Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Choosing 650c Wheels

There are at least a handful of folks who read here awaiting a report on the new (I guess it's not really "new" anymore) road bike, but I'm still not quite to a point of being able to delineate my thoughts completely in that regard. Between winter and other preoccupations, it's been challenging to have many long rides since it's arrival, but I have been able to ride enough to understand that the choice of 650c wheels was likely a good decision.

During the process of building my (second round attempt) custom road bike, there came a point at which a discussion arose regarding wheels. I'd been avoiding the conversation as best I could, but I knew it was fast approaching. I had already been reading up on wheel size and was fairly certain this would be something we'd be discussing as the build moved forward. When a person is under 5'4" or perhaps even up to 5'5", the subject of wheel size probably should be a point of conversation, particularly with a custom build, but I didn't want to address it because I believed it would be foolish to build a bike with anything other than what I had considered to be customary.
*Image found via Fine Art America
I wasn't avoiding the topic merely because I'm stubborn either. Most anyone who's shopped for non-standard size tires can relay how challenging it can be to find tires necessary for a bike that doesn't accept the size ridden by the majority of the population. When I first purchased my Rivendell with 650b wheels, it wasn't exactly easy to find tires that pleased me. There were a few options (and the choices have grown with mountain bikes being manufactured with more regularity in the 650b size as of late), but even as compared to a 26" or a 700c wheel, there were - and really still are - relatively slim pickin's.

The 650c wheel size (at least in my mind) has always been associated with triathlon bikes too. Why on earth would I need this size? I have no intention of ever competing (at least competitively) in a triathlon with this bike, so would there really be a purpose in putting smaller wheels on my bike?

When I went on a quick online hunt for 650c tires, it became apparent that there were even fewer choices than for the 650b size. Why anyone would intentionally build a bike with 650c wheels was beyond me. It seemed as though I'd be putting myself at a disadvantage. Given my experience and discussion with local bike shop employees, I just didn't want to have a debate over wheel size. It seemed much easier to hold firm to my belief that I need 700c wheels. Perhaps I shouldn't have made this sort of pre-judgement, but it's easy to do when all I wanted was to make things as easy as possible and not add to any headaches that would potentially follow a decision to go with a smaller, non-bicycle-standard wheel.

The time finally arrived for me to make a decision about the wheel size and it was highly recommended that I opt for either a 26" wheel or a 650c, though the decision was left up to me. My belief (from all that I'd been told and read over the years) is that having a smaller wheel size was going to make me slower. I'm already slow, so the thought of adding to my tortoise status was not horribly appealing. I could choose a 26" wheel, but finding a moderate width tire for a road bike seemed even more unlikely as most 26" wheels are used by mountain bikers or city-cyclists - or bike tourists.

Then, I was sent a link to this article (which I highly recommend reading if you are considering a smaller wheel size). I will admit though that even after reading it I still wasn't convinced I needed a smaller size. Toe overlap has never been a huge issue to me and I tend to take corners and turns slowly anyway, so I just had a difficult time believing that it would matter.

I know that many of my beliefs prior to the current road bike stemmed from conversations with bike shop employees. If I really stop and think about it though, of course most bike shops are going to encourage me to ride 700c wheels. I can physically ride the bikes and this size is what is generally stocked in shops, so telling me that I require smaller wheels to be comfortable and prevent potentially dangerous situations could cost the shop a sale, or if they offered to customize it would come at a price - and perhaps they've learned that providing options at an additional cost for wheels hasn't been worthwhile?

Not that I think all shops or people working for a shop are attempting to fool or trick customers though. I truly believe that 700c has become such a standard that most don't stop to think of the potential benefits of customizing for a shorter rider - or, as pointed out in the linked article, it would cost a bit extra to actually help fit a cyclist properly, so manufacturers opt instead to stick with the generally accepted 700c size.

The more conversations with the custom builder, the more I realized that wheel size would be playing a huge role in more than just how fast I could travel or availability of tires. I began to understand that the frame itself would more than likely always have sizing (or more accurately, geometry) issues for me if I insisted upon running 700c wheels. If I was going to get the top tube short enough to be comfortable (and didn't want to compromise ride quality), a smaller wheel was going to have to happen. If we proceeded forward with the intention of using 700c wheels on my custom, concessions were going to be made with the frame build itself. It may end up being fine with a 700c wheel size, or it may be the worst decision I could make during the process.

As everything was getting mapped out, I could see that I would have body position compromises, ride quality adaptations, and perhaps I'd end up in a similar situation to my first custom build. Not wanting to end up in the same boat, I decided to go with the 650c wheel size and deal with the limited availability of tires - for better or worse (a bit of this was eased as we made the decision to build the frame able to handle both 650c and 26 inch wheels with only the need to switch brake calipers).

My frame of reference with smaller wheels caused a bit of panic with this decision. The bikes I've owned with smaller wheels have always felt slower to me than those with thinner, larger tires, but I didn't take anything into account other than wheel size with these thoughts. Obviously, much more goes into the way a bike feels than simply the wheels and tires. The wheels/tires play a big part, but if the frame isn't appropriately built for the rider, it would likely be the least of my concerns.

After riding the 650c wheels and tires for a few months now (though sporadically, I'll admit with everything going on in life at the present), I am happy to report that I don't feel any slower than I did with 700c wheels on any road bike I've owned. I'm sure there are many facets coming into play beyond simply the wheels and tires, but I am still happy with the decision to go with the 650c size. I'm sure as I get myself back into a rhythm with riding, I will find that this size was the way to go.

Yes, hunting down tires is a bit of a scavenger hunt and the options are pretty limited, but I think it was the right decision to make for me. If I were going to tour with this bike, I would have gone with 26" wheels/tires, and I still have the option to use them if I choose, but because I use this bike for road rides primarily on local passages, I don't worry as much about immediate availability of tires/tubes and can keep extras on hand as needed.

As for who makes 650c tires? I've compiled a small list to help anyone who might be on the hunt. Most of the tires are made for racers, but there are options to be found.

Continental Grand Prix 4000 II (max inflation to 120psi, 650x23c)
Continental Gatorskin (max inflation to 120psi, 650x23c)
Kenda Caliente (max inflation to 125psi, 650x23c)
Kenda Kontender (This is what I'm currently running as of the post date - max inflation to 125psi, 650x25c)
Michelin Pro4 Service Course (max inflation to 115psi, 650x23c)
Panaracer Terry Tellus  (If you can find them, this is a nice option to run a slightly wider tire - max inflation to 100psi - some have stated max 110psi, 650x28c)
Serfas Urbana (max inflation to 125psi. 650x28c - a nice, slightly wider tire. These can only be purchased, as far as I know, via Rodriguez Bikes)
Vittoria Rubino Pro III (no stated max inflation, but have read reviews of others riding at 120psi, 650x23c)

If you know of other manufacturers and would like to add to the list, please let me know (either in comments or drop me an e-mail). I'm happy to edit the list as others become available.

The first time I dropped into a shop and picked up an extra 650c tube, I definitely received some odd stares. The cashier commented, "Hmm, 650c huh? Don't see people buying those too often." I just smiled. Someone must buy them or they wouldn't stock them, right? Plus, the wheel size, combined with proper geometry, seems to have made a huge difference in the ride. I do have hopes that one day it will be a bit easier to track down tires, but until then I think there's enough available to keep me on the road and happy.

I suppose more than anything, I'm learning not to be so set in my beliefs about certain things when it comes to bicycles. It's easy to get caught up in a particular item or size and not truly look at the facts in regard to the way I ride, what I ride, and so on. Is the 650c wheel for everyone? Probably not, but it's a great option to have for those of us needing smaller framed bikes and more proportionate wheels.


  1. The smaller wheel argument is sound, but could you share why to go with the (more arcane) 650c over the (increasingly common) 650b?

    1. I think 650b would work just as well in regard to the smaller size needed for the smaller frame to fit properly. The problem is then finding a 650b tire that isn't super wide, since this is a road bike. If one wanted to ride wide tires on his/her road bike, I don't think there would be any issue with opting for 650b over the 650c, unless I've missed something in my understanding. I view it more as preference and if an individual would rather have the wider tires more commonly found for 650b wheels, I can see no reason to argue it (assuming that the tires will fit the space on the frame/fork).

      I think more than anything I'm just surprised that smaller tires (whichever size one prefers) are not more commonly offered on road bikes for those who are on the shorter side. The only road bikes I've seen in stores stocked with smaller wheels are those frames sized around 42cm or smaller. Perhaps there are manufacturers of stock bikes that do offer this though and they just aren't a regular sight here in this area.

  2. I ran the Terry Tellus 28c on my Volae recumbent and really liked them. They rolled along very smoothly and seemed quite responsive. I think 28c makes more sense than 23c for most riders-- you can reduce the pressure and gain a plusher ride for a completely negligible weight penalty.

    1. That is really good to know, Andy. Thanks for sharing your experience because it's always tough to know that a specific tire will really work well or not. I'm currently using a 25c tire (only because at the time I wasn't able to locate 28c), but have plans to pick up some 28s very soon.

  3. This is fascinating. I've sort of been toying with the idea of a road bike for a while and find myself pouring over geometry charts of brands I'm interested in. I'm 5'4" and find that a lot of manufacturers don't have a size that would be a great fit for me. In my own research I had already run across the article you linked to. It really got me curious about the smaller wheel size. So glad to hear that you went for it and are finding that the smaller wheels don't slow you down. Thanks for sharing your thought process and the list of tires you've found.

    1. I think this is when my "Monica" side comes out, Kendra... I can sit and read for hours about bicycles and geometry and still come out of it wondering what to make of all of it. I will research for so long about a bike (or several) that I drive myself completely mad (and anyone who has to listen to me talk about what I've read - i.e. Sam - poor guy).

      I am glad that I went with the smaller wheels though. I wish I could have the bike side by side with one built for 700c wheels to be able to judge precisely any differences that are felt. I don't know if it's really that the geometry of the bike is just better for me in this instance or if the wheel size made a bigger difference, but either way, I don't think it harmed me in any way and I definitely don't feel slower (which was of concern initially).

  4. Interesting post. I am glad the smaller wheels work well for you. I am petite too, and I would have gone for smaller wheels on my mixte had they been available. I feel safer with smaller wheels, more in control of the bike ( I have 26 inch wheels on my Poppy and they are perfect for me). G.E., I wonder whether one day you could put up a blog post on the topic of getting used to a new bicycle. You have experimented so much with different types and brands of bicycle, I think you are perfectly suited to describe the challenges involved. I realise that different people will get used to new bikes at different rates, but it would be interesting to hear how long the process takes you, when you felt it was worth persevering and when you felt you should give up on the bike after only a short period of ownership. As someone who has an insane love for bikes and very poor handling skills to go with it, I am constantly frustrated. It has taken me almost a year to really get used to my Pashley Poppy, a bike that everyone else seems to find easy to ride ( heavy, but stable and safe). I now have a Pashley mixte bike that is made of much lighter steel and is racier. I love it passionately. It is beautiful. And the trepidation I feel when I ride it ( I have only gone on a total of three rides so far, it is very very new) is a source of intense irritation to me. When will I be brave and skilful like the Lycra- clad riding gods who zoom past me so effortlessly? Perhaps never, but surely I can improve ... Fast? Yes?

    1. I will work on this, Stephanie. I don't know if anything I can offer will be beneficial, but I am willing to take a shot at it and perhaps others will have something to share as well that can help.

  5. I have largely kept out of the wheel size debate, due to the fact that early on, I felt that it was a real handicap to riding performance. In the few years since then, I have found that it's really not. Gearing, fit, and riding fitness are more of a factor than the actual wheel size.

    I have been lucky enough to ride the aforementioned bicycle with it's 650c's, and I can tell you I didn't notice the fact that they were not 700c's.

    26, 650b, 650c, 700, It does not really matter, as long as it fit's and feels right. I this case, it just made sense, and made the fit easy. IMO..

    1. I wasn't really looking at it as a debate (though I do understand it is largely debatable for many). However, I agree that the wheels really don't seem to have created a problem and I do think it made the fit on the bike a lot easier. Perhaps if I were less sensitive to tweaks and changes, maybe it wouldn't matter so much. Still happy with the decision, and I do like that I can use 26" if need be. :O)

    2. I guess the "debate" is not so much here, but in the world at large. Having the ability to drop to the 26" is not a bad thing, as it gives the possibility for wider tires/clearance if you were using it differently. My Surly LHT was fine with 26", this is where my original "debate" came from, In hindsight, I would have kept it as a second/commuter bike had I known what I know now..

  6. Thanks for the nice list of 650c tires. Panaracer also makes a 650c Pasela, albeit in only one variation : steel bead & 25mm wide: or

    My wife is 5'2" and I've considered what kind of bike would fit her better than the 700c bikes she has now. Currently she has swept back bars on because the reach is too far for drop bars. It never occurred to me that a 26" wheel and 650c would be so similar in size that you could swap them in and out of the same frame! Good to know. Of course it would be much nicer if there were just more road tire choices in the 26", 650c and 650b sizes.

    1. Thank you for adding to the list of 650c tires. It is definitely welcomed as they aren't the easiest to find.

      Finding a bicycle for shorter riders, and particularly road bikes can be challenging. Most shops only offer road bikes with 700c wheels and it just doesn't always work. I believe Trek and Cannondale offer their very smallest models with 650c wheels, but I haven't looked at the latest models available so that may well have changed. Other than that, it seems many are looking at custom options.

      I think it's important to note that not every bike will take both 650c and 26" wheels/tires (they are about 12mm difference in size, with the 650c being the bigger of the two). It doesn't seem like a huge difference, but that's almost 1/2 inch, which could make a difference on some frames/forks.

      It's tough to find any sort of road tire in 650b, but much easier to find wide tires since the mountain bike craze began a few years ago. Conversely, I'll say it's just as unlikely to find a 650c tire that's wider than 28mm. Then, of course, 26" is generally more city bike or mountain bike tires... so, as you say, it would be nice if there was some overlap.


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