By: Casey Fittz
There's been a lot of anticipation for our new off road touring bike, the Camargue. The frame prototypes have been very well received at shows, but there has been one comment that keeps coming up: why 26" wheels? The smaller sizes of the Camargue (47cm, 50cm, and 53cm) are all designed around 26" wheels. This is a big deal for some people because there is a common notion that 26" wheels are 'slow'. I think that in many ways this notion is misinformed. While it is true that wider tires cause more rolling resistance, the Camargue is designed for the same tire width across all frame sizes. In an ideal scenario, where tire and rim availability are not a factor, there should be two main factors in choosing wheel size: frame size, and intended riding type, with frame size being the most constraining factor.
Before we delve into this any more, some quick background. There are currently three wheel sizes prevalent on the market: 26" (559 BSD); 650b/27 1/2"(584 BSD); and 700c/29" (622 BSD). The 650b sizing has most recently had a resurgence in the mountain bike industry. The world of 650b wheels is no stranger to us at Velo Orange. We've been selling a 650b frame, the Polyvalent, for many years, along with rims and fenders. So why are there so many different wheel sizes? For a while most mountain bikers were riding 26" wheels, then everyone threw those away for 29" wheels, and now we're on to 27 1/2" wheels. The bicycle propaganda machine would have you believe that there are a bunch of scientists deliberating over the ideal wheel size. They're probably hard at work, running experiments in their labs, calculating inertia and rolling resistance and all of those things. In a few years we'll be one step closer to the true ideal wheel size (27"??), but for now we have 700c for road bikes and 27 1/2" for mountain bikes.
Here's why I think everyone keeps switching wheel sizes: planned obsolescence. Design for obsolescence (DFO) is a normal enough principle in the engineering world; it often goes hand in hand with design for failure (DFF). You can see plenty of examples of this in the phone and auto industries. However, the phone and auto industries have it a lot easier. They are selling more complicated products that the layman doesn't have the time to understand. They can make shoddy cars that will need to be replaced sooner than later. New technologies are often cited as reasons to convince the consumer to buy a new car. Fortunately, DFO isn't so easy in the bike industry. It's not hard to look at a bike and determine its overall quality. Likewise, it's not hard to make a bike that will last. This is a problem for the industry: the market has the potential to become saturated with frames, and frame sales will drop off to some degree. The solution to this problem is to convince everyone that their old frames are obsolete. Changing the predominant wheel size is a great way to do this.
Here is the good news: with the predominant wheel size constantly changing, there are more and more wheel and tire size options being made available. In my ideal world there would be tons of different wheel sizes, all with different rim width options and different tire type/size options. Like I said earlier, there should be two main design factors in choosing wheel size for a frame: type of riding and frame size. The frame size should be the dominant constraint. Ideally, wheel size should scale with frame size. When you design a frame around a wheel that is too large or too small for it you are forced to make sacrifices in the geometry which will affect handling. Proper handling should trump the supposed benefits of a certain wheel size. Thinking of a bicycle in terms of a tool, an extension of our bodies, it makes sense that it should be particularly sized to suit us. We buy a frame that fits us in the same way that we buy a pair of pants that fits us. Likewise, when you go to buy shoes you get a pair that fits you and is appropriate for how you intend to use them. A conniving salesmen might try to tell you that a larger size shoe would give you more traction because it has more surface area, and he'd be right, but you'd know that the blisters caused by too large of a shoe wouldn't be worth it.
For example, I'm 6'3" and Scott is 5'7". I ride a 59cm Camargue which has 29" wheels, and Scott rides the 53cm Camargue with 26" wheels.