Since I wrote about the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day, one question I've been asked about it privately is whether it "rides like a small wheeled bike." As a some time Brompton owner, this is a question I'm by now accustomed to. The implication here is, that small wheels feel inherently different (and less nice) to ride than what are presumably "standard" wheels. And so the question is whether the bicycle manages to somehow disguise or compensate for its small-wheelness through other design elements so that it rides like a "normal" bike.
Now, the reason this way of conceptualising things is problematic for me, is that I do not really feel small wheels to be a special, less-nice category of wheels to begin with. Further, I realise that I generally do not have a fixed idea of a "standard" bicycle wheel size. For me, it's more like there is a continuum of acceptable sizes - ranging from, say, 16" to 28" - and I honestly cannot say that I have a firm preference along this continuum.
That is not to say that I'm insensitive to wheel size. Only that for me, the whole thing is highly context-specific. It depends on the bike as a whole - on its overall design and purpose.
On a go-fast roadbike, a 700C wheel feels right. And it feels rightest with a fairly narrow (<32mm) tyre. Going wider, the wheels start to feel clumsy beneath me, the bicycle unwieldy. With fat tyres, 650B becomes a much better fit, giving me the feeling of having more control over my line of travel and low-speed maneuvering. I have also tried a few roadbikes with skinny tyres on 650B wheels, and with variously sized tyres on 26" wheels, and interestingly the 700C skinny/ 650B fat remains my preference - despite the fact that I ride fairly small frames. I have yet to try a small-wheeled roadbike.
On an upright city bike, 26" wheels - oddly, regardless of tyre size - are usually my sweet spot, with anything bigger feeling a bit like operating a tractor. The one exception here are the traditional Dutch bikes and English roadsters. Though designed with monstrous 28" (635 ISO) wheels and 38m tyres to boot, their endless fork rakes and mile-long chainstays place the rider in between the wheels rather than over them, resulting in a curiously luxuriant sensation that is more boat-like than tractor-like.
For bikes meant to carry a hefty front load, I am also a huge fan of the 20" or 16" front wheel. Under an oversized crate, basket or box, it doesn't feel "small," it feels normal - whereas bikes with larger front wheels never feel quite right to me with a lot of cargo up front. Regardless of how that cargo is secured and what sort of front end geometry the bike is designed with, it will always sit imperfectly high, whereas over a small front wheel it sits just right. This is exactly why I use my Brompton predominantly as a mini front-load cargo bike, and why the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day appeals to me as a front-loader. In fact, my idea of the perfect urban utility bike is very much like this: a 26" rear wheel, a 20" front wheel, fat tyres all around, and a frame-mounted platform for a monstrous basket or crate. An all-out mini-velo design like so would do nicely as well. When it comes to utility bikes, I do not really see any drawback to smaller wheels to be honest.
When I think about what associations I have with smaller wheel sizes, it occurs to me they are all positive: Maneuverability. Toe clearance. Compactness. And, dare I say, plain old zippy fun! I do not experience the "squirrelyness" some riders report feeling on bikes with 16" and 20" wheels, nor the cornering issues, nor the alleged difficulty in maintaining speed. And I cannot help but wonder to what extent a preference for larger wheels is aesthetic, or psychological. We are adults after all. Small wheels are for children's bikes, right? Bigger is better?
In that vein, I recall my own reaction to a Strida bike I had tried some time ago. Riding it, I had the feeling that I wasn't pedaling a bicycle at all, but rather a folding ladder to which someone, as a sort of practical joke, had affixed a pair of shopping trolley wheels.
"Nonsense!" laughed the owner. "It feels like any normal bike. I ride it everywhere."
I suppose it's all relative. And how wonderful it is that we have so much variety to choose from, of bicycles with wheels large and small.
Do you sense differences in the ways bicycles with different wheel sizes handle and do you have a preference? What is your idea of the "standard" bicycle wheel size?