Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Smart Wheel Size "Breakthrough"?

I've written in the past about how wheel size has become something of a "fashion" or a "trend" in the bike industry -- as bicycle buyers are convinced by the marketing machine that everyone needs a 29er, or a 650B (or 27.5, as the mountain bike crowd has re-dubbed it). The wheel sizes become new marketing segments -- rather than being a function of good bicycle fit. The result is that you'll find 29er mountain bikes with "XS" frames and tortured geometry being sold to petite people who would probably be far better served with a "traditional" 26 in. wheeled bike. I argued previously that just because somebody makes something doesn't make it a good idea.

Tiny frame. Big wheels. Bad idea.
A few smaller companies have recognized the nonsense of marketing wheel size as a trend, and have made it a function of good bike fit, as it should be. Rivendell, Surly, Velo-Orange, and Soma Fabrications, are all companies that offer some of their models with a choice of wheel size to correspond to frame size. Bigger frames get bigger wheels. Smaller frames get smaller wheels. Why haven't other companies done this? I suppose it's because stocking different wheel sizes for otherwise similar models means stocking not only the different wheels, and tires, etc., but also different forks, and ideally, some different choices for gearing as well. It's easier to just tell buyers that "bigger wheels are faster" and simply ignore the tortured geometry and massive toe overlap that comes with forcing large wheels onto a small frame.

However, I just read that one of the big mainstream companies, Trek, has finally taken a step towards sensible wheel sizing. In Bike Retailer and Industry News, I read that Trek is offering its new Marlin and Skye mountain bike models with two different wheel sizes. The frames smaller than 17.5 inches will get 27.5, while those larger will get 29 in. wheels. Trek calls it "Smart Wheel Size."

A press release from Trek announced, "For some time, riders and retailers across the world have debated the merits of both (27.5 vs. 29), causing bike shops and bike company product managers to scramble to meet the demands of a confused marketplace. Smart Wheel Size ends the confusion and simplifies the choice for riders while making it easier for shops to sell the best bike for their customer."

One thing I notice, though, is that 26 in. wheels seem to be forgotten -- and I've read statements from people in the industry predicting that the 26 in. size will eventually get phased out, or relegated to entry-level bikes. I still think that is terribly short sighted. For some small riders, even 27.5 might be too large for the best bike fit. Whatever benefits are supposed to come with larger wheels get lost when the bike simply doesn't fit the rider comfortably.

The other thing I notice is that on Trek's road bikes, it's still "one-size-fits-all" where wheels are concerned. Like many other big brands, they offer "women's specific" road bikes, but when you look closely at the geometry, they all use the same wheel size and pull the same tricks manufacturers have long used to make them "fit" -- steep seat tube angles, slack head tube angles, and tons of toe overlap.

Still, it's a step in the right direction. What I'd really like to see at some point is where the three most common wheel sizes 559, 584, and 622 (notice I'm using the ISO sizes here -- less confusing than 26 /650B/27.5/700C/29) become common for both road and mountain bike applications, and used to achieve the best bike fit for a wide range of riders. Trek might have discovered the benefits of "Smart Wheel Size" -- but it will be much smarter when it covers even more riders and more sizes.


  1. Ahaha, poor 'ole 26" wheels. So terrible to use...

    Kidding, of course. I have an old rigid steel Trek mtn bike with 26" wheels that I put some fat slicks on, and wouldn't trade it for the world. Nice and comfortable, it's a perfect "puttering around" bike, and I think I could load a refrigerator on the rack and it wouldn't faze those wheels.
    I'm 6'7" tall, 36" inseam, obviously I'm tall enough that a "29'er" would be a legitimate choice for me, but I think that between gearing, and geometries, and tire fitment, etc. there's so much more to consider than what's "cool" at the moment. Of course what is old now will be new again someday I suppose... I just have to stock up on enough good 26" tires to last until that size comes back into vogue, I guess. Oh, the embarrassment of running "entry level" gear.

    Not only am I retro, I guess I'm amateur, too. I run stem shifters (on purpose!), I like 27" and 26" wheels, and I don't have one pair of clicky-shoe-pedals.

    Actually, as I was typing this it occurred to me that I've seen some of my favorite bits and pieces for bikes coming around lately. Centerpull brakes seem to have a bit of a resurgence (particularly with the Paul brand), being one thing I've noticed in particular. In Rivendell's latest catalog, they sell an IRD mount to turn downtube shifters into stem shifters.
    Maybe an interesting topic to discuss in the future? "Entry level" stuff that is gaining momentum/ making a comeback?


  2. My 4' 10" tall wife rides a vintage Terry Mountain bike with 24inch wheels back and front. Although not the fastest bike, it fits her better than a 26 inch wheel bike and is much easier to handle and more comfortable for long rides. So besides Trek, Terry has been "smart sizing wheel" sizes in the past, although I do not believe this configuration is currently available. Probably not enough sales. Tire choices are not plentiful, but Schwalbe came through with a good and high quality tire.

    1. Hi Steven -- actually, Terry originally built their reputation on the whole idea of choosing the proper wheel size for smaller riders. But they are and always were a pretty small company -- especially compared with something like Trek. I'm not sure what's going on with Terry Bicycles, as I don't think the company founder, Georgina Terry, is associated with them anymore, maybe not even for a long time, and ownership may have changed.

    2. i have two 26" mtbs - both being retro "foundlings" bought for €50 and €60 respectively. i've seen quite a few bicycles with 29" frames and wheels but only one (i think) 27.5 model.

      obviously the size and weight of a rider will be the deciding factor when choosing a bicycle but for pure aesthetics - the thing itself - i find an "old school" hard-tail mtb to be an object of perfected beauty. in platonic terms, its designed proportions - especialy with a top-tube parallel or as near as, to the ground - conform exactly to what i image the ideal bicycle form might be. the larger, 29" version looks like perfection on steroids - in my 'umble, ever so 'umble opinion - and anything smaller looks like a toy.

      the negative spaces in its construction, the diameter of tubing used, its proportion, height ... length, etc., etc. ... are all exactly as they should be.

      there's the theory that beauty survives better than practicality - hope bicycle manufacturers are aware of this.