Are 26-inch Wheels and Bikes Obsolete?

Condensed Answer: The MTB industry has abandoned mountain bikes with 26″ wheels in favor of 27.5″ and 29″ models.

Consequently, it’s difficult to find a 26″ MTB with an up-to-date progressive geometry.

Nonetheless, 26-inch wheels will continue to be produced as they’re present on children’s bikes, dirt jumpers, some touring bicycles, commuters…etc.

The Industry and 26″ Bikes

After the introduction of 27.5″ and 29″ wheels, the entire industry focused on producing bikes and parts optimal for those tire sizes. Some companies were reluctant to make the switch but did so to remain competitive and preserve their market share.

Once 26″ support was abandoned, 26ers stopped receiving the latest upgrades in terms of components and frame geometry and slowly began to fade out. The lack of support rather than the wheel size itself is the main reason why 26-ers feel obsolete.

If companies were producing 26″ bikes with up-to-date geometry, the 26″ lines will offer performance rivaling that of modern 27.5″ models.

Who Still Makes 26″ Bikes?

For better or worse, it’s really hard to find a new 26″ MTB, especially if you’re a taller individual.

First, the production is limited because there is low demand. Second, bike shops are reluctant to stock on 26ers because they are unlikely to sell as well as larger “hype” sizes.

Below are the possible options:

  • Youth bikes”

Many bicycles designed for youngsters come with 26″ wheels. If you need a 26er for a person in that age gap, you can buy a model from many reputable companies (e.g., Giant…etc.)

  • Entry-level Bikes

Some companies still produce fairly cheap light-duty MTB bikes with 26″ wheels. Unfortunately, those bikes are low-end and do not feature the qualities that make modern MTBs superior to those of the past.

  • Hybrid models

There are bikes designed to operate with both 26″ and 27.5″ wheels.

Examples:

  • Banshee Rune V3
  • NS Bikes Eccentric Chromo
  • Privee Shan
  • Dartmoor primal
  • Scott Voltage FR720
  • Bergamont Straitline Team
  • Transition TR 500

Note: You will also find 26″ bikes in some department stores. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the quality of those models will be satisfactory. Many department store bikes are designed to mimic high-end units but are of low quality. It’s advisable to stick with models sold in reputable bike shops.

What Is The Future of 26″ Wheels?

The demand for 26″ wheels is still high enough to manufacture them in large quantities.

26″ wheels are found on children’s bikes, dirt jumpers, some touring rigs, and commuters.

That said, the MTB industry is highly unlikely to ever revert to 26″. The world of MTB likes new stuff that could be seen as innovation rather than going back to old habits.

Also, there’s little incentive to reverse the switch. Not to mention that many riders, especially those who’ve witnessed the 27.5″ and 29″ marketing hype front the first row, would feel insulted if the industry was to push them into regression.

What Is The Future of 26″ Components?

26ers are experiencing a shortage of high-end components and replacement parts because the industry is not incentivized to continue 26″ support.

For example, it’s difficult to find an up-to-date fork that would fit on a 26″ frame designed for a straight steerer. It’s possible to locate a great number of 26″ forks with 80-100mm travel, but if you want a model with more travel (120mm+), the options are limited.

The Advantages of 29″ and 27.5″ Tires Over 26″ Wheels

1. Speed

29″ wheels are faster than 26″ wheels for two main reasons:

  • Roll-over-ability

Larger tires have an easier time overcoming obstacles on the road. Hence why rigid 29″ MTBs offer a surprisingly good performance despite the lack of suspension.

Conversely, 26″ wheels require extra attention and input to maneuver around irregularities on the trail. In some situations, 26″ riders may have to lift the front wheel to overcome a bump that 29″ bikes would roll over without an issue.

That said, some consider the decreased rider engagement that comes with 29″ wheels a negative because it reduces the fun of riding an MTB.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to ignore the extra speed of 29″ wheels which is why they find themselves on newer models.

  • Greater circumference

If two bikes have the same gearing, the one with the larger wheels will run faster when the rider is spinning the pedals at the same RPM.

Example:

Bike ABike B
Wheel Size29″26″
Tire Size2.2″2.2″
Highest gear36:1136:11
Wheel Circumference2305mm2107mm
Table 1

At 100rpm (rotations of the cranks per minute), the wheel will rotate 100 times.

To find out the distance that the bike will travel, we have to first determine how many times the rear wheel turns per 1 crank rotation.

That can be done by calculating the gear ratio. In this case, the chainring has 36 teeth whereas the smallest rear cog has 11. Thus, the gear ratio is 3.27. Or in other words, each rotation of the chainring moves the rear wheel 3.27 times.

At 100rpm, the rear wheel is rotating 100×3.27= 327 times.

To find out the covered distance, we have to multiply the wheels’ circumferences by 327.

Bike A: 2305mm x 327 = 753735mm = 753.735m = 0.753735km

Bike B: 2107mm x 327 = 688989mm = 688.989m = 0.688989km


The speed of each bike is calculated as follows:

Speed=Distance/Time

Bike A’s speed = 753.735m/60s = 12 562 m/s = 28.10mph = 45.22kph

Bike B’s speed = 688.989m/60s = 11 483 m/s = 25.68mph = 41.33kph


Conclusion: Bike A (29″ inch wheels) is 9.4% faster.

FAQ: What is progressive geometry?

In the world of MTB, the term progressive geometry refers to the following:

  • A slacker head tube angle (the front wheel of the bike is further away from the rider)
  • A taller head tube
  • Shorter chainstays
  • A steeper seat tube angle (the seat is closer to the handlebars)
  • Full-suspension (in the past most XC bikes were light hardtails, today there are many full suspension models)
  • Longer forks with extra travel

In short, modern MTBs are heavily oriented towards maximum stability on hard off-road terrain. A modern trail bike is a former downhill bike.

FAQ: How can I get a 26″ bike with modern geometry?

Two main ways:

  • Search for a niche product
  • Buy a custom made frame

If a rider wants a modern 26″ bike, one option is to order a custom frame that has the geometry of contemporary 27.5″ and 29″ bikes.

In some cases, this route may be cheaper than buying a top-of-the-line bicycle. (It depends on the rider’s requirements and the frame builder’s pricing.)

FAQ: How can I “modernize” an old 26″ bike?

You can modernize an old 26″ bike by changing some of its components.

Example:

  • Install wider rims and tires
  • Buy a higher-end fork with more travel (make sure that the frame can handle the extra mm of travel)
  • Install a dropper post
  • Switch to a 2x or 1x drivetrain
  • Shorten the stem
  • Switch to larger disc brake rotors
  • Switch to hydraulic disc brakes

Those modifications can dramatically change the bike but cannot fully compensate for an outdated frame. If the frame has obsolete MTB geometry stopping you from covering the trails that you want to ride on, you will need a new bike.

FAQ: Can I put 26″ wheels on a 27.5″ or 29″ frame and fork?

A frame and fork designed for 27.5″ or 29″ wheels offer plenty of clearance for 26″ wheels. Thus, if the bike has disc brakes, one can theoretically install 26″ wheels easily. (Rim brakes do not work because the pads won’t align with the new smaller wheel.)

However, the new wheels will alter the original geometry of the bicycle to the point where it doesn’t ride as intended. The main changes will be a steeper head tube angle and a lower bottom bracket.

Unless the bike is designed to be used with both 26″ and 27.5″ wheels, it’s recommended to avoid this conversion.

FAQ: Why do street bikes still use 26″ wheels?

Street bikes continue to rely on 26″ wheels because:

  • 26″ wheels are more maneuverable and make the execution of technical tricks easier
  • 26″ wheels are potentially stronger because they’re smaller. If two wheels are made of identical rims, spokes, and hubs, then the wheel with a smaller diameter will be stiffer and tougher.
  • Street bikes are not used on trails and do not need the roll-over-ability-offered by 27.5″ and 29″ wheels.

FAQ: What are the benefits of continuing to ride 26″ wheels?

  • Uniqueness

In a world of 27.5″ and 29″ bikes, a 26er stands out. Some people enjoy the extra attention.

  • Cheap second-hand parts

The second-hand market offers top-of-the-line 26″ parts that were rather expensive back in the day. Thus, with a little luck and knowledge, one can build a high-end 26″ bike that costs a lot less than a new model while still performing about as good.

Truth be told, most people will have a hard time reaching the limit of a high-end 26″ MTB built in the last 5-10 years or so. It takes a lot of skill to outgrow it.

Summary: What You Need To Know

  • The MTB industry has practically abandoned the 26″ standard. All engineering efforts are going towards the development of 27.5″ and 29″ bikes. Consequently, 26″ models are becoming antiquated.
  • One can upgrade almost anything on a 26″ bike, but at the end of the day, its geometry won’t be as close to the updated 27.5″ and 29″ models. (There are some exceptions.)
  • 26″ wheels still offer a decent amount of variety as they’re found on children’s bicycles, street bikes, dirt jumpers, some touring bikes, commuters…etc. Therefore, one doesn’t have to worry about 26″ rims and tires going extinct.
  • It’s still possible to find a decent 26″ bike. There are hybrid MTBs with adjustable bottom brackets and dropouts that can support both 26″ and 27.5″ wheels. If you’re after a 29er, however, you will have to buy a dedicated one.
  • The main advantage of riding a 26″ bike is the availability of cheaper high-end parts on the second-hand market.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Lmm

    Saying a bike with bigger wheels is faster is pretty misleading. It’s geared higher by default, that’s all, and if that’s what you want you can put a bigger chairing on the 26″er for the same effect.

    1. Richard

      Bigger wheels move further per 1 crank revolution. Thus, even with identical gearing, the bike with the larger wheels will be faster if the rider can maintain the necessary RPM. You can put a bigger ring on a 26er, but the circumference of the wheels is still smaller. In the same gear, a 29-er will be faster if the RPMs are equal. 🙂

  2. Bike Curious

    This recalls my childhood ignorance and wanting to feel cool, thinking I only want whatever car, dirtbike, or bike that dominates pro racing. Seems the small advantage bigger wheels gave pro racers, gave even average Joes those same feelings. I’m 6ft and have similarly equipped fs 26 & 29 and never consider the 26 “obsolete” or the 29 “modern”. No ski lifts or mountains around here(Illinois), so the 26 is much more thrilling to ride and can handle any maintained trails in my area. It’s almost sad how many casual(some that only ride paved) riders/families around here been duped into “upgrading” to a boost 29er mtb and letting their 26er collect dust. A lot of them are slower from propelling meatier tires, and local trails are closed when mud is present. BTW I’ve ridden dirtbikes for 30yrs, and the “modern” aggressive mtb geo is basically a copycat of 60s-present dirbike geos. Suppose I rocked & rode mullets in the 80s. Although I have more fun here on my 26″, If I lived in mountains or had a powerful E-mtb, I wouldn’t be cool without a modern geo 29er or whatever eventually makes 29 obsolete(hoverbike?).

    Somebody build me a mountain!

  3. Denny

    Those old high wheeler bikes from around the 1880’s with the huge front and small rear wheels were made that way for the reason that they were faster because of that tall front wheel. Since they were direct drive only without any gearing for bikes at the time, each pedal revolution could move the bike that much farther. They still continue to be made and raced.

Leave a Reply