Wheel Size for cycle touring

The debate over the best wheel size for cycle touring frustrates me. I still see so many people who have specifically bought the wrong bike for the trip they are doing. Yes there’s a lot of options out there manufacturers aren’t helping by offering new wheels and new marketing opportunities, but it’s a straightforward choice. Although it isn’t as simple as it once was because the new niches developing are great fun. My bias is towards efficiency, covering the miles on good roads and tracks as easily as possibly so I can get somewhere new quicker and explore more. That is after all why I go touring.
The industry is evolving fast and the latest gravel bike sector is hugely exciting, bikes are getting stronger, lighter, more adaptable and faster. Old traditional touring brands are still making the same 26 inch bikes and they look prehistoric in their approach to touring.

run30-6_result
There are 6 main bike wheel sizes you could use and a new one seems to appear each year;

1:700c or 29er wheels
These are found on both road bikes and new-ish mountain bikes this is actually the same wheel circumference. On a mountain bike the rim is wider and the tyre is much fatter so this makes the actual diameter bigger hence the 29inch name. The 700c on road bikes is the 700mm circumference which is the same on both wheels as it excludes tyres. Strong, fast and well established wheels these are what you should be touring on full stop for efficient riding on all but the most niche tours.

2: Standard 26 inch mountain bike wheels

This is still just about the global common standard mountain bike wheel and is found on bikes all over the world. It is by far the easiest size to pick up spare tubes, spokes and tyres in remote places. However I would never ever tour on a 26inch wheel again (see fatbike section below for possible exception!).

This was a bike packing trip we did in the South Chilcotins in Canada, we used 26inch wheels but we would now use a 29er everytime, they weren’t available widely at the time, in 2006 we used 26 inch wheels on and off road and it was much harder work than it could have been. Since then I’ve never used 26 inch wheels on a long tour again. Recently I challenged this and took a 26 inch MTB out for a long weekend in teh Cairngorms, it was a frustrating decision and the bike went straight to the back of the bike cave again afterwards! DSC04273

3: Old school 27 inch wheels
If you’re using an old retro racing bike then it might well have these wheels. They are pretty much obsolete now and hard to find spare tubes, rims, spokes and tyres for so don’t consider touring far from home on one of these. You can stretch 700c tubes on but it’s not ideal.

4: 650b or 27.5inch the new Fad in mountain biking

This is has been around a while but is currently very trendy on mountain bikes. It fits between the 700c/29er and 26 inch mountain bike wheel size and marketing companies say it offers the best of both. On an enduro bike it makes a lot of sense. While the size is marginally more efficient than a 26inch wheel it is not appropriate for long haul touring. It doesn’t offer enough efficiency advantage and You just wont find spares out on the road. While you can stretch 26in tubes easily to fit, it is getting replacement tyres that is the biggest issue in remote places. The biggest negative is that they just aren’t as fast or comfortable as 29ers so why bother using them (see below for possible exception)?

5: 27.5+, 650B+ or Fat bikes
Fat bikes were created a few years back to ride through soft snow and other soft surfaces. They are ideal in flat snowy places, sandy beach riding or even across boggy ground. However while they might be fun to ride, they are hideously painful to ride over long distances when the width is not really needed. They are getting lighter but still heavy and the huge contact patch with the road creates more drag than towing a tandem.

The even newer fad is to stick a fatter 3″ tyre onto a 27.5 wheel and use it on a 29er frame, it’s called a 27+ and not something that tourers will be interested in unless they plan on encountering lots of snow or sand as part of their adventure. On sandy looser routes they make sense as they are less weight than fat bikes but still float better. In the rougher parts of Iceland they make a lot of sense on the volcanic dust and loose gravel. They are clearly less efficient but in theory should be easier to fit in an unmodified bike. It is also fairly cynical to assume that the industry wanted another new standard to sell that was undeniably fun, but was it really needed? I guess if it opens up new options the answer is yes. I have a lot of plans in my head of how and where to use a 650b+ bike…

6: 20 inch folding bike wheels (or BMX??)

I would never promote pure cycle touring on folding bikes as the small wheels are incredibly hard work. There is no rolling inertia that keeps you freewheeling, as a result you have to work the pedals a lot more to maintain a steady speed. I can certainly see the logistical attraction for short city tours or train/bus touring, but they are just too inefficient on longer trips. You will also struggle to find any spare tyres and tubes.

Conclusions
For a pure cycling experience a 700c or road bike wheel size is much less effort and way more efficient. There is no debate here, that is a fact. The big diameter gives greater rolling inertia and it is much easier to maintain a decent speed. If you need a stronger wheel or are heading off-road get a 29er wheel.
It is a myth that bigger size wheels are weaker, you just need to pick a strong set of wheels with appropriate number and style of spokes. If you are of a lighter build you can get away with ridiculously light 700c wheels for touring. For example Marion has used Fulcrum Racing 5 wheels with 18 straight pull spokes on the front and never had an issue. What you do need to be careful with is the width of the rims/tyres, as fat MTB rims will not fit in traditional road caliper brakes. They will work with cantilever brakes and disc wheels will now work with the latest road/touring/gravel/CX bikes equipped with disc brakes.

People who use 26inch wheels for touring are generally new to touring or know nothing else, I just can’t see why it is a good idea for any route or even a round the world trip. The only reason to use smaller 26 inch wheels I’ve heard is that for travel in remote areas of Africa the chances of picking up spares is less likely for 700c or 29er wheels. The main reason is old skool brands of tourers are stuck in their ways and are getting left behind as bike travel evolves at a fast rate. People are getting outdated advice and are missing out.
The next generation of adventure bikes will fit an ever wider range of 700c tyres and even fat 650+ gravel tyres. This is the logical next step – a solution for pretty much any landscape and I’m excited to get involved!

Sets of good 29er wheels include the following:

Hope Pro2 Evo
Hope make solid hubs that I have relied on for years. THese use straight pull spokes that are stronger and easier to replace. But take some spokes with you just in case, as they are hard to find!

Custom Shimano Wheel A good value and strong option is a Shimano hub with any Mavic rim, the more you spend should improve durability in the hub but only a bit. Any combination will be reliable and these use standard spokes.

Kinesis Crosslight CX wheels Set of good disc compatible CX Wheels ideal for touring and I have tested extensively without any major issues:
Fulcrum Racing 5 CX wheels
These are the same as the road wheels but with better seals, so light and not for larger people or 4 pannier tourers.

Sets of strong road wheels

THese are what Marion has used for around 10,000km or touring without issue, non standard spokes but seem very robust: Fulcrum Racing 5 road wheels

For heavier people I would go for a Shimano Tiagra or 105 hub on a Mavic A319 or A719 rim. Dependant on budget, the A719 is a great upgrade whereas the hubs will perform to similar level.
Custom Shimano Wheels



8 Comments
  1. Broadly I agree, although I’ve toured with 26″ MTB-sized rims fitted with 32mm high pressure rubber and can’t really say I found much difference to my more usual 700x32c. Main difference is the smaller-framed bike was stronger, a tad shorter, and a hell of a lot more comfortable (I’m quite diddy and struggle to find off-the-shelf 700c-based tourers that aren’t too long for me in the crossbar department). Easier to pack for flights, too.

    Reply
    1
    • A 26″ wheel with slicks is fine and if that’s all people have then great, but I wanted to get across that the sheer volume of choice out there of 700c in varying frame sizes and geometries means you can find something comfortable and efficient. A bigger wheel will be more comfy it’s just finding the right sizing. Admittedly I’m 6ft4 so easier but Marion is much shorter and she has a road and MTB 700c/29er that she finds super comfy. The strength thing is simply a myth, smaller frames and wheels are no stronger than a comparative specc’d 29er or 700c, it’s just not the case anymore.

      Reply
      1
  2. I agree with Graham, I’ve toured on both and found that there 26in is very little difference overall. The main difference is that 26in is quicker when climbing. When climbing, every pedal stroke is a mini acceleration and as 26in wheels are lighter and smaller diameter they have less rotational inertia to overcome every time you spin the cranks. I seem to spend most of my time climbing so this makes a difference to me. On the flat the extra inertia of a larger wheel helps maintain speed which compensates a fair bit. So, in my experience, on hilly days 26in is faster and on flatter days larger wheels are faster.

    You can have a lighter wheel with 26in or the same weight with a bigger tyre, which then adds to comfort and ultimately also to speed.

    They are definitely also stronger for an identical wheel build, its physics, shorter spokes create a more triangulated wheel/rim configuration that is less likely to deflect laterally and stress the spokes over time. Saying that, I’ve never had an issue with either size so from my experience either is sufficiently strong with quality components and build. If you can’t afford quality wheels then a 26in wheel will definitely be stronger.

    I don’t think that 26in is less efficient on the road, they simply have different characteristics, off road they are only at a disadvantage when its starts to get really rough, when the larger wheels make life a little easier. But in that case the extra strength is comforting and well worth the additional extra few minutes a smaller wheel may add to your day’s riding.

    I still ride a 26in MTB and really enjoy the way it rides. Most of my buddies have gone to 29in or 27.5in and now our rides have a different feel to them – they get away from me on the rough ground (sometimes) and I catch up when it gets tight or when climbing (sometimes) – with the average being the same overall. The vast majority of the time there is no difference between them.

    Ultimately no size is perfect for every situation, you pay your money and make your choice so as long as you are aware of the differences I don’t see what difference it makes.

    Reply
    2
    • The difference is not much but over weeks of road or gravel touring it adds up a lot so why bother handicapping yourself for no reason is my point. It is fully accepted a 29er/700c is more efficient, just ask any world cup XC racer or Pro Tour Teams. They aren’t asking for a 26″ wheel to climb or descend! A 26″ accelerates quicker but you’re not accelerating up a big climb you’re spinning a steady cadence and bigger wheels are much better at maintaining this.

      In MTB terms I own bikes in all wheel sizes and I still ride my 26″ hardtail it’s a lot of fun, it pops, carves corners and flows tight trails great, but it’s not faster than my 650b or 29ers. Using Strava to train with I am up to 20% slower versus my 29er hardtail over same loop and even with same tyre design.

      With regards strength my point is no one is breaking 29er wheels because they’re bigger, theoretically they are weaker gram for gram but today it’s not an issue on even modest priced wheels if you choose wisely.

      If you are buying a new setup to ride fast and far then there’s no debate. If you prefer the characteristics of a 26er then that’s a personal choice but it’s less efficient.

      Reply
      2
  3. Hello!
    You said; “People who use 26inch wheels for touring are generally new to touring or know nothing else” Well, after travelling around the world for 7 years (5 continents). I still prefer 26″… 26, 27.5, 29, 700c, there are some many sizes now, that people don’t know what they really need!

    Reply
    3
    • Put simply 700c is the best wheel size to use for standard road and gravel touring, yes 26″ is absolutely fine but it’s not the most optimal size. Things have changed a lot with bikes over the last 7 years and the range available is now huge so there will be a 700c wheel bike ideal for any scenario. Out of interest why do you like a 26″ wheel?

      Reply
      3
  4. I think that generalising over something that has too many variables is daft. Is a wheel/tyre simply faster because it’s larger diameter? Is a 29″x2.3″ wheel and (slick) tyre combo faster on the road than 700c x 25? The 29er is a lot larger diameter, but it’s probably slower.

    It’s interesting to read some of the on-line forum discussions about wheel size. The only people (imo) who really have a convincing argument are those who have owned identical bikes with different size wheels, such as a pair of Long Haul Truckers on 26″and 700c, and they generally say that there is no difference in speed on the road.

    Have a look at the ‘Path Less Pedalled’ videos on U-Tube about their recent experiment with Moultons, based on wheel size they should have been miles behind the 700c road bikes, but they weren’t, they were the same.

    I think that its personal choice for road touring because there is no real overall difference in speed between any of the wheel sizes, and anyone who is trying to convince you otherwise wants to sell you another bike.

    Off road, 29ers/27.5 may have advantages depending on where you ride. All I know is that I’m (a bit) quicker on my 26in MTB than my mate on his 29er around forest trails, and he’s (a bit) quicker than me when we ride rough trails in the hills. Even then there are too many variables to say why that is – weight? Tyre construction/tread? Tyre width? Bike geometry? Suspension? Fitness? Skills? Who knows. Just ride and enjoy.

    Reply
    4
    • I think you’re veering into a tyre debate and we could be here for weeks with tyres 🙂
      Pro road teams and pro XC riders have thoroughly researched and use 700c because it’s more efficient in the majority of situations. For touring I agree there are different parameters affecting choice, but I look to travel long distances fast and light and if you look at the Transcontinental race for example it’s all 700c. The Kinesis Tripster V2 I’ve been using for the last couple of shorter tours has 700c and 650b wheels so i have switched between the two depending on terrain which is pretty cool, however the key is hugely varying the tyre width rather than diameter here.
      Another factor is that the range of high quality 26″ bikes that don’t ride like an expedition bike tank is now so few it’s being taken out of our hands!

      Reply
      4

Any thoughts or questions?

Follow us!

To see when we publish the next blog please like us on Facebook!