When it comes to bicycle wheels, you have two main options. This guide lists the pros and cons of 700c Vs 26 inch bicycle wheels to help you decide which size to go with on your next touring bike or commuter. I will also outline a few other common wheel sizes including 29er and 650b. Hopefully, this list will help you decide as it has helped me.
This short video outlines the main points of the article.
A Quick Note About Bicycle Wheel Size Terminology and Measurement
Over the years, a number of different bicycle wheel sizes have been developed around the world. In some cases, the size is exactly the same but a different name is used. This is usually done for marketing purposes. A few common bicycle wheel sizes include:
- 700c, 29er, and 28 inch bicycle wheels all have the same rim diameter of ISO 622 mm. 700c is the standard wheel size for modern road bikes. 29er is basically a marketing term for wide 700c wheels that are made for off-road riding. 28 inch is a size that is still used in some parts of the world though it is kind of a vintage rim measurement. Tires and tubes that are labeled 28 inch fit on 700c or 29er rims as long as the rim is a compatible width.
- 26 inch (ISO 559 mm) wheels are the standard size for older mountain bikes as well as many expedition touring bikes. These wheels measure 559 mm in diameter. These wheels are about 1-2 inches smaller in diameter than a 700c wheel depending on the type of tires that are installed.
- 27 inch (ISO 630 mm) are often found on old road bikes. This size is not the same as 700c or 29er. 27 inch wheels are slightly larger than 700c at 630 mm as opposed to 622 mm. This means tires are not cross-compatible with any other wheel sizes.
Tip: While buying tires or rims, it can be helpful to look at the ISO size. This measurement is given in millimeters and was developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). For a visual comparison of the most common bike wheel sizes, check out this cool diagram from rodbikes.com This tire sizing table from sheldonbrown.com can also help.
26 Inch Wheels Pros
- Replacement parts are easier to find in the developing world- This is the main reason to choose 26 inch wheels for bicycle touring. 26 inch is still the most common bicycle wheel size in much of the world because it was the standard for decades. Finding a spare 26 inch tire, tube, rim, or entire wheel much easier if you need a replacement. In some remote parts of the world such as Central Asia or West Africa, finding 700c spares can still be nearly impossible. Many small bike shops only carry 26 inch parts. Having said this, 700c and 29er are getting more popular and parts availability is increasing with globalization. Finding spares is becoming easier.
- 26 inch wheels are stronger- Because 26 inch wheels are smaller in diameter and the fact that they use shorter spokes, they are structurally stronger than 700c or 29er wheels. This means that they can handle heavier loads while touring and take more of a beating without flexing, cracking or bending. 26 inch wheels make a great choice for tandem bikes because of the added strength.
- 26 inch wheel parts are cheaper- You can go to any department store and pick up tires and tubes for just a few dollars. For example, I once had new tires installed on my bike in Mexico for like $15. That’s a pretty good deal. If you need a new rim, you can buy an old used one for next to nothing. The quality won’t be great, but at least it’ll get you rolling.
- Larger tire clearance- Generally, frames designed for 26 inch wheels have clearance to fit fatter tires. Most bike frames that are designed for 26 inch wheels can handle tires that are at least 2 inches wide. This allows you to ride over rougher terrain where skinny tires couldn’t take you. It’s also nice to have the option to run wider tires even if you don’t need them.
- Increased maneuverability- Smaller wheels make steering faster and more responsive. This helps when navigating technical trails. 26 inch wheels also make the bike feel much smaller and easier to manhandle.
- 26 inch wheels are lighter- Because they are smaller, 26 inch wheels simply use less material than 700c. This brings down the total weight of the bike.
- Fewer broken spokes- Because the spokes are shorter, they are stronger and harder to break. This means you’ll spend less time making repairs.
- 26 inch wheels accelerate faster- Because of the smaller diameter and lower weight, 26 inch wheels spin up faster. This allows you to speed from a stop faster. You’ll also accelerate faster when coasting down hills. This comes in handy when riding in a city where you have to stop and go often. This is one of the main reasons to choose 26 inch wheels for commuting. Smaller wheels can also have a higher top speed. For proof, check out the Guiness world record for cycling speed.
- You can carry fewer spares- Because 26 inch tires and tubes are available pretty much everywhere, you don’t have to pack around spare tires and multiple tubes all the time. This further lowers the weight of your touring setup.
- The gearing is lower- Assuming the gears are the same, the smaller wheels of a 26 inch wheeled bike make the effective gear ratio lower. This makes riding up steep hills or with a heavy load easier. Of course, you can always install a smaller cog on your 700c bike’s cassette to give yourself a lower gear to climb with.
- No toe overlap- Smaller wheels are less likely to rub your foot when you turn the handlebars. This problem is most common in smaller framed bikes for shorter individuals.
- More cushioning- 26 inch tires tend to be wider and hold a larger volume of air. This absorbs some shocks and vibrations and can make the ride smoother. Particularly when compared to a hard 700c road tire.
- 26 inch bikes can pack down smaller- This comes in handy if you need to box your bike and put it on a bus, train, or plane. In fact, if you get S&S couplers installed on your frame, you can pack it small enough to avoid oversize luggage charges on most airlines. (most airlines require that your checked baggage be smaller than 62 linear inches). This may be possible with 700c bikes as well but it will be more difficult and requires that you remove the tires from your wheels, which also opens up the possibility of damage.
- 26 inch wheels are better for shorter riders- On smaller framed bikes, 26 inch wheels fit the frame geometry better. This allows you to have a more comfortable riding position if you are on the shorter side. The height cutoff is around 5’5” (about 165 cm).
26 Inch Wheel Cons
- 26 inch wheels don’t roll over obstacles as well- Because of the smaller diameter of the wheels, they have a harder time rolling over potholes and bumps in the road. A smaller wheel can get swallowed up in a hole that a larger wheel would roll right over.
- 26 inch wheels don’t maintain speed as well- Because they are smaller and lighter, they don’t have as much inertia to keep the bike rolling. Even though you can ride just as fast with 26 inch wheels, it takes more energy to maintain your speed. This reduces efficiency. It will hurt if you like to cover big distances each day. You’ll spend more time in the saddle to cover the same distance.
- The ride is less smooth- Every time you hit a bump or pothole, you’ll feel it more with smaller wheels. This makes the ride less comfortable.
- 26 inch frame options are more limited- Most of the big name bike manufacturers have stopped making 26 inch bikes. If you walk into a high end bike shop today, you might not even see a 26 inch bike on the floor. Most touring bikes are 700c. If you’re in the market for a 26 inch touring bike, look for bikes labeled ‘expedition touring bikes.’ These are designed for use in the developing world where 26 inch parts are more readily available.
- Quality 26 inch spares are harder to find- Many 26 inch tires, tubes, and rims you find around the world will be low-quality Chinese made or used parts. These will get you rolling but won’t last as long as quality, name brand stuff. Finding high-quality spares in the developed world can be a challenge. In the developed world, the cycling industry has switched to larger wheels. Most new bikes are 700c or 29er. Even if you go to a high-end bike shop, they may not carry many 26 inch parts. This will only get worse as time goes by. If you’re buying a touring bike that you plan to use for the next 10-20 years, you might be better off following the trend and going with 700c wheels.
- There are fewer 26 inch tire options- Because 26 inch wheels have kind of gone out of style, manufacturers are focusing on the more popular 700c or 29er market. It’s easy to find 26 inch tires, you just won’t have as many quality options in terms of widths. Most 26 inch tires are made for mountain bikes. It is possible to buy road and touring tires, but you may have to order online.
- 26 inch wheels aren’t ideal for tall riders- On large framed bikes, 26 inch wheels don’t fit the geometry very well. They look and feel too small.
- 26 inch wheels aren’t in style- This shouldn’t really matter, but if you want to follow the trend, 29er is what the industry seems to be pushing right now. This trend will probably continue into the future.
700c or 29er Pros
- 700c wheels maintain speed better- Larger wheels have more mass which means they have more inertia. Once you get them rolling, they want to keep going. This allows you to cruise at a higher average speed with 700c wheels. This is also nice when coasting. If you stop pedaling, you won’t lose speed as fast as you would with smaller wheels. This also comes in handy when cruising through flat sections. It takes less energy to keep the bike at speed.
- 700c wheels roll better- Because the wheels have a larger diameter, they roll over potholes, branches, rocks, and other obstacles in the road more easily. This allows you to tackle technical terrain more easily. it is also more comfortable. When you hit a bump in the road, the large wheels will glide over it. This makes the ride much smoother.
- There are more 700c frame options- Almost all new bikes are 700c or 29er these days. There are almost too many options to choose from. Another wheel size gaining popularity is 650b or 27.5 inch.
- There are more tire options- Because 700c is so popular these days, all bike tire manufacturers make a large range of options for this size. Depending on the width of your rim and clearance of your bike’s frame, you can find tires ranging from skinny 18mm road tires to 3 inch plus mountain bike tires.
- 700c is better for taller riders- The larger wheels fit the geometry of the bike better. It just looks and feels more natural to have 700c wheels on a large framed bike. 700C wheels are best for riders over 5’5” or about 165cm.
- You can travel further in less time with 700c wheels- This is possible due to the higher average speed you are able to maintain. For example, maybe you average 1 mile per hour faster with 700c wheels than 26 inch. Over the course of a month-long tour, you could travel a couple of hundred miles further with the same amount of time in the saddle.
- In the developed world, 700c is the standard- If you do most of your riding in developed countries, finding spare parts is easier with 700c wheels. Every bike shop stocks 700c tires, tubes, and rims. Some high-end bike shops don’t even stock 26 inch spares anymore.
- 700c and 29er may have better traction- This point is debated among cyclists. Many claim that larger wheels allow more of the tire to contact the ground which increases traction. You may also be able to run larger tires at lower pressure. Through my research, I couldn’t find any real evidence to back this claim up.
- You can use 26 inch tubes- It’s not ideal, but if you have to, you can stretch the smaller tubes to fit the larger wheel. It’s best to only do this temporarily.
- 700c is in style now- If you like to follow trends and have the latest and greatest gear, 700c or 29er is what the industry is pushing now.
700c or 29er Cons
- Spare 700c parts are harder to find in the developing world- This is probably the biggest argument against choosing 700c for touring. Small bike shops in developing countries may not carry 700c parts. Some countries don’t even import them. In some parts of the world, it isn’t even possible to have parts shipped because of issues you’ll encounter with customs. For example, if you crack a rim and need a replacement while cycling through West Africa, you may have no choice but to fly home, buy one, and bring it back with you. What should be a simple fix, could end up costing over $1000 in airfare or weeks waiting for customs to release a package. On the bright side, with globalization, it is becoming easier to get 700c spares. You can also solve this problem by carrying plenty of spare spokes, tubes, rim tape, and even spare tires while traveling through remote regions.
- 700c wheels are weaker- Because 700c wheels are larger in diameter and use longer spokes, they are structurally weaker than 26 inch wheels. This means they can’t take as much of a beating or handle as heavy of loads without bending or breaking spokes. They are less durable. Of course, properly built wheels with high-quality components are unlikely to break.
- Spare parts are more expensive- There aren’t as many used parts around so you usually have to buy new. Because 700c wheels, tires, and tubes are larger, they use more material to manufacture. This adds to the cost as well.
- Toe overlap can be an issue- On some frames, your toes can rub the wheel when making a turn. This problem mostly affects smaller framed bikes.
- 700c wheels are heavier- Because they are larger, they use more material which adds weight to the bike.
- More broken spokes- Because the spokes are longer, they are weaker and easier to bend or break. While touring on rough roads with a 700c bike, you’ll experience broken spokes more often, even if you use high end custom built wheels.
- 700c wheels accelerate slower- Because the wheels are heavier, it takes more energy to get them rolling. 700c wheels don’t spin up as fast as 26 inch wheels. Starting from a stop is harder. When coasting down a hill, it takes longer to get to speed. This makes stop and go city riding harder and slower.
- Less tire clearance- In general, 700c bikes don’t have clearance for as wide of tires as their 26 inch counterparts. Most 700c touring bikes can only handle tires that are about 45 mm wide. Most 26 inch touring bikes can at least accommodate 2 inch wide tires.
- Decreased maneuverability- Larger wheels don’t turn as fast. Steering is less responsive which makes navigating technical trails a bit more difficult. 700c wheels also make the bike physically larger which makes it harder to manhandle.
- You have to carry more spares- In some regions, you have to carry spare tires and extra tubes because they aren’t available in bike shops. This adds weight to your setup.
- The gearing is higher- Assuming you’re using the same exact chainring and cassette, the lowest gear will be slightly higher with 700c wheels. This happens because the wheel measures larger in diameter. This makes carrying heavy loads uphill harder. If a hill is too steep, you may have to walk the bike. Of course, you can solve this problem by changing the cassette or crankset to add a lower gear.
- 700c isn’t ideal for shorter riders- The larger wheels don’t fit the geometry of small framed bikes very well. There is too much wheel for the bike. It just doesn’t look or feel right.
- The bike can’t pack down as small- If you want to box the bike and travel with it in a train, bus, or plane, it can’t fit in as small of a package. These few extra inches in wheel diameter could mean the difference between being able to squeeze by and being denied or charged extra.
More Cycling Pros and Cons Analyses from Where The Road Forks
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- Bikepacking Bags Vs. Panniers
- Flat Pedals Vs. Clipless
- Disc Brakes Vs. Rim Brakes
- Tube Vs. Tubeless Bicycle Tires
- Internal Gear Hub Vs. Derailleur
- Belt Drive Vs Chain Drive
- Steel Frame Vs. Aluminum Frame
- Presta Vs. Schrader Valves
A Note About Bicycle Rim Width and Tire Clearance.
While deciding on rim size, you’ll want to consider the width of the tires that you plan to mount. The maximum tire width is determined by the following three factors:
- The bike’s frame clearance- You don’t want your tires to rub on the fork, seat stays, chainstays, or brake bridge. As a rule of thumb, you generally want at least 3-5 mm of clearance between any part of your tire and any part of your frame.
- The rim width- Bike rims are measured in millimeters between the insides of the rim walls. Most touring rims run about 21-26 mm wide. This allows you to mount tires that are about 28-50 mm. Bikepacking rims usually run about 26-32 mm wide. This allows you to mount tires that are about 1.9-2.5 inches wide.
- The brake clearance- If you’re using rim brakes, you’ll need to make sure that your tire isn’t too wide to clear the brake arms. If you’re using disc brakes, you won’t face this problem.
A Note About Wheel Strength
The wheels are one part of your bike that you don’t want to skimp on. No matter the size, low quality or poorly built wheels cause you a lot of problems on the road including broken spokes, frequent flats, and cracked rims. The main factors that determine the strength of a bike wheel include:
- The number of spokes- The more spokes, the stronger the wheel. Most bicycle tourists recommend 36 spoke wheels for the increased strength and load-carrying capacity that they offer. For tandems, 48 spoked wheels are best. Most non-touring bikes use 32 spokes. When building new wheels, you’ll need to make sure that your hubs and rims have the same amount of holes.
- The material and quality of the spokes- Most spokes are made of stainless steel. This material is strong and doesn’t rust. Titanium spokes are an even stronger alternative. The drawback is that they are expensive. Carbon fiber and aluminum spokes are lighter options that are a bit less durable.
- Rim material and quality- Higher quality rims will be less likely to split, crack, or have minor imperfections that cause trouble down the road. Rims are made of a variety of materials including steel, aluminum, and carbon fiber. For touring and commuting, the stronger the better. Weight is a secondary consideration. Steel weighs more. Aluminum and carbon are lighter. Rims come in single wall and double wall varieties. Double-wall rims are stronger and more durable. If you plan to run rim brakes, make sure the hubs are designed for it. For more info on rims, check out this excellent guide from Cycling About.
- Quality and strength of the hub- The hub is the only moving part of the wheel. Hubs require periodic maintenance to keep rolling smoothly. Hubs come in cartridge bearing or loose ball bearing as well as thru axles and quick release varieties. A good quality hub will last many thousands of miles if properly maintained.
Which Wheels Should You Choose? 700c Vs 26 inch
In the end, this decision is really a personal preference. As we’ve seen, both sizes have their own set of benefits and drawbacks. If you already own a bike in one wheel size, it’s not really worth it to convert or buy another bike just to change the wheel size, in my opinion.
You should choose 26 inch wheels if:
- You plan to ride in the developing world- If you plan to ride the Pamir Highway or Cairo to Cape Town, for example, you’ll have much more peace of mind if you have 26 inch wheels. Spare parts are much easier to come by in most of the world.
- You are on a tight budget- 26 inch parts and spares are significantly cheaper. Used parts are also easy to come by and cost next to nothing. $10 tires from a department store may not be the highest quality, but they will keep you on the road.
- You are short- If you’re less than 5’5’’ or so, you’ll probably be happier with 26 inch wheels. The frame will geometry will be more comfortable and you won’t have to deal with toe overlap.
You should choose 700c or 29er wheels if:
- You plan to ride only in developed countries- If your tour won’t take you outside of the US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, etc. go with 700c. It’s more comfortable, faster, and more modern. Finding parts won’t be an issue.
- You have a high budget- If you can afford to buy top of the line parts, you really shouldn’t have to worry about anything braking while on tour. High-quality parts are tough and last a lifetime. You’ll also have many more options in terms of rims, tires, and frames.
- You are tall- If you’re up around 6’ or taller, you’ll probably be happier with 700c wheels. The frame geometry will be more comfortable and toe overlap shouldn’t be an issue.
Other Bicycle Wheel Size Options
Bikes wheels come in a wide range of sizes including 16, 18, 20, 24, 26, and 29 inch. Each size has its own set of pros and cons. In general, smaller wheels accelerate faster and are more responsive. Larger wheels tend to maintain speed better.
16, 20, and 24 inch bicycle wheels
These small wheel sizes are usually used on folding bikes. Due to their small diameter, they are strong and accelerate fast but can’t maintain as high of speeds as larger 26 inch or 700c wheels. They also don’t perform as well as off-road. In fact, anything worse than a gravel road and you may have trouble staying on the bike. If you are looking for a portable and lightweight bike, consider these sizes.
For more info on small wheel bikes, check out my 16 Vs 20 inch bike wheels pros and cons list.
650B (27.5″) wheels
650b, also known as 27.5 inch, offers a great compromise somewhere between 26 inch and 700c wheels. This wheel size is quickly gaining in popularity among bicycle tourists and bikepackers.
For some riders, 700c is too large but they still want the benefits of a larger wheel. 650b is perfect for this case. When it comes to wheel strength and performance, 650b fits somewhere between 26 and 29 inch.
The biggest problem with 650b is the fact that spare parts can be hard to find. Particularly in the developing world where 650b wheels are pretty rare. Parts availability will probably improve over time as the 650b size becomes more popular. Keep this in mind while touring in remote regions with 650b wheels.
Some cyclists claim that 650b wheels are an unnecessary size that is being pushed by bicycle companies to sell more bikes. There probably is some truth to that claim. There seems to be a huge marketing campaign pushing 650b bikes.
While there is always progress in the cycling industry in terms of new technologies and more advanced equipment, sometimes it’s just marketing. Is this the case with 650b? I don’t know. I personally think it’s a nice size compromise for some riders.
For more info, check out my 650b vs 700c pros and cons list.
My Choice: 700c Vs 26 Inch
Even though I prefer the ride quality and feel of 700c wheels, for now, I’m going to stick with my 26 inch wheels for touring. Over the next couple of years, I hope to ride the Pamir Highway through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. From reports that I’ve read, 26 inch tires are the best choice for this region at this time due to parts availability. I enjoy the peace of mind knowing that I can always find spares and replacements if something breaks.
Even though I’m a taller rider, I feel perfectly comfortable on 26 inch wheels. The slower speed and reduced efficiency are the biggest drawbacks in my opinion. I can’t cover as many miles per day as I could on a 700c bike. The benefits of 26 inch wheels outweigh the drawbacks for me.
Where do you stand on the 700c Vs 26 inch wheel debate? Share your experience in the comments below!
More Cycling guides from Where The Road Forks
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- The Best Folding Bike for Touring: My Pros and Cons List
- Review of My First Bicycle Tour
- How to Box a Touring Bike for a Flight
- Cycling in Tijuana: A Guide for Bicycle Touring and Commuting
- 16 Vs 20 Inch: The Best Folding Bike Wheel Size
- Pros and Cons of Electric Bikes