Folding bikes are a relatively common sight in cities, but I’d never tried one myself. Honestly, I’d always kind of looked down on them. Why would you spend nearly $1,000 on a folding bike when you could get a perfectly good used road or cyclocross bike for the same price?
But I’d largely quit using a bike for my own commutes around San Francisco. After a few trips on the train resulted in paint scratches, I just wasn’t comfortable bringing my race bike with me anymore. I also wasn’t happy locking it up outside restaurants during lunch or dinner, which meant I’d taken to driving instead. With a folding bike—a true commuting steed—I could fret less about damage, potentially bring it with me into businesses, and spend less time in transit.
Equipped with a Dahon Mu N360, I decided to give the folding bike life a shot. I live in a suburb and commute into the city for meetings, dinners, and events on a semi-regular basis, but I hadn’t used my bike as part of the journey in months. Instead, I’d just walk or take the bus for the final few miles to my destination.
So for a week, I changed it up; I carried or rode my folding bike just about everywhere, and I learned a few things in the process.
A bike that can fold is, in fact, convenient.
At first, I had trouble finding the value in my folding bike’s folding capabilities. So it can fold up to fit in my car; big deal. I can fit my Specialized Amira in my car just fine, as long as the back seat is down. The folding bike, however, can origami itself small enough to fit in a typical sedan trunk. I could feasibly ride out to the bar, have a few too many, fold up my bike, and take an Uber home without ruining my passenger rating. Score!
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There is a learning curve, though.
The more I used the folding bike, the quicker and more adept I became at flicking its fasteners, reassembling its adjustable parts, and hoisting it into and out of my car’s trunk. I’m not going to lie, though—the first few days were rough. Trying to navigate a turnstile at a BART station, I painfully squashed my finger. It also took me two tries to get myself and the bike through; next time, I sagely went through a different entrance with a wider turnstile. Another day, I managed to bruise my hip while carrying the bike. And then there was the time I didn’t realize my handlebars weren’t straight, and spent half a mile struggling to steer before I even noticed.
Riding felt different.
I’m used to riding clipped in, donning spandex, gloves, and a helmet. I become a cyclist, one with my bike. In jeans, flats, and a backpack, however, I didn’t feel like a cyclist anymore—I was a pedestrian with a bicycle. At times, I felt nervous—and more vulnerable to the cars zipping past me. I’d max out my gearing on downhills and didn’t even bother Strava-ing my rides because of how disgracefully slow I was at pedaling. Other times, though, I felt more respected—even empowered. On my road bike, drivers treated me like I was an inconvenience and a nuisance, taking up valuable road space with my carbon fiber and neon Lycra. On the folding bike, I was just a person who happened to be on a bike, trying to get to and from work.
The difference was probably only in my head.
Many places don’t mind if you carry it inside.
With the bike folded to its most compact form, it’s really no more burdensome than a large piece of luggage—and I treated it that way. I carried it inside coffee shops, bars, even a casual restaurant, and no one batted an eye. When a local boutique had a sale, one of the saleswomen even kindly let me set it in the back by the changing rooms. Well, that’s one way to get my business! I never would have considered bringing a normal-sized bike into any of these establishments.
The train was a piece of cake.
Taking the Bay Area’s Caltrain commuter rail from the South Bay to San Francisco and back with a folding bike was nearly stress-free. As it should be—Caltrain has bike cars, where you can strap your bike against other commuters’ bikes, and luggage cars, where you can fold and stash it on a rack. For me, it was easier to leave the bike unfolded in the bike car, but that was mostly because my weaker upper-body strength made lifting the roughly 30-pound bike onto the top level of the luggage rack an extremely awkward affair.
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But I wouldn’t bring it on the bus.
During rush hour, most San Francisco MUNI buses are so jam-packed with bodies that there’s not much room for your stuff beyond a backpack, tote, or briefcase. That’s okay, though—the reason you have a bike in the city is to avoid all that nonsense by taking the bike lane. Therefore, I decided that I would prefer to pedal everywhere, rather than take my bike on the bus. It would be cheaper, less stressful, and likely faster.
I get it.
After a week with a folding bike, I get it now. My arms are stronger, and I’m pedaling faster. It felt good to ditch the car in some scenarios while reaffirming in others that walking and driving were the most logical modes of transportation. While I’d never trade in my “normal” bike for a folding bike, any commuter could—and should—appreciate folding bikes for their practicality and convenience.
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