Wheel size face-off: 26 vs. 27.5 vs. 29 inches. How to choose the right one for you

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According to some texts that accompany most cycling products nowadays, you should prepare yourself to become the very best rider out there for the simple reason you bought a certain component or bicycle. Emphasizing on product features is useful, but when it involves too much word play it becomes difficult to tell in what respects exactly that product excels, and furthermore can mislead clients into buying things that do not suit them. Remember the hype around 29er mountain bikes some years ago?

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At the time of their launch, despite the geometries that weren’t adapted to the bigger wheel format, most manufacturers stated that the extra 3 inches will revolutionize mountainbiking and bring never-before-achieved performances for both rider and bicycle. In turn, the crowds seized the opportunity and bought the new promise. Even the former XC world champion Jose Hermida praised the new features brought by the 29-inch wheels, only to swap them a season later for a 27.5-inch model, the irony of it all being that the single rainbow-striped jersey he won as an Elite rider was riding a 26-inch mountain bike. There’s a bit of a contradiction here, right?

From our point of view, it’s clear that every format has its own perks, but as the perfect bicycle is yet to be invented, all these shapes and sizes are useful and suit different types of riders, practicing different types of riding. So, in the following you can find out our take on what’s the most appropriate wheel size according to your personal features.

  • The 29-inch wheel

First seen as a huge revolution, the larger wheel diameter covered more ground with a single rotation. Good news, but at the moment of their arrival the frames’ geometries were not optimized for the larger wheel which resulted in akward and inefficient positions on the bike, not to mention the handling that left to be desired. Some entry-level 29ers currently sold still have these flaws, though it may only be a matter of time before they get upgraded since technology is trickling-down at an impressive rate.

You can consider buying a 29er mountain bike if:

  • You have a height of at least 180cm
  • You find passing over obstacles a challenging task (the larger wheel will help you overcome them easier)
  • You’re looking to achieve a higher rolling speed

On the other hand, 29ers are not exactly light, so prepare to pay the price of the weight penalty, and if you stand under the height we recommended earlier, handling can become a sensitive issue, although we have met exceptions from this rule. Expensive ones, that is.

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  • The 27.5-inch/650B wheel

After successfully smothering the 26-inch wheel, a part of the industry revived it in the form of the 27.5 inch format, which we dare say does a pretty good job. The feeling is close to that of riding on a 26er, but you get extra rolling speed, and pass over obstacles easier with the slightly larger wheel.

Once you’ve ridden a 29er, the 26er will seem undersized and you’ll get the impression the bike slows you down. So, it’s only natural to look for alternatives and if you’re not tall enough to ride a 29er, and most 26ers available out there belong to super-entry-level categories, you turn your attention towards the 27.5 inch mountain bikes, which, only after a 2-year long history already come in a large variety of sizes and concepts.

You can consider buying a 27.5 inch mountain bike if:

  • Your height is between 160 and 175cm (27.5 inch bike include small frame sizes)
  • You’re looking for a balanced bike and there’s no more romance between you and the 26er
  • You’re looking for an agile bike

Weight also works in favour of the 27.5 inch bikes, so we can name them a necessary evil, since the format popped out of nowhere and flooded the market before any of us realised it.

  • The 26 inch wheel

Chances are that in 20 years or so top-level 26ers will become collectors’ items, regardless if the manufacturers rediscover or not all the benefits that small wheels bring. Even downhill bikes start featuring 27.5 inch wheels, so the good-old 26” wheel will probably only serve street and freeride junkies, or be found on super-cheap “not for actual mountainbiking” models.

You can consider buying a 26 inch mountain bike if:

  • You’re a rebel and don’t give a damn about trends or hypes
  • You want to enjoy the best possible offers, since bikes still available have prices that would make Black Friday deals look like bad jokes
  • You still believe in old-school and in the fact that a pair of strong legs outweigh any wheel format

As for drawbacks, after living for so many years just fine with the 26” wheels what could we possibily say against them?

Final thoughts

We consider height the best criteria for choosing a mountain bike, especially for those of you who are new to the domain and find it hard to decide exactly what to buy. After a few years of riding, experience kicks in, and it becomes easier to figure out what suits you best. In time, you’ll start noticing different feelings and advantages of the various formats and probably settle upon one in particular. Although you might reach the fundamental equation of cycling: the number of sufficient bike is n+1, where “n” is the current number of bikes you own.

1 COMMENT

  1. i put a 27,5 wheels with 27.5 x 2.00 tyre on my full suspension and hard tail bikes.
    the 26er fork can accommodate the wheel with 2 inch to spare.
    the rear has plenty of clearance.
    the ride not much different from a 26er but a little bit smoother.

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