Let's take a look at 700c vs 26 inch wheels for bicycle touring. I've ridden both for thousands of miles all over the world on bicycle tours, and here's my opinion on what's best.
700c vs 26 Inch Wheels for Bicycle Touring
The subject of which is the best wheel size for bicycle touring can lead to heated discussions that often ramble on for several days in forums and Facebook groups.
In fact, the 700c vs 26 inch wheel debate can sometimes be as passionate as the cycling helmet one!Over the course of several long distance cycling trips around the world, I have come to my own conclusions which is the best size.
For example, when I cycled from England to South Africa, I used a 700c touring bike. When I cycled from Alaska to Argentina, I used a 26 inch touring bike.
Arguably, I should have used these the other way around!
Still, based on 40,000 kms bicycle touring, I've concluded that overall, 26 inch wheels are the best for bike touring. But first…
Difference Between 700c And 26 Inch Wheels
What really is the difference between 700c vs 26 inch wheels. Really?
Obviously, one is slightly bigger than the other one, that goes without saying. But what else is there?
The answer to this from a technical point of view, is that 26 inch touring wheels are stronger. As touring bicycles carry quite a bit of weight in terms of luggage and of course the cyclist themselves, this is important.
Considerable strain on the wheels, especially when cycling over rough roads, will lead to broken spokes with weaker 700c wheels. Trust me, I've been there and done that!
But don't 700c Wheel bikes go faster?
I'm going to say yes on this one, I think they do. I don't have exact figures which are scientifically proven, but I would say you could average a km or 2 an hour faster on a 700c touring bike when compared to a 26 inch one.
This is only on sealed roads though. I believe that a 700c wheel bike wouldn't give the same advantage over rougher terrain on a fully loaded touring bike.
But what about wide tyres?
Being able to fit wider tyres on 26 inchers is also a trait that makes them the best wheel size for bicycle touring. Whilst skinny tyres are required for high speed road racing, they are less than desirable for bicycle touring, especially on rough roads.
Wider tyres will give better grip, and this is most noticeable on sandy sections. Again, when I cycled through the deserts of Sudan, although I managed it on 700c wheels, life would have been a lot easier with 26'ers.
Note: Yes, I know all about fat bikes! They were a bit of a fad overall though, and not really what we're talking about here in terms of touring bicycles.
Will 26 inch wheels disappear?
This is a very valid question. There has been a move away from 26 inch wheel in the western world. Nowadays, you'd struggle to buy a new mountain bike with 26 inch rims.
Touring bikes however, are still available in 26 inch through many bike builders such as Thorn, Stanforth and Surly to name a few. The reason they are still made for touring, is that in the rest of the world it is still very much the standard size.
Perhaps before choosing between 26 or 700c wheels for touring, you'd need to work out in which parts of the world you are most likely to cycle.
Expedition Touring Bike
The 26 inch touring bike above is a Stanforth Kibo+, which I rode from Greece to England.
When cycling in less developed countries, where roads and terrain may be rougher, an expedition bike is perhaps most suitable. Heavy duty, and built to last for years, the Thorn Nomad is perhaps the most well known (if expensive) model.
In my opinion, an expedition bike is much better off with 26 inch wheels. This type of bike is meant to go off the beaten path, and is suited for less developed countries.
Expedition bicycles are sturdy and hard going. They should also have simple parts that can be swapped in and out readily, even if the quality of local parts isn't of a high standard. It's better to be able to get something than nothing in an fix!
When it comes to 26 inch vs 700c wheels, you can find tyres and inner tubes for 26 wheels in most places if you look hard enough. There will also be plenty of people riding old bikes with wheels of this size you might be able to scavenge from!
You can find some reviews of touring bikes with 26 inch wheels in my touring bike reviews section.
Sealed Road Cycling
The 700c bike for touring above is the Stanforth Skyelander, which I rode around the Peloponnese in Greece.
If your bike touring adventures are likely to take place in developed countries on sealed roads, then 700c wheels are probably the better choice. You are going to be able to more easily find tyres and inner tubes, and the larger wheel will cover ground quicker.
A ‘classic' touring bike is the most common one sold, and most feature 700c wheels.
26″ Wheels Pros for touring
- Easy to find 26 inch tires in the developing world, along with tubes and spokes.
- This was the standard for mountain bikes in the day. Millions of existing bikes to salvage parts from if you need to.
- Smaller wheels like the 26 are better for shorter cyclists
- The wheels of a 26″ touring bike are stronger
- Better for going up steep hills with heavy loads
26″ Wheels Cons for touring
- Harder to find spares in regular bike shops in the developed world.
- You can find parts in the developing world, but they're normally low quality.
- Takes more energy to keep up with a 700c touring bike
- Don't roll as well over bigger obstacles
700c Wheels Pros for touring
- More readily available in the developed world
- Maintains a higher speed with less energy needed
- Better for people taller than 5 foot 6
- It's the current trend (but beware, they are trying to swap to 650b – but that's a different story!)
700c Wheels Cons for touring
- Difficult or next to impossible to find parts in developing world
- More likely to throw a spoke
- Toe overlap issues on some frames
- Smaller tire clearance which may limit tire size
- The 700c bike size is less suited for shorter riders
700c vs 26″ Wheels Decider
The real question to ask yourself is where are you going to ride your bike? Developing countries or more developed countries?
This decider in the debate between 700c vs 26 inch wheels comes down to the availability of tyres and inner tubes. 26 inch wheels are simply the most common wheel size found throughout the world when compared to 700c.
This means that buying tyres, inner tubes and even new rims should they be needed is much easier, especially in less developed countries.
I learned the hard way when cycling England to Africa on 700c wheels, that I would have been far better off on 26 inch wheels. I couldn't find any new inner tubes or tyres for over 2000 miles, and ended up getting new tyres and inner tubes flown out to me at a great expense. Seriously!
So, cycling in developed countries, you should consider a 700cc wheel touring bike.
Cycling in developing countries, a 26 inch expedition touring bicycle would be better.
700c vs 26 Inch wheels conclusion
So, short, sweet, and to the point. In my opinion, the best wheel size for long distance bicycle touring is 26 inch, and indeed this is the wheel size I have chosen for my current expedition bicycle. The reason is, that it will give flexibility in developed countries and less developed countries alike.
I'm certainly not saying that I will never throw a spoke again, or will be able to find spare tyres in every country I cycle through, but overall, having 26 inch wheels for bicycle touring makes far more sense than having 700c wheels.
If you have an opinion on 700c wheels vs 26 inch for bikepacking, I'd love to hear them. Leave a comment at the end of this cycle touring blog post!
The Best Bike for Bicycle Touring
As this video is also related to the best wheel size for expedition bicycle touring, you might want to check it out. It's only 3 minutes or so. I also have a useful collection of bicycle touring tips that is worth a read.
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