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Sunday, April 15, 2012

What is "The Right Size", anyway?

That Rudge Sports, she's a looker.

Every time I ride her, I get attention. It's mostly compliments, but with any bike restoration I inevitably will get the "If this were my bike..." Then I get the laundry list of things that I should change to make it "better". Things like getting new cranks and bottom bracket, because we all know how sucky cottered cranks are. (Yes, that's sarcasm.) Though I should definitely keep the chainring. And instead of that three-speed hub, why not make it a fixie?

All of these tips are all well and good. But if I were to make all these proposed changes, it would turn this bike, a classic mid-century British three speed done up like a path racer, into something it wasn't. I didn't intend for this bike to be a period-correct restoration, but I wanted to maintain the spirit of a bike from that era. I want to keep the parts that still work but replace the ones that don't with something that might be more modern but doesn't look out of place.

The part that gets mentioned most is my wheels. They are the classic 26" x 1 3/8" size (also known as 650A or ISO 590)* that were found on most British three-speeds. I'm advised that I should upgrade to something like a 26" (ISO 559) or a 700C (ISO 622) size because of the breadth of selection of tires and wheels and the dearth of selection with 650A tires and wheels.

Now I don't disagree that using either size would mean more selection. 26" and 700C are the two most common sizes for adult bikes, the vanilla and chocolate in the bike wheel world. But are things with 650A that bad?

Let's look at wheel selection. If one wanted a quality wheel in 650A, something with alloy rims, one would have to build it as there are no readymade wheels out there with aluminum rims. But quality rims can be found. Both wheels on my Raleigh Wayfarer were built with Sun Rims CR18 rims, the same rims I've used on my Long Haul Trucker. Nothing super-fancy, but a good, solid rim.

And what about tires? While the selection of quality tires in 650A is nowhere as big as it is with 26" and 700C, there are some good choices out there, as this list demonstrates. Looks like every quality tire manufacturer has something in this size. Here are some examples:
  • Schwalbe Delta Cruiser
  • Schwalbe Marathon/Marathon Plus
  • Michelin World Tour
  • Panaracer Col de la Vie
  • Continental City Ride
  • Rubena Flash
And besides the good ones listed above (which may be difficult to find in many bike shops), there are plenty of generic, okay 650A tires made by the likes of Innova, Cheng Shin, and Kenda. Not only can you find those in bike shops but you can find them in the Walmarts of the world.

And therein lies the rub. 650A was a very common size on bikes made from after World War II up into the '80's. Many bikes used that size. Many not-so-hot bikes. They were common, common enough to be still stocked by Walmart. Whereas 650B, a wheel size very close to 650A (584mm diameter vs 590mm), was and is obscure. 650B always had a mystique around it, as it is very French and very uncommon in the States. It has a cult. It hs prominent backers. And is gaining in popularity, but tires and wheels are not easy (or cheap in some cases) to come by. (Yes, I realize this will be changing over the next few years.) 650A? So plebian. 650B is the rising star in wheel sizes. More and more bikes are getting built around it. 650A? I doubt that there's been many bikes, if any, made in that size over the last 25 years.
A Robin Hood converted to 650B wheels

650B is close enough of a wheel size that I could possibly change the wheels on the Rudge to this. But I don't want to. I like this anachronistic size. I'm perfectly happy with the current tire selection (though if more manufacturers wanted to get into the game, go for it!) And being the Retro-Grouch that I am, I can't think of not having 650A on my British bikes!

*For brevity's sake, I'm going to refer to this size as 650A for the rest of the article. I apologize if this offends.

1 comment:

  1. When I first read this post I had no clue my tire true size other than 26x something skinny. I had bought them only last year at either a walmart or sports authority. Being just thankful to find them and the tubes at a reasonable price, close to home, I gave no thought to the possible compexities. I think I like my 590's and will ride them until the threads show through. I see no reason to change when replacements can be found cheap and easy.


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