The other day, a group of friends was sitting around talking about mistakes we’ve made over the years. My first reaction was that we didn’t make any mistakes – uh uh – not us! But that may not be entirely true… Maybe we did make a mistake or two at random points along the line…
As I think back now, I realize our first mistake (or maybe I should say our first BIG mistake) goes way back to choosing our bikes. In the interest of the almighty dollar, we chose bikes that weren’t the best choice. I know… I know… You would think we’d know, but…well, sometimes even though you know, you don’t know. We knew the debate about 26″ vs 700c wheels, but we didn’t understand the depth of the problem.
We knew we wanted steel bikes with 26” wheels. Those were our two basic criteria. Steel. 26” wheels. Pretty basic, right? Everything else we could swap out if we didn’t like it, but those two items were fixed and could not be changed. Easy peasy – head out and buy a bike. How hard can it be?
The tandem, due to its special sizing, had to be custom built so we had it built to spec and got it the way we wanted. Davy’s and my bikes, however, were not so easy.
The situation has changed now, so Americans buying a touring bike today will not face this dilemma, but in 2008 when we were buying our bikes there were no large size touring bikes with 26” wheels available in the USA. Trust me – I looked. I made phone calls; I researched online. I contacted bike shops and posted on forums. I was sure there was a way to get a steel touring bike with 26” wheels. There had to be.
Time marched on and I came to the conclusion I was wrong. *gasp* Yes, I was wrong. A steel frame with 26” wheels did not exist in America. Nor, by the way, did an aluminum touring frame with 26” wheels. In my size, anyway. If I had been 5’2” I could have gotten the smaller wheels, but I guess their thinking was that a large body needs large wheels. Or something silly like that. Even 10-year-old Davy had pretty much outgrown the size they were putting 26” wheels on.
Our options were three:
- Order bikes that were exactly what we wanted from Europe (approximate cost: $5000 X 2 = $10,000)
- Get custom made bikes built in the USA (approximate cost: $5000 X 2 = $10,000)
- Buy bikes with 700c wheels (approximate cost: $1000 X 2 = $2000)
Our reasoning was solid and I stand by our thought process today – for the $8000 we would save by buying 700c wheels, we could fly back to the USA and pick up new wheels. Many times. And we could pick up other supplies while we were at it. We opted for an REI Novara Randonee for me and an REI Novara Safari for Davy – both with 700c wheels.
For those of you unfortunate folk who are not cyclists, let me explain: there are basically two wheel sizes available on bicycles. 26” are smaller and typically hold fatter tires. They are the wheels you have on your mountain bike. 700c are bigger and generally have skinnier tires – that’s what racers use and you probably have them on your road bike. Touring falls somewhere in the middle.
We don’t need the great big fat mountain bike tires (although they do come in handy sometimes), but we don’t want the itty-bitty skinny racing tires either. We want the middle ground.
And in the USA and Canada, that middle ground is easy to find. In these two countries, it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever which size wheel you have – every bike store in the continent stocks both. They carry spokes and rims for both sizes. Both sizes work equally as well and there is no reason to choose one over the other for a touring bike.
In the USA and Canada.
But the rest of the world isn’t like the USA and Canada. The rest of the world believes in 26” wheels. Period. And that was a problem when we showed up with 700c.
Yes, we knew it would be an issue. Yes, we planned ahead and made sure we carried plenty of spare tires and tubes and spokes. Yes, we knew that in the event of a catastrophic failure we would have to either fly up to the USA to get a new wheel or would have to have one sent down which could delay us for a long period of time. We were willing to accept those risks in order to save that $8000.
As it happened, my rear wheel was the cause of many weeks of worrying when the spokes started popping in Bolivia. We replaced them one by one, but my supply of spares was dwindling rapidly. We needed to completely rebuild the wheel but – you guessed it – there was no way to find spokes my size. If I had been riding 26” wheels I could have had the wheel rebuilt just about anywhere, but there was nothing I could do with my 700c except keep replacing spokes and pray that I didn’t reach the end of my supply.
That’s where road angels sent by the good Lord above came to our rescue and offered to bring a box of spokes down when they came on vacation. We hung around a couple of weeks until they arrived and all was well.
What we failed to consider was this: we would have to make route choice decisions based on my wheels. Although my wheels were functioning, we didn’t trust them. They had shown no indication that they would fail, but what if? What if we headed out into the wilds of Patagonia and were days and days from the nearest anything and my wheel failed? If I had had 26” I could take the wheel on a bus to the nearest town, get it fixed, then bus back out to where John and the boys would be waiting. But that wasn’t an option with my 700c wheels.
We made route decisions keeping us on the main roads with more towns available just in case.
I will say it now: making route decisions based on wheel size is a very stupid thing to do. We had no choice, but wheel size is a silly thing to base route decisions on.
So now we know. If we take another bike tour outside of the USA and Canada, we will get 26” wheels. Even if we have to pay an arm and a leg for them. For us, the 26″ vs 700c wheels debate isn’t even a debate.
PS: I should add that both the Randonee and Safari were awesome bikes and we had very little trouble with them. If you plan to tour around the USA, Canada, and Europe, I highly recommend these bikes. If you plan to head into South America, Asia, or Africa, they are not the bikes for you.