Wheels for Cyletouring - 700c vs 26”
They are all round, but which is best for cycletouring???
First let me put this article into perspective. Breton Bikes has been going for 25 years now and in that time we've had around 10,000 customers – each riding for a week on a loaded touring bike. For each holiday the average customer will cover around 150 miles (some much more) in their week. A quick bit of calculation then puts the mileage of our fleet at something around 1,750,000 miles, or 70 times round the world.
I personally build up, and maintain every single one of those bikes, and frequently ride with groups using them over some of the most demanding roads in Europe – those 10,000 people are also paying customers who quickly let me know when they like, or dislike something...
Why the perspective? Because this is a controversial subject; one which provokes serious debate. The article that follows is based on a massive amount of experience, frequently of the direct back-to-back variety. No bike shop, lone traveler or group of mates down the pub can put together this sort of information because they simply don't have the same long-term experience. In theory a bike manufacturer might comment on reliability due to guarantee returns, but as they won't have a record of a bike's usage even that is debatable.
So forgive the opinionated nature of this article – but in passing on my experiences I hope it will help both readers, and perhaps even manufacturers make more informed choices.
A little history...
When we bought our first batch of bikes for Breton Bikes we wanted to give our holiday customers the same sort of gear that we owned ourselves. So the fleet, all built by Orbit, consisted of ten, classic Reynolds 531 touring bikes with 700c wheels. We also decided that for our less experienced customers we'd need some bikes with 'flat' handlebars and so also bought 10 Reynolds 501 mountainbikes with 26” wheels and equipped with mudguards and racks. In those days (late 1980's) mountainbikes were rather more relaxed in position to those available now and they proved very popular.
But we were ignorant. 26” tyres at that time were generally MTB biased and though we didn't have the heaviest tyres available they were pretty knobbly – the true tourers were on Michelin world-tour tyres.
Unfortunately this caused a few problems. Though both bikes did the job and were popular, when they were mixed the tourers were so much faster that the poor people on the MTB's had trouble keeping up – especially on led trips this produced a real split in the groups and not a little grumbling on longer days.
But there was a quid-pro-quo – after 3 weeks the 700c tourers started breaking spokes. After 5 weeks the rate of spoke breakages was at the point where I could no longer send the bikes out and had to rebuild all the wheels. Now the spokes were obviously very poor quality, but the same, galvanised-steel spokes were fitted to the 26” wheeled MTB's and it was only late in the season that these started to let go and even then not to the point where they were unusable.
Because of the poor spokes (two similarly equipped tandems on 700c wheels lasted precisely 10 days before they were unrideable) here we had an accelerated destruction test – with better spokes the comparison would have had to be over a longer time period, but I firmly believe that the end result – the 700c wheels being by far the most unreliable – would be repeated. Because of this, way back in 1995 we changed our fleet over to all 26” wheels and it was the best choice we ever made. Two years ago we bought a batch of 700c bikes as an experiment and all our problems returned – we won't be going back...
So what follows are my thoughts on the matter and a justification for our choice.
So what was going on?
With such a huge difference in reliability I needed to have a long think as to what was going on here, because though the rear wheels on the 700c became far more reliable when I built the wheels up with DT Stainless spokes they did still have the occasional breakage, the 26” wheeled bike maintaining an advantage even though they were fitted with 'cheese' spokes! I needed to find out what was going on, as with the success of Breton Bikes the fleet was due to grow rapidly and I simply could not spend my time driving all over Brittany to fix spokes and I didn't want to hand-build every wheel I used. Those same parameters are those which a cycle tourist also needs to prioritize - on tour you need your bike to be comfortable, stable and above all - reliable. Sitting at the side of some deserted road in France with a broken wheel is enough to ruin any holiday...
There was another clue. All the bikes had been fitted with what was at the time the budget choice for hubs – Maillard – and I believed, after reading several articles (wrongly – see hubs article) that solid axle hubs were the best choice. In that first season I found that the life expectancy of a Maillard solid rear axle was 10 weeks loaded cyclecamping – they just snapped straight through. However this was only a problem on the touring bikes;-)
Bingo! - one explanation – the fatter MTB tyres were cushioning the bike and especially spokes and hubs, though there was some evidence that even the pannier racks on the 700c tourers were breaking more often. Imagine how many of our customers crashed over curbs and the like (hire bikes have a tough life) and once again you can see that our experience will be an accelerated version of the typical cyclists.
So – safe to assume fatter tyres play a major factor in wheel life. But we decided to go for 26” wheels for more reasons than that...
Wheel strength – 26” all the way...
This one is simple and incontrovertible - a 26” wheel is stronger than a 700c. It's not rocket science; you have two identical structures – i.e. identical hubs laced 3x to alloy rims. However the spokes are considerably shorter, the diameter of the structure is over 10% smaller and because the angle of the spokes relative to the rim is greater (as with a wheel with less 'dish') the lateral strength – resistance to side loads – is superior. The 36 spokes are closer together and so the 'sharing' of load is greater and so on. It all adds up to a considerably stiffer and stronger structure. A bicycle wheel is pre-stressed with any load being shared between many spokes – the tighter/stiffer the wheel the more spokes share the load and the stress-cycles that fatigue spokes and thus reduce life are much less. Not only that, but the rim itself will be better supported as those 36 eyelets will be 10% closer together so less unsupported rim inbetween spokes.
This increased stiffness has another advantage in that if a spoke does break the deflection on the rim caused will be less – on the very rare occurrences where we do have a broken spoke (and this mostly because of a chain coming off into the spokes and cutting them) the deflection of the rim due to the break is so small that the customer generally has no clue that it has happened and I only find out when the bike is serviced at the end of the week. To be honest the rims now available in 26” size are so much stiffer than those we first used on our 700c tourers (wet spaghetti springs to mind) that that is a major contributing factor, but recent experience with modern 700c 'hybrid' rims suggests that the smaller rim + less space between spokes still makes a 'wounded' 26” wheel useable where the 700c would be useless.
But this is where things get complicated because though a stiffer wheel means better stability and strength it'll also mean a harder ride with less 'give' in the wheel. The answer of course is to use a slightly fatter tyre and run at lower pressure (see article on tyre pressure here) which as we've seen above has certain advantages.
Are there other advantages of 26” wheels?
Oh yes;-) Being 10% smaller in diameter means everything is 10% 'less' including the weight of the wheel. Not only that but much of that weight is in the rim and tyre so that for given total wheel mass (i.e. hub, spokes, tyre, innertube) the 26” wheel can go for a larger section and heavier duty tyre and still come out at the same total as a 700c equivalent.
Another technical advantage is that the smaller wheel drops the overall gearing of your bike by – you've guessed it – about 10%. Now this is especially relevant to us cycletourists. If you are planning loaded cycle camping in places like the Pyrenees (see report here) and Cornwall and you are a mere mortal, then having a really low 'granny' is a lot more important than having a top gear that will take you to 30 mph! In the past I've led groups into the mountains on my own (lovely) 700c touring bike – built 20 years ago – and have been deeply jealous of my customers who have significantly lower gearing thanks to their 26” wheels.
Toe-overlap... Now this might seem a bit odd, but this is where the front wheel fouls your toe when you turn the wheel slightly whilst pedaling. A 700c touring bike should (many don't) have soft steering angles of 72 degrees or so and decent trail to give stability so toe-overlap isn't usually a problem – until that is you are riding a small frame, or have mudguards or are trying to cram a fat tyre in – in which case you do get a potentially dangerous and certainly annoying overlap and of course that's what touring bike riders usually end up having. This simply isn't an issue with 26” wheels.
Lastly, and intimately linked is the now huge range of tyres and rims available for 26” wheels – far more extensive than those suitable for touring on 700c wheels. Because bikes designed for 26” wheels have less 'wheel' to fit into their frames the clearances available are vast. Whereas most 700c touring bikes struggle fitting in any tyre over 35 or even 32mm, a 26” frame will usually take up to a 2.40” or 60mm tyre! At the other end of the scale, very skinny slick tyres down to even 1” (24mm) will make your bike really fly. Most people will choose something between the two and for our customers we use a 1 1/5” road tyre (38mm) which is a nice compromise being very comfortable, equally happy on cinder paths as tarmac and which rolls reasonably well.
The point is that 26” wheels give you the choice! Going out for an audax ride? Well fit 1” tyres, pump them up hard (see tyre pressure article) and the bike will be lively and fast – next day you set off round the world? Just change the tyres to some rugged 1.75” (45mm) and away you go, better still have two sets of wheels, one very lightweight, the other with some gonzo downhill rims that will NEVER break – NO 700c tourer will do this. I've a custom-made (Bob Jackson) 700c tourer which was made for me to full round-the-world spec with heavy duty 531 tubing, big clearances including a tandem fork and it'll take 38mm tyres – no more – it also weighs a ton and is both much heavier and less lively than our 26” wheeled BB Specials...
And that huge range of 26” tyres and wheels is available just about anywhere. Unlike 700c, the 26” is a world standard – you might not be able to get your favourite kevlar-beaded slick, but you'll be able to get something black and round for your bike in extremis that will fit!
So the downside of 26”?
If all the advantages of the smaller 26” wheel continued to accrue as diameter diminished then we'd all be riding 16” wheeled bikes and looking very silly. But we don't. Why? Because as a wheel gets smaller it gets stiffer, and that stiffness gets uncomfortable and you simply can't keep going for fatter and softer tyres. There comes a point where the bike becomes uncomfortable enough to need suspension and some very fine touring bikes do combine small wheels with springing in this way – Moultons, Bike Friday to name just two. The snag is that they both throw away the advantages of rim and tyre choice, and the universality of the 26” as well as being more complex (less reliable) and requiring unusual components to get reasonable gearing.
So the 26” wheel is a bit of a compromise here and by trading off the stiffness of the wheel against a fatter tyre you get much the same result but retaining the strength advantage.
The ride issue is also influenced by the size of the rim – a larger wheel will ride over bumps in a way that a small wheel won't – in extremis a 20” wheel might be lost in a pothole a 700c would ride over. But again a fatter, softer tyre will offer much the same result and the 26” wheel isn't so small as for that to become a problem.
Speed? - Well the argument that a larger wheel rotates less for a given distance and so has less friction is an old one – and if true would have all Tour de France riders on 27” wheels as in the 1950's, but they aren't do they? For that argument there is always the counter than the smaller wheel is not only lighter, but because much of the weight of the wheel is the tyre and rim and this is on the outside of the structure, the Angular Momentum is much less with the smaller wheel. Just look at the number of triathletes using 650 wheels for time-trialling, and the number of speed records held by small-wheeled bikes to scotch this myth.
Stability? - A larger wheel generated more 'gyroscopic' effect (see above as to why) and so once you are rolling it wants to stay more upright than a smaller wheel. This is in theory true, in practice poppycock. I've followed heavily loaded BB Specials going down Pyrennean cols at over 50 mph and trust me – they are absolutely rock steady (unlike some touring bikes I've ridden on 700c wheels) – any theoretical 'gyro' effect being countered by the greater stability of the stiffer 26” wheel and anyway frame design is far more significant.
If you're right why doesn't everyone ride 26” wheels?
Well first off, if you look around 26” wheels do outnumber all other types, but not when it comes to touring bikes or racing bikes. When we first decided to go 'all 26”' it was evident that a new breed of bikes was emerging – the 'Hybrid' which to all intents and purposes was a touring bike with flat handlebars. For a brief moment there was a battle between the 26” and 700c before the industry seemed to settle on the 700c as the wheel of choice. Not only was I disappointed by this, but utterly baffled. Why on Earth was the inferior choice made?
To be honest I don't have an answer, but my suspicion is that it's fashion. There is no logic to the choice whatsoever, but for many people hybrids running 26” wheels look a little 'odd'. Customers coming to us, especially the ones who are 6'4” or so, often say they feel like they are riding a 'toy' bike. But then at the end of the week they ask me where they can buy one. Beauty isn't just in the eye-of-the-beholder it's also something we learn – a new car style grates at first but we get used to it, a new dress style that looks ridiculous then everyone has to have it and so-on. People are used to 700c, 'proper' bikes and resisted the change and so the industry gave them what they wanted rather than giving them what was best for them. Fashion has been the bane of the cycling industry for many years, but I've already ranted on about that here...
In racing, the dead hand of the UCI makes sure that any change in bikes for professional cycling (and thus for you and me) is stamped on – they like the look of conventional position 700c bikes and so that's what all racing bikes will be using - end-of-story.
Personally I think that for anyone considering a proper touring bike – i.e. one to carry you and your gear wherever you want to go - the choice of 26” wheels should be the default – in my case both my beautiful Bob Jackson tourers – a lightweight in 653 (built in 1993) and the 'lardy' one are on 700c – both would be better bikes if I had had them built for 26” wheels all those years ago.
The shame is that there are now very, very few 26” tourers available to the general public. Sure custom builders will make one, but beyond that you are limited to a handful of manufacturers: Surley with their Long-Haul-Trucker, various Thorn models and more recently the reintroduction of such models (including the BB Special) by Orbit cycles, but all these are expensive and exclusive. Maybe this article will help change all that, but don't hold your breath...
EDIT! - Not sure if this article helped but hallelujah - Ridgeback have brought out a brilliant new Expedition Tourer at reasonable cost and it's reviewed here!