Back in the day it was super easy to choose wheel sizes because they only had one available and that was the 26inch size. Apart from a few weird outliers this was the size for many years.
Marketing genius, Gary Fisher, was one of the first people to start pushing 29 inch wheels. There were many others who tried their best to push 29inch wheels in the past but Gary was the first person to do so while quite a lot of successful movement because he was backed by the huge manufacturing, ordering and selling power of Trek Bicycles, who still make up a huge percentage of biking related sales to this day. However, it didn’t take long for many other cycling brands to also jump onto this trend after the few issues the 29 inch wheel had had been sorted out.
In the beginning people were still a little sceptical about 29 inch wheels because they weren’t really the solution to all your problems and weren’t great for everything. The stigma that there could only be 26 inch wheels was broken once the 29inch wheels gained traction and became so popular. This led to other innovators reviving 27.5 inch wheels because they thought that these wheels would offer the best of both the worlds from 29 inch and 26 inch.
Biking manufacturers saw how fast and how popular the 29inch wheels became when they were first introduced, so with 27.5 inch wheels most brands hopped onto this idea and supported it quite quickly. This wheel option did in fact become very popular and still is because it is ankle to fit so many different riding styles and even looked better and handled better. These wheels in fact, saw so much popularity so early that the 26 inch wheels almost became unheard of anymore.
However, the 29inch wheels have gained back their popularity and now are considered the perfect wheels and are suitable for any type of riding except for styles like dirt jumping or riding on a pump track but in areas from tight and twisty XC courses to downhill they really excel.
There are major differences in riding feel and many different reasons for looking out for a 26 inch or 27.5 inch wheel still, so here are the differences.
Although you may think that the 26inch wheels are these small old wheels that have been around for years there are still a lot of positives to choosing this wheel size.
The first and probably most obvious reason is that these wheels can be made a lot lighter than the bigger sizes. Since it’s lighter and has shorter spokes and smaller rimes it feels much more agile when you’re riding it and also allows for faster acceleration on smooth surfaces like on the street or cycling on a pump track or dirt jumps.
Since these wheels don’t have such a large demand from riders, since they’re not really cut out for mountain biking, manufacturers are starting to cut down on their 26 inch wheel-specific products. There are still many riders that do prefer to ride with 26 inch wheels so don’t fear the industry is still catering for them for now. Even if they were to stop you still have a huge second-hand market with more than enough 26 inch products to choose from.
The smaller size that you get from having a 26 inch wheel allows you to be able to come at jumps at a steeper angle and also allows you to drop into holes with more control. If you take them into more rough conditions you will notice that they lose speed much faster than the bigger wheels do and they’re also much harder to control when steering through technical sections and are less grippy than the 27.5 or 29 inch wheels when they’re using the same tyres.
The fact that 29in wheels had been introduced prior to this made it very easy for this one to also get accepted because the 29in had already broken down the wall that people believed there was only one type of wheel.
Since these wheels are smaller than the 29in wheels they feel like they are much faster because they accelerate quicker. The smaller wheels also allow you to throw around your bike easier and flick your wheel around without too much difficulty.
Compared to the steering of a 29 inch wheel the 27.5 inch wheels are much faster when it comes to the turning of the wheel which makes it feel much more responsive for those technical trails where you need to react quickly to obstacles.
27.5 inch wheels have been very popular in styles of riding such as free-riding because they work well with long travel suspension frames and forks but even more because they are able to fly over rough grounds and grip much better than the 26 inch wheels although still not quite as well as the 29 in wheels.
The 27.5 inch wheels accelerate faster and are stronger and stiffer than the 29 inch wheels, however they don’t offer a riding experience as smooth as the 29 inch but still better than that of the 26inch.
Finally the 29 inch wheels, the wheels that broke the reign that the 26 inch wheels had over bicycles. 29er wheels are the biggest of these wheels and therefore are normally found to be heavier which makes them harder to get moving and the slowest accelerating however, in recent years technology has helped to make it less noticeable and find ways to make them faster and lighter.
The size of these wheels make it harder to handle them in fun ways because they’re bigger than other options and so it has taken a while for bike brands and designers to find a way to make them enjoyable but it is getting better and better with every passing year. They will, most likely, always be harder to ride on trails like pump tracks or dirt jumps compared to the smaller wheel options that are available.
It has also been quite difficult for manufacturers to cater to these bigger wheel sizes, making small frames with long travel suspension fit together with 29 inch wheels is definitely a challenge. The first big-name manufacturer who was able to pull this off on a downhill bike was Santa Cruz with their 29 inch version of their very well known downhill bike, the V10.
The 29er may not feel as fun as a smaller wheel option if you’re purely looking for speed. The 29er are hard to get going since they’re bigger and the smoothness you get from having this size wheel also takes away a bit of that sensation you feel when you’re speeding down a trail. Once these 29 inch wheels do get up to speed they will really fly, it just won’t feel as fast as it really is.
If you’re looking for a wheel that will be able to go fast over technical sections this is definitely a good choice because of its size the wheels allow for more natural stability and very good tyre grip as well for those slippery parts.
How do you pick one?
So now you know how each of these different wheel sizes affect your riding style and what they help you with but what should you take into consideration when picking your size?
If you are someone who is interested in the 26 inch wheels then the bad news for you is that it will be very hard for you to find a new bike that has 26 inch wheels and isn’t just intended for chilled mountain biking. Some manufacturers will offer this wheel size in bikes like slopestyle or freeride bikes which are intended for more dirt jumping and need to be very agile. If you are okay with getting a 2nd hand bike then there will be a lot of options to choose from in all disciplines. So if you want the 26 inch size there is still some hope.
The two bigger sized wheels, the 27.5 inch and 29 inch, are dominating the market right now and have an extremely high demand for them, so these will be very easy to find new and in your budget. After the 27.5 inch wheel bikes had stolen the popularity from the 29ers we saw some big strides in designs and tech used in these bikes but after this initial interest had died down manufacturers started applying these new things to their 29ers and then their popularity started coming back.
A few years ago the 29 inch wheels were thought to only be good for cross country bikes because of the speed they were able to carry but now, with recent technology advancements, we see the 29 in wheels becoming more and more suitable for downhill and all the disciplines in between.
Some people think that when they’re starting out they shouldn’t get the bigger wheels but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The bigger, 29 inch wheels give you overall better grip and stability no matter what type of style riding you’re thinking of doing.