Buying a mountain bike used to be simple. You had knobbly tyres, suspension (if you were lucky) and only one choice of wheel – 26 inch. Fast-forward to today and life is not so simple, especially when it comes to wheel size. Do you go 29er, 27.5, 27.5 plus, 29 plus, Fat Bike, or good old-fashioned 26?
The choice is bewildering and it’s led to rumours of an industry conspiracy that ‘they’re just trying to sell us more bikes!’ But is this true? And does wheel size even matter? Read on to find out.
The wheel size debate really kicked off when 29 inch wheels were brought to the masses around five years ago. Bike manufactures claimed the increased contact patch and improved rolling resistance would help beginners and pros alike, with greater speed and stable handling compared to their beloved 26.
For the most part this is true and while the internet did grumble a tiny bit, 29ers eventually became the default wheel size for cross country racers and mile-eating trail riders alike.
This year has really seen them catch on however in the fast-moving world of enduro racing as bike companies experiment against the clock.
27.5 gets added to the mix
So it looked like the forums could handle two wheel sizes, with 29ers for the XC whippets and 26ers for everyone else. But around 2013, bike manufactures started talking about a new (it’s actually very old) mid-size wheel called a 27.5, offering the rolling benefits of a 29er, with the nimble handling of a 26. This sent the internet into overdrive, with riders upset at having to keep up with the ever-changing wheel size landscape.
Ask any enduro racer or pro downhill rider today if they’d like to go back to a 26 inch wheel and the answer will most likely be no. The fact is, 27.5 simply works better for most aspects of trail/enduro/downhill riding.
There is some truth in this and you can’t help but feel sorry for someone who’d just bought their dream bike with 26 inch wheels, only to see it usurped and ‘out of date’ within a year. But such is life, things will progress and people eventually adapt to change. We’d still be riding fully rigid bikes with cantilever brakes if it weren’t for the industry moving forward.
But the bike industry isn’t done yet and has thrown a couple of curveballs our way in recent years. The first was an industry push on Fat Bikes, aimed purely at riders looking for a niche product that could take them almost everywhere. You might be travelling much slower, but the huge tyres found on Fat Bikes offer unprecedented grip and predictable handling, just make sure you’ve got the tyre pressure spot on.
The 27.5 gets an upgrade
The second and perhaps most tantalising, is the 27.5+. This is a wider 27.5 rim with a larger (around 3 inch) tyre. It’s certainly not a Fat Bike sized tyre, but feels quite different to regular 2.4 inch rubber and is squarely aimed at the trail rider. According to the marketing, these wheels offer better grip, thanks to the increased contact patch, but also similar rolling resistance to a smaller traditional tyre, helping both beginners and experts alike.
27.5+ bikes will get the closest to offering a one bike ‘quiver killer’ for the modern mountain biker.
Another neat feature is that a 27.5+ tyre has almost the same diameter as a 29 inch tyre, meaning that if your bike has enough clearance you can run two sets of wheels in one bike. Scott’s 2017 Spark cross country bike is a great example of this, as you can race on your 29er wheels one day and hit the gnarly trails with your 27.5+ hoops the next.
So, does it really matter what wheel size you have? It’s mainly down to where you live and what type of rider you are. If you’re passionate about a particular niche aspect of the sport, then perhaps a more obscure size could be just the ticket. Whereas if you just like hitting the trails on the best bike you can afford, then chances are a 27.5 or 29er will do just fine. 27.5+ bikes are hot on their heels, but they’re perhaps another model-year off before they become widely accepted.
Just remember, right now someone will be out there having the time of their lives on an old, bashed up 26 inch wheeled bike, not worrying about whether or not they’re out of touch with the march of technology. So, whatever wheel size you have, get out there and enjoy the trails.