At first glance, it may appear that the only difference between a 26-inch and a 28-inch bike wheel is 2 inches in diameter. However, the difference in size is rarely exactly 2 inches, due to varying widths and depths of the tires used.
In addition, the intended purposes, wheel material and bicycle style of these wheels vary significantly.
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Here, we talk about how 26-inch and 28-inch bike wheels vary and which size might work best for you.
A Quick Note About Frame Size vs. Wheel Size
A 26-inch bike often refers to the frame size, which would be very large and would fit someone over 6'6" tall. In this case, we're focusing specifically on 26-inch and 28-inch wheel sizes, which is a separate measurement.
Bike Frame Fit and Clearance
Most bike frames fit only one size of wheel — or two very similar sizes of wheels. The 26-inch wheels and 28-inch wheels are dissimilar enough that you should not try to switch one for the other, according to SheldonBrown.com, a leading bicycle maintenance, repair and customization site.
The 28-inch wheels are too large to fit in a frame for 26-inch wheels, while the brake assembly on a bike using 28-inch wheels will not reach far enough to work with 26-inch wheels. If you're a beginner or unsure which is right for you, consult your local bike shop.
Bike Style and Function
In the U.S., 26-inch wheels with decimal widths, such as 1.75 inches, appear primarily on adult mountain bikes, with some comfort, hybrid and cruiser bikes also using this size. Other types of 26-inch wheels were used on older Schwinns, English roadsters and French bicycles, according to SheldonBrown.com.
The 28-inch wheels that are 1 1/2 inches wide appear on English, Dutch, Chinese and Indian rod-brake roadsters, and may also be called F10, F25 or 700B. Tires measuring 28 x 1 5/8 x 1 1/4 inches are a Northern European designation for 700C tires. Some German companies designate 700C tires as 28-inch tires with decimal widths.
Rolling Speed and Traction
Every bike should ideally roll as easily as possible. This is where rolling speed and traction — the energy lost when a bike tire is rolling — comes into play.
The 26-inch wheels with off-road tires will be slower than 28-inch wheels, according to Schwalbe Tires, because 28-inch wheels are used on roadsters and road bikes. Road tires, either for 26-inch or 28-inch wheels, have less tread than mountain bike tires or even no tread, and therefore roll faster on paved roads. However, 26-inch mountain bike tires have better traction in off-road conditions, which usually makes them faster for that use.
Steel is the standard wheel material for bikes made before the 1980s. However, aluminum wheels are the standard of the early 21st century. Fractional 26-inch wheels are an older style, not sold except as second-hand parts or built except for custom orders, and are steel exclusively.
Most 28-inch wheels are steel and though uncommon in the U.S., they are still common on roadsters in Asia and the Netherlands, according to SheldonBrown.com. However, wheels with identical diameters to some 28-inch wheels, the 29-inch mountain bike wheel and 700C road wheel, are typically aluminum.
Misconceptions About Wheel Size
Not all 26-inch wheels or 28-inch wheels are equal in size, according to SheldonBrown.com. The 26-inch wheels with a width measured in fractions of an inch, such as 26 x 1 3/4 inches, are actually slightly larger in diameter than wheels with widths measured by decimals, like 26 x 1.75.
Confusingly, some, but not all, 28-inch wheels with fractional measurements are the same diameter as those with decimal measurements. Furthermore, many 28-inch wheels are actually the same diameter as wheels marked 29-inch, which are in turn the same size as the metric measurement 700C.