Sunday, April 29, 2012

More on Folding Bikes

edited 9/2017
OK, so it might not be the best way to carry your kids and stuff around town, but a folding bike is unbeatable if you want to move quickly and flexibly around a city. We use one every day because of its versatility. You can take it on a bus, subway or El, Metra or in the back of your car. You can bring it in the building and hide it in a closet, under a desk, or near your knee. It can be in your apartment while other bikes are being stolen or destroyed by weather on the street. You can carry it if you need to or ride it and beat the cars, buses and taxis. Why doesn’t everyone have a folding bike?

For carrying kids, we already have a post, and we really do carry kids on a folding Bike Friday sometimes (though it doesn’t fold when the seat is on it). There are people who use ItChairs to carry kids on their Bromptons. (in fact, 9/2017, we've been using one for a couple years now - it fits kids in a pinch up to age 9 or so! Available if nowhere else from Cap Problema in Barcelona, Spain, the manufacturer) We’ve figured out ways to carry kids on Birdys and Dahons and probably on those knockoff Tern copies of Dahons. These things are more versatile than you think when you buy one.

But the real place these things shine is in the daily commuting, carrying stuff around with one person category. Going to work every day? Why not take a folding bike?  We’ve tried a lot of them over the years, and including things in storage or gone, we’ve had experience with Bromptons, Birdys, a Raleigh 20, a couple of different Bikes Friday; we’ve had a good look at Dahon and Tern, old rounded Euro “Faltr├Ąder" or "Klappr├Ąder,” Worksman folders, and a few others. We haven’t had a ride yet on a Strida, nor one of those modern Giant/Schwinn/Trek folders. (9/2017: We did get on a Swift recently - available in steel from NYC and aluminum from Asia but, stable though it is, it rides only OK and just does not fold small enough to be worth it.) There are good comparisons among them from a dealer in New York, NYCE wheels.

Any of these will fit in a car trunk or a train car and any will be tolerable to ride from a cheap faraway parking place to the Chicago Loop or from a train stop to your company’s building. The prices range from dirt cheap (used loop frame 1970s Faltrad)  through $200 (Dahon Boulevard on special or used) to $1300 (midrange new Brompton) to even several thousand dollars (titanium anything, a new fancy BirdyMoulton [disassemblable not foldable, $16,000 for some] etc). There’s a guy who makes Brompton-like titanium bikes with Rohloff gears but who wants to put that much into a bike? (9/2017: there's a company on Kisckstarter from Toronto that's starting to make titanium folding bikes that are lighter and smaller than the others - haven't seen it yet in person) 

Many of these brands make less expensive basic models and also do more costly versions, custom built bikes that have the components and frame size you specify. This can be wonderful for riders who are shorter or taller than usual or who have unusual proportions of arm and leg lengths. Maybe one would fit your kid well. Any of these bikes are usable, but only some are enjoyable to ride, only some really fold up well, and only some can easily carry things. 

Since they don’t all do everything, you should ask yourself what it is you need to do with your folding bike. Some, like the racier Birdy or Bike Friday models and Moulton, are sold as replacement performance road bikes that are easier to transport, perhaps for taking with you on a vacation. They say that the low wind resistance makes them faster. Jan Heine didn't agree in Bicycle Quarterly but they are pretty racy bikes. Some are geared to bicycle touring. Others, like Brompton, are optimized more for multimodal commuting — riding the bike to a bus or train, then again from the station to your destination and back. And there are those that are just plain bikes but fit in a car trunk or closet better than most, like the Raleigh 20 ("Shopper") or Worksman (two models), or that Swift. 

Airplane Transport
Bike Friday in particular has specialized in this market niche, and all their bikes can be ordered with a suitcase that is ideally suited to protecting the folded bike and which can be easily converted to a bike trailer for touring or just luggage transport. These are great at what they do, though in our experience we could get an old Birdy into a smaller suitcase than the Bike Friday. 
1/2 folded- stem and bars come
off too but then dangle oddly
The trailer conversion kit (the wheels and trailer arm) is costly ($230) but hard to duplicate; to save money though, a similar suitcase can be bought cheaply in a thrift shop and you can use plastic plumbing parts to make the center support that protects the bike from being crushed. Bike Friday has really thought out the flying-to-bike-touring thing.

Lightweight and fun to ride
Bike Fridays themselves are nice to ride, as comfortable and versatile as a full sized bike, and they can be custom ordered or simply adjusted to feel sporty like your favorite road bike or upright like a good city bike. Most models can hold panniers front and rear (with an optional rack) and we had no trouble attaching baby seats. A New World Tourist with a baby seat was our favorite combination for a long time. Components and frame dropouts are almost all standard sized and easily replaced. You can only put on a generator light system with a lot of difficulty if you don’t have a front dynamo hub; the back light goes best on the seat post. Bike Friday prides itself on customer service, and they can almost get pushy sometimes helping you out (in a good way). And they can build (in America) those incredible tandems that fold into suitcases, including some that carry more than two people. Rapid Transit was the dealer in Chicago but now they are closed and you have to contact the manufacturer. 

The disadvantage of Bike Fridays is that most models don’t really fold up quickly or tiny and the resulting package has bits and pieces hanging off at odd angles. They addressed this a bit with the Tikit, a smaller wheeled quick folding model, but though it’s a good bike in many ways it is still an unwieldy folded package in our opinion and a little unreliable in the durability region. You might be able to use one for multimodal commuting — I wouldn’t try that with a New World Tourist type model — but then the Tikit doesn’t do the fly-to-touring thing as well.

They all have full suspension
new Birdys are a little different
Other bikes can be taken on airplanes pretty easily too. The Birdy fits in a suitcase with about as much trouble as the Bike Friday (take off wheels, pedals,etc), the Brompton just folds up normally and goes in a cardboard box (or an optional Brompton bag or suitcase that is not a trailer unless you modify it), Dahons, Terns, Giant/Trek/etc and Raleigh 20s and so on can all fly with various levels of protection in their transport bags or in bike boxes but it’s not their strong point. Here's a guy who made his R20 into a suitcase folder though.
Birdy in a Dahon bag

Multimodal Commuting
Though many of these bikes are used for this purpose, lots of them fold up into packages with loose bits or odd unwieldy pieces hanging off, so they are hard to carry well. The Bike Friday or Birdy are prime examples of this. You can more quickly fold a Dahon into a smallish space and put it in a bag, but even this can look like Carol Burnett or Dick van Dyke fighting a folding ironing board and losing. Any of these will work, and some (Tikit, Dahon) will work well, but on a crowded bus absolutely nothing we’ve seen beats a Brompton. Bromptons of all varieties fit into the same dense tiny package very quickly, no odd things dangle off, there is a convenient handle (the front of the seat), and the dirty bits are all inside the center of the package, so you don’t get grease on your clothes or on the guy next to you on the train. 

Bromptons are also the only folding bike that’s not a pain to fold — owners are always folding and unfolding them to show people. (Tikits come close) They come semicustom, ordered with colors and components you like and then built by hand in England and sent to you, which takes a month or two, or you can get a pre-ordered model from the local dealer (Comrade Cycles in Chicago; then Harris Cyclery (Boston area) and C.M. Wasson (San Francisco area) are big dealers, and there are many more listed on Brompton’s website). After riding Bromptons since 1999, we recommend specifying one with full fenders but no back rack, a front carry bag, a Shimano (cheaper but almost as nice as SON) dynamo hub, and either 2 or 6 gears since the tiny derailer weighs nothing. We'd replace the lamps with a B&M Cyo and a Topline Plus. Normal gearing (rather than 12% or 18% lower) is fine on the new bikes. Peter White Cycles sells a SON Brompton front wheel (down the page) that's worth a look and Cap Problema in Barcelona has some neat add ons. 

Though you can use Ortlieb Frontroller type panniers (as in the photos) on the Brompton back rack, they drag on corners sometimes (wear out) and the Brompton front carry bag is much better. It holds a ton of weight, especially the old Carradice type bags with welded steel frames, but it doesn’t affect handling or steering much at all. The Ortlieb bags are waterproof. Panniers on small wheel bikes tend to get into your heel space, too, so try them before you buy them. 

Strida makes a unique bike that after many model improvements is reportedly tolerable to ride now, though we’ve never ridden one. They do fold into a long thing like a baby stroller and we have seen them on transit. The owners have told us generally that they work well for this but that they aren’t the best bicycle for riding comfort on longer stretches.

With a nylon or Ikea type bag upside down over your bike for more cleanliness you can take these bikes anywhere, even on Metra commuter rail where they require the bags. 

not easy to carry on a bus though
it fits in a car easily
but nice to ride when unfolded
I wouldn’t use a Raleigh Twenty, a Worksman/old Euro Faltrad, or Moulton as a multimodal commuter at all. Bike Friday NWT etc and Birdy are in between. Remember also that many buses and trains can carry a small number of normal bikes — the folding bike advantage is that you always have a space and you can take your bike even during time periods like rush hours when regular bikes aren’t permitted.
and you can carry a lot in panniers
Bikes in the Car, in your Apartment, Etc
Any folding bike will fit better in a closet or car trunk than a non-folding bike, though it’s more of a toss up with a Raleigh 20, a Swift, or a Worksman type folder. This is what a lot of people are thinking as they look at a folder in the shop. I guess if you want the smallest bike the Brompton is again high on the list. Strida is another teeny option.

Carrying Stuff
Bike Friday with its panniers and trailer can carry a lot. Brompton carries plenty easily in the front bag and the rack is somewhat usable though low. Dahon/Tern has some good rack options. The Raleigh 20 carries front panniers on its back rack well. Otherwise, lots of these bikes can’t really carry much easily. You can often fit a regular rack to them or use a big handlebar bag, and the folding racks from one manufacturer will often fit on a competitor’s bike, but racks and things mess up the quick folding and change the handling of a lot of these bikes. When in doubt, try it out first.

Dahon’s entry level Boardwalk is the best easily available choice we’ve seen. It’s not fancy but it’s a good combination of cheap and small and versatile, often about $200-$300. Boat shops and marine supply stores sometimes carry more elaborate folding bikes, many built by Dahon and rebranded, at lower prices than bike shops. When you get up to about $500-$700 the options expand a lot.
Used folding bikes are sometimes available but you need to look carefully at the hinges, the stress points of any aluminum components, and the sales receipt that shows it wasn’t stolen. 
Used Raleigh 20 and steel loop folders are pretty common and pretty cheap, maybe $150 or much less for the old steel loops, and we really like the R20 now that it is cleaned up and lubed with new high pressure tires. Our friends with the matching tag sale Worksmans like them OK, use them on trips, but don’t ride them much at home.
Folding bikes off the internet are widely available but with the exception of the Swift we haven’t seen any very nice ones up close, and some we have seen weren’t nice. Have a look at one in person before ordering; some are probably good options.

Obviously, the cheaper the bike the less trouble it is if it’s stolen.
Some folding bikes don’t have a good place to put a lock through the frame. The safest way to lock these tempting bikes up in most cases is to fold them up and take them with you wherever you are going. Again, we like the Brompton for this — fits in a shopping cart, under a desk, in the coat check, usually with no problem, and it does have a frame loop if you need to lock it outside for some reason. Most Bike Fridays and Birdys lock OK to poles, which is good since they are more of a pain to carry with you. The Raleigh 20 type shopper bikes just have to stay outdoors and take their chances. Maybe keep a plastic junk seat on them to make them less appealing.

Don’t forget the accessories
A good generator light, fenders, and a mirror are important to us. So-called Ergo grips are nice on these little bikes. Generators are not easy to put on many of these but we’ve always been able to do it — it’s a lot easier with a dynamo hub though. The fenders might fit best bought from the manufacturer, but Planet Bike makes some that will fit most folders. We like Mirrycle mirrors but they break now and then and the risk is greater on a bike you fold often. Also, don’t forget a bell that people will notice. Folding or easily removable pedals can save some space and trouble when folding.

Get out of the car and take your bike - we’ll see you there.

Added 4/30/2012:

folded, nothing holds it closed.
A comment below wondered about a large wheel folding bike, the Montague. Here are some pics. It seemed heavy and cumbersome to me. Here's what a New York Montague dealer says about full sized folding bikes.  Dahon, CariBike, and Tern also make large folders. (9/2017: you see a lot of these with car brands on them lately. I don't think they are very practical, compared with the smaller wheel ones. Have a good look at them and don't spend too much.)

Added 5/12/2012:
why not look at AtoB magazine's folding bike guide for a brief rundown of the UK market? The site is full of goodies.


  1. I don't think you can do a comprehensive review of folding bikes without looking at Montague too. I got one of their bikes last year to use for commuting, and it's great for riding (and taking the bus or throwing in my friend's trunk) and so easy to fold. It's seriously like 20 seconds. I think they get left out because when people think about folding bikes they automatically think small wheels, but there's really a lot more out there.

  2. Actually, I checked out Montagues and I have some pictures of one. Maybe I'll add them to the post when I find them. A pilot friend of mine had one, too, a while ago, which he thought was just OK. The Montague folding bikes I have seen were like big Wal-Mart level mountain bikes with a hinge near the seat tube, and they folded into a gigantic, unwieldy, heavy and messy package. So I guess they fall into the "things that fit in a car trunk but you can't really use them on a train or bus any better than a regular bike" category. They range from about $600 to almost $3000. Maybe the fancier ones are a better choice, perhaps yours is a different model than I have seen, and the Montagues do have big wheels, if that seems important. I just don't think size matters to the ride and it certainly means more to carry. You probably don't want to go downhill mountain biking on one of these with the hinge weakening the frame, so what are the big wheels for?
    The advertisements Montague leaves on our blog (with the integrated links) are not welcome, and I don't like their bikes that I've seen. A person looking for a folding bike, unless there is some compelling requirement for large wheels, can more wisely spend the money on a different brand, I think.
    Dahon and Tern also make large wheel folders.
    Another folding bike I didn't mention is the one with skateboard wheels you can find in Chinatown in Chicago - maybe good for a very very short commute.

  3. Use my old Dahon with success when needing to commute on BART during rush hour, when regular bikes are not allowed. Great idea to keep it in the car, ready to ride. Mostly I love my standard dutch bike. Gets me around rain or shine, day or night. A clip which joyously advocates cycling for all ages, mostly recorded in Amsterdam, “why cycle!: or go ride a bike”

  4. Yeah, I'm sorry I don't have more pictures of Dahon and Tern bikes to show- I'll try to get some and put them up. Many of them are nice bikes; though some accessories won't fit easily and they don't fold like some others, but they are good brands to consider and they are easily available.
    We also like Dutch type bikes, but we are starting to think that if you're going to carry all that steel, why not carry cargo too? And you can carry a folding bike in the cargo box...


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