Small-wheel Bikes: Let’s Get Down To It

I’ve been beating you over the head with a 26” wheel lately! Let’s be clear what weapon I’m beating you with. It’s not just any 26” wheel, but a 650c wheel, which has a bead diameter of 571mm, unlike MTB 26” (559mm bead diameter).

I took a poll since the last time I assaulted you. I asked the opinions of those who have owned and have extensively ridden both 650c- and 700c-wheel bikes for either road or tri or both. I broke you all down into two categories: those 5’5” tall and shorter, versus those 5’6” and taller.

I asked you all which wheel size you preferred, limited to ride quality. I asked you about handling, fit, speed, performance. You were specifically to avoid factoring in price and parts availability.

Of those 5’6” or taller, 320 of you responded, and 219 said you preferred the handling, fit, speed, performance of your 700c-wheeled bike(s), and 101 said you preferred your 650c-wheel bikes.

Of those 5’5” or shorter, 163 responded that you have extensively ridden both wheel sizes and 109 said you preferred the smaller wheel, 57 the larger wheel.

As we see, you’re twice as likely to prefer road or tri bike wheels made with 700c wheels if you’re taller, and twice as likely to prefer 650c wheels if you’re shorter, if we don’t factor in the aggravation of having to search for or go without the parts you really want in a 650c bike.

I think this makes sense, don’t you? The shorter you are, the more you prefer a bike built with wheels that are scaled to your size. A retailer commented to my last article mentioning that nowadays 700c bikes exist that allow pretty small riders to fit aboard them. He’s right. But fit is only part of it. I’ve ridden a lot of bikes that fit me fine but ride like doo doo.

So here you go. There’s the chart. There are the responses. What just kills me are the shorter statured people who decide that what is demonstrably good for them is not good for them. Somehow bigger is better. That if you fit in a women’s size-7 shoe you're better off in a men’s size-9 shoe with newspaper stuffed in the toe.

Which Bikes Have Bitten the Dust?

First let’s talk about 650c bikes that have bitten the dust: Trek Speed Concept, Quintana Roo, Trek and Cannondale road race bikes, Felt’s tri bikes, Cervelo’s size-48 tri bikes, Cannondale tri bikes. All these either cease to exist or they have gotten rid of the 650c size.

What remains? Cervelo in size-45 and the remnants and closeouts of models or sizes since discontinued. Orbea’s Ordu in the M10i and M20 Team models. Culprit Bicycles. Not too much more!

Which Bikes Are Rising From the Ashes?

Below is a video about Canyon (from the GCN youtube channel), with a description of the small-wheel bikes it is now making or preparing to make for women. If you watch this video you’ll see that Canyon claims to be the first company making women’s bikes in 650 for road. And that’s true! Except for Quintana Roo in 1987 (the first bikes I ever made were not tri bikes, but dual 650 wheel bikes for women); Centurion (they came out with a 650 women’s bike the same year I did); Trek, Cannondale and others I can’t remember.

But Canyon is the first, most likely, to make a women’s road bike out of dual 650b. What is the difference? A traditional MTB so-called 26” wheel bike has a bead diameter of 559mm. The bead of the tire is the part that seats on the rim when the tire is inflated. The road version of the tire that is called “26 inch” has a bead diameter of 571mm. The newer 27.5” size which is now common in mountain biking is called 650b and has a bead diameter of 584mm. A traditional 700c tire has a bead diameter of 622mm.

All this is kind of confusing, especially when you consider that a a so called 27.5” wheel has a considerably smaller bead diameter than the old road 27 inch size that was marginally taller than 700c (road 27” had a bead diameter of 630mm). Suffice it to say that bead diameter is much much more descriptive and helpful than any other tire or wheel sizing nomenclature.

Just, the bike below is a 650c women’s bike I built that is 10 years older than the first such bike of this type I built, and the image below was taken well before the turn of the century. Just sayin’.

Here is world champion Emma Pooley opining on smaller-wheel bikes (on Cyclingtips), such as the one on which she won her world championship as well as the road bikes she’s pushing now.

It’s very clear that if you listen to those who have ridden various wheel sizes, and you ask them which wheel size fits and handles best, tall people prefer the larger wheel and shorter people the smaller wheel. What you have not heard until recently are important and knowledgeable people of shorter stature talking about this because the bike industry is rather chauvinistic; women have historically been patted on the head and ignored. We listen to Jordan Rapp (our CTO) because he's both a world champion and and engineer. Emma Pooley is too (except she has a PhD in engineering).

The one danger I see is in Canyon championing yet another small wheel standard. Is there a compelling need for 584mm bead diameter that 571mm doesn’t solve? I don’t think both standards will carve out a niche anymore than I think there was room for both 630mm and 622mm bead diameter in road. In Canyon’s defense, 584mm is hot right now with companies rushing to make product for it. Still, the product they're rushing to make is for MTB and Gravel Plus.

Available Parts?

Thanks mostly to RichardL and Travis Rassat on our reader forum:

650c Tires:

* Conti 4000 S IIs (23C)
* Conti Gatorskins (23C)
* Conti Grand Prix (23C)
* Continental Competition Tubular
* Continental Sprinter Tubular
* Kenda K925 Kaliente
* Michelin Pro 4
* Schwalbe One HS462A
* Tufo Jet Special
* Tufo S3
* Vittoria Corsa EVO CX Tubular
* Vittoria Juniores Tubular
* Vittoria Open Corsa EVO CX III
* Vittoria Rubino III
* Vittoria's Rubino Pro G+

650c Inner Tubes:

* Continental Race 26
* Continental Race Light
* Continental Race Supersonic
* Kenda
* Michelin A1/B1 Aircomp

650c Wheels:

* HED Ardennes SL 650C
* HED Jet 6 650
* Enve SES 650
* Renn 555 Disc (clincher or tubular)
* Zipp 404 Firecrest 650
* Velocity A23
* Zipp 404 Firecrest
* Corima

Who Sells These Bikes?

I’m going to let up on you for today. But I’m going to get downright granular and name some names the next time I write about this, and by “name names” I mean that in the best positive sense. I’m not going to shame anyone, but I’m putting together a list right now of IBDs (LBSs in end-user parlance) who I’m confident understand, have access to and sell 650c for triathlon. I have located and catalogued an inventory new, current 650c tri bikes and as fast as I can facilitate getting them into the hands of the regional retailers I’m going to name, that’s how quickly I can write a follow-up to this and let you know where you can go around the country (or world) to find these bikes.