This is #2 in an ever-growing series of answers to frequently-asked questions about touring bikes. If you’re new here, why not start with #1: What Exactly Defines A Touring Bike?
Many folk seem to think that the choice of touring bike wheel size – specifically, 26-inch (classic mountain bike) or 700C/28″ (road bike) – is a big deal.
You can make this decision by answering two very simple questions:
- Am I, to put it bluntly, short? (In other words, do I or will I ride a small or extra-small frame?)
- Am I likely to spend a lot of time touring in remote regions of the developing or semi-developed world?
If the answer to either of the above questions is ‘yes’, get a bike based on the 26-inch wheel size.
Regardless of what the industry would have you believe and/or which wheel size is trendy this week, the most important criteria for bicycle wheel size choice is actually that it matches the size and geometry of the frame – which, of course, should be chosen to match the rider’s anatomy.
You can confirm this next time you visit a bike shop and look at the range of bikes designed for variously-sized children. Nobody’s trying to wedge a 29-inch wheel onto a bike for a 5‑year-old just because 29ers are cool right now.
Enlightened manufacturers such as Surly don’t even bother offering popular touring bikes like the Disc Trucker in extra-small sizes with larger wheels. Instead, they downsize to 26-inch wheels at the smaller end of the frame size range, because that’s what intelligent bike design looks like.
So that’s the first and most important thing to know.
Incidentally, there are also a couple of other marginal benefits to going with the tried-and-tested 26-inch wheel size, which until very recently was what all mountain bikes at every price point were built with:
- If you’re looking in the right type of bike shops – that is, mainstream stores like Halfords as opposed to trendy specialist boutiques which also serve artisan coffee – 26-inch tyres, tubes and spokes are available as widely or more so than larger sizes.
- Further afield, not every Chinese spam-bike shop in Tazbekistan will carry the latest trendy tyre size, but they will almost certainly have 26-inch ones for all the 26-inch-wheeled Chinese spam bikes they sell.
- Shorter spokes means that – all else being equal – a 26-inch wheel is stronger than a larger-diameter equivalent. Stronger wheels are less liable to fail, thus increasing a given bike’s overall durability. (Of course, it helps if they’re hand-built by an artisan wheelbuilder in the first place.)
If, on the other hand, the answer to both of the above questions is ‘no’, the best wheel size is whatever comes fitted to the bike that feels right when you test-ride it.
In other words, feel free to move on from the question of wheel size and focus on more important things, such as finding a local bike shop to test-ride touring bikes in your budget range which suit your style of touring.
Then, having chosen the right touring bike, simply check what size wheels and tyres it has and prepare your tools and spares package accordingly.
You will not spend your days on the road wondering how much more enjoyable today’s riding would be if you’d got an extra half-inche of diameter on your rims. You will find expensive spares for diverse wheel sizes in specialist bike shops across the developed world, as well as in the major cities of the developing world where there’s enough of a middle-income population to support a small retail industry for cyclists. And you will find cheap spares in the mainstream bike shops the industry wants you to overlook.
For what it’s worth, if you’re buying a new mainstream touring bike for a road tour in the UK or USA, it’s more likely you’ll end up with a 700C- (aka: 28″-) wheeled touring bike.
That’s simply 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.
On the other hand, if you’re in the market for a round-the-world expedition bike, or considering building your own ultimate expedition bike, you’ll find that most (but not all) existing bikes are built on the 26-inch platform anyway.
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 repack and adjust the wheel hub bearings after 10,000 miles of riding?”, etc.
Next in the Touring Bike FAQ series: Steel Or Aluminium Frames?
44 replies on “Touring Bike FAQ #2: 26-Inch vs 700C Wheel Size?”
I take a 700c Bike and Just carry spare parts for my specific bike with me.
I want a frame for 26″ wheels since I have short legs. My 1995 mountain bicycle is nearly perfect in that respect. The smaller diameter would give me lower gearing. Every year, the hills are getting steeper. — Tom
Hi Tom, Thanks for all the info its been very helpful. My question is if you think one could get by with 29inch wheels given all the parts were good quality and you were carrying 1 spare, spare spokes and a few tubes? I’m just thinking that some time has past since you wrote this article and maybe you or someone else has experienced a greater availability of 29er parts in major centres? I plan on doing off road touring in remote areas and am quite limited to choice of frame to suit 26inch tyres.
Yes, there’s definitely more availability of 29er parts in major centres, and plenty of people get away with it (though you’ll still find lots of stories of rides being scuppered for lack of modern spares). I wouldn’t think that was true for large stretches of remote riding in less developed parts of the world, however. What’s available is likely to be entry level or old-fashioned… which is why the 26er still gets a look-in.
I do credit-card touring. Budapest to Vienna up the Danube going from B&B to B&B — that sort of thing.
I have a Rivendell Sam Hillborne that uses 700c. But to get the 700c, I had to accept a frame that was about 2cm too tall. Smaller frames used 584-size (650b), which did not have the support internationally when I started touring.
If the “650b” or 584 size is picking up support then I’m all for it. Otherwise, I’m still looking for my perfect wheel.
In my family of two LHT- 26″, we agree that it is useful to have both bikes of a touring team to be able to share parts.
Agreed – many years ago my riding partner and I took this approach too.
Interesting article. How about touring on 28 x 1 1/2 (ISO 635)wheels??
I’ve seen these all over Asia and been told they are common in Africa too. Could this be a size for all those worrying about the loss of diameter 26s cost you??
For one thing, you can generally only find steel rims in this size (or poor single wall alloy), but I do like steel rims, as after a crash they can be easily hammered or bent back into shape (Sheldon Brown has an article on emergency repairs) — useful in the woods maybe? Also being so big they ride like you’ve got suspension with 40mm tyres.
One day, I hope that an article like this will be able to advise that whilst they may be harder to source tubes and tyres for (although probably no harder than a 24″ Islabike on 507s, which we already tour with!), a 32″ or 36″ wheel is a viable option for people over 6’6. At 6’8, and long in the leg, the prospect of having a touring bike built (as opposed to bodging myself onto something ‘off the peg’) is something I will one day have to splash a significant amount of money on, knowing that even a 700c is really far too small but I have little choice. If I was a child, everyone looking at my bike would say I needed bigger wheels! At the moment, a DirtySixer is serious money, only available in the US, and mega money. Hopefully enough rich people will prove the concept for it to make mass-production of a suitable frame for touring, a prospect. In the meantime, we try to keep our bikes as standard as possible. With children this means keeping down to three wheel sizes (700c, 24″ and 20″, all on Prestas), Schwalbe Marathons for durability on the bikes we can put them on, and plenty of tubes, patches, and the Park tyre boot, for bad days on the road!
A third question I’ve had to ask myself, following on from Tom’s first two .. Am I likely to break a spoke or buckle a wheel through my own stupid fault.. ?
I’m better off with 26″ on longer trips which is both riding style and situations I’ve found myself in. The longer you are out, the more chance of incidents like my night ride escaping an aggressive person which led to being blinded by truck headlights and colliding with a roadworks sign across the bike lane. I’m also prone to the occasional kerb incident which has snapped spokes on my road bike. I’m happy bike-packing in the Lakes on a light road bike but out for a month and I’d want extra resilience for when things have more of a chance of going wrong .. and things have gone wrong which is why I now tour on 26″ wheels.
Tom — may thanks for the wealth of information.
Does anyone have any comments on the availability of 700c wheels (and other bike parts, come to think of it) in Bulgaria and Turkey? (and possibly armenia/azerbaijan too?)
I’m planning a trip to this area of. 3–4month duration. I have a 700c steel bike and i’d like to use it if possible to avoid the cost of a new bike (and as i’ve already got a fledgling collection of stickers/souvineers decorating it from places i’ve toured with it till now!) i’m thinking of buying a pair of sturdy 700c wheels with fairly fat tyres, though would like to know if 700c wheels are for sale in this part of the world yet, even if it’s just capital cities.
Many thanks in advance
I’ve been looking for an affordable pair of 26″ V‑brake compatible wheels. With the popularity of 27.5 and 29 on mountain bikes, 26″ wheels seem to be fast disappearing. Any suggestions or sources of 26″ wheels, or should I build my gear onto a 700c frame?
nick morecroft,have you tried spa cycles or sjs cycles,they both do 26″ wheels,and are touring specialists
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.
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?
Surly’s LHT has an XS size frame. The real sensible option for someone that short, however, is a custom-built frame!
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.
Then a custom built frame is likely your only option…
Mmm.…not so fast. Think about mixte…
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
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
True – this is mentioned at the end of the article.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
Thanks for the anecdote – nice proof of concept!
I’m a little bit annoyed by the arrogance of that old “Load of rubbish” comment, I’m grateful for the information here, as I’m sure are all the other readers. Many thanks Tom.
Thank you, Pierce!
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.
That’s good to know – thank you. Happy to hear that options are opening up in certain areas.
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.…
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…
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.
I too have noticed a shift away from 26″ and cantis around the world. I built our touring bikes with 26″ wheels, Rohloff, and V‑brakes for packability, durability, and part replacement. The part-replacement part of the equation is changing. In 2007, I needed to replace a tire in Ansiao Portugal – no problem. Same in 2010 in Wanaka, NZ. In both cases the widest 700c tire at the stores were 23 or 25mm. Back in NZ in 2013, the shops already had 29ers (but not smooth treads). This last December, we had our bikes in Bali, Indonesia and while the shops still favored 26 tires (for road tread), they most all supported mechanical disc brakes. If I were building a new world-tourer today, I’m not sure I’d keep to 26″ wheels, and I’d probably go with disc brakes. At the end of the day, I’m not sure what wheels I’d use, but I would learn about how Fedex and DHL operate in whatever country I was traveling in.
Hi, Tom. What you think about 69ers (front 700C, rear 26)?
I had no idea such a thing existed!
Seems a bit daft for a touring bike as you’d have to carry two different inner tubes and two different spare tyres.