Look no further than the folding bike if looking for one of the finest machines for commuting, traveling and any number of other mobility uses.
But all folding bikes are not created equal, so let’s have a look at the origin of the species, what to look for, and what’s coming next.
The folding bike origin story
Folding bikes have come to prominence as of late as a fantastic commuter complement. It’s easy to fold up a bike and take it onto a subway or train, using it for the first and last legs of a long journey to work, or adventure. This ease of use, combined with theft prevention and portability has resulted in a renewed interest.
Music fans may have learned about this style of bicycle from iconic musician David Byrne (Talking Heads), who has traveled by his folding bike since the late ’80s so he can tour the cities he visits. He wrote about such travels in his book, Bicycle Diaries.
The roots of folding bikes date back to the turn of the 20th century when it was used in the military thanks to their ability to strap them to the backs of soldiers, or onto parachutes and the like. Apparently, portability is built into the folding bike DNA.
By the 70s, the general public became interested en masse, and several bicycle companies began producing folding bikes including Raleigh. In the ’80s, the brands that would begin to define the category were established. Namely, Brompton and Dahon.
Now, folding bikes are still a niche option, but that’s changing, and changing quickly as more people are opting to ditch the automobile and find new commuting options that include mass transit for the bulk of the journey. Most subways and trains have issues with bicycles, especially around rush hour, but many allow folding bikes, such is the case with the London Underground for example, which uses the Brompton’s compact size as the measure for whether or not a mobility device is allowed.
There are now dozens of brands offering folding bikes with options including e-bikes, belt drives, chains, full-size, super lightweight, and more. There are also different types of folds and much more to consider.
Folding bike basics
The idea of a folding bike is a pretty easy one to grasp. The bike is engineered to facilitate a fold in two or three moves to make the bicycles as compact and portable as possible.
Folding bikes tend to be more one-size-fits-all. The seat posts and handlebars adjust to fit most riders. Many brands will offer some sort of extended or telescoped seat post version for those taller than, let’s say about a 34-35-inch inseam.
The bikes themselves operate similarly to a regular bicycle despite having smaller wheels and an altered geometry. The concept is the same, pedal and go, brake and stop. Although some might think at first blush that the small wheels and components might mean the bikes are quite a bit slower than a traditional bicycle but that is not necessarily the case.
Curbside Cycles is an official Brompton dealer based in Toronto, Canada. Timm Harding says Bromptons are surprisingly fast.
“Everyone scorns you when they see you on the street and try to overtake you, but Bromptons are incredibly fast,” he says. “They accelerate fast because of the small wheels and they are actually geared according to the wheel size, so they are actually quite fast.”
Folding bikes are not designed for speed, the riding position is upright, but folding bikes can use a higher gear ratio to compensate for the smaller wheels. So every pedal stroke is equivalent to a full-sized bicycle. There is also some efficiency in using smaller wheels, especially when accelerating, which along with being more nimble, makes for a fine urban ride. Not to mention, smaller wheels are stronger and capable of carrying heavier loads.
A Dahon folding bike
Different folding bike mechanisms
There are a few different ways that folding bicycles are designed to, well, fold. The most popular is the mid-horizontal fold, which is the one used by one of the undisputed giants of folding bikes, Dahon. In addition, there are also triangle folds and swivel folds.
Mid-horizontal fold: This style is the easiest to understand as the bicycle folds once horizontally at a midpoint swing hinge that is released via a clamp.
Triangle fold: This style allows the bike to fold vertically and is used by brands such as Bike Friday and Tyrell.
There are other less common folds, and there are also several brands that do more than one fold such as the popular Brompton bikes. These styles make for a more compact package that is appealing for commuters but also leisure travelers.
Folding bike matters
Much has been made about the so-called “last mile” of the commute at the end of a ride on mass transit such as a subway or commuter train.
A lot of subway and train systems do not allow or limit the number of bicycles during rush hour, which makes it difficult for commuters to complete their journey to and from work in an efficient and planet-friendly fashion.
This has given rise, in part, to bike share programs and bike parking facilities at train stations. But it isn’t exactly moving ahead at warp speed.
Another option is the folding bike. In London, England, for example, Brompton folding bikes are the standard by which the Tube discerns whether a bicycle is allowed or not during rush hour. In Toronto, the commuter Go Train allows two bicycles per train car, but not during rush hour.
“With a Brompton, it doesn’t matter because it folds up and you can shove it in the corner. It doesn’t take a lot of space,” Harding says. “The whole point, and it’s quickly becoming the same here in Toronto, is that in London, nobody can afford to live downtown. People live in the suburbs and take the train in and cycle to work. Brompton, in the UK, is one of the only sizes allowed. It is basically the model.”
Harding says he has also flown back home to the UK with his Brompton.
If commuting is the main motivating factor behind consideration of a folding bike, checking in to see what sizes are allowed would be keen to your buying decision. Some public transport agencies demand certain sizes such as 120cm by 70cm by 40cm with protruding parts covered up or folded. That matters.
Brompton makes the most compact folding bike on the market. Others are also compact and portable, but it would be tragic to invest in a new folding bike only to find out it’s still too big to take onto the train.
Brompton Electric C-Line
Folding bikes on the streets
One of the most discernible differences between riding a folding bike with small wheels and a larger bicycle is how it takes the bumps and potholes on city streets.
Would-be folding bike aficionados should understand that they will feel everything on the streets more than traditional cyclists. Large potholes present a problem, but the folding bikes are also quite a bit more nimble, so keeping a steady eye on the road will help. But so will choosing the right materials.
Although it is still a hotly debated topic, some suggest steel will absorb much more of the punishment a rutted roadway will dish out, as will titanium. Aluminum is also a common frame material, it’s also the most affordable, and might be a bit of a bumpier ride, depending on who you talk to.
But, there are also several that offer front and rear suspension, wiping away those pesky road reverberations.
Yes, folding e-bikes are also growing in popularity, and Brompton has come out with a fantastic model with a front hub motor, and a portable battery supply that detaches from the unit to be carried with a shoulder strap when not in use. The bike can easily be folded down just like other Bromptons to a very small size.
Watch for the full review of the Brompton Electric C-Line upcoming in Momentum.
Brands to check out
There are hundreds of folding bike brands on the market. A testament to how quickly this bicycle category is growing.
Here are a few of our faves with links for further information:
Good luck on the quest for a folding bike. Although supply chain issues might mean a short wait, it will be worth it.