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.
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!
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.
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