The Great Wheel Debate

The Great Wheel Debate

I like bikes. Full stop. Early in my career, I couldn’t really afford to pick one type of bike over another. Working in a shop meant assembling and fixing everything with wheels from 12 inches up to 700C. And even though I didn’t ride 20-inch bikes, much less freestyle, I bought the magazines so that I could learn to set up the bikes we sold so they looked authentic. It taught me a lot about appreciating the vast range of what cycling is. I was grateful to have my eyes opened that way, and I’ve never lost that wonder.

However.

I spent years writing about road bikes and only road bikes for the simple reason that the magazines that paid me did nothing but road. I was able to embrace that, but it was limiting.

A couple of things happened starting about five years ago. First, I did a piece for Bicycling about taking my road bike on a dirt road. Then I started pulling my ‘cross bike out again and hitting singletrack near me. Then I went for a mountain bike ride in Annadel State Park with Yuri Hauswald (this year’s winner of Dirty Kanza). In aggregate, those rides reminded me how much I loved riding surfaces other than asphalt.

My first trip on a full-suspension 29er down singletrack I’d last done on my ‘cross bike was a full-body epiphany. As much as I loved riding my ‘cross bike on that stuff, there’s no denying how much more fun the mountain bike was. By fun, I mean that I was able to ride with near abandon; I didn’t need to pick my line so carefully to avoid rocks that might cause a flat. And then there’s the fact that what passed for singletrack 20 years ago has evolved. People are cutting trails that take advantage of the terrain, using natural features to make the riding more varied, more exciting, and some of what I’ve ridden I simply can’t take advantage of on a ‘cross or even monster ‘cross bike.

Which is which
I’ve been watching—from the sidelines—as the battle rages on wheel size. Within the mountain bike world, people had long arguing 26-inch wheels vs. 29-inch wheels when 650B/27.5-inch wheels came along. Much of the marketing copy was a joke because it was predicated on the idea that you could get the best of both worlds—all the nimble playfulness of 26 plus the lower rolling resistance and angle of attack along with the increased momentum of 29-inch wheels. Sigh.

Years ago, when I was a Nordic ski instructor, there was an effort to make cross country skis that would allow you to either do diagonal (traditional) Nordic skiing or freestyle (skate) skiing. The problem is that a ski meant for diagonal is very flexible torsionally. The tips flex so they can follow tracks. They also feature two cambers—the tradition camber all skis have, plus a second one, called the “wax pocket.” That’s where you apply the kick wax. Skate skis, on the other hand, have no wax pocket and are ultra-stiff torsionally so you can turn them on their edges and push off in order to skate. Combi skis ended up doing neither diagonal nor freestyle well; they didn’t follow tracks through turns and weren’t stiff enough for proper skating.

Where bike wheels sizes are concerned, the industry says that 26-inch wheels are dead. As a standard on which to build bikes, I don’t think that performance-oriented mountain bikes 26-inch-wheeled mountain bikes should be mothballed. It’s a big jump for kids to move from 20-inch to 24-inch. Expecting them to move from 24 to 27.5 when you have 26 in the middle is utterly brain dead. For the sake of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and the future of this sport in the U.S., brands need to continue offering raceable 26-inch hardtails.

If the industry wants kids to keep cycling as they grow, rather than leave the sport for electric guitars or Playstation (either one can be huge fun, right?), they need to make sure that the bikes continue to fit and handle well.

For my part, I can say 26 is irrelevant for me, unless I want to hit a skatepark with my kids; I guess that means there’s a chance I may need to buy another hardtail someday. (Laughter erupts.) More realistically, as I’ve ridden different bikes with 27.5-inch and 29-inch wheels, I’ve noticed that they each have strengths. There’s no denying that a 27.5 wheel is more nimble and allows a rider to flick the bike in varied terrain more easily than with a 29er. That said, nothing mows through terrain with as much aplomb and confidence as a 29er.

Surprise, surprise
At the very point that I was ready to conclude that 27.5 was the best answer for me in descending, I had the opportunity to ride another 29er—both were trail bikes with five inches of travel—and I realized something. That because the 29er rolled through small ruts and protruding rock that might cause a smaller wheel to turn off its line, I was actually more confident and as a result, even though I might have to brake a bit more in a turn, I was faster overall with the 29er. I was more willing to let the bike rip. It was a conclusion that surprised me.

Now let’s thrust into this maelstrom of opinion the new Plus size tires and cyclocross tires that in some cases are more than 40mm wide. If you back up a bit, you start to see something other than just a debate about three sizes, you see a whole continuum of options (heck, lets add 700C road and fat bikes to this as well) that mock the idea of “best.” Sure, a 700C slick is the best thing for a smooth, paved road, and a 5-inch fat tire is the thing for snow, but all those sizes in-between spell the opportunity to make choices based not on availability but on terrain.

My recent experiences with plus tires inspired in me a desire to go back to the muddy trails I rode Memphis and the often wet granite of Western Massachusetts. The increased traction could be fantastic fun on that terrain. Then there’s the fact that I used to ride dirt roads on 25mm tubulars; with some of the tires I’ve been riding of late, I’d never have to turn around or even slow down.

The one conclusion I’ve drawn based on my experiences with all of the tires I’ve ridden lately is that big rubber is winning. It offers better traction, more comfort, and in certain circumstances clearly superior speed. It’s obvious to me that there’s a limit to the bigger-is-better chase—you wouldn’t do a road ride on a fat bike—but I suspect we’ve yet to learn all there is to know about how tire selection can aid performance and enjoyment. Game on.

 

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12 comments

  1. Pat O'Brien

    When I was working and my income was a little higher, I was an early adopter of bike tech. Ain’t it all too much fun? But, in all of that experimentation, including the switch to a full suspension C’Dale Super V with early Avid BBD mechanical disc brakes, nothing has compared to the switch to a steel hardtail 29er from a aluminum C’Dale F900. Sure, the acceleration was a bit slower, but once you were rolling it was as you described. It seems those big hoops seem to flow over trail, smooth or rough. And when it’s smooth, you can fly.

  2. Jim

    Your mention of Annadel park in conjunction of the various types of bikes caught my attention. Years ago I had the opportunity to ride in Annadel on both MTB and road bikes. Then most of the trails and roads were still road-bikable and that was a fun challenge. Around 10 years ago there was a concerted effort to convert many of the fire roads into authentic, narly single track. I found out the hard way recently that 700c was no longer going to cut it.

  3. Gummee!

    I have one each 29er HT and 650b HT. For riding trails with my buddies, the 650b (Ritchey P650b) is more fun.

    When I’m racing, the 29er (chinese carbon. No it hasn’t broken) comes out to play.

    I like em both.

    Haven’t tried the plus size or fat tires yet so can’t comment on those.

    My short answer to ‘what do you ride?’ is: ‘if its got 2 wheels and pedals, sign me up!’

  4. shiggy

    I learned of the advantages of choosing tires for the conditions many years ago. Tires have more direct affect on performance than any other component you can use. In many cases, I would rather have the “right” tire than the “right” bike for the ride. Knowing/learning what that is, is a never ending journey, and one that always enjoy.
    It has lead me to having literally thousands of different models and sizes of tires–widths from 19mm to 4.8″, diameters from 349 to 735mm–over the past 35 years.

  5. Quentin

    I really think Open Cycle is onto something with their frame designed to simultaneously fit 700×40 and 2.1″ 650b tires. There will always be bikes that are optimized around the one wheel and tire size, but there’s a future for bikes that can do two or more different sizes reasonably well. It makes it possible for people on smaller budgets to own an additional “virtual” bike.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Something similar is being done with some of the Plus-size mountain bikes, in that you can run 29″ wheels on them. I wonder how often you’d find yourself wanting to swap wheels/tires. I suppose it’s a function of just how varied the range of places you ride is.

  6. Andrew

    I rarely, if ever, see it mentioned that wheel sizes affect the gearing of a bike. Due to the differences in circumference (AKA roll out distance) larger wheels are effectively geared taller compared to smaller wheels. For a given level of traction force at the tyre (AKA tire), required to move a rider (regardless of bike) at a given speed in a given situation, bigger wheels necessitate higher loads through the drive train to achieve that.
    As a rider on the cusp of clydesdale class, mostly due to my height, the total effective gear ratio is important to me whether I’m riding uphill, or hauling groceries or work gear. I’ve also always had problems with fast wear rates on drive trains, so increasing the drive train forces is only a recipe for more bike down time and faster wallet drain.
    I understand bigger wheels sizes might truly be worthwhile for the go-fast and endurance riding crowds, but for the rest of us more wheel sizes is the same as the proliferation of “standards” in other parts of a bike; it just comes off as marketing hype which results in more confusion, more difficulty sourcing parts, and more costs and pressures on our LBS.
    In short I’m yet to be convinced there is a broadly applicable upside for ordinary riders and for people who aren’t “riders” but do ride bikes.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Wheel circumference has a big influence on gearing as well as rolling resistance. It’s why I don’t mind 1x on 27.5″ wheels but haven’t really been a fan of it with 29″ wheels. I just don’t get all the low-end I need for long, steep climbs.

      I’m not really clear what your biggest objection is, whether it’s more wheel sizes or the bigger wheel sizes. Ultimately, my point is that when you back up and look at the full population of “ordinary riders” as well as “riders,” more wheel sizes makes it easier to find the right bike for the right rider in their given circumstance. You are better served by more variety.

  7. Richard Wittenberg

    Actually Patrick if you think about what is happening on the road side of the market you are dead nuts on. Finally after 30 years of going narrower is better, the world is understanding that more tire roles better under most circumstances. Thank goodness 25c is becoming the norm with the more most benefitting from a 28. Also look to formula 1. They are still running 13″ wheels with high profile tires. Air pressure and volume is so critical to handling it takes monumental efforts on the mechanical side to accomplish the same outcome.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks for stopping by Richard. It’s nice to hear that this resonates with you as well.

      For those who don’t know, Richard Wittenberg is where the buck stops for Ridley here in the U.S. and his history in the industry goes back three decades. He’s as knowledgeable and experienced a guy as I know.

  8. Stephen Barner

    I live on a dirt road and often ride 23mm sewups. I generally don’t have flat worries unless the road has just been graded. We rode 12 miles of dirt today on a tandem with 28mm tires, on Christmas eve, no less!

  9. Shawn

    In my road racing days, I trained on 23c clinchers aired to 75-85psi. I’d air them up to 85-90 for races. Regardless what the experts wrote or what the pros said, that’s what worked for me, and it worked pretty well. A ten-second advantage in a 40k time trial means nothing if I have a migraine and bleeding kidneys that cost me a minute.

    I took that outlook with me when I gave away all my road equipment in favor of a dirt-only pedaling life. I rode everything I could ride over a period of about three years. Contrary to prevailing opinion I found that 29ers were every bit as nimble on technical and twisty stuff — for me anyway — as 26″ bikes. They don’t jump as well, but i’m not planning a red bull sponsorship anytime in my lifetime (but if I could start cycling all over as a young kid, I’d ride trials!). Nonetheless, after riding everything and every wheel size imaginable, my choices boiled down to a 26″ bike (Ibis Mojo) and a 29″ bike (Niner Jet 9 RDO) — because those two, regardless of wheel size, worked best for me and the kind of hybrid fast cross-country/enduro riding I enjoy.

    I guess the point is that “perfect”, ” best”, and “the one” don’t really exist in bikes and bike equipment, or life partners for that matter (What happens after finding perfection in version 2.2 when version 2.3, is released?). If you figure out what works for you rather than hunting an imaginary, moving target, however, there are likely ample choices that will make you happy. The industry literature, pro choices, and the word of people whose judgment you trust are helpful in narrowing your search’s sample size. But if you sacrifice your criteria in the pursuit of some mythical maxima — especially if it’s based on someone else’s criteria — the search will end in disappointment.

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