Amazing Bikes: Folding Bikes
All about folding bikes, the bikes you can take anywhere. How to choose the right one for you.
Posted by Peter Eland on Thursday 31 Mar 2011
Although many 'normal' bikes are relatively light and easy to manoeuvre, they do have a certain minimum size which can make them difficult to carry by car or train, or to store in cramped circumstances. This is where a folding bike comes into its own, and as with regular bikes, there is plenty of choice.
In order to fold as neatly as possible, most folding bikes have smaller wheels - since you can't easily fold a wheel. On smooth roads, this doesn't make too much difference, but when surfaces are rough, the ride will be bumpier than on large wheels. Some folders incorporate a degree of suspension to counter this, but you may find that selecting the right saddle and comfortable handlebar grips do the job just as well. Smaller wheels can also give the bike more lively handling, so it's a good idea to have a test ride, and make sure you are happy to take one or other hand off the bars to indicate. The handling may also be affected by the frame geometry - since many folders have longer stems and seatposts than a diamond frame bike, there is more opportunity for flexing in the frame. Once again, a test ride is the best way to find the bike you feel comfortable with.
If you're choosing a folding bike, you'll need to think about why you need it. In order to fold, bikes often have some design compromises in terms of ride or luggage capacity, so think about what you'll need the bike to do on a regular basis, and what compromises you're prepared to make. If riding performance is most important look for the larger wheels, or consider a bike that dismantles rather than folding. If you need a bike that folds as small as possible, you'll need smaller wheels, and may compromise on the performance. For simplicity, there are the bikes that simply fold in half, but can be unwieldy to carry for any distance. There is a engineering maxim: "Light, Strong, Cheap - pick any two". So you should be prepared to pay more for a good quality, light machine.
So, why would you want a folder?
For someone who lives too far from work to walk or cycle everyday, commuting may come down to a choice between driving or catching a train. Driving relies on your workplace having parking, and is often stressful and boring in rush hour traffic. A folding bike is an ideal way to get to and from the station at each end, and even if you could easily walk at the work end, having your bike on the train means you're not leaving your pride and joy locked up all day unattended at your home station, and you have it handy for any errands you might need to run at lunchtime. On a busy train, a bike with a compact fold is a must, and the leader of the pack is probably the Brompton. Folding in seconds to a package barely bigger than one of its 16" wheels, it also neatly locks itself together when folded, with the chain on the inside of the package, making it easy to pick up. The procedure also allows for 'part folding', when you can wheel the bike along by the saddle to save carrying it, or just park it freestanding balanced on the rear wheel. Owners often develop supreme nonchalance as they flick the bike into shape in seconds. And that compact fold also comes in handy at work, allowing the bike to sit safe and secure under a desk, or at home, tucked into a cupboard or utility room.
A rear rack can be fitted, allowing the use of a rackpack or small panniers, or the capacious Brompton front bag can be fitted to the headtube. Gearing options are limited due to the design of the bike, but standard models are available in up to 6 speeds, which should be enough for most users in and around town. With single speed models starting at around £650 the Brompton isn't cheap, but they hold their value well, and do occasionally come up for sale second hand.
Of course there are other bikes with relatively compact folds suitable for commuting - the Mezzo doesn't fold quite as small, but the folding action is quick and secure, and gearing options are more plentiful thanks to a standard width rear triangle. Starting at around £625 for a 4spd version, it's a touch cheaper than the Brompton.
The Birdy from Riese and Muller also folds into a slightly larger package, and its slightly more rigid frame gives a more 'performance' ride - with prices around £2000 it's also a fair bit more expensive.
Finally, the Bike Friday Tikkit folds and unfolds in almost one move, into a longer package that can be wheeled along. Once again, a standard rear triangle allows plenty of gearing options, and a fairly long wheelbase helps to smooth out the bumps. Prices start at around £1000.
With a bit of planning, you may even be able to take your compact folder on a bus or coach. It'll help if you have a bag to completely enclose it - either no one will realise it's a bike and challenge you, or the bagging will be sufficient to turn it into a piece of luggage. Just make sure that if it goes into the hold of a coach, suitcases don't get loaded on top of it.
Urban utility and occasional use
Even if you don't need to take it on public transport, a folding bike can save you space at home - ideal for apartment dwellers without a secure bike store. Or you may just want a bike, or pair of bikes that you can put in the back of a car to explore places further afield, or to carry in a caravan or motorhome on holiday. The folded bike may not need to be ultra compact, or easy to carry over distance - indeed, just the ability to fold the handlebars flat can make all the difference when storing a bike in a narrow hallway.
There are plenty of models which simply fold in half, with the handlebar stem folding flat over the folded frame. These tend to be cheaper than the very compact folders, with simpler hinges and frame design. Wheels may be 20" diameter, and the folded bike may not be held together automatically - a piece of velcro strap can help to do that. Lifting them into a car boot may be as far as you want to carry some of them, but the weight won't make much difference once you're riding.
Dahon are folding specialists with a wide range of bikes in the Urban Utility range, like the Boardwalk or the 24" wheeled Glide. The Halfway from Giant provides a similar sized package, with single sided wheel support - this allows the bike to fold nicely, and makes it possible to fix punctures with removing the wheels. US manufacturers Downtube produce good value machines, with UK prices around £400 - 500.
You'll also find plenty of very cheap bikes in this 'fold in half' category, and they will be cheap for a reason. They may be very heavy, very awkward to lift when folded, and have poor quality components that wear out quickly. As with any bike, you need to weigh up cost against quality. Always try to test ride a bike, and have a go at the folding process - some bikes need to be lifted up to fold them, which may be a struggle for smaller people, and some seem to require three hands. Find out before you part with your money!
Very small wheeled folders
Since the part that dictates the minimum folded size of a bike is generally the wheels, some manufacturers have opted to make those even smaller. The Pacific Carry-Me and the Mobiky Genius may both look a little spindly, but ride remarkably well. Obviously, with such small wheels, you have to be a little more careful about avoiding large potholes. And you may attract some attention riding them.
With slightly larger wheels, and a very distinctive triangular frame, the Strida is unmistakeable. It also has belt drive to ensure clean trousers, and folds to a stick-like shape for wheeling along. Riders who tend to hop forwards of the saddle to stop will need to relearn their technique though...
Performance and Touring
Folding bikes also come into their own when you want to take a bike on a foreign holiday or tour with the option to take a train now and then, and perhaps store your bike in your tent or hotel room with you. If you want to do some serious performance cycling on holiday, you'll be looking for a bike that emulates a road bike - light, rigid and responsive. The Bike Friday Pocket Sport and Pocket Rocket range are designed with this sort of riding in mind, as are the Airnimal Chameleon and the Pacific Reach. These last two have various degrees of fold - from a quick fold for convenient storage, to almost total dismantling to fit in a flight case. And if you want to do a little off-roading, there are models with suspension from Dahon, Airnimal and Montague, all with folding or dismantling capability.
If you're touring, then luggage carrying is obviously important, along with a wide range of gears. Bike Friday have a range of models designed for touring, and either the Airnimal Joey or Chameleon can be fitted with racks for touring luggage. Even the more compact models mentioned earlier, like the Birdy will take a decent load with the right racks.
If you are particularly wedded to a specific bike for touring, you may be able to turn it into a 'separable' machine, using S and S couplings. These allow the frame to be split in order to fit into a suitcase, and easily and firmly reconnected for riding at the other end - they are especially useful for turning tandems into manageable packages. They will need to be installed by a framebuilder, either when constructing the bike, or as a retro-fit.
Whatever you use a folder for, it's a useful addition to a household. And since many are one-size-fits-all, they are the ideal bike to lend a visitor, or back-up bike for any of the family.
Note that each of these guides is something of a work in progress:
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