This post compares the advantages and disadvantages of 26″ and 20″ wheels.
The Advantages of 26″ Wheels
- Smoother Steering
Folding bikes (many of which use 18-22″ wheels) are known for their twitchier handling caused by the small and super responsive wheels.
Conversely, 26″ wheels are slower to turn and provide more fluidity when maneuvering.
- Greater Rollover Ability
The larger the wheel, the easier it is to overcome obstacles. Since 26″ wheels are notably larger than 20″ models, the rollover ability goes in their favor.
Thus, if you ride on uneven terrain, a 26″ wheel will provide more speed and won’t require attention to every irregularity on your way.
- Larger Frames
26″ wheels require larger frames. If you’re a taller rider, this is beneficial because you won’t feel as “compressed” as you would on a 20″ frame.
The larger frame and wheels make the bike more suitable for pedaling even when it’s of the stunt variety (e.g., BMX, dirt jumper…etc.)
The Disadvantages of 26″ Wheels
26″ wheels are notably bigger and thus less practical when living in a tiny apartment/room and/or when transporting the bicycle on the train or via a car that doesn’t have a bicycle rack.
If you’re looking for the most compact bike out there, nothing beats folding bikes with 20″ or even 18″ wheels.
All things being equal, a 26″ wheel will be heavier because the spokes and rims require additional material.
The smaller the wheel, the stronger it is. Therefore, if all parameters such as spoke and rim thickness and quality are identical, a 20″ wheel will be much stronger than a 20″ model. If ultimate wheel strength is the goal 20″ wheels win.
The Advantages of 20″ Wheels
From the perspective of commuting, the main advantage of 20″ wheels is that they’re very compact.
As a result, the bike can be stored in a small apartment, a vehicle or under a desk (if the model is foldable).
20″ folders are preferred by people who want to easily combine their bike commute with means of public transportation such as the metro train. Some riders go a step further and take their folding bikes in a suitcase when traveling by plane.
Another benefit of the compact size is that you don’t have to lock your bike outside as it’s allowed at most public places (e.g., cafes) when folded.
Standard BMXs use 20″ wheels because they’re extremely durable, maneuverable and easier to throw around during tricks. Of course, many of the same stunts can be done on 26″ bikes too, but the extra size makes the experience a bit more complicated.
- Fast Acceleration
The smaller the wheel, the less effort is required to get it up to high RPM (rotations per minute). 20″ wheels accelerate much faster than 26″ and especially 29″ wheels. This is beneficial when moving aggressively in the city or when performing stunts in tight spots that offer little room for pedaling.
As already mentioned, smaller wheels are stronger than bigger models when all built parameters are equal.
The Disadvantages of 20″ Wheels
As already mentioned, 20″ wheels offer twitchy handling in comparison to larger wheel sizes. The effect is more pronounced when the bike is moving slowly or just starting. During that phase, even slight pressure on the handlebars could move the wheel in an unwanted direction.
Part of the reason for this issue is that 20″ wheels require less effort to move them. Thus, riders coming from larger sizes tend to over-steer the bike.
- Less Suitable For Descending
The twitchier steering of 20″ wheels and their higher susceptibility to road irregularities result in less than ideal descending properties. It’s much easier to reach and maintain higher speeds on larger 26″ wheels than on 20″ models when descending.
- Quick Deceleration
Smaller wheels lose their speed faster due to their small circumference and lower mass. Thus, 20″ wheels feel tiring when covering long distances.
26″ wheels are slower to accelerate but once up to speed they just keep on rolling. (Of course, 700c wheels overshadow 26″ in that regard.)
If you plan to cover long distances, 20″ wheels are not optimal. They can do it, but the ride will take more out of you than necessary.
- No Disc Brakes
The vast majority of 20″ wheels are designed for commuters and BMX bikes. Consequently, you will have a hard time finding a built 20″ wheel with hubs ready for disc brakes.
In different, 26″ wheels are still not obsolete and present in the MTB sector. As a result, you can find many of them with hubs that can accept disc brake rotors.
- Upright Position
20″ wheels are found on many commuters which come with an upright position (the back of the rider is almost perpendicular to the ground). While this position is comfortable, it’s also inefficient due to the drag that the rider’s torso creates.
When To Choose 20″ Wheels
There are two main situations when 20″ wheels are superior to 26″:
A. You want a commuter that’s as compact as possible and don’t plan on using the bike for very long distances, at least not frequently.
B. You want a stunt bike (e.g., BMX) that will make the performance of stunts easier. In this case, the bike will also greatly benefit from the extra strength of the wheels.
If your riding falls into one of the categories above, 20″ wheels or a close size would be a workable solution.
When To Choose 26″ Wheels
26″ are the better choice in the following cases:
A. You’re not super concerned with the space that the bike will occupy and want a model that will feel comfortable and fully capable of covering long distance without unnecessary fatigue.
B. You don’t plan on performing super technical stunts, at least not right away. Of course, a 26″ BMX or dirt jumper is fully capable of extreme street riding, but the extra size makes the execution of some tricks more difficult.