The simple answer is that all wheel sizes work well if you use good quality components. 🙂
Why Go 26 Inch?
– The tyres and tubes are easier to find in developing parts of the world
– 26inch wheels use shorter spokes than 700c to build a stronger wheel
– 26inch touring frames generally have greater tyre clearance for fatter tyres
– There are more wide (2+ inch) touring tyres available in 26inch
– 26inch wheels are MTB tyre compatible, for off road adventures
– A 26inch bikes lowest gear is effectively smaller than a 700c due to the smaller wheel size
Why Go 700C / 29 Inch?
– Larger in diameter, therefore they can roll over holes and depressions on roads in a smoother manner
– There are more slick and city tyre options
Touring in Remote Locations
Riding in remote locations is the main reason bicycle tourers turn to 26 inch.
But just say that you are running 26inch tyres and your sidewall blows out while you have no spare. The tyre that you find in the closest bike shop (for arguments sake, in northern India) is low-quality with no puncture protection. It’s going to get you going but isn’t a great long-term solution. My point is that you won’t find good quality spares for any wheel size in remote locations.
In places like India, I suggest carrying a spare tyre, 2-3 tubes, 1-2 rim tapes and a bunch of spokes. That way it really doesn’t matter what size wheel you’re rolling on.
My last pair of Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tyres lasted 25000km with only a couple of slow leaks (review HERE). Spare tyres work out at about 650g each, which isn’t much for the piece of mind. If you do need additional spares, freight companies will get gear to you all over the world at good rates (provided you shop with the right companies).
What About 650B (27.5 Inch)?
650b wheels (or 27.5″) have been a popular size on randonneur bikes for some time, but have only recently become the must have size in the mountain biking world, driven by huge marketing campaigns. 650b is the middle size between 26inch and 700c (actually it’s a bit closer to 26inch), so a bike with these wheels tends to have a mix of both 26inch and 700c riding characteristics.
The issue with 650b currently is spare parts. There are barely any touring specific rims and tyres available in this size. Good luck finding 650b tyres and tubes in your average bike shop: 700c is sometimes hard enough! In the next 10-20 years we may well find that 650b will replace 26inch, but until there are the parts available, it’s best to stick to the mainstream sizes.
Wheel Overlap on Small Frames
A 700c wheel increases the chances of toe overlap compared to the smaller wheel sizes. This is one reason why Surly only offer 700c wheels on their touring bike frames over 56cm. If you are on the smaller size, it makes sense to use 26″ wheels that reduce toe-overlap and the stand-over height of your bike.
Why Do I Choose to Use 700c on my Touring Single?
I like the feel of a larger diameter wheel rolling over uneven surfaces. Durability and spares haven’t been a problem for me in the past as I generally use high-quality components and carry adequate spares when I travel.
Why Do I Choose to Use 26inch on my Touring Tandem?
My priority for the tandem wheelset is strength over all other factors as a loaded touring tandem is really, really heavy! 26inch wheels provide shorter spokes which I lace up to super strong Rigida Andra 30 rims.
What Rims and Tyres Do I Recommend?
Rigida make the best rims for bicycle touring. The Grizzly 700c and Andra 30 26inch are the strongest around by all accounts. Rim brake users can get these rims with a CSS carbide coating to reduce rim wear. My review of the Andra 30 is available HERE.
– If you choose a high quality 700c wheel and tyre you are able to reap the rewards of a faster and smoother rolling wheel.
– If you use good quality parts, you’re less likely to have issues in remote locations. Carrying spare parts will allow you get to less-remote places to restock.
– Not everyone can afford the highest quality wheel and tyre parts. If this is you, a 26inch wheel will offer more strength for your buck.