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kissbike

tech-talk: 700c, 26" and 650b wheels



(Again, for the benefit of my non-bikey pals, I'll keep the language simple. This post is all about wheel sizes.)

Bicycles are available in a number of wheel sizes. The three I deal with the most, both as a bicycle owner and a shop mechanic, are:

700c: road and road-touring. Smaller diameter than the old 27" wheel, which it has supplanted on all newer road bikes.

26" (ATB): there are several different diameters of wheels which all get lumped into the 26" category. Each has a slightly different ERD, or Effective Rim Diameter (measure in millimeters). This is why, when you try to fit an old Schwinn midweight cruiser wheel with a mountain bike (ATB) tire, it doesn't quite work. For the purposes of this post, 26" refers to those wheels and tires meant for use on a mountain bike, or ATB.

650b: Larger in diameter than the ATB 26" but smaller than 700c, this wheel is also considered a 26" wheel, but we call it the "old" 26": the size typically used on the old Schwinn midweight cruiser. In the US, it was formerly called 26" x 1 1/2". For the uninitiated, this is a wheel size that has been in limited use, primarily in France and primarily for cyclotouring purposes. Outside France the wheel size has been harder to find. Recently, there has been a small but passionate effort to reintroduce this wheel size to the US and other markets. By and large, this has meant one of two things:
a. designing new frames to handle the 650b wheel size; OR
b. providing the necessary parts in order to convert an older 700c-wheeled bike to a 650b-wheeled bike.

(Warning: Heretical rant alert!)

Two years ago I was invited to participate in test-building and riding for a new frame design from a small company. The company was designing a bike frame that would use 650b wheels. The design was not intended to be used only for long-distance cyclotouring, although that would likely be its first market of focus. This frame was designed with the hope of making 650b more popular as a wheel size appropriate for all kinds of riding: touring, rough-stuff/off-road traveling, commuting and even cargo-hauling.

I was honored to be among the dozen or so mechanics invited to help with testing. In due time I received my prototype frame and built it up, keeping careful notes throughout the testing process and dutifully sending a copy of my notes back to the frame designer.

In truth, I found the testing process far more interesting than actually owning the bike. (When testing was over the frame was mine to keep and ride.) I tried to ride it a lot and enjoy it but found that I couldn't. I already had two bikes, a 700c-wheeled road bike and a 26"-wheeled mountain bike that I'd converted for city use. Between these two bikes, my bicycle-riding needs were pretty much met. While there was a noticeable difference in the ride quality between my ATB and this new 650b-wheeled bike, in the end the difference was not large enough for me to feel like I owned three distinctly different bikes.

When got money really tight this spring and I was forced to sell one of my three bikes, it was an easy choice: I sold the 650b, to a woman who'd been looking for one and was thrilled to find mine. I haven't missed the bike at all since I sold it.

Since the "grand re-introduction" of the 650b wheel size into the US market roughly three years ago, supply of the rims and tires needed to make these bikes happen has been small and occasionally spotty. To my thinking the number one reason is that the wheel size just hasn't made enough of a splash. Most bicyclists are still riding their older 700c or 26" bikes and are happy with them.

On an more purely economic note, selling the 650b wheel size as a do-all, go-everywhere wheel doesn't work either, simply because too few manufacturers make the wheel size. So if you already ride a 700c or 26" bike for transportation, you're not likely to need -- or want -- a new bike that takes what is still considered an oddball wheel size. When it's time for you to buy a new bike you're more likely to stick with a wheel and size you know is readily available, and which offers a wide variety of tire patterns and widths. (At present, the 650b tire selection is limited to perhaps eight different models, with half of those being out of stock at any given time.)

650b has received a mixed response, even from the bike hobbyists. And again I think it's economics. For every wheel size represented in your "stable" of bikes, you need to keep on hand a supply of tires, tubes (and rims, if you build your own wheels). This is fine for those bicycle enthusiasts with sufficient space -- a garage or a roomy basement. But for someone with limited space -- a shed or perhaps an entryway at best, where one can store bikes and gear -- the proposition of owning and supporting bikes with three different, non-interchangeable wheel sizes becomes, frankly, ridiculous.

My road bike handles the long-distance riding, including brevets and touring.
My city bike (formerly an ATB) handles the daily commuting with loads; it tows the trailer and carries the bike buckets filled with groceries.
Do I need a bike with a third wheel size? This was a question that plagued me constantly throughout the testing process, because I was testing this bike with my customers in mind, not just my own bicycle tastes. In the end the answer was No.

Which is good, because now I am reading almost daily posts from bike buddies who complain of the limited and/or shrinking supply of 650b wheels and tires. The 650b is indeed a niche market, dependent on a much smaller and more affluent bicycle riding population. It's a wheel size that addresses relatively few frames when compared to the numbers of 700c road and 26" ATB bikes already out there. Therefore, it's just not a priority for most manufacturers. And now it seems that folks who bought into 650b are frustrated by the lack of tire and rim choices -- and the comparatively higher cost of what is available. (I'm not inclined to spend 53 dollars for a single bicycle tire, and neither are most of my customers.)

It would seem I got out of 650b just in time.

(..::ducking to avoid the sticks and stones which are surely headed my way::..)

On a side note: The company that designed my tester frame has apparently figured all this out. While they still make a 650b frame and market it aggressively, they've recently designed similar frame geometries around 700c and 26" ATB wheels. I suspect those frames will sell better, because the wheel sizes already exist in the zillions and supply lines won't be an issue. Good for them.

Comments

(Anonymous)

no sticks and stones :-) and the number of bicycles in my garage did not increase. But, speaking as a person shorter than you, I like my 650B bike. :-) I like the wheels I've got, and the tires are much less expensive (only $24!) than the tires on my hot little 700c number as well.

Best of luck on your ride!
Lynne F

thank you!

I just came home from a little send-off ride and dinner. I am looking forward to my ride and promise to tell all about it when I get back. --B

(Anonymous)

makes sense

I've always thought that 650B really only made sense for converting a low-tire/fender-clearance 700C bike...other than that, I think it's really just a marketing tool, the "new new thing" encouraging further consumerism!

(Anonymous)

Re: makes sense

650B is the best thing to happen to my bike-life since the Brooks saddle! I agree the best thing about is that you can take any number of nice, cheap 700c frames and convert it into a wonderful, versatile, comfy ride. One could argue that it's discouraging consumerism since you revive and old bike instead of buying a new one.
If you're buying a new bike anyway, you need wheels, so why not 650B?
Following Kent Peterson's blog, I've ended up here and wanted to share some thoughts on the 650b vs. debate.

I ride an early 1970s Mercier built for 27" wheels. I've been riding it with 700c (made possible by the long reach of the Mafac racers). It's very nice to have the additional space for fenders and I'm planning to put on wider tires soon. I think this is probably similar to the possibility opened up to owners of well-loved 700c bikes who want fenders, wide tires, etc. (which seems to be what you're saying, in part).

I think your discussion of 650b and their shortcomings is spot-on. It's strange, then, that I have this 'desire' for a 650b bicycle (if your predictions are right, this might be a good time to be thankful that I can't afford a such a bike right now). I wouldn't go back to 27" wheels, mostly because of the broader variety of rims and tires available to me with 700c - so what good would it do to get 650b?

Is it possible to convert a 650b to 26" (ATB) wheels when and if supply were to dry up?

-Theo "622" Roffe
Theo -- if you have the brake reach you can convert any wheels size to the next size down (or, conceivably, up).

That said, I only question the supply-line of 650b, not the ride quality. For the bike aficianado there IS a noticable difference and the ride quality of a 650b x 38 tire is lovely. But it's not lovely enough to make me keep it as part of my small, limited-space stable.

Cheers --B

(Anonymous)

If you question the supply-line of 650B, I would respectfully suggest that you're not paying attention!
I've been paying attention for about a year and a half and I've seen a new velocity rim (in addition to the 3 they already have) a new Sun rim, and a new Rigida (albeit replacing a previous model. Tires are even better: 3 new Grand Bois, a new Kogswell in the works, a couple budget models from Cycles Valhalla and a knobby from Pacenti with two more models on the way! I'm not saying that everyone should be riding 650B, ride what you like or what you have already, but supply's not an isuue. Things are definitely looking up!

(Anonymous)

Beth,

Just a short note. You wrote:
"""
this wheel is also considered a 26" wheel, but we call it the "old" 26": the size typically used on the old Schwinn midweight cruiser. In the US, it was formerly called 26" x 1 1/2".
""""

Most middleweight cruisers ran 559 tires which is why MTB's are 559. The other schwinn sizes were the 571 cruiser and the 597 lighterweight. I am not aware of any 650B use in the US for cruisers, other than some just crappy 80's schwinn mtb's which are a good source of 650B belgie aluminum rims if you come across one. The rest of those bikes were stamped dropout gaspipe crap!

I am ambivalent on 650B, I have a set of belgie aluminum rims from a schhwinn merida and will probably retrofit a raleigh sports 590 bike with them so I can play around with it on some higher quality tires.

Tarik
tsaleh.blogspot.com

(Anonymous)

Why the bad rap?

I can understand the logic in not wanting another wheel size in your fleet.

Where I lose you, however, is where you say supply is dodgy and that you seem happy to have "gotten out just in time". If that makes you feel better; fine. I won't try to convince you otherwise.

650B makes sense for me in that:

In small and mid-sized frames, proper geometries can be maintained;

TCO reduced;

The same wheels can be used for converting a sporty racer to a more comfortable bicycle;

Better quality tires (haven't found a 559mm road tire I liked (and tried plenty))

A very nice tire (Col de la Vie) can be had for $17.

Again, I can understand not wanting to stock a third wheel size personally, yet I can't understand why this size gets such a bad rap from folks when it obviously works for some.

It's just a different sized wheel, it's not a magic carpet.

my final response about 650b, at my blog anyway:

Okay. I'm responsing to the folks who wonder at my worries about the supply line of 650b (and, frankly, other things bikey).

In short: I am the lead orderer for our bike shop. I have a window on an industry that is undergoing a LOT of change in a very short time. Some of that change is tied to our local market's interest in bicycling. Portland is an amazing place to live if you want to commute by bike.

The industry is also dealing with the effects of the slow, painful death of us-based manufacturing; and that means that we are getting more and more stuff from far away and it will cost more to make and ship as the dollar gets hammered and the price of oil continues to rise. All of this makes me far more cautious than I used to be, perhaps overly so but there it is.

I am glad that 650b has made such a positive splash in the bicycle pool, and that those who have tried are largely quite pleased with the wheel size. Our shop will happily provide rims and tires as they are available (and as long as they're towards the low end in terms of price, because we strive to make bicycling affordable and sustainable). But I do not feel a personal need to make room for 650b in my stable, and one of the reasons is tied to what I'm seeing in the bigger picture.

The world won't run out of 26"/559 tires or wheels at this point in time. There will be enough laying around to resurrect, patch and otherwise repair should a period of great scarcity arrive in my lifetime. Same with 700c, and to a lesser degree with 27" (though that size is being slowly phased out by the industry and who knows what will happen).

I can't say the same about 650b with the same degree of confidence. Or even about ATB 29'ers, though since our shop almost never deals with those bikes it's a little beyond my personal experience and opinion.

End of response, and I'm closing the can of worms now.

Thanks to all wh replied for the interest in this topic.

(Anonymous)

Re: my final response about 650b, at my blog anyway:

That's the end?

(Anonymous)

Re: my final response about 650b, at my blog anyway:

I have one question for you: Assuming you convert your bike to 650b and then at some point in time everybody in America decides to stop stocking 650b tires and wheels, couldn't you just put the 700c stuff back on the bike? The trick, and it ain't much of one, is not to trash your old 700c wheels. Thank god for basements and attics...

Re: my final response about 650b, at my blog anyway:

On a personal level, in the absence of "extra" storage space (like a basement, attic or garage, none of which I have) I have to be a lot pickier in my bike and component choices. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

On a global level, I believe I also have to think more sustainably. Seriously, how sustainable is it at this point in time for the bike industry to aggressively pursue what for most American manufacturers is a relatively "new" tire and wheel size? How many bikes should one person own and store? That depends on what you need them for and how much you ride them, and that answer will be different for every bike lover. For me, it just doesn't make sense to own more than two or three bikes at most.

Whether there's a bottoming-out of the bike industry in this country -- and there may yet be, in spite of demand -- remember that nearly everything on a bicycle is now mass-produced overseas, and larger global factors will dictate marketing and manufacturing trends far more than the tastes of a few hundred or even a few thousand American bike aficionados.

Happy riding --

(Anonymous)

26 v. 650 tires

What's your take now on 650b v. 26" for smaller women's road frames? I'm curious about the availability of "performance" tires in 26" size? Who makes tires in something like a 26x1" other than Pasela. I currently own a 650b equipped road bike but I miss tires in slightly narrower 28" range. Considering going back to 26" for my next bike project.

Let me know your thoughts.

thanks

Lesli Larson

Re: 26 v. 650 tires

I'd say that while choices exist in narrow 26" tires, they won't be the same choices available in 650. What do you want your tires to do? What kind of response and ride do you want from your bike? If you're looking for paved surface performance you'll find narrower tires in 650 than in 26". If you want rough-stuff performance then you'll find choices in both.
Let's discuss by email if you want.

(Anonymous)

Re: 26 v. 650 tires

I'm definitely looking for road/performance tires. The bike will be used for randonneuring. I have 650b on my current brevet bike but I'm frustrated by the lack of tires in the narrower size range (25-28c).

Most of the mtb/26" tires I see are sized around 1.5" and look more like they're designed for commuting (which means they'll be a bit heavy for my purposes).

I've been using the Riv Maxy Fastys and Micheline Megamiums on the Riv.

Just read that Avocet no longer makes their city slicks. Bummer.

(Anonymous)

650B wheel and tire perfect for Bad Boy

Having purchased a C'Dale Bad Boy Ultra which came with 700c x 28 wheel and tire, I wanted to see what it would be like to run wider tires and less pressure for longer rides and some rough roads and since the Bad Boy (BB) will not accomodate a 29inch tire, I looked to the 650B. It was a perfect match. I was able to get a 650B wheel with disc brakes and tire size width to 2.3 inch with pressure down to 35 - 40 psi. Ride quality has improved dramatically !!! I still have the 700c wheel and tire for backup.

My next project is to try a 26inch MTN bike wheel and tire combo for taking the BB off roading. I know this combo already works from previous BB owners.

Ride on 650B !!!

(Anonymous)

The end is neigh?

"It would seem I got out of 650b just in time."

650B is going as strong as ever in 2011. I agree that having multiple wheel sizes is a bit of pain, but as someone with 16", 20", 26", 650B, 700c bikes it's more important to ride the bike you want whatever that wheel size is than to worry about stocking a few extra tubes and perhaps a spare tire or two.

(Anonymous)

Now that 650b is taking the world 'by storm', I would love to see this article revisited.

650b

"By Storm"? Really? Where? Other than at a small number of expensive boutique shops that the average bike rider can't afford to visit, I don't see 6550b "taking over" anytime soon.

I've moved my blog. To see my follow-ups on the 650b issue, go here:

http://bikelovejones1.blogspot.com/search?q=650b

Cheers! And happy riding...