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A Curmudgeon’s Buffet: The Wheel Size Debate

In this day and age, I challenge you to find a proponent, a loyalist, hell, even a those-days-were-rad supporter of 27-inch road wheels. I’ll save you some time, though. You won’t find a soul, because that particular argument was killed, exhumed, and had a stake driven through its heart for good measure by the mid-Eighties. But you’re probably wondering, “Why am I bringing road up in this conversation at all?” Well, because those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

You see, the world has been at war over wheel and tire sizes since the very advent of the bicycle. The argument has been fueled by many things — practicality, efficiency, greed (the curmudgeon’s rallying cry), and bizarrely, even nationalism. In other words, wheel size has been, and always will be, a hotly debated topic. After all, it’s engrained in the very DNA of cycling history, remaining constantly in flux for over a century — 30 vs. 28, 28 vs. 26, 26 vs. 18, 27 vs. 700, and yes, even 26 vs. 650B. However, the latter first became a hot-button issue in the 1940s. And given that we’re knee deep in the muck of this debate for the second time, 70 years later, I ask — is this the circle of life? Are we actually doomed to pace around the fourth circle of bike forum hell for all eternity? History tells us both yes and no.

In the late 1800s, the battle between 30- and 28-inch wheels was ablaze. But in the midst of the siege, both sides of the manufacturing spectrum simultaneously produced 26-inch wheels for smaller frame sizes. Even then, manufacturers the world over realized the necessity of designing rider-specific geometry. More importantly, though, they accepted that certain wheel sizes better accommodated certain body-types. However, what actually won the war for 26-inch wheels didn’t boil down to geometry, but rather, weight. Pneumatic tires were still mustering steam, and a smaller wheel simply called for less material, and thus, less weight. By the 1930s, the 26-inch wheel had won, but it was still far from being the standard.

Creative heads were still feverishly experimenting, such as the alteration of the 28-inch to the French standard of 700c. And while we’re discussing the French at the driver’s wheel, minds like Velocio were busy in this part of the century swaying public opinion in the direction of 650B. However, in the early days, the combination of nationalism and greed came to the forefront at the expense of the public at large. The British manufacturer, Dunlop, feared that the French 700c standard would invade the United Kingdom, so as an active preventative measure, they just kind of made up their own new road standard, 27-inch, to minimize the risk of financial loss at the hands of the French manufacturers. Are you following this? 700c, today’s accepted road standard, was actually the original standard, and it took damn near a century for logic to prevail. The circle continues.

If you’re struggling to identify the trend line, let me break it down for you. Since cycling design’s infancy, wheel size has long been equal parts political, economical, and functional. It’s really nothing new. After all, things are created in order to be sold. And to sell more things, logic dictates that you make new things, better things. However, those who choose to create new things arbitrarily, like how Sega seemingly made a new console every six months, will ultimately pay the price — aka, the Dreamcast. What’s the price in non-nerd speak, though? Market rejection and abject failure.

To grasp the moral at work, you don’t need a PhD in economics. Today’s diverse mountain wheel market is a reaction to demand, much like the variance in suspension. However, the forum trolls stay up at night going over just how much of this demand is real and how much might be manufactured by the devil’s marketers. We saw this in play during the push for 29-inch wheels. As the mountain bike community saw it, 29 was different, and more importantly, it wasn’t 26. Surely, the industry big wigs were pushing something that no one needed. Surely, 29ers were nothing more than an elaborate marketing push to part you with your hard-earned dollars.

But the funny thing is, the more people that rode 29ers, the more people that liked them. And even though an X-Small 29er doesn’t really make any sense, an X-Large 29er does. Curmudgeons be damned, more and more people bought in, loved it, and nearly sank the 26 and any manufacturer who was slow to adapt. This point is important, as it sets the chess board for the impending battle with 27.5.

After the dust settled, many of those who were abhorrent to 29ers felt forgotten, expelled from the kingdom. No longer were they simply “mountain bikers” like they were a few years ago. No, they were now “26ers,” a name cast from the chasm of the growing rift between their common man. The choice to stay put left many of them branded as stubborn, unprogressive, and crotchety. And for some, this vitriol was soaked up like a sponge. It became like a calling card on the Internet, not unlike a lover scorned — I’m a real mountain biker, I refuse to follow the trends. For many, this angst eventually took over the 26 identity. They were now the last holdouts of “real mountain biking,” and this negative viewpoint found a foothold in the bike forums — the last haven for the passionately ignorant, a forum for the uniformed, a home for the Loose Change mountain bike contingent.

Early on in these forums, those who chose to commit to 29ers were chastised and forced to engage in such redundant, arbitrary, and meaningless conversations that the separation of the two camps was, for a time, fortified. But with the resurgence of 27.5, both parties found themselves unlikely allies — the jailed could now become the jailers.

Seriously, though, the whole scenario has since been playing out like the Stanford Prison Experiment, with both the 29 and 26 contingents attending the Hater’s Ball online. But from the perspective of anyone who recently bought into the 29er platform, the natural question is, “Where does it end?” An appropriate question, indeed. Not only might you feel burned that today’s hype is declaring your new bike as potentially obsolete, but you’re left with doubt that 27.5 is the last platform that you’ll ever have to invest into.

Here’s the spoiler alert, and the very point of this piece, it won’t be the last time. History has told us that wheel sizes predominately change in the name of progression, with financial incentive as a net result. Surely, you’ve heard the slogan “innovate or die,” but in matters of business, it should really read “innovate or go broke.” Accordingly, it’s in any manufacturer’s best interest to create a worthwhile product. Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t any fluff pieces out there on the market, but on the whole, the intent comes from a good place.

Admittedly, though, the run in to 27.5 appears rushed. Perhaps it’s due to so many manufacturers missing the speculative 29er boat last time around, or maybe it’s because industry bike sales are down dramatically over 2012? Or maybe it’s because people have been getting rad on these bikes since the ’50s? Regardless, while dismissiveness is natural, ignorance stands in the way of progression. In other words, it’s not healthy to hate for the sake of hating, whether you’re hating on 26, 27.5, or 29.

From my standpoint, if you’re committed to a wheel size, you’re not complacent you’re just content. However, the line between content and curmudgeon is razor thin. Like the VCCP, the community’s focus should be on comradery, innovation, and having fun, not living in three isolated camps that only meet face to face in the Thunderdomes of the internet. Ultimately, though, we need to embrace “progress,” regardless of whether or not we choose to participate in it. After all, we’re fortunate enough to remain with a choice. A choice to embrace that every truth we hold is static, or the choice to stand still as the world moves on despite us. The choice is yours, and it’s valid no matter what anyone says.