Bicycles

700c vs 26 Inch Wheels – Which Is Best?

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Bicycle Touring Pro reader, Thomas Hickenbottom, recently sent me the following email:

Darren,

There’s the debate going on about whether to use 26″ wheels/tires or 700c…whats your take on this …also what about clinchers versus disc brakes…thank you for your consideration….I’m going to have a touring bike built soon and would love to have your input on these two very important considerations…thank you for your time and watch out for cars!!!

Thomas Hickenbottom

First of all, I don’t know if there is any reason to debate wheel sizes. In my mind at least, it’s just a personal choice you get to make when selecting the bike you plan to take on your trip.

However, the choice you make depends very much on where exactly you plan to go on your travels.

26 Inch Wheels

While most traditional touring bikes come with 700c wheels, those traveling to remote areas of the world are usually better suited with a pair of 26 inch wheels. There are two main reasons for this:

1). 26 inch wheels are the kind you see on most mountain bikes. So using these types of wheels/tires is usually better for travel on dirt roads, rocky trails, and in areas where the streets are less than perfect.

2). But more than anything, 26 inch wheels are best to use in remote places of the world because the bike shops in these areas are unlike to carry 700c wheels/tires. The 26 inch wheel is standard just about everywhere in the world… where as 700c wheels are not. So if you take a bike with 700c wheels on a trip around the world and then find yourself in need of a new tire in a place where they only carry 26 inch tires, you’re gonna to be stuck!

This alone is huge. And this, in my opinion at least, is the #1 reason you should go with 26 inch wheels if you are planning to travel to a place in the world where bike shops are few and far between.

On a personal note, I just got finished riding my bicycle through Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia… and the entire time I was in these countries I was unable to find a bike shop that carried 700c wheels. There may have been one… somewhere… but I couldn’t find it. 26 inch wheels, on the other hand, were absolutely everywhere.

700c Wheels

That said, most bicycle tourists don’t travel around the world or go to especially remote places. Most people who travel by bike stick to paved roads and many of them cycle in areas where 700c wheels are easy to find at local shops and repair houses.

For cyclists in North America, Western Europe, and a few other spots around the globe, finding 700c wheels/tires won’t be a problem. So, if you plan to ride in one of these areas, then using a bike with 700c wheels is an excellent choice.

Disc Brakes vs. Rim Brakes

Here too, it’s not really an issue of which is better (although disc brakes probably are a lot better for quick stops), but an issue of availability when you are out on the road.

In much the same way that finding parts for a 700c wheel is difficult in remote areas of the world, finding the parts/brake pads for disc brakes can also be extremely difficult.

So you see, it’s not really about which is better… but instead, about 1) personal choice and 2) where you plan on going.

If you’re going to stick to the roads and cycle in a relatively modern locale, then 700c wheels and disc brakes will be great. But if you’re planning to head off-road and/or cycle through a part of the world where bike shops carry just a few standard parts, then 26 inch wheels and your standard rim brakes are the way to go!

What do you think about my advice here? Is there anything else I should add? How did you decide what type of wheels/brakes to use on your touring bicycle?

Bicycle wheel photo by Duchamp

About Darren Alff

Darren Alff is a world-renowned authority on bicycle touring and is the founder of BicycleTouringPro.com - the world's most popular bicycle touring website and how-to information source. He is the developer of "The Ultimate Bike Tour Training Course," and the author of four additional cycling books: The Bicycle Touring Blueprint, The Essential Guide to Touring Bicycles, Winter Cycling and Stretching for Cyclists. Darren has dedicated his life to helping others conduct the bicycle tour of their dreams. His websites, books, email newsletter, products and public appearances now inspire and assist hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world.

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22 Comments

  1. ToddBS

    August 1, 2009 at 9:35 am

    I think you are spot-on on both accounts. I don’t generally give much weight to either as all of my riding will be done in North America (pretty confident I’ll never see the entire continent in my lifetime) where availability is not an issue.

    One other consideration of the 26″ wheels beyond their availability is their durability. It’s debatable, but smaller wheels are generally stronger than larger ones. 26″ tires also come in much wider varieties – with larger air volume – than 700c tires and can be run at lower psi (depending on the tire of course). This helps to smooth out rough riding like fire roads and trails.

    Part of the problem with disc brakes too is the lack of options for road bikes. The vast majority of your road frames are not constructed for disc brake use.

    That said, I am in the process of building a more off road oriented bike (I’ve heard the term “expedition bike” used) based on an MTB frame that will use disc brakes and can take either 700c (29″) wheels or 26″ at my discretion. I plan on riding at least part of the GDR in the next couple of years on it.

  2. BrianT

    August 3, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Darren,

    I have a similar question with a bit of a twist.

    It’s been several years since my last tour, but my next trip will be about 350 miles on the east coast of the US. Half of the trip will be on crushed limestone & asphalt while the second half is a trail that is not much more than an old dirt road.

    My current touring bike has 700x28c tires on it. It can handle up to a 700x32c. Do you think that the 32′s would be wide enough for this trip, or should I put smaller and wider 650B wheels with a 37 or 38 tire (smaller wider wheel allowing for bigger tire at lower pressure) to soften the beating of some of the rougher terrain?

    I’m striuggling with this one. Thanks for your insight!

  3. JimboTrek

    August 5, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    I can’t say which wheels are best because I’ve only ridden bike with 26″ wheels. They are definitely the more popular size (largely because of MTBs). Once I had cracked a 26″ Mavic rear rim riding down a hill in Utah, and was easily able to get it replaced with a new, even stronger Mavic rim at a LBS…for $20! However, I believe my cantilever rim brakes cracked my rim. I was touring with approx 50 lbs of gear, in Utah (warm day), going down a hill, and I think the brake pads overheated the rim to the point it simply cracked & bucked! I’m still riding the same bike with that replacement rim 10 years later! (Still using the same rear brake, but front was replaced w/ a “V” brake). I’ve noted on tours that riding through rain & wet roads, rim brake performances suffers a lot! My next bike will definitely have disc breaks (but probably mechanical disc, not hydraulic…I’ve read that hydraulic is NOT ideal for touring, because the fluid can possibly overheat and thus fail. Hydraulic brakes also require more maintenance.) Yeah, rim brake spare parts can be found worldwide, while disc replacement parts might be tough to find internationally, but if you’re doing a foreign or extensive tour, it be very wise to carry a spare disc rotor, caliper, etc. along with you anyway.

    With that said, I recently tried a friend’s dualie MTB with hydraulic brakes, and couldn’t believe the awesome stopping power (although very sensitive!) IMHO, I think for touring purposes (when you combine the extra weight of gear + heat of summer + rainy conditions, etc.) you absolutely NEED increased stopping power…thus (mechanical) disc brakes are the way to go. Disc brakes are now fairly common on good MTBs & hybrids, but still rare on traditional touring bikes…

  4. JimboTrek

    August 5, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Just FYI…for modern/fine art lovers out there…(See attached photo above, but that one might be a knock off) The wheel/stool is called: “Bicycle Wheel” by Marcel Duchamp…located in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC…(I’ve personally seen it…and dig it!)

    http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=81631

  5. Jason

    August 18, 2009 at 9:16 am

    @BrianT: I’m not 100% sure, but if you put smaller diameter rims, your brakes may no longer line up to the rim.

  6. BrianT

    August 18, 2009 at 11:13 am

    @Jason – Your are 100% correct. With the smaller wheel diameter you do need long reach brakes. There’s a lot of good information online for converting a standard 700c road or touring bike to a 650b ride. Since most 700c bikes have limited tire clearance, this “conversion” to a smaller diameter wheel allows for a wider range of tires. This gives you the flexibility to travel roads that might be difficult on a thin road tire…and it softens the ride a little too. The bike has to meet specific minimum measurements, but it is an interesting option if you want to make an older road or touring bike a little more versatile.

  7. DougW

    March 22, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    My brain tells me everything you wrote about 700 wheels and disc brakes is 100% true, but my heart wants to believe otherwise. I’m a pretty avid mountain biker who made the switch to riding a 29er a few years ago and have been running disc brakes for a long time and I just can’t bear the thought of going back to a 26″ setup with V-brakes for touring (though I know the terrain and conditions will be far milder than the singletrack I ride in the PNW). My wife and I are planning some international bike travel through Morocco and southern Europe and into Turkey then over to southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam).

    I don’t mind carrying an extra rotor and set of pads with me, but is it really impossible to find 700c wheel parts/tires/tubes in these corners of the world?

    Follow-up question: If running a 29er with a disc-brake system, wouldn’t I be able to just slap a 26 inch wheel on if I really found myself in a jam? At least until I got someplace where I could put a new 29er wheel on it?

  8. Bicycle Touring Pro

    March 22, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    DougW, I think it all depends on where you plan to go in the world and how long you plan to be there. For the traveler that plans to be on the road for months or even years on end, then 26 inch wheels still seems like the best way to go.

    When I rode through Macedonia this last year I was in a small town in the eastern (less-populated) side of the country and I stopped at several bike shops looking for a simple bottle of chain lube. Not only did they not have any chain lube, but the only parts they were carrying were for 26 inch mountain bikes and children’s bicycles. There were no 29″ or 700c wheel/tire options… and this is the sort of thing you run into when you get into more remote areas of the world.

    If you want to use your 29″er I think that will probably be fine. Just bring some extra disc brake parts/pads and spokes for your wheels… and know how to put those new spokes in if you do end up needing them.

  9. maraza

    April 20, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    Im thinking about to change my 26″ rim to 700c rim. Can it be doing simply without changing any other part like brake etc? Any opinion?

  10. Serdar

    May 8, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I am from Turkey; I definitely suggest 26¨ rims in long trips to the eastern.

    A couple came stayed in my house about five days which were coming from Switzerland and was going to China. They used hydraulic disk brakes and they never had any problem with it. Their tour was excellent and took one year about 13.000 kms. They used 26¨ tires also. Sometimes i saw touring cyclists using 700c tires which are passing thorough Istanbul in Turkey. 700c tires is enough but after Turkey in the Asia the roads are becoming like trails. You would really need strong tires and i am suggesting 26¨ rims and tires larger dan 1,75 like 26X1,90.

  11. Tyler

    July 27, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    It seems that for any type of touring, a 26″ wheel/tire will be better. I would recommend a bike that can accomodate a fat-tire on a 26″ wheel – this way you can throw a pair of 700c wheels with smaller tires and have a speedier bike if needed

    Strength – 26″ wheels can be built to be far more durable than 700c, little more durable than 650B

    smaller diameter wheel = shorter spoke length + less flex = stronger/more durable wheel

    Of course any wheel size can be built strong enough for most touring

    Availability: already discussed

    Versatility of acceptable road/trails: built with a semi-fat tire, the 26″ size is squishier (lower psi) when needed on trails/dirt roads but can still increase psi for smoother roads when efficiency is key

    Depending on the size tire and rim width chosen (of which there is a larger variety to choose from) – a 26″ wheel/tire can “fill” the empty space on touring bikes built for taller wheels – meaning: you can usually throw a 26″ wheel with semi-fat tire onto a 650B or 700c tour-bike while preserving the bike’s geometry (keeping the bottom bracket height relatively the same – *under higher psi*). Of course this will only really work if the bike is originally built with disc brakes – without disc brakes, you can’t readily adapt to different wheel sizes…

    …which is why discs would also be better: smoother, more sustained stopping power on long descents, still work great (albeit squeeky) in the rain/muck – Avid BB7 brakes (mechanicals) are pretty dang inexpensive, fool-proof and really easy to maintain/adjust on the fly, plus spare pads are smaller/flatter (slightly more packable)

    if you destroy one of the disc brakes (which is unlikely – usually a bent disc is all the happens), then simply throw/keep the remaining set-up on the rear wheel and use only one brake – you will *still* have enough power to smoothly stop your bike under a heavy load

    what is really nice, is that there are tons of mountain bikes in the 26″ size that can accomodate the taller 700c w/skinnies and can be adapted beautifully to the tourer’s needs

  12. Tyler

    July 27, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    By the way, has anybody toured from Prince Rupert, BC to Bellingham, WA?

  13. Nigel (Hoffy)

    May 8, 2011 at 12:21 am

    I’ve toured using both 650s and 700 rims, I carry a LOT of gear and if you use good quality rims and hubs I can only say there’s not much difference strength wise, BUT if you plan on doing serious mileage 700s eat 650s for brekky, a 700 wheel is just sooooo much easier on the legs, using 700s I can expect to cover %20 more distance per day, I tour in Australia where bike parts are super plentiful so that makes a difference, when I go bush like in South Australia on Kangaroo Island the Avanti with 650s was the ducks nuts, real good, I now have a Salsa with 700s, it’s a dream on tarmac,…………

  14. Eric Hendrickson

    August 3, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Have to differ with you on disc brake, this year we have done just over six weeks, 3000 km off road bike touring (Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec) and use disc brakes with great success. Started two years ago when it was raining hard and we had a heavy load with mud and the V brakes I had just did not do the trick while my wife had disc and stopped fine. When I got home I replaced my brakes and have been happy ever since. We use both front and rear panniers and have no issues with disc brakes. We gave up on the bar bag as off-road it causes issues.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      August 6, 2011 at 12:30 pm

      I agree with you actually Eric. Disc brakes do provide superior stopping power… and for an off-road tour like the one you say you did, disc brakes will work a whole lot better. The problem with disc brakes on a world tour, however, is that the parts can be hard to find. So if you bend a disc or need new pads, they will be almost impossible to find. So getting those parts is difficult, and that’s why it is sometimes better to stick to more basic bicycle parts. But you are right, disc brakes do provide more stopping power and for off-road tours such as yours, they might be the ideal solution.

  15. joan

    September 27, 2011 at 5:55 am

    What about if I take a 27/ 1 / 1/4 bicycle. Like the one I have. At least that`s the way I call it.. Old but there are may there specially Latin America, Europe, Africa, Australia, Russia, etc etc. Or parts are gone. Help me here…Amen

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      September 28, 2011 at 10:36 am

      Joan, I’m not sure what you are asking. Can you ask your question again so I can try to understand better?

  16. Zac

    November 29, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    Disc brakes are great.

    If you are truly concerned about replacement parts you might consider the following. Build your wheelsets with discs using rims designed for rim brakes. Select a bike frame that is equipped for both disc and rim brakes. Set the bike up with cable actuated disc brakes. The levers will work with either type of brake.

    This way if you have a major brake failure in an area of the world where only rim brake parts can be found, simply put on a commonly available rim brake. You can have replacement parts shipped to you at some point up the road!

  17. Hannuman

    January 3, 2012 at 8:14 am

    In all but the remotest places in Thailand you’ll be sure to have access to 700c tubes and tyres .I run two Giants,one hardtail, one softtail and a Cannondale out here in the rice paddis ,about 240km from Bangkok .All are fitted with 700c ,36 spoke wheels I do alot of unmetalled road riding because there are not so many tarmac’d roads around..Whilst I agree 26′ wheels were the accepted norm twenty odd years ago, many bikes ride on the larger wheels now .I wouldn’t have any other . They make for long legged effortless riding in 53/11 mode in the flat terrain of the central rice plains.I’ve not come across a bike shop that doesn’t have 700c tyres .Occasionally you’ll find there are no tubes available so have to make do with 27″ or 28″ tubes .or even 26″ as a temporary measure ……..27″ are the best substitute .

  18. Owen

    January 27, 2012 at 7:22 am

    This thread has been going for 2 years now – and with every month that goes by, the importance of 26-inch wheels diminishes. With the advent of 29-inch mountainbike wheels (same size as 700c), this size is going to become a lot more available. A few quick googles will reveal that they are already sold in major cities throughout Southeast Asia, China and the Indian Subcontinent…

    As for Europe, 29ers in the past were banned from mountain bike races there…. this has changed in most countries, so what you will see is more companies mass producing 29ers in Europe (and sponsoring riders to ride them) … this will result in more availability of the bikes, and the parts. It will spread to Eastern Europe soon enough.

    Yes, there will continue to be VERY remote areas where they only ride 26 inch wheels… but in these areas, you should be self sufficient with parts anyway (tubes, spokes, probably even a spare tyre)

    As for disc brakes, they are fine, as long as you have mechanical ones and not hydraulics. The brake pads are only small, so you can fit plenty of spares in your luggage.

  19. jim sadler

    December 13, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    On some motorcycles, if raced or driven severely brake fluid can boil. Because of this silicone brake fluids are used. But that sort of thing should not be a problem on a bicycle. The forces involved should rarely be enough to make brake fluid boil. If they were that violent your V brakes and caliper brakes would melt their pads in a heartbeat. Keeping it simple sort of implies that very simple brake systems are best on bicycles.

  20. Martin C Ruiz

    March 20, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    I have been intrigued for sometime by the actual physics of disc versus caliper brakes. Not so much which is more effective as I believe disc are but about the actual force one or the other effects on the wheel and spokes of a fully loaded touring bike. On a down-hill panic application of the brakes, would the force applied on the turning wheel make one style more prone to collapsing the spokes than the other?

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