Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Of course size matters....

I like research, in fact, I pretty much research for a living. I owe this mostly to my parents. Most of my childhood was spent in a television free home. We had books. We went to the library weekly. We (my 3 sisters and I) would get in trouble for sneaking to stay up late at night, under our covers with hidden lights to read longer. Most of our family trips were spent with my father driving, while my mother read out loud from a book to him, to pass the miles. I even remember times when my allowance or reward for properly executing household chores, would be a trip to the local bookstore to pick out a new book. My mother has even carried on the tradition with my children and still picks them up weekly and takes them to the library to get “new” books once a week. I still have a television free home (though my children are spoiled with dvd’s/movies, etc). I feel sure that my love of books has fostered my love of research. I learned early on that if you are curious about something or want to know the inner workings…to look it up. This has, of course, become even easier over the years with the assistance of the internet.

You should all know by now, that with a lead in like this… I’m getting ready to express my discontent for something…enter the 650c vs. 700c wheel argument…again…and this is something I have been researching now for quite some time. Now, I know, most people could care less, because they aren’t short of stature, like me. I’m barely 5 feet tall…truthfully, without shoes, socks and the bangs I sported in the 80’s I’m probably closer to 4’11.5. I know, I know…. Most people don’t believe I’m this short….that’s because my personality is so very tall and it deceives you! But, alas, it is true. My 12 year old is almost taller than me, I cannot reach kitchen items, bathroom items in cabinets and shelves, etc. without climbing, I cannot place or retrieve my bike from the bike rack on top of the car and most all cycling shorts look more like knickers on me than shorts. My lack of height has never bothered me but while it has never bothered me, I’m realistic about the fact that I cannot wear/reach/do everything a taller person can… if only bike shop workers and bike manufacturers were also realistic about this…life would be grand.

For instance, for some reason (men especially) love to tell me that I should get a bike with “real wheels”. They, then, launch into breathtaking expositions on how 700c wheels are faster, toe overlap no longer exists, that companies like Specialized, Trek, etc have created frames that are small, that can flawlessly accommodate 700c wheels without compromising frame geometry, handling, etc. They take it even further and make statements regarding the companies that do have 650c wheeled bikes…they go something like this, they are backwards, outdated, trying to push them off on you because they spent so much money on that specific frame years ago and now need to sell it even though 700’s are clearly better. Those of us that like research, loathe those that fire off “facts”, rhetoric and half-truths without having the research to back it up.

Now it’s fine for these men to assume that because I’m a “beginning” cyclist that I may not know the pros/cons, etc. with different wheel sizes. It’s fine for them to assume that because I’m female I may not be very mechanically inclined. Though in this instance both assumptions aren’t entirely true for me, personally. However, it isn’t fine for them to assume that because I’m female that I don’t read, reason, discern and can’t make heads or tails of the laws of physics. More importantly, it isn’t fine for them to assume that I can’t tell what feels good to me. SO – for that reason, I went this weekend to a local shop to feel 700c wheels for myself. And?? What did they say? Most of what you read above…and what did I feel? That the bike felt a bit funky… it felt smooth since it was carbon, and my bike is aluminum….however, my feet felt oddly close to the wheels and I didn’t feel my untapped speed suddenly unleashed.

I wrote this post for 2 reasons.

1. To vent about all the injustice in the world and
2. To invite all you braniacs to give me your thoughts….

Am I horribly hindered in the area of speed by the size of my wheels? Is the frame geometry completely uncompromised when you take a teeny frame and stick 700’s on it? OR in contrast, since my wheels are more aerodynamic and lighter than 700’s, can I call “bull shit” on the theory that 700’s are always faster? Is the integrity of the frame more intact by putting smaller wheels on smaller frames? Is training your ass off more important to the progression of your speed than the size of your wheel? Lots to debate on this subject…talk amongst yourselves.


  1. Yes training will overcome any difference in the size of the wheels.
    Assuming the wheels are of comparable quality the smaller ones will spin up easier but also lose momentum easier.
    The larger wheels will run a tiny bit smoother over road irregularities.
    There is no magic about 700 wheels it just became the norm for a long time.
    The manufacturer can tell you if your bike would be helped or hindered by changing wheel size.
    Tell the boys/ men, next time that real men ride penny farthings and anything else is for poseurs.

  2. I'm no authority on this subject, but I've participated in the debate before. I've been around the cycling world long enough to see the rise and fall(?) of 650 wheels. My 2 cents...
    Training trumps wheel size. Train smart and it won't matter what size wheels you have. The argument that bigger is better is silly because it implies that we might all do better with a 750 wheel if we could get our hands on them.

    The most important factor in your decision should probably be bicycle fit. You have to have a bike that fits well. There are some basic dimensions that are critical and the rest in between is just connecting the dots. Meaning, your seat/pedal/bars relationships are important and the rest of the bike is just a way to connect those points. If you can get the right fit on a 700 wheel bike, it might be the easiest thing to do. There are more options for bikes, wheels, components, tires, etc. If you can't get the right fit with a 700 bike, you should go with the 650 wheels. Sometimes standover height is an issue as well, so the smaller wheels will lower the bike slightly. If the bike fits properly, you should be able to go fast and ride comfortably.

    Yes, 700's roll over obstacles better than 650, but what does that mean on the road. We aren't bowling over obstacles like we do on the MTB. (This is why the 29er revolution has started in MTB.)

    The only major difference I have seen or read about with 650 wheels is the gearing. Because you are changing the overall outside dimension of the wheel, you will need different gearing from a 700 wheel bike. By decreasing the OD of the tire, you are changing the final drive ratio. Without doing the math here, I will tell you that most top athletes that road 650 wheels had to change the gearing with a larger chainring in the front. That's the only mechanical difference I can think of that you will need to pay attention to. If you still aren't fit enough to push your biggest gear, you might not want to change for a while. However, you will notice a difference on a downhill or fast, tailwind section of road.

    If you're happy with the 650, stick with it. It's can be a great option for smaller riders. Anyone that argues with you is just trying to feel better about themself.
    Keep your head up and your wheels (650 or 700) down.

  3. Bandobras-- You gave me my first "giggle" of the day. Thanks for reading.

  4. Steve -- Yes, I finally figured out the gearing issue, months ago. For instance, when I first started riding, I would have girlfriends of mine that would ride with me that would tell me to stay out of my big chain ring... not to wear my legs out...however, if they were in their small ring and I was also, I could not keep up with them. I finally realized, my gearing was lower... no, I don't have a triple, but just the 650c's makes the gearing lower... once I realized that I pretty much have to ride in my big chain ring the entire time.... I was fine...

    However... if I am descending a big climb...with someone like Rob... I will be geared out on the descent, trying to keep up. This is probably gearing, as well as me being lighter... that has been my only frustration. At this point, I just accept the fact that on the descent, I'm going to lose a bit of time.

    I did go test ride a bike with 700's and did not like the feel of it compared to the way my 650's fit me... so, I will be content with what I've got and content with a smaller wheel selection.

    Thanks for the input.

  5. I enjoy racing my 1990s Cannondale R600 with 650c wheels. I have nice Carbon HED tubulars - its spins up light and fast. I pass tons of people on every Triathlon (International and 1/2 Iron) on expensive Cervelos, Blue, Orbeas, etc... and say "nice bike". If you have a decent aero setup (Tri bars, deep wheels, and aero helmet) then you have about all you need, except for some serious training. I practice 20-50 miles of high-intensity intervals (1-3 miles per interval) on my bike every week to be able to "drop the hammer" on most cyclists. To get a good idea of this type of workout, get Spinervals 29 "Dropping the Hammer" and don't worry about wheel size!

  6. If you often "gear out" on descents, get a 55T or 56T big ring in the front.

    Also, if you gear out on VERY steep hills - rest and enjoy the ride! Tuck your knees in to the tube to get more aero, and stretch out as long and low as you can and coast... You may find yourself passing people who are still pedaling on very steep descents....