The debate over the best wheel size for cycle touring frustrates me. I see so many people who have gone out and bought the wrong bike for the trip they are doing so I hope this blog helps. Yes there are a lot of options out there and manufacturers aren’t helping by offering new wheels and new marketing opportunities every year. Granted it isn’t as simple as it once was because new cycling niches developed such as fat bikes and gravel bikes which are great fun. However for this analysis I should say my bias is towards efficiency, covering the miles on roads and rougher tracks as easily as possibly so I can get somewhere new and explore more. Getting somewhere new is after all why I go touring.
The industry is evolving fast and the latest adventure 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 most road, gravel and adventure bikes and many new-ish mountain bikes this is actually the same wheel diameter however 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 used for road bike wheels and tyre sizing is the diameter excluding tyres. Strong, roll fast, efficient and well established wheel size these are what you should be touring on full stop for efficient riding on all but the more niche tours. There is a reason why road bikes and XC mountain bike racers use this size wheel.
2: Standard 26 inch mountain bike wheels
This was just about the global common standard mountain bike wheel and is found on bikes all over the world. It was 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 things have changed and we would now use a 29er everytime, but they weren’t available widely at the time. In 2006 we used 26 inch wheels for touring on and off road across New Zealand and it was much harder work than it could have been. Since those tours I’ve never used 26 inch wheels again. Recently I challenged this and took an old 26 inch MTB out for a weekend in the 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 setup.
4: 650b or 27.5inch the new fad in mountain biking
This is has been around a while but is currently very on trend for gravel and 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 some sense but even these are swapping to 29ers for pure speed. While the size is marginally more efficient than a 26inch wheel it offers no advantage for long haul touring on paper. It doesn’t offer an efficiency advantage and you just wont find many spares out on the road. However the latest gravel bikes can fit 650b wheels that take a much wider tyre – up to 2.3″. This makes your one bike super adaptable and for less remote parts of the world adventures it makes sense because you can cover rougher ground on the same bike that still feels at home on the roads and have drop bars for the head winds. For tours on better surfaces put the 700c wheels back in and you have two bikes essentially from the same bike.
While you can stretch 26in tubes easily to fit 650b, it is getting replacement tyres/spokes that is the biggest issue in remote places. I have enjoyed using 650b on bikepacking routes where I’m unsure how rough sections might be here in Scotland. The point is that they just aren’t as fast or comfortable as 29ers but consider them if your bike can be adapted for different tours by swapping to wider 650b wheels.
5: 27.5+, 650B+ or Fat bikes
Fat bikes were created a few years back to ride through soft snow and other loose 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 most 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 on road 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.
6: 20 inch folding bike wheels (or BMX??)
I would never promote pure cycle touring on folding bikes if it were not for logistical reasons 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 attraction for short city tours or train/bus touring because it saves the stress of transporting bikes and trust me we’ve had a lot of stress get bikes on buses etc. You will also struggle to find any spare tyres and tubes in remoter areas so use them where needed for a specific purpose.
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 MTB wheel.
It is a myth that bigger size wheels are always weaker, you just need to pick the right 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.
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 26″ persists is that old skool brands of tourers and 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 although this is changing fast as gravel/adventure bikes have taken centre stage.
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/tour 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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!
For shorter riders, a 26 inch wheel is also going to be more appropriate–Surly’s smaller LHT is only sold with 26 inch wheels I think.
Unless your trying to beat world records (is that even touring?), I can’t see what advantage a 700cc wheel gives over 26inch.
We’re certainly not beating world records when touring! But anything that’s more efficient and makes life easier is a welcome choice for us.
Interesting article and great website!
I am in my 60s now but have toured quite a bit through Europe on both 700c and 26″ wheels. I am also from an engineering background and have built all my wheels for the last 20 years.
Yes 700c wheels tend to feel a bit more efficient. But that’s not due to the wheel diameter per se. The two main causes of wheel resistance are air resistance (only at very high speeds – dependent on the cube of the velocity and the frontal area presented by the wheel) and tyre resistance, which is in turn depends on tyre pressure and tread pattern.
Most tyres for 26″ wheels are designed to run at a lower pressure than the equivalent width 700c wheel which results in greater tyre squirm – deformation of the tyre as it contacts the road. Most equivalent 26″ touring tyres have deeper tread which deforms more incurring energy loss.
Don’t believe me? Run any tyre at lower pressure. You’ll feel more resistance to pedalling and the tyre will feel warmer because of the greater rubber compression and therefore friction.
Wheel strength. For similar rims, spokes and tyres, smaller wheels are stronger than larger wheels. Why Three reasons:
1) Each spoke supports a shorter length of rim on a smaller wheel
2) Each spoke is shorter
3) The triangular structure created by a left-hand spoke, right-hand spoke and the hub is less acute
A 26″ rim is 11% smaller. Doing the maths, it is approximately 20% stronger. It is 11% lighter too.
Okay, you might say, that’s the theory. What about practice. Geoff Husband at:
has maintained a fleet of touring bikes for his holiday company in Northern France for the last 25 years. The fleet has covered a total distance travelled of 2.5 million kms! Guess which wheel comes top in reliability stakes by far??!!
Finally, given you obviously do love mountains, you’ll get an 11% lower gear with a 26″ rim compared to a 700c/29er. At 65 I need every low gear I can get!
Which ever wheel you choose, may the wind always be at your back, your tyres firm and your gears low!
Hi Tony thanks for response, some really good points in there. I think you allude to it too that we are dictated more and more by what the companies are making, 26″ is stronger but 700c are strong enough now to be a totally reliable option and a lot less focus and technology goes into 26″. While I too made my own wheels for a while, I no longer have the time and rely on what i can buy. Since writing this I have actually been running 650b wheels a lot which have been a great compromise, but probably not best option for a long remote tour!
Very interesting discussion as I recently decided to start using my 26″ MBK again but compared to any of my 700c wheeled bikes it just seems like so much more work is involved in riding it. Even though it has 1.75 tyres fitted to it.
Thanks, it is constantly evolving this discussion as designs, standards etc. change, but totally agree going back to a 26″ does feel like much harder work!
The only size I rode for 30 years was 26″ MTB tires. I am 5′ 11″ with a 33″ inseam. My wife is 5′ 4″ with a 32″ inseam. When I decided to start cycle touring, I picked up a Surly Ogre running 29″ Marathon Mondials. The wife ran a Surly LHT with 26″ wheels. After cycling 8000 km I was getting pissed off. I was constantly hitting the front tire with my toes, the frame was disgustingly flexy loaded or not due to the frame having to accommodate the bloody tires, and I found it unwieldy to manoeuvre off-road, though it did ride over bumpy surfaces marginally better than 26″, marginally. I felt like I was riding a land yacht. Not to mention it was a pain in the ass to fly with.
Meanwhile my wife is happily cruising along on her 26″ LHT. For her height, 29ers are just far too big and awkward. The industries answer of 27.5″ seems entirely unnecessary when 26 is more appropriate for shorter riders and was so well established.
My experience renting full suspension 29ers in Moab was not much better. They were sort of fun, but I felt like a tall lanky teenager trying to ski moguls after a few shots of tequila. So happy to return to Canada and my collection of 26″ commuters and MTB for snappy, responsive and fun riding again.
So for our last tour to Chile in 2015, I built up a Surly Troll with 26″ tires and a Rohloff hub. It is the most comfortable bike I have ever ridden. Singletrack is nimble again. The bike handles my 90 kg body and 20-50 kg of junk in a smooth, predictable and solid experience. No more toe rub. Packs perfectly for air travel.
But on that last trip to Chile, and during the preparations back in Canada & Romania, I was noticing a trend. The LBS were all running low on 26″ parts, let alone bothering to carry full 26″ bikes. It was seeming that the entire bike industry was force feeding these new standards onto those of us who prefer 26″ wheels. All of the cycle tourists (not bikepackers and record breakers) I know run 26″, all the cycle tourists I met on that last tour were running 26″. We all prefer that size for traditional cycle touring. However, not a single local bike shop we entered in Chile had quality 26″ rubber. They were offering nothing but 27.5″ & 29″.
Is the industry just going to let the millions of 26″ bikes around the world rot with a continuously diminishing supply of parts?
Ramblings of a Canadian retro-grouch….
Thanks for the insight! I think when you’re carrying that amount of kit about then the efficiency gains we talk about with 700c wheels pales in comparison to going fast and lighter! I’d reflect on if you really need 50kg of stuff when it is such a drag on the freedom and experience of just riding a bike. While I still think the flex is down to design of bikes and wheels so much more than sizes and 140kg will test all but the best designs! I also don’t get the toe rub thing it sounds like the bike is badly designed or sizing issue I am 6ft4 and have big feet and never had toe rub issues, but never ridden a surly either….
With a lack of 26″ tubes we’ve seen both extremes with only 26 and only 700 in different countries, I don’t think 26 will disappear soon but I really don’t think I would invest in a new 26 for so many reasons.