appealing, one whose benefits aren't immediately clear and one of degree rather than magnitude. Apart from this niche cognoscenti, the larger public has no idea what a 650B is
or why it might be better, though the InterWeb is helping. As for "better", the margins are pretty slim and open to wide interpretation and discussion. Such things are troll-bait and I have no desire to ignite a flame-war. This little essay is just a putting of thoughts to paper and I type really, really fast, as some of you have suspected.
I mentioned nostalgia as part of this. I think the 650B movement we're seeing here in the US is in part a reaction to the shortcomings in current market offerings, coupled with a recognition that a lot of the European custom touring-bike makers in the pre-/post-WWII era had some genuinely innovative solutions that also genuinely worked...and then were abandoned as the market changed. There is a desire to recapture that time when complete, purpose-built machines were more readily available and worked far better than the stuff that (never fully) replaced them, and never existed here. There is a valid point in there. There's also marketing reality and the fickleness of a market-driven buying public who is motivated more by a desire for New and a perception that New Is Better Because It Is New. When one thinks about it, that's why 650B fell from favor the first time. It was replaced by other sizes. Now, what's old is new again, at least from my perspective.
The trouble is, for use away from a mail-order resupply of tires and tubes, how are the rider/owners going to manage? It's hard enough to get 650B tires here without taking some extra steps and going either mail-order or having a sympathetically-aligned LBS. How would one manage past our borders? Take some with you, I guess, as most global tourists (and I) do. The thing is, 650B tires have not yet hit a point of critical mass in the mass-market, at least not here. Less so elsewhere, I would imagine. When I was at uni, a friend from Japan had to wait months for a replacement 650B tire for his custom-built Toei. It was a special-order French Wolber, and took forever to reach the shop in 1982. It's a bit better now thanks to QBP (Quality Bicycle Products) and the 'Net, but a lot of shops still don't stock them. Only one of our (newer) local shops here in Eugene regularly carries Schwalbes, and they rarely have 26" Duremes in my size. Good luck finding a 650b Grand Bois, Pari-Moto, or Hetre at Wal-Mart or in-stock at a small town's corner shop. As part of a well-engineered bicycle, I think 650B can also work well. It just isn't widely available and is still a long way from being a standard. Both those qualities make it impractical at present for world tourists and (it seems) for those away from a US or Japanese supply chain (despite the French-sounding names, the major 650B tires available here are made in Japan). There's easier, existing alternatives in 700C and 26"; mostly the latter for tourists. So far, 650B doesn't feel enough different from either of those to have really caught on. Andre Jute, our esteemed fellow forum member, has made a cogent argument on his website/blog showing how "29er" tires are the worst of all worlds, subverting the best qualities of 700C and true balloon tires to embody the worst of each.
When I selected the Sherpa, I hoped I was coming down on the right side of changing and evolving standards. I wanted a bike "future-proof" for the next 20 years, knowing from the outset how impossible that is. My 9-speed Deore drivetrain was replaced on the market by Shimano's 10-speed version while the bike was still on-order (9-sp still appears more practical and long-lived for my use, but I was perfectly happy with my 7-speed half-step on the '89 Miyata 1000LT, so there ya go). The threadless steerer/headset has been a joy in allowing me to decorate it as I wished with a whole slew of accessories impossible otherwise, and it allows service with just a 5mm allen instead of one or two huge spanners. The Hollowtech II external-bearing BB is appealing now the earlier problems with bearing life and sealing have been largely addressed (and Phil Wood has replacements available) and is backwards-compatible with square-taper and old cranks in a pinch. I made sure my 9-speed bar-ends had a friction option, and so did Thorn when equipping it. I'm late to the 26" party, but they are still the best bet for worldwide availability.
But will it all last? Likely not. I hear increasing rumblings regarding a variety of new BB shell diameters, all larger than what I'm running now. Will those frames be backward-compatible? If not and the market goes that way, will we ever be able to get square-taper, Octalink (it's already going-to-gone in some flavors), and Hollowtech II (what happened to Hollowtech I?...oh, that's right...there were fretting issues with counter-loading of pedals till Shimano corrected their design for people who lead when coasting with the off-foot).
I started a Muppets Thread topic on this last Fall, asking for prognostications for the future of cycling ( http://www.thorncycles.co.uk/forums/index.php?topic=3786.0
) and I guess this is part of that for me. Yes, Relayer, the market is changing and we'll see more as time goes by. Already, the horizontal diamond frame has given way to sloping top tubes, and composites and hydroforming will change them further. I agree we'll see market ever more polarized at the extremes, and we're seeing it even now in the RST-->Mercury shift.
Hopefully, 26" will remain the most popularly and widely-available touring/trekking tire for awhile and I (and others like me) will be fine. Just the same, it's nice to think my happy little Sherpa might have another option "just in case". I'll take every advantage I can to keep my bikes on the road, especially one as nice and beloved as my new Sherpa.
All the best,