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.
You can make this decision by answering two very simple questions:
- Am I likely to spend a lot of time touring in the developing world?
- 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?