Touring Bike FAQ #2: 26-inch or 700C Wheel Size?

Many folk seem to think that the question of 700C (road bike) or 26-inch (mountain bike) sized wheels for a touring bike is a big deal.

It isn’t.

You can make this decision by answering two very simple questions:

  1. Am I likely to spend a lot of time touring in the developing world?
  2. Am I likely to spend a lot of time touring on unpaved roads?

If the answer to either of the above questions is ‘yes’, get a bike with 26-inch wheels.

While theoretically a tiny bit slower when rolling, they’re also stronger on balance and less liable to fail in the middle of nowhere. Also, dirt roads will be much easier riding with the higher-volume tyres that are available in this size.

But the main reason is that 26-inch tyres, tubes and spokes are available much, much more widely than 700C ones in the regions mentioned above. In the long run, that’s what matters most, because they are the things most likely to need replacing.

If you’re riding worldwide, it makes sense to ensure that you’ll be able to source spares easily, and choosing 26-inch wheels will help with this. That’s why all true expedition bikes for world touring are built on them.

Chances are you will need to replace a complete wheel once the braking surface has worn through, which is something you’ll be able to do in most major cities, or by having one sent out by courier. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s keeping your bike on the road that matters most.

If the answer to both of the above questions is ‘no’, it doesn’t matter one bit what wheel size you end up with.

You can completely ignore wheel size and focus on more important things, such as finding a local bike shop to test-ride touring bikes in your budget range. Because once you’re riding, it won’t matter one bit what wheel size you’re using.

You will not spend your days on the road wondering how much more enjoyable or efficient this would be if you’d got an extra two inches of diameter to your rims. And you’ll find tyres and spares for both size wheels across the developed world, which is a place where people ride both road bikes and mountain bikes for fun, and bike shops are plentiful and fully-stocked.

For what it’s worth, if you’re buying a new touring bike for a short road tour, it’s more likely you’ll end up with a 700c-wheeled touring bike, just because there are many more to choose from and test-ride. If you’re already a road-bike rider, you’ll naturally gravitate towards these bikes too.

So rather than fret about what wheel size your bike should have, ask yourself the two simple questions above, which will give you a quick and easy answer.

Then you can get on with asking yourself more important questions, like “can I actually fix a punctured tyre on the roadside?”, and “do I have the tools and skills to replace the bearings in the wheel hubs after 10,000 miles of riding?”

P.S. A third good reason for choosing 26″ wheels is if you are really really short, in which case a frame built for smaller wheels will probably fit you better anyway.

Next in the Touring Bike FAQ series: Steel Or Aluminium Frames?

Understanding Touring Bikes For Epic Expeditions

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Understanding Touring Bikes For Epic Expeditions will bring you up to bang speed on what matters (and what doesn't matter) when you're choosing a bike for a truly epic trip.

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28 Responses to “Touring Bike FAQ #2: 26-inch or 700C Wheel Size?”

  1. ilya

    Hi, Tom. What you think about 69ers (front 700C, rear 26)?
    http://2bikers.ru/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/DSC5213-copy.jpg

    Reply
  2. Alberto

    It´s true that in most of the “developing” world the tyre of choice should be 26 inch simply because of the availability of replacement parts. However, 29inch (or 700c) can still be used in countries still classified as “developing”. In South America for example, which is the area we know best, in countries such as Colombia and Ecuador, and to a certain extent Perú, 29inch wheels are widely available, as are disc brakes and good quality replacement parts. In Perú, it´s quite easy to get parts shipped from Lima within 24hours using the “encomienda” service that most bus companies offer. Super fast, cheap and reliable. So, if you are in favour of 29inch wheels, or already own a 29er mountain bike, I believe you should no longer fear getting stuck in some of the countries where a few years back would be more difficult to source parts.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      That’s good to know – thank you. Happy to hear that options are opening up in certain areas.

      Reply
      • Jesse E Martin

        I have noticed a trend over my last 3 years of touring. 26″ bikes and their components are disapearing. In Canada/NZ/Australia I cannot even find 26er bikes in any LBS (none! Just 27.5, 29ers & 700c). Just came back from Chile, same problem. A french cyclist I met in Santiago gave up trying to find quality new 26″ tires for his touring bike (17000km on his current Scwalbe Marathons). The humble 26er has become a niche product and essentially extinct in bike shops around the world in just a couple of years.

        It is an unfortunate change. I have toured with a 29er Surly Ogre and in Chile with a 26er Surly Troll. Switched to 26″ because I prefer it for touring and knarly technical trails.

        I also switched to rim brakes from disc. When I told my LBS in Canada, the staff actually looked at me funny.

        Not sure what is going on, but for touring, common parts are no longer very common….

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          This is interesting.

          My experience is that there are two types of bike shop in the world:

          1. the ‘LBS’ I think you’re referring to, which deal generally in top-end, high-quality, and importantly NEW bikes and bike technology, and
          2. cheap, mainstream bike shops, generally for non-cyclists and people who don’t want to spend money and just want something with two wheels and pedals.

          There are far more of the latter kind of bike shop in the world. But very few self-respecting cyclists would ever go to one. This, however, is where the 26er is still king and where 26er spares are going to be cheap and abundant. You might not get a pair of Schwalbe Marathon Pluses at one of these shops, but you’ll certainly be able to get what you need to keep yourself on the road long enough to get to where you’ve mail-ordered some in advance.

          So my guess is that we might simply be looking in the wrong type of bike shop. One thing I am certain of is that while the majority of bikes on Earth are still rolling on 26-inch wheels, the 26er will never become extinct…

          Reply
          • matty

            yep, parts are dissa[ppearing and staff in ‘evans’ n halford’s say ‘ we dont sell rim brake bikes or 26ers anymore’ – but theres a surge of smaller outfits whom are not so CORPORATE who still deal in 26er stuff – especially in the uk – its just finding this availability wherever you are travelling. but it is on the decline it seems – i myself am looking for a 26 inch rim brake tourer but am strugggling to make the decision – i think im gonna convert my handsome dog mtb into hybrid tour – i put new rockshox on it last year – and drastically improved the braking power by using Jagwire from USA – i just need stronger wheels now – 26 inch ones, theyre around, but not in abundance – i think there should be a campaign to manufacturers to keep the 26er alive, especially considering the fact that cycle travel is on the increase. as for disc brakes, i warped my rotor badly using a pressure washer after a ride – brakes were really defective afterwards – you gotta protect rotor discs – from pannier luggage tangling, vandalism, strings and pannier contents, and make sure you dont throw it down on rocks or drop it suddenly on something mettalic – this can smash your rotor too, then youre mentally screwed , and you gotta watch how you may pack a spare rotor – its got to be perfectly flat and rigid – not bent in moving ‘ jammed in ‘ pannier luggage. .imagine you got a 2km mountain pass to roll down without brakes. . it’s hard to ruin or break rim brake calipers – and as for running out of mineral oil for the hydraulics on a disc, or spilling the mixture, id be tearing my gawdam head off – rim brakes, all you need to do is carry a spare few brake blocks and cable, and can be guaranteed that nought much else can go wrong other than cable breakage and block replacement xx x 26’ers offer time served simplicity and functionality and in my eyes a better center of gravity to things in general in all envioroments. for what its worth, rim brake pads and cables are cheap to buy in bulk if youre afraid of shortages. also, maybe manufacturers of tourer and expo cycles should bring back the braze ons for rim brakes on these type of frames and leave them there as an option to your discs if they fail, or parts break etc.

  3. Sam Thomson

    Load of rubbish. Most points in this article are outdated and even then redundant. Touring grade 26″ wheels are as hard to come by as 700cc wheels – anywhere. Anything can be shipped anywhere in the world now in just a couple of weeks anyway. Most importantly wheels aren’t as fickle as the author makes out – unless you are getting 26″ wheels in ‘the developing world’ – then I’m not surprised! Case in point my last two 700c wheels I replaced after 30 and 28 thousand kilometres respectively. When replacing wheels so infrequently, if you at worst case scenario have to wait a couple of weeks for DHL to reach you… you get my point.
    Your second point is just as arguable. The bigger the wheel the easier it overcomes obstacles, especially as a 700c will roll faster and gain more momentum. Also you can get fat tires for 700c wheels too. I have 40mm on mine, or do you mean really fat? So I see no advantage of 26″ there.
    It’s great that there are blogs bringing information to prospective bike tourers but blogs like this are just deterring people with confusion through misinformation. Instead of wasting time deciding over 26 or 700 just go plan a trip and have an awesome time.
    Short answer: there are two dominant wheel sizes because two people were making wheels at one point. That’s it. There is no better wheel for bike touring.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Thanks for your contribution, Sam. I’m afraid I don’t believe that advice along the lines of “this is what happened to me, therefore it’s true for everyone else” to be very useful to prospective bike tourers. That’s why this admittedly generalised article (and every other article in the Touring Bike FAQ) is based on conversations with literally hundreds of cycle tourists – many of whom are much more experienced than I am – and listening carefully to their experiences and opinions. YMMV, and obviously did.

      Reply
      • Sam Thomson

        Fair enough. Basically I think the advantages/disadvantages now are nil, and most people just ride and recommend based on others rides and recommendations, thus continuing a generalised consensus. Good to occasionally look at what’s normal and wonder – why is that? That’s what’s informed my view anyway, see you (and your 26″ wheels!) on the road.

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          Yes, it’s good to be skeptical. And I agree the difference is almost negligible on its own – it only really makes sense in combination with a lot of other considerations, such as whether your wheels have been professionally hand-built, and of course the spec of the wheel build itself.

          I do, however, stand by the assertion that 26″ tyres and tubes are easier to come by in general in a global context, because the vast majority of anecdotal evidence supports it. It won’t really matter for short trips, but for ultra-long-term touring, it might be more of a concern, and might explain why Koga, Santos, Thorn, Surly, Ridgeback et al all make 26-inch wheel expedition bikes.

          Incidentally, one genuine factor which hardly anyone ever talks about is how tall you are. Shorter riders on the smallest touring frames will naturally benefit from the smaller of the two wheel sizes (for the same reasons as children’s bikes sport 16, 20 and 24-inch wheels). This holds at the other end of the scale too…

          Reply
          • Chris Bush

            Hi Tom,
            You don’t have to stray too far to discover the benefits of 26″ wheels and “developing world” product availability.
            Last year some buddies and I took an afternoon ride on the Cowichan Valley Trail from Duncan, B.C., to Lake Cowichan and back down the Trans Canada Trail to our starting point. It’s hard pack railroad grade easy riding. What could go wrong?
            One of our party blew out his sidewall and another ran over some wire that took out both his tubes and he’d brought just one spare. And it was Sunday afternoon in Lake Cowichan.
            Fortunately the local Home Hardware was open, which had in stock one 26″ mtn bike tire and four tubes and that was about all they had, so we cleaned out their stock, made repairs and got back to our vehicles about when it was getting dark.

          • Tom Allen

            Thanks for the anecdote – nice proof of concept!

  4. Karen

    I think it could matter if you are under 5 foot 2 inches high – it’s not really possible to get the small frame required on the larger wheels.

    Reply
  5. Nick

    Hi Tom

    First of all thanks for providing a valuable online resource.

    I have owned a road bike for about 5 years now. I took up cycling because my doctor told my I was a lard ass and needed to lose weight. I didn’t fancy jogging and gyms don’t really do it for me, so five years later and three and a half stone lighter I have really grown to love my cycling. I have fancied a touring bike for sometime now I recently decided to do some research in buying a decent one. However choosing a touring bike has become quite a chore for a couple of reasons:

    1) I am only 5 foot tall so I thought I should be looking at a bike with 26″ wheels, as all the 700c bike frames are to large for me. I was thinking about the Surley LHT. However, some bike shops I have spoken to and many of the online forums, are indicating that within the next 5 years or so the options of 26″ tyres will be extremely limited? Is this some thing that I should be concerned about or do you know of another decent touring frame that is small enough for me but will accommodate 700c wheels?

    2) When I mentioned I was looking at a LHT, I was advised to go for the Disc Trucker instead as rim brakes are old hat now and all modern touring bikes within the next couple of years will be coming through with discs. Again will this make getting brake spares difficult as time goes on?

    Whichever bike I buy I would like to think that it has longevity to it and as parts do wear out I don’t want to find myself scraping around for sub standard parts just to keep my bike on the road.

    These complications, particularly because of my height has made what should be an enjoyable process a bit of a nightmare!

    Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Jon Black

      Inconceivable that 26 inch are on their way out. That’s a bunch of hogwash. LHT only come with 26 for someone with your stature anyway. As for the disk issue, I agree. I just built a tour bike with disks, and wouldn’t have it any other way. All my bike friends agree. Cantis, etc., are simple, but frankly, are obsolete. Also, disks are way better at stopping a fully loaded bike on a downhill. Happy trails!

      Reply
      • Tom Allen

        Rim brakes will only be obsolete for long-haul tourers when disc brake pads and caliper designs have been standardised and spares are available the world over. But that’s not the way the industry is heading. Thus rim brakes are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

        Reply
  6. Mike

    I’ve never had much problem finding a set of disc pads. I have not been everywhere I admit. They last so ridiculously long that carrying on spare set of replacements should keep you set for a very very long time.

    Reply
  7. Les Hunter

    Hi to all,
    Great info. I have a diamondback Kalamar 700c hybrid that I purchased on 2/6/15 and found myself with both rims cracked from one side to the other…..sidewall on rear time torn all along the entire sides….Is all this common on a one year old bike. I don’t ride on dirt trails…strictly on streets
    Thanks to all

    Reply
    • Shaun

      Like this… http://www.performancebike.com/bikes/Product_10052_10551_1187620____ ??

      Probably a bit late to reply but I hope you took it back to the shop for them to look at. The Kalamar is a low end budget bike not really intended for touring. Couple that with quite possibly a bad machine-based wheel build and those rims won’t last very long.

      Personally, for touring, I’ve spent more on a single hand built wheel than that entire bike.

      Reply
  8. Donald Rintoule

    A friend of mine is short 4′ 10.5″ (149 cm) and looking for a touring bicycle. When your in seam measurement is a little over 26″ (68 cm) no 700c bike offers a sensible riding position and 26″ wheels are the only way to go. Having researched at length, there appears to be very few real (read proportional) xxs frames to be had straight off the peg (shelf). One exception worth test riding in the near future is a Vicente. It is increasingly looking like a custom build may be required. Any other off the peg suggestions you may have would be welcomed?

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Surly’s LHT has an XS size frame. The real sensible option for someone that short, however, is a custom-built frame!

      Reply
      • Donald Rintoule

        Thanks for your suggestion but nfortunately the 42 cm Surly LHT standover height is 702 mm versus my petite friend’s inseam of 680 mm.

        Reply
  9. Donald Rintoule

    Good suggestion. My petite friend has selected a small Tout Terrain Metro Trapez Lady which has a the low top bar and step over height (mixte height) she requires.

    Reply

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