Do you have an older bike with 26-inch tires and you want to know whether it’s worth to keep using it? Or are you looking to buy an older bike and want the ins and outs of the different tire sizes? Let’s ride on.
Who can ride 26-inch bikes?
Any adult can ride 26-inch bikes as long as they have the correct frame size which is the most important factor to consider. It should be low enough so you can touch the ground with one foot when in the saddle, but tall enough so you can’t touch the ground with both feet at the same time. Most children aged 11 and older are also big enough to ride 26 inch bikes.
Can adults ride 26-inch bikes?
Adults can ride 26-inch bikes as long as they are sized for them. Mountain bikes in the 1990s used almost exclusively 26-inch tires, and mountain bike riders can easily be 7 foot tall.
Many of these bikes are still out there and have a fan base.
Can children ride 26-inch bikes?
Most children are too small to ride 26 inch bikes because even the smallest frame is just too big for them. Most 11 year old children are tall enough to ride 26 inch bikes, although some tall 9 year olds may be able to.
A good way to know if your child is ready for a 26 inch bike is when they can fully touch the ground with both of their feet even in the highest saddle position on a 24 inch bike. This is generally at 150 cm or 4’11”.
Pros and cons of 26-inch tires:
- Weight – As 26-inch tires are a small tire type, they are lighter than most other adult tire sizes.
- Maneuverability – Being smaller, also means 26-inch tires make the bike better at turning. They are excellent for weaving around cars in traffic or on roads with lots of tight bends.
- Storage and handling – Also by being smaller, 26-inch tires bikes are easier to store in a garage, spare room and pack into the car. I was able to fit my old 26 inch bike in the elevator, but I had to carry my 700c one down the stairs.
- Acceleration – Again, by being smaller this means less mass to move when you start, so you can more easily gain speed when accelerating or stop when braking.
- Cost – As they are smaller, you guessed it, there is less material used to make them, so for the space specification 26-inch tire spare parts are generally cheaper.
- Speed – So we said 26-inchers accelerate well, but in fact the small tire rolls worse over surfaces. Think of a small skateboard wheel – it rolls with more friction than even a small child’s bike. Maintaining your speed is harder, especially as the surface gets rougher, like dirt roads for example. This is a concern for road bikes.
- Comfort – Linked to the above point, as the smaller wheel falls into smaller bumps, the ride is rougher on a 26-inch bike. This is a concern for commuters and urban cyclists if they constantly have to hop on curbs and go over potholes.
- Stability – Countering the maneuverability pro, as 26-inchers are easier to maneuver, it also means they are less stable than their larger counterparts. This could be a concern for Mountain bikers. If you compare the speed of downhill riders from the 90’s to today’s, you will understand how a larger wheel makes a huge difference in stability.
- Availability – Based on the above cons, with racers who want more speed, and recreation or urban cyclists who want more comfort, and mountain bikers who want more stability, bikes are moving away from 26-inches to larger tire sizes. For example it is almost impossible to buy a new 26-inch mountain bike today, with blogs like this one highlighting the rare cases, when 20 years ago that was all that was on offer. This means spare parts are becoming harder to find for 26-inchers too.
26-inch tires compared to other sizes
Now it starts to get technical and confusing.
The main problem is that tire sizes, much like speed (miles per hour vs. kilometers per hour) and length measurements (inch vs. millimeter), use different standards in different cases (here is a good resource with different tire sizes compared). The main systems used are Imperial fraction, e.g. 26” x 1 ½, Imperial decimal, e.g. 26” x 1.25, French e.g. 700C and ISO 622mm.
As the ISO standard is the most universal, we will convert to this in order to compare 26-inch tires with other common tire sizes. Most tires sold will normally name both the ISO standard plus another standard.
For simplicity below, I refer to 26-inch tires specifically as the 26” x 1.00 Imperial Decimal size used commonly on mountain bikes historically.
26” vs 700C
26” tires are smaller than 700C ones and therefore they roll slower with added maneuverability in return. 26” offers some comfort and bump absorption at lower speeds that most 700C tires lack.
Road bikes have always used larger, 700C tires, whereas 26” can be found on old mountain bikes and beach cruisers. This is because speed is of utmost importance on a road bike.
26” x 1.00 in Imperial Decimal or 559mm in ISO was the regular size for mountain bikes, and has actually rarely been used for road bikes for the speed factor.
700C in French or 622mm in ISO is the normal tire size found on road bikes and also for 29-inch mountain bikes, and is one of the largest common tire sizes found.
If you have a 26-incher and want to ride it on the road – of course you can! I know someone who enters FULL LENGTH TRIATHLONS with an old 26-inch mountain bike and beats people with $10,000 carbon-fiber frame 700C bikes. Yes he’s an exception and you may not be the fastest, but it all comes down to your strength and stamina.
If you are looking to buy a bike and are comparing a 26-inch and a 700C bike for use on paved roads, certainly choose the 700C. It’s faster, the bike design will be more suited to road use. In addition, you will have a wider choice of accessories and spares suitable for road riding both as an enthusiast/racer or as a commuter.
Regarding 29-inch mountain bikes, these are great for cross-country riders for speed and stability and also for some enduro bikes. Also, if you are taller, a Large or XL mountain bike frame with 29” tires creates a good size match between wheel, bike and rider. I’m 6’2”, and choose to use a XL frame with 29-inch tires.
26-inchers are the choice of dirt jumpers and downhill riders due to the maneuverability and robustness. However, if you’re not jumping off 20-foot drops or skimming across large rocks at high speed, the robustness of a tire is not normally an issue.
26” vs 650b
26” tires are smaller than 650b tires, which makes them slower, but more easily maneuverable. However, 650b tires still offer good handling, which is why they have become a popular choice recently.
650B in French or 584mm in ISO is used most commonly on touring bikes and is also the same as the 27.5” Mountain Bike tires commonly used today.
For most casual mountain bikers, a 584mm tire size is ideal. It’s a good balance of the pros and cons for a 26-inch. Not too big, handles well, manages rough terrain, and it fits into a car more easily than a 622mm.
For touring bikes, they normally use 650b tires on a frame that can accommodate 700c tires. This means that they can use a wider tire for a smoother ride with less risk of punctures, and also fit on fenders which can otherwise be a tight fit.
26” vs 24”
While 24” tires are generally used for children’s bikes and BMXs, 26” tires are adult sizes. They are faster and more comfortable and a natural progression for a child as he or she is growing. 26” tires have better handling and can reach faster speeds than 24” ones.
Typically, as your child grows it might make sense for them to use a 26” bike with a small frame size before they switch to a larger adult bike. Bike frames that are too large can be dangerous, so don’t be too hasty in upsizing your child’s bike frame.
At the same time, the don’t want to too small and have their knees hitting the handlebars. Use some judgement here, and if you want more help check with a local bike retailer.
BONUS: tire care tips:
- 26” tires just like any bike tire can puncture. Keep the pressure inflated to a high level as noted on the tire sidewall. Invest in a decent
bike pumpwith a gauge that will tell you the exact pressure.
- Buy some spare tubes and always carry one with you in case of a flat tire when riding. When buying spare inner tubes make sure that they match the diameter and the width of your tire. Not all inner tubes are compatible with all tires!
For even more details on tires and bikes in general, Sheldon Brown is a valuable resource here.