Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Still More Wheel Madness

I wish I'd seen this video a couple of days ago.

from Bike Radar

That's right - 26-in. wheels are dead -- or dying, anyhow. Even as I'm here writing on the Retrogrouch Blog that we need to think of wheel size as a function of good fit for riders of different size, and that road-going 26-in. wheels and tires should be more available for small-framed bikes -- here the industry reps at Eurobike are declaring a slow death for that particular wheel size. They've got more than enough to handle with 29ers and 650b -- who could possibly need anything more?

Watch the video, and you'll see some of the industry reps admitting that 29er's might not be the best thing for everyone, especially some riders who need smaller frames. But apparently 650b (which some insist on re-dubbing 27.5) is the answer for pretty much everyone else. A couple of the reps almost grudgingly suggest that 26-in. wheels may still have a place on "entry-level" bikes, but otherwise expect them to gradually fade away.

No -- I don't necessarily put a lot of stock in their predictions. More likely, they'll come up with another fad or two before 26-in. wheels disappear (assuming they actually do). But their predictions do reveal a certain short-sightedness, as well as a blind spot the industry has long had for smaller riders, particularly women.

I've always been lucky -- at about 6-ft tall, I've never had much trouble finding bikes that fit well. But I appreciate the difficulty smaller riders have in achieving proper fit.

On penny farthings, or "ordinaries," taller riders had a
built-in speed advantage.
Bicycling has always tilted in favor of taller over smaller, going back to the beginning. Picture a penny farthing. The larger the drive wheel, the farther one would travel per pedal revolution. Of course, a rider was limited by their leg length as to how large a wheel they could straddle -- so a taller rider almost always had a speed advantage over a shorter one. Interestingly, one of the most common measurements of bicycle gearing, "gear inches," still harkens back to the huge drive wheels of penny farthings.

But the introduction of chain drive and gearing on the first safety bicycles in the mid 1880s should have leveled the playing field. By varying the chainring and sprocket sizes, one should be able to have gears as low as 22 inches (low gear on a lot of touring and mountain bikes) or as high as 120 inches (the weak-kneed need not apply) -- and this while still building a bike around a wheel size that fits the rider. With chainring and cog sizes that are readily available, one can easily get the right gearing for their needs and abilities, whether using 26-in., 650b, or 700c wheels.

There are still certain performance-minded advantages that come with larger wheels -- and the industry marketing machine loves to push that line -- it's an easy sell. But the advantages don't mean much if the bike fit has to be compromised in order to accommodate those larger wheels, which is what happens when someone of shorter stature wants a high-performance bike.

The thing is -- there are certain performance advantages to smaller diameter wheels, too. Smaller wheels can be lighter. They don't conserve momentum as well as larger wheels, but they can accelerate more quickly. At high speeds, there may be a slight aerodynamic advantage. The industry could market those advantages -- along with the obvious benefits of having a bike that actually fits the rider properly. But no. Offering different wheel sizes for different sized riders apparently isn't feasible (except that several smaller companies ARE doing it). It requires stocking more variations in wheels (obviously), forks, cogs and chainrings, etc. etc. Not only that, but it then forces a backtracking on the old-line marketing that pushes wheel sizes (such as 29er) as a must-have trend.

After decades of having a mind-boggling array of different wheel and tire sizes and conflicting (sometimes nearly overlapping) standards, things have finally gotten narrowed down to a workable handful of sizes that can be used and adapted for all kinds of riding and all kinds of riders. Does it make sense to now eliminate one of those sizes -- further narrowing things down to the detriment of shorter riders? Well, not to the consumer -- but bicycle trends are usually driven more by what's good for the industry than by what's good for the consumer. I realize I'm probably making too much of this -- 26-in. wheels will probably be around for a good long time. Who knows, maybe "good fit for all" will actually become a trend, too.


  1. I love this blog. Agree fully with you Brooks. My most recent bike purchase was a 26" full suspension mtb. My commuter bike; 26", Old converted SS mountain bike: Yep, 26". The wheel on the back of my recumbent- You guessed it 26". I do have a road bike with 700 wheels.

    I never bought into the 29'er hype. I'm sure they work great for the taller riders. No dispute there but I'm an average 5'8" so the proper sized frame for me works just fine with 26" wheels.

  2. Everyone also seems to be conveniently forgetting that 26" are stronger (all things being equal). I've very fond of my 26" longtail which I daily load up with my 215 lb carcass plus all sorts of other stuff. I don't really care about rock-clearing or log-hopping, I just want those wheels to hold up.

  3. Got my understanding of bike geometry from the Proteus Frame building book , built a touring frame of Ishiwata tubing , still got some Bullseye hub wheels 26 in, Hooray for oldscool !