Wheel sizes and diminishing marginal utility

In the old days we rode 26x2ish tires, and that was it. There were no other options and nothing to worry about. And we were happy.

26, 27.5, 27.5+, 29, 29+ … the list of mountain bike wheel options keeps growing.

More choices are better, right?

In BMX they have 20-, 24- and now 22-inch wheels. Really!

Here’s a quote from Harvard Business Review article titled More Isn’t Always Better:

“Choice is good for us, but its relationship to satisfaction appears to be more complicated than we had assumed. There is diminishing marginal utility in having alternatives; each new option subtracts a little from the feeling of well-being, until the marginal benefits of added choice level off.

“What’s more, psychologists and business academics alike have largely ignored another outcome of choice: More of it requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out. When the number of available options is small, these costs are negligible, but the costs grow with the number of options. Eventually, each new option makes us feel worse off than we did before.”

Cars have all sorts of wheels and tires. Do people go looking for a 15er or a 16er, or if, you’re a rapper, a 22er? No. They choose the style of car that meets their needs, and it comes with the wheels it comes with. Some drivers customize their wheels, but smart engineers and designers decide which wheels make the most sense for each car, and there are few reasons to change.

What kind of riding do you want to do? How do you want your bike to feel? How big is your body? How much money can you spend? What color do you like? Which local shop do you want to build a relationship with? Pick a bike that meets those needs. It’ll have whichever wheels make the most sense.

I personally like 29-inch wheels on my trail bikes. A) My limiting factor is aerobic capacity, and bigger wheels help me carry a bit more speed when I’m with stronger riders. B) I can make a 29er corner, pump and jump just fine. C) Specialized, who has been supporting me for a decade, makes 29-inch trail bikes. Gotta be honest!

Pick a bike that fits you, that you can afford, from your local bike shop.

Learn to ride it.

Have fun!

I like the responsiveness of my 20 and the rolling speed of my 24. Would a 22 give me all of that pop with better roll?

Know more. Have more fun!

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10 replies
  1. Wacek says:

    Great one Lee. Prof. Barry Shwartz writes about the same issue in “Paradox of choice”. There is however one major rule in the toy business (those who call it a conspiracy theory may remain silent, there is no need to prove ignorance in product design&development, which is more than fine, nobody ) that rule is: cash flow is the blood flow of the business, stop it and it dies. Happy customer is a great customer… As long as he is happy with the product for no longer than 5 years. Would you buy a new toy if you felt that one you have is excellent? No. You must get an incentive to buy a new one, that is you must be introduced with something new, supposedly better. That makes you feel insecure and many people are prone to insecurity of being left behind. We all had great trail bikes a 2 or 3 years ago, but now Enduro came along and we should get trail bikes mimmicking DH bike geometry, riding up on fireorad as they used to, but on steep, techy climbs – like drunken donkeys. 275 is not really a choice – and for good reasons I think. I am glad that specialized held back for some time, even if they only pretended, which does not concern me at all. I like to think of bikes these days as tunes on the radio, as art pieces in a gallery. There is no reason why would you apply logic to when making a preference. It requires a mind conscious of tricks that mind is playing on it’s owner. The enemy is not out there, it is inside. And it is not really an enemy, just a small kid, needing love, guidance and discipline. Neglected – he runs wild. Counters with sweets at the check out in a super market are for unloved children.


  2. JD Dallager says:

    Mega-Dittoes on the “Nice one, Wacek”!

    And thanks, Lee, for your comments/experience on 29’ers.

    Wacek’s thoughts highlight several so-called marketing and business strategy “tenets”:

    1: Cash (Cash flow) is king.

    2: Growing market segmentation is paramount (E.g. How many types of toothpaste segments per brand are there now?) For MTBs: to quote Lee above: “26, 27.5, 27.5+, 29, 29+ … the list of mountain bike wheel options keeps growing.”

    Said differently, from the MTB manufactures’ marketing/business viewpoint, “More choices serve a growing, more diverse clientele and their desire for greater personal sophistication”.

    3: Planned technical or psychological obsolescence supports and reinforces strategic planning for #1 above.

    My view: Determine and buy the type bike(s) that support(s) the style riding you ENJOY and DO MOST … based on where you ride, with whom you ride, how often you ride, what you can afford, etc.

    Jerome Clementz and Lee McCormack have gifts that most of us don’t have regarding MTB’ing. Even on an “entry level MTB”, they will always be better than I will.

    Then spend the $$ you likely saved by getting the MTB that actually served your real needs/style/skills ON LESSONS and PRACTICING those skills.

    LLB is a great place/way to start!

    WE have met the enemy…..and it is us/WE!! 🙂

  3. Kris says:

    Well put Lee and Wacek! It reminds me of something often referred to on the guitar forums as the “gear aquisition syndrom” (GAS) where the only thing beteeen you and the sound of your dream is one little gadget. Getting to a point where you’re content with the things you got and just using them is really hard.

  4. 303 Rides says:

    Regardless of an academic treatise, choice is good. It’s good for riders, bike shops and bike companies. I love 27.5 wheels for some things and 29 for others. Different riders like 29 only. (Who prefers 26 at this point?) We’re all different, why should our wheels be the same?

  5. Wacek says:

    303 – choice is there not for your good but because it is a weapon in the mainstream market wars. It is harder and riskier to produce more of different stuff so producers try to shoot out each other until someone runs out of ammo. These are trends not choices. I don’t like how people buy into this wheel-size for a man size. Why don’t we get different chain stay lengths then? Why do most companies with Trek and SC at the forefront add more seat tube than top tube length per size? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? 1″ up, 2″ ahead? Wheel sizes give different handling characteristics no1. fit is secondary if not further down the list. These are 80% trends needed for the growth of the industry and maybe some improvement comes out of remaining 20% that we can actually benefit from in reality, not only in our heads. Cheers!

  6. Tom says:

    Some great commentaries on wheel size! It was well put by Wacek that many aspects of geometry, including wheel size, affect how a bike rides. To the recreational rider (and maybe even to the racer and professional) the effects of each geometric change may or may not be noticeable or even enhance how a bike handles. It took me months on a new bike to learn how to ride it to advantage. Thus it amazes me that a rider can flat-out claim that some “new” aspect of a bike he has been on for a couple of hours has made him a better rider. To invest (for many of us it is a substantial investment)a few thousand bucks to gain an incremental advantage over the old ride seems absurd. Sure, we’re all in it for the fun of riding and to improve our abilities but I think it meets those ends better to spend a limited number of sheckles on learning from Lee how to really use the bike I have. Yes, I’d love to have a shiny new ride; does it make me a better rider? NO!

  7. Peter says:

    It could be pretty simple. Choose the right tool for the job and customer, but nowadays companies like Specialized and all the others fool most of the customers and tell them that bigger would be better.

    This is real nonsense. XL t-shirts for everyone is not a smart decision… 😉

    I like a nimble bike and love my 26 inch Epic (2011 edition) in size L (for my 1,82 m height) which unfortunatelly is not available any longer. Others love their 29ers. That’s also fine, but today choices are vanishing, like now you only get 29ers or sometimes 27,5 by sone popular companies. That means I will not buy a Specialized bike again as long this is true!


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