A Look at Common Wheel Sizes

700C

Bicycle wheels have been produced in a bewildering variety of sizes over the years. Fortunately, the modern bike commuter only needs to be aware of the few sizes that are commonly in use today.

700C, aka 29 inch (622mm)
700C is the most common modern road bike wheel size. This size offers the widest selection of tires and other wheel components, the best compatibility across various bike brands and models, and comparatively low rolling resistance. Drawbacks include difficulties associated with designing small frames around big wheels, and slightly less toughness than smaller wheels. In mountain biking circles, 700C wheels are called “29 inch”.

26 inch (559mm)
26 inch is the standard mountain bike and cruiser wheel size. As you might expect, a broad selection of strong rims and wide tires are available in this size. We’re starting to see more utility and cargo bikes designed around this smaller wheel (for example, my Civia Loring uses 26 inch wheels). Advantages include the ease of building smaller frames around this size, and generally higher strength due to the smaller diameter. When used with narrow, high pressure tires, 26 inch wheels can sometimes provide a harsh ride.

650B (584mm)
650B is an old French wheel size that was popular in that country for use on touring bikes and tandems. It was never widely used here in the U.S. though it’s seeing a bit of a resurgence due primarily to being promoted by Grant Petersen, Jan Heine, and the late Sheldon Brown. At 584mm, the 650B size essentially splits the difference between 700C and 26 inch. It’s a good choice for smaller frame sizes (for example, Michael’s Rivendell Betty Foy uses 650B wheels). Though there are some very nice tires being manufactured in the 650B size, the overall selection is severely limited in comparison to 700C and 26 inch. 700C road bikes with limited tire clearance are sometimes converted to 650B which allows for the use of wider tires.

Small Wheels (16”/349mm, 20”/406mm)
Small wheels are used on folding bikes and mini velos. They enable bike designers to build compact bikes that are easy to take on public transit and store in small spaces. 16 inch and 20 inch wheels tend to provide a harsh ride, hence the fairly common use of suspension on bikes spec’d with these wheels.

Others
For a comprehensive list of the wide range of wheel sizes produced over the years, see Sheldon Brown’s page on Tire Sizing Systems.

13 Responses to “A Look at Common Wheel Sizes”

  • Sam Joslin says:

    I like all the experiments in mechanical suspension over the past 30 years, but plenty of people have pointed out that old-time air suspension – the air in the tires – is still the cheapest and lightest suspension there is. As a fan of folding bikes, I’d like to see even wider high-quality tires in smaller diameters. For instance, I’d love to experiment with some three or three-and-a-half-inch-wide tires in 12 and 14-inch diameters to be able to pop a rideable machine out of a piece of standard roll-behind luggage.

    Or find out, definitively, why Brompton hasn’t done it yet.

  • patrick says:

    wouldn’t that be awesome! If there were only those few sizes…You break it down really well and you did it without passing any judgement on any sizes. You are mostly dead on for all new bikes but, I would argue that the 26 inch size is the most common, easiest to find, and the greatest degrees of quality(from complete junk to bulletproof). And from working at a bike shop in america, I like the 27″ (unlisted in the big list) as a tie for 700c as the next popular size. When people bring in old bikes one gets all manner of sizes. The 650b is a boutique size. There isn’t a mainstream bike that uses that size and ones LBS isn’t likely to carry tires or wheels. They will of course order the parts though. I feel bad for bike shops, there are so many tires they have to carry, not just bead size but tread, width, quality… and still so many folks will supplant their local shop by going with mail order.

  • voyage says:

    @Alan

    “16 inch and 20 inch wheels tend to provide a harsh ride, hence the fairly common use of suspension on bikes spec’d with these wheels.”

    I agree that the ride is relatively harsh on small wheels; that’s just physics. But I quibble with suspension forks and frames being “fairly common.” I realize such suspension efforts on small bikes are out there, but I think they are rare, not fairly common. Seems to me the cost-, weight-, and simplicity-effective solution on these bikes lies in the tires, if it’s that big of an issue for the user.

  • Aaron C says:

    As there is currently no comparable tire in 700c to the fantastic 650Bx42 Grand Bois Hetre, it is of my opinion that the selection of 700c tires is the one that is severely limited :-)

  • Alan says:

    @Patrick

    Good points! I thought about including 27″ because that size was so widespread in years past, but I know of no mainstream manufacturer currently speccing 27″ wheels.

    You are spot on about 650B being a boutique size. It just seems to be an upcoming size among our readership here at EcoVelo, so I felt it was worth including.

    Thanks!
    Alan

  • John Ferguson says:

    I disagree – with the increasing popularity of cyclocross and 29er mountain bikes, there are now (in the last 5 years, for sure) plenty of tire sizes and selections for the 622 mm rim. 700 x 42 is getting to be a pretty common size. And bigger wheels roll more smoothly, so less suspension in the tire is needed for the same ride quality on the rough stuff.

  • Alan says:

    @voyage

    I was thinking Moulton, Birdy, Brompton, Airnimal, Downtube, and various Dahon models. I think there are a few others as well. At least in the world of folders, there are quite a few suspended models.

    Tires with high flotation are certainly a good option to mitigate for small wheel harshness.

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Aaron C

    “As there is currently no comparable tire in 700c to the fantastic 650Bx42 Grand Bois Hetre, it is of my opinion that the selection of 700c tires is the one that is severely limited.”

    :-)

  • Joseph E says:

    The other very common sizes (in the past, and in other countries) were 27 inch (630 mm_), and 26 x 1 3/8 (590 mm, except for Scwhinn!)

    Even today many utility bikes in Europe and Asia have 27 inch (630 mm) wheels, and there are millions of old American and Asian bikes with 26 x 1 3/8 (590 mm) wheels. In fact, Wal-Mart and K-Mart usually carry tubes and tires for 26 x 1 3/8 bikes.

    However, it’s true that almost all good quality bikes use 700c (622 mm) or 26 inch (559 mm) wheels.

    It’s a shame that the good quality tires in the in-between size are being made for 584 mm (650B) wheels, instead of the much more common 590 mm size. I wish I could put some Grand Bois tires on my old 3-speed with 26 x 1 3/8 wheels (though they would be worth more than the rest of the bike combined!)

  • Ryan says:

    I just recently bought a Rivendell Sam Hillborne with 650b wheels. Great bike that rides wonderfully. It may be a boutique size, but many of the tires for 650b wheels are awesome and I honestly think that for my height, it may be the perfect road bike wheel size for me.

  • Oli says:

    16″/305mm and 18″/355mm are also common wheel sizes in (continental) Europe. Even without suspension I find 20″ wheels with wide good quality tires not harsh at all.

    http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~hadland/page15.html

  • kanishka azimi (new england!) says:

    i’m really curious about 700c, seeing what my actual speed differences are on them versus 20″ marathon racers.. i assume there are options for touring/commuters still in 700c size range. i’ve only biked for a long period of time on 20″ marathon racers, 20″ marathon plus, 16″ marathon, and 26″ generic on old ten speed.

  • Tommy Douglas Ray says:

    And to muddy the waters even further, 29s used to be known as 28s. The rims of my wife’s aged Raleigh are stamped 28X1.75 and the tires she is using are Conti Top Touring 2000s, which are marked “47-622 (28X1.75)”.

    They are very nice tires, by the way.

 
© 2011 EcoVelo™