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|
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.