Small wheeled bicycles: the solution for shorter riders

1980's ALAN with 24 inch wheels

1980’s ALAN with 24 inch wheels

One of my favorite Georgena Terry witticisms goes something like this:  “if we were all 3 inches tall, we would be riding bicycles with appropriately sized wheels.”  Why the cycling industry has shoved 700c down everyone’s throats has mainly to do with the racing fad we are all now recovering from, and little to do with what is the right sized wheel for a given rider and a given application.

Currently, the cycling industry is going through another fad: wheel and tire size crazes – 650b, 29er, and super fat, to name a few.

When frames are built, the wheel size and tire width must be determined in advance.  A small frame cannot properly contain a large diameter wheelset without serious comprises in the frame geometry.  Placement of the rear brake bridges and length of the fork blades determine how much clearance a frame will have with the wheel size it was built for.  By using long reach brakes, it is possible to convert a frame built for a larger wheel size to a smaller size.   But why is this even necessary in the first place?  Why aren’t bikes for smaller riders automatically built with appropriately sized wheels?

Well, partly this is because Americans have demanded the lowest price possible when it comes to purchasing just about anything.  To achieve this low price, bicycles must be manufactured anywhere but here, where our wages are astronomically high relative to manufacturing-based countries such as China and Taiwan.  We also have labor laws, environmental regulations, and lots of red tape which help to drive up the cost of manufactured goods relative to that of other countries.  While I am glad we protect our workers and the environment, consumers don’t seem to care and we quite happily purchase many of our goods from other countries where such laws do not exist.

These factors contribute to the “one size fits all” wheel diameter phenomenon.  In order to produce bicycles at a price point that the consumer demands, it is much less expensive to equip them all with the same wheel size, regardless of the frame size. The result on a smaller frame is that the head tube angle will be slackened to allow room for the front wheel to clear the downtube and help reduce toe overlap (all manufactured forks have the same rake – so there’s no extra cost there except to cut the steerer to different lengths).  And, on really small frames, there might not be much of a headtube at all, because the manufacturer has determined that the only thing a shorter rider cares about is standover height.  A super slack head tube of 69 degrees with the standard 45mm of fork rake is going to be a handling mess for a road or commuter bike.  The bike will have lots of wheel flop, so arriving at an intersection and slowing down will feel very unstable and it will be hard to keep the bike upright at slow speeds.  Instead, the smaller frame should be designed to accept smaller wheels, allowing for normal rake and trail to allow for good slow and high speed handling, and for an actual head tube which will help to improve the overall comfort of the frame.

Daniel Rebour 1962 catalog Rene Herse

Daniel Rebour 1962 catalog – Rene Herse

All riders should measure their bikes by top tube length, not seat tube length.  If you look at photos and drawings of cyclo-touring bikes from times past you will see that there is very little seatpost showing – these bikes are tall relative to the rider, at least by today’s standards.  And, they often used smaller wheel sizes, which would help to lower the saddle height relative to the ground. By riding a taller frame you can get the stem higher relative to your saddle, and these older bikes had lower bottom bracket heights, making it possible to put your toe down at an intersection, rather than dismounting.  Unfortunately, modern cycling “wisdom” tells everyone to have at least 1″ of clearance between your crotch and the top tube.  Why?  Well, apparently cyclists of the mostly young and male variety often somehow crash land on the top tube, causing serious and sometimes lasting injuries to their private parts.  However, if you are riding in a way that allows you to crash on the top tube, you are probably taking unnecessary risks.  And, it wouldn’t matter whether the top tube is 1 inch below your crotch or 3 inches below your crotch.  This kind of accident would require you to have lost control of the bike while still straddling it, such as attempting jumps and other tricks that our culture has decided is a good thing for young boys to try. A greater standover height can also be achieved by using a lower bottom bracket, so you could still have a tall frame and the “requisite 1 inch clearance” on the top tube if a lower bottom bracket were the norm.

However, worse and more prevalent injuries can be caused by riding bikes with too long top tubes.  Smaller riders often select bikes with short seat tubes only to be confronted with a super long top tube (this is another way the manufacturer crams a 700c wheel into a too small frame).  Riding a bike with a too long top tube can cause neck and lower back pain, arthritis and hip degeneration.  This kind of injury happens over time and can also be exacerbated by doing super long rides even on a bike that fits correctly.

1930's Peugeot Mixte 650b

1930’s Peugeot Mixte 650b

Some smaller riders prefer to ride mixte frames.  These frames are much stronger than typical “women’s frames” because they have a sloping top tube which extends all the way down to the rear dropouts.  This makes for 3 rear stays instead of two, and helps to offset the greater flex of the head tube away from the seat tube under acceleration.  This solves the problem of standover height, but unfortunately does NOT address the problem of having a too long top tube.  Why?  Because mixte frames were produced in smaller runs, there are limited choices as to the headlugs which provide for a predetermined sloping top tube angle, forcing the manufacturers of mixte frames to produce them with relatively long top tubes.  Peter Underwood has an interesting discussion of this topic here.  He also argues that these long top tube lengths on mixte frames were the result of builders wanting their mixtes to conform to their “norm” for top tube length – which was 21 inches (53.3 cm) for custom builders.  The 1930’s Peugeot pictured above has an effective top tube length of 56 cm!!  While this super long length is slightly offset by the upright bars, this is a bike that could only be comfortably ridden by a person at least 5’6″ tall.  The other mixte frames currently in my shop all have effective top tube lengths of 53 cm.  This is way too long for a small rider, generally speaking.  That is one reason I discourage small riders away from non custom mixte frames, unless they are mainly going to do casual riding in an upright position.

The solution is to design a bike frame in a logical way such that the frame dimensions are proportionate to the small riders’ anatomy.  This naturally includes using smaller wheels.  Such a frame can have a nice big head tube, and will be bigger overall, which will produce a much more comfortable frame and riding experience.

Terry Symmetry 51x51 with 26 inch wheels

Terry Symmetry 51×51 with 26 inch wheels

You can find such frames if you are diligent.  The bike shown above is my Terry which I purchased as a frame and fork.  It is not a custom frame but one I picked up on eBay which was a leftover NOS from the 90’s TIG welded with Tange tubing. It has great geometry with no compromises so it handles well in all conditions, and has absolutely no toe overlap.

Unfortunately, buying a new complete bike for a small rider will not be so easy.  There’s no point in trying to find such a bike at your LBS.  The best thing to do is order a bike from a well regarded shop such as Rivendell,  Georgena Terry, or your local custom builder.  These builders automatically design their smaller frames proportionally and with smaller wheel sizes such as 26 inch, 650c or 650b.  One thing I have learned is that I prefer riding frames with steep angles – 73 or 74 on the seat tube, and since I like a low trail bike I prefer a steep head tube angle combined with a lot of fork rake.  As far as I know, no one has researched whether steep angles are more comfortable for smaller riders, but I like the feel of having more of my body closer to the front of the bike.

The vintage line up in smaller frames works best if you can convert a small frame to 650c or 650b, or if you can find a small frame originally built with smaller wheels, such as the ALAN depicted at the top of this post, which was designed for 24 inch wheels.  Until more small riders begin demanding appropriately sized bicycles and wheels, nothing will change.  So, if you do stop in to your LBS, let them know that you could be a good customer if only their suppliers would provide the kind of bike which is safe and comfortable for you to ride.


9 thoughts on “Small wheeled bicycles: the solution for shorter riders

  1. I’ve seen old small wheeled bikes around, there is one called a brownie, a speedwell, which has 24″ wheels, it’s somewhere on my blog and was probably built in the 60s. Its rider is very short so it suits her perfectly!

  2. Hello, I recently got a tiny road bike, custom built for someone my size in the 90’s, but has 700c wheels! It has a bit of wheel flop, toe overlap at difficult moments. I really enjoy the bike it is columbus SL, would consider putting 650b or 650c wheels but worry it might affect the handling as it was designed for 700c. In your experience how have conversions changed the ride, like the guericotti? Someone recently gave me an 80’s higher tier celeste bianchi. I can barely stand over it and needs a bit of work before I can even test ride it with the 700c wheels. The top tube is not too long though. I was thinking of 650b, or 650C which is a bit more affordable with some better rim options. Both sizes have tire issues. 650b does not go any more narrow than 32mm, and 650C no wider than 28mm. Both require long reach brakes, 650c especially long. One one hand, I’d like all my bikes to be 650b so I can swap wheels/tires in a pinch, on the other it might be fun to have a variety of wheel sizes just to show the world what is appropriate for small people. Me being 5’2″ with a standover height of 75mm, what would be a better option?
    Thanks for bringing up the mixte issue, which is why you did not recommend the mixtes you have for sale to me awhile back. Beware little women, those ‘lady’ bikes are really for big men!
    Thanks for the post!

    • Hi Heather,

      If you have an angle finder and a ruler you can figure out how much a 650c or 650b conversion would affect the handling, plus help you determine its current rake and trail. I use this on line trail calculator
      The calculator is helpful because you can see the effect of wider vs. narrower tires and wheel diameter – the two things you have control over. I have converted 700c bikes to both 650b and to 650c. If you use wide tires on a 650b conversion you may not improve the wheel flop problem. You also really won’t be lowering the bottom bracket at all due to the fat tires. A 650c conversion will have more impact, but as you say you are stuck with a max of 28 mm tires. The bottom bracket will be lower, which I find I greatly prefer, and your standover height will be lower than with the fat/650b conversion. And, you’ll reduce or eliminate the toe overlap. I think I would choose a 650c conversion if the bike is already a performance oriented bike. I love my Guerciotti that I converted to 650c – it is fast and handles well at slow speeds and great at high speeds as well:

      • Thanks, I read your guericotti post. This is why I wish a more narrow 650B option would appear. I am hoping there are some in Japan that have not reached the American market. The 650B dudes insist 650b is all about fat poofy tires, and that narrow 650b tires would defeat the purpose of them. They totally neglect that it would be a good size for smaller riders. In fact I read somewhere that 650b with 28 or 30mm tires would be optimal for small light riders, and 38mm, 42mm are too much for small riders! Alternatively, a few more sizes in 650C would be appreciated too. I do have a 650A bicycle, a raleigh sports. There are some narrow and wide options, but nothing stellar.
        To make matters worse, another vintage bicycle project appeared in my life today! An all campy cramerotti! So, I’ve got 3 bicycles(and one frame) that are my size, but all 700c wheeled. I might convert the bianchi to 650c because it is difficult to stand over, but the cramerotti would make a great 650b bike as I can already standover it easily.

  3. I am the owner of “The racing Bike Book” first edition (Haynes – 1997- Steve Thomas-Ben Searle-Dave Smith): there are two chapters which talk about frames and one is dedicated for frame fit for smaller riders (p 100-101). Unfortunatelly I don’t have the second edition (2000).
    Setting of a standart frame is more or less easy for short riders, sometimes impossible.
    I am not a racing rider: I don’t hesitate to put 165 mm cranks on my bike.

    • Hi Laurent – thanks for your comments. My focus in this post was on a properly designed frame for a small rider – with the correct sized wheels to allow for good handling and overall good geometry. A badly designed frame can probably be fitted to a rider because you can adjust stem reach, handlebar shape and saddle set-back. Whether they will enjoy riding it is another thing altogether. Smaller bodies probably want smaller crank lengths, too. Another advantage is that the shorter crank length reduces or eliminates toe overlap. The ALAN pictured above has 152 mm cranks.

  4. I was going to ask about crank length! Having mostly ridden stock bikes for years which of course come with 170 cranks and the current road bike I am riding has 170 cranks. The 2 other bikes I just got have 170mm cranks etc. I do have a specialites TA crankset with 160mm arms but it is on an unbuilt frame, for a specific french inspired project, but I might just have to use them and source another set. My 2 vintage raleighs have really short cranks, but they are slow pokey bikes. I was riding them exclusively for over a year, and now back to 170cranks. I think they are too long for me and feel it in my legs. I have been riding alot and have that familiar pain again. According to the crank arm length calculators or measuring methods, my size goes anywhere from 156, 158, 160. 165 is pushing it. Not easy to find! I know you can shorten cranks, but there is some 20mm room needed rule, which may or may not be true? One of the cranks is campagnolo victory and the crank arms are solid and wide, not fluted, or hollow like more modern ones. What is your experience with riding cranks for your size, and have you shortened any cranks(I think I remember reading that you did).

    • Hi Heather,

      I haven’t ever shortened any cranks, but have ridden cranks ranging from 152 mm to 175 mm. I prefer to ride 165’s – they just seem to provide the most natural cadence for me. Fortunately, they are not that hard to find. Bikesmithdesign – the place where I have sourced a number of tools – offers a crank shortening service:
      I don’t know if the cranks you describe could be shortened. He explains that 170mm cranks can be shortened to 148 mm and still look quite beautiful. Worth checking out!

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