Last month, I got a flat from glass as I was running errands. I intended to do the flat fix where I was, which was basically beside I-84. Amazingly, since I couldn’t hear anything but the roar of the freeway, I figured out where the puncture was, made sure the tire was clean, and put a new tube in. Then I realized the folly of trying to inflate the tire there, as I only had my Zefal “Lepize” pump. Yes, it looks pretty in a vintage way, and fits neatly into the pump pegs. But using it is a whole ‘nother thing. After ten minutes of pumping, I was barely halfway at inflation. Deflated, er, defeated, I called Emee and she picked me up in the Emeemobile.
At home I intended to pump the tire up fully and remount wheel. That’s when I noticed that there was a broken spoke. So I brought the wheel to the bike shop for them to fix.
Since COVID-19 has made bicycles much more valuable, shops in Portland have been mightily busy. It was over two weeks later that I could pick the wheel up. I was happy to have the wheel back, since I had been itching to get on a three speed again.*
“Oh, I don’t know if you noticed”, said the mechanic, “but you have a hole in the sidewall.”
Sure enough, there was a nice abrasion patch a couple inches wide on the whitewall of my Schwalbe Delta Cruiser. I could see the wire mesh underneath the rubber. As noted by the shop, it probably happened in transportation, meaning it rubbed up against something in the van. Dang.
The hole didn’t go all the way through, but I wasn’t taking any chances. When I got home, I mounted an older cream-colored Delta Cruiser so I could at least ride it while I figured out what to do. I’m not super-OCD, but I don’t like mismatched tires, especially when they’re that obviously mismatched. So I went on the hunt for a new tire, and decided to see if there’s anything new out there.
Anyone who’s spent some time around old three speeds, whether British or some of the American counterparts** know that there’s not much selection in the 26″ x 1 3/8″/650A/ISO 590 tire size. There’s a few good standards and a whole lotta meh. I started researching this uncommon tire size back in 2010, when I got my Raleigh Wayfarer. I’d hoped that ten years later selection would have improved, but it’s unfortunately the opposite–the pickings got slimmer. What I have found out is below. Please note that I tried my best to link directly to the tire maker’s website, but that isn’t always possible. So I don’t particularly endorse any of the commerce sites. And due to the nature of all this, I expect many of these links to be dead in a year or three, so if it ain’t working, remember that Google (or the search engine of your choice) can be your friend.
- Schwalbe Delta Cruiser: This tire has become the “standard bearer” for this wheel size. It hits the sweet spot of durability, rideability, looks, and price. The Delta Cruiser is most famous for its “cream” version, which is what I’ve used off and on over the years, first on that Raleigh Wayfarer. They also offer a straight-up black and black with white sidewalls, which is what I have on the Superbe. The white sidewall version is probably what I’ll end up getting. I’ve seen gumwall and brown offered in other wheel sizes, but not for 590, which is unfortunate.
- Schwalbe is now offering up a “Delta Cruiser Plus” which offers more flat protection at about $10 more a tire. They have it in cream and black. I haven’t had any experience with this tire, and may try it out when I want more cream ones. But I feel that the regular Delta Cruisers are pretty good for flat protection, so I wonder how much ride quality may suffer.
- Also worth noting is that Schwalbe offers Marathon and Marathon Plus tires in this size. I have never used them for 590 but used the 700C version on my touring bikes. Marathons are renowned for their flat protection at the cost of ride quality. As it is, these tires are pretty expensive, and the regular Delta Cruisers are pretty good when it comes to flat protection, so I’d only go this route if you are supremely concerned about flats.*** (Worth noting: The Marathon Plus is offered in both 37 mm and 42 mm. The 42 mm should be the widest tire you can get in this size, but I’d be really concerned about clearance issues.)
- Panaracer Randonneur or Col de la Vie. The “other” nice tire often found in this size. The Rolling Stones to the Delta Cruisers’ Beatles. (Or The Replacements to the Delta Cruisers’ Husker Du?) The Col de la Vie is gumwall with a classic “brick” tread. It’s a wee bit wider than most tires in this size (40 mm vs the standard 35-37 mm), which can be good and bad. (Good: Wider tires are cool! Bad: May have clearance issues with some bikes, as these bikes were designed around one tire width only.) It’s also more supple than Delta Cruisers, which also can be good and bad. (Good: A cushier ride! Bad: More flat prone.) The max pressure is rated at 45 psi, which may give pause to those who like higher-pressure tires. The first time I used these tires in 2014 or so, I overinflated. And I got a lot of flats. Since I started using them again, I keep pressure to 40-45 psi, and I have gotten few flats. Still, I keep these tires on the Robin Hood, the “sportier” bike that’s not a daily driver.
- Kenda/Sunlite. Kenda offers a few different options in this size. You can get black, gumwall, or whitewall. They are fine tires, though not as high quality as Schwalbe or Panaracer. I’ve used the Sunlite “Nimbus” version on a couple bikes, and had no issues. They have probably the most “off-road” tread of these tires. Also worth noting is the Sunlite Street Classic in whitewall, which features that classic “block” tread which would have originally come on these bikes. The Kenda offerings are all on the less expensive side, and are most likely the only tire you’ll see in this size if you walk into a bike shop.
- If you want to go super esoteric, super fancy, and super supple, Grand Bois offers a 650x32A tire. Yeah, it’s narrow, and it’s also pretty flat prone. But they are out there, if you want to spend about $70 a tire.
- That wraps up the “known”. Most major tire manufacturers offer up at least one token tire in this size (Conti is conspicuously absent), but they don’t seem to be that common. Many of them aren’t even available in the US, so you have to order overseas
I feel that we’ve lost a few offerings over the past decade. And I remember that it was possible to get the Michelin and Rubena tires in the US, in fact Cyclone Supply (R.I.P.) here in Portland used to be the US Rubena distributor. What I do know is that Schwalbe and Panaracer offer the best overall tires in the size (in my opinion), Kenda will be the option most easily available, and Grand Bois is there if you really want something exotic.
Ten years and no improvement. Yet, there’s still plenty of bikes out there that use this size. Why the lack of selection?
I think it’s because we don’t have a “650A Evangelist”, someone to tout the benefit of this wheel size, convince others, and get the manufacturers to notice. If you think this idea is far-fetched, I ask you to look at 650B: It was a very French “obscure” tire in the US until the likes of Grant Petersen and Jan Heine touted their advantages: smaller than 700C, able to get wider tires on a road frame, better for smaller riders. Now new bikes are spec’d with this size, there’s quite a bit of tire offerings in this size, and it’s no longer so obscure. And now the mountain bike industry adapted 650B into 27.5″.
Why didn’t Grant and Jan go for 650A instead of B? The difference in bead seat diameter between the two wheel sizes are a measly six millimeters. The outer tire diameter was essentially the same.****
Well, besides the fact that 650B is just that much wider, it comes down to provenance. 650A is British, 650B French. It’s pretty obvious that Jan likes French bikes, which explains his bias. I don’t think Grant was as big into the whole French thing, but I don’t think he was much into British bikes, either. I know that he doesn’t like internal gear hubs, so there you go.*****
If I had the means, I’d like to make a new 26″ x 1 3/8″ available. Something like a Panaracer Col de la Vie with more flat protection, priced reasonably. I know that it’s possible to commission Panaracer to do so, but you’ll need a lot of cash to make that happen. And I’m broke.
For now, I’ll try to keep happy with the offerings by Panaracer, Schwalbe, and Kenda. And try to evangelicise for 26″ x 1 3/8″, 650A, 590, E.A. 3, or however you want to call it.
If you know of any tires that aren’t on the list, or find a dead link, please note it in the comments. If you do have a different tire, please be as specific as possible with the info, and please note what country you reside, as it may not be available worldwide.
*I do have the Robin Hood, but due to setup, it’s not as useful as a day-to-day rider. Plus, it also needs a bit of work.
**Schwinn used its own specific size, S-6, which was confusingly also labeled 26″ x 1 3/8″. The bead seat diameter on the S-6 tire is 597 mm, just 7 mm bigger than standard 26″ x 1 3/8″. The tires don’t interchange. As far as I know, there’s only two modern versions of the tire, both made by Kenda. To make it more confusing, some online bike retailers mislabel the true 26″ x 1 3/8″/650A/ISO 590 size as “Schwinn Specific”.
***At this point I will note that 590 is also a wheelchair wheel size. So something like the Marathon Plus with super flat protection would be ideal for that purpose. This also means you might be able to buy a tire at a medical supply store.
****If you compare the classic widths of the two sizes, 650x35A and 650X38B. Now, 650B comes in a wider array of widths, generally on the wider side.
*****I’m pretty sure Jan Heine doesn’t like IGH’s either, because they’re “less efficient” than derailleurs or somesuch.