5 Folding Bikes for the City

 blenheim

Brompton World Championship racers in obligatory jacket and tie depart from Blenheim Palace.  The dress code suggests both the folding bike’s roots in English quirkiness and its usefulness for urban commuting.

 

There’s no better way to take possession of a city than on a compact folding bike.  Neighborhoods that would be discouragingly distant on foot become only minutes away.  Distant communities that might otherwise go unexplored become riding destinations with the option of making part of the trip on a bus or train next to one’s unobtrusively folded mount.  A folder can be carried into shops and restaurants, avoiding the inconvenience and unreliability of chaining up outdoors.  Owning a truly compact folder is like having a bike in your back pocket.  It can shrink an entire city.  Not only does such a bike take you to fresh places in town, it does so without compromising the spatial immediacy of walking.  Philippe Starck has said, “frankly, it isn’t Manhattan that interests me.  The center of Manhattan is very civilized, a nice international city.  I am more interested in the passion of New York, and that’s why I go with my motorcycle or bicycle to the Bronx, Queens and Harlem.  There, you are like a spectator in front of the most beautiful drama in the world. Every corner of the street seems like an opera stage, a stage for drama.  The vibrations there are very strong.” 

New York is now following the lead of European cities like Copenhagen, where streets have been reclaimed for pedestrians and cyclists.  Janette Sadik-Kahn, the city’s progressive Department of Transportation Commissioner, hired the visionary Danish urban planner Jan Gehl in her effort to favor people over cars.  Even with initiatives to accommodate bicyle commuting by allowing bikes in office buildings, go-anywhere small-wheeled folding bikes have distinct qualities that complement New York’s increasing bike-friendliness and will always give them advantages in cities.  Their popularity is exploding.  As little as five years ago, a Brompton folding bike was a rare sight in New York.  Now they’re everywhere.     

It’s hard to say whether demand or the seductive challenge of designing a better folder is more at work, but recent years have seen a flood of new folding bike designs enter the market.  Most are aimed at buyers who intend to fly or drive a folded bike somewhere, then ride it, often in a vacation spot.  These typically have wheels of 20-inch diameter or more.  A subset of 16-inch wheeled bikes that can be carried about indoors target those who use a folding bike as an everyday part of city life.  In a place like New York, after which Kryptonite Locks names its most secure products (like the “New York Fahgettaboudit” lock) the chief advantage of these bikes is theft resistance.  However, other advantages  are reason enough to own a compact folder.  They take up less space in a small apartment, lend themselves to intermodal commuting, and allow one to take a bike, folded, straight through a public building like Chelsea Market, instead of locking it outside and doubling back for it.  You’d like to ride to work today, but rain is forecast for the afternoon?  Go ahead and ride in, and bring your bike home on the bus if the rain appears as scheduled.    

MoulComL

An F-frame Moulton is superimposed on a standard bicycle.  Small wheels are geared to turn farther with each pedal stroke.  Alex Moulton saw advantages in small wheels that carry on in today’s urban-oriented folding bikes.

 

The small-wheeled performance bicycle was pioneered in England by Sir Alex Moulton, whose F-frame model with 17-inch wheels was introduced in 1962.  By 1965, his company was England’s second largest single-brand bicycle maker.  According to The Spaceframe Moultons, by Tony Hadland, Alex Moulton observed that, “with the exception of vehicles for use on soft ground, such as tractors, wheel sizes for virtually all vehicles have decreased as design has evolved – all modern cars, railway locomotives and aircraft are ‘small-wheeled’ compared to their Victorian or Edwardian predecessors.”   Moulton’s original intent was to free up space above the wheels for storage and allow step-through mounting.  The naturally greater rigidity of smaller wheels coupled with high inflation pressure insured that there would be no increase in rolling resistance compared to large wheels.  To soften the harsh ride that might otherwise result, Moulton added front and rear suspension.  The suspension had the additional benefit of resulting in what Moulton called “a total advance over the high pressure unsprung large wheel in road-holding and comfort.”  His design was also radical in its abandonment of the classic diamond-shaped frame.  Moulton said that if ”that quadrilateral bit of piping” were launched on the market today, its top tube would probably not be allowed for safety reasons.  Moulton’s alternative “F-frame” was easier to get on, unisex, and one-sized.        

Moulton was also aware that smaller wheels have less inertia, present a smaller face to the wind, produce less spoke turbulence, and more rigidly transmit the rider’s energy to the road, all enhancing performance. In 1982 he introduced a version that replaced the F-frame with a spaceframe on the same small wheels, further reducing the loss of energy through flexing.  His theories were proven in 1984 when a spaceframe Moulton set the world speed record for a non-recumbent bicycle at 51.29 mph.  Most Moultons are designed to come apart easily into two pieces for transport, but none fold.  Nonetheless, the brand’s technical innovations, starting with the idea of a high-performance small-wheeled bike, have largely informed the design of today’s folding bikes.  Bike Friday makes marketing points of the easy mounting that Moulton saw as essential and the performance he pioneered for small wheels, while the Brompton’s suspension concept first appeared on Moultons in the 1960s.

Radical technical innovations like Moulton’s and those of recumbent bicycles are suppressed by the International Cycling Union which regulates the Tour de France.  Its rules don’t just perpetuate the basic bicycle form established by John Kemp Starley’s 1885 Safety Bicycle for the Tour but, by association, for mainstream bicycling.  Much of the resurgence of recreational cycling in America owes to Lance Armstrong’sunprecedented 7 consecutive Tour de France victories.  No surprise to anyone who knows the power of a product endorsement, everyday American cycling has taken on a more performance-oriented cast because of his heroic stature. 

A public that associates large-wheeled bikes with Lance and small-wheeled ones with circus clowns will be surprised to know that almost all of the compromises made by folders have to do with folding rather than wheel size.  The tighter the fold, the fewer the options.  The five higher-quality bikes covered here are defined by the emphasis they put on one or the other and the ingenuity with which they narrow the gap between the two.  The game not only makes for great design watching, but has larger implications for the way people inhabit cities.   

 

AlexMoulton

Alex Moulton is pictured riding a Moulton F-frame bicycle, featured as number 580 in the chronologically numbered list of 999 significant products published in the 2005 Phaidon Design Classics series.   (The Brompton folding bike is number 782.)  An engineer who first developed suspension systems for aircraft and mini-cars, Moulton was poised to resolve the harsh ride that might otherwise characterize a small-wheeled bicycle.   

banham

The architecture historian and critic Reyner Banham rides a Moulton F-frame in swinging 60s London.  Banham was a lifelong bicycle commuter and a great believer in the Moulton, about which he published an article in the 60s called ”A Grid on Two Farthings.”  It champions the Moulton not just as a superior bicycle, but a refutation of the idea “that the centuries have given a final shape, perfect beyond improvement, to certain basic tools such as the hammer and the oar, that generations of trial and error have produced working forms almost indistinguishable from platonic absolutes” including the diamond frame bicycle which had presumably “already achieved its ultimate norm or form around 1900.”  Since the Moulton, Banham writes, “bicycle thinking can never be the same again, and there can be no more nonsense about permanent and definitive forms, for even the Moulton is capable of improvement.”  Banham correctly foresaw small-wheeled progeny but incorrectly predicted that the revolution Alex Moulton had wrought “looks likely to carry his name into the whole field of small-wheeled bikes.”  The field has emerged, but if it has a name, it’s “folder”, after the most obvious improvement left to the Moulton’s descendants.  

silurian

Banham rides a Bickerton folding bike at Silurian Lake, California in this photo from his 1982 book, Scenes in America Deserta.  (photo:  Tim Street-Porter)   The bike was designed by Harry Bickerton and manufactured in the UK between 1971 and 1991.  Its ungainliness inspired Banham and Bickerton’s fellow Briton Andrew Ritchie, inventor of the Brompton, to do better.  Patented in 1979, the Brompton has been continually improved but retains its fundamental original design.  (Banham is reported by one source to have eventually been a Brompton rider, although he remained true to Moulton, eventually owning five models.)  Small-wheeled bikes are a particularly English phenomenon.  Phaidon Design Classics says of the Brompton, “the development of this bike, like several other significant small-wheeled folding bicycles, has occurred mostly in the UK, and mostly carried out by men usually quite unconnected with the world of bicycles, working out ideas on kitchen tables or in garden sheds in the tradition of quirky British inventors.”

Bike Friday Tikit

Tikit TikitFolded

Bike Friday (think “Man Friday”) bills its products as performance bicycles that happen to fold.  As former bike racers, company founders Hanz and Alan Scholz are attuned to performance, but with a particularly inventive streak.  They’ve taken on challenges as daunting as a folding recumbent tandem and a bike that converts from tandem to single-rider.  Like standard bicycles, Bike Fridays are available in multiple sizes and can be customized.  (The company prides itself on accommodating even those with special needs.)  The folding feature of most Bike Friday models is intended to allow transport of bikes to distant locations in hard cases.  They appeal to many older cyclists who are more likely to have the means and free time for the “performance that packs” travel riding to which this lends itself.  The company’s recently launched Tikit brings the performance emphasis of Bike Friday to 16-inch wheels.  Although it’s not the smallest fold out there, it’s the fastest.  Given its potential for customization and performance, the Tikit most closely resembles a standard bike among those discussed here.  It’s the clear choice for anyone who wants both a city folder and a light touring bike in one package.  Made in America, parts replacement is easy.  Bike Friday’s frames also come with a lifetime warranty.      

Nationality:  American, based and made in Eugene, Oregon

Introduced:  2007

Wheel size:  16 inch / 349 cm

Frame material:  steel

Weight:  25 pounds for a medium size “Standard” model

Speeds:  1 to 27

Ride quality:  excellent

Folded size:  listed as 24H x 35L x 15W, varies with model size and handlebars

Folding speed:  10 seconds / 5 seconds with hyperfold option (adds $300)

Rolls folded:  well

Carries folded:  fairly well

Stands folded:  fairly well

Cost:  from $1,098

Pro:  multiple sizes, highly customizable, easily replaced American parts, lifetime frame warranty

Con:  large folded size 

Bike Friday website

A Bike Friday Tikit review

The Tikit Hyperfold demonstrated

 

 

Brompton

Brompton

Collectivecolour

 BromptonFolded

The Brompton’s 10.6″ wide fold allows it to unobtrusively occupy an aisle in a bus or the space under a café table.  A folding bike’s accommodation to city life is a game of inches.

Brompton makes only one frame style, and it’s as if all of the company’s creative energy has gone into its perfection.  No 16-inch wheel folding bike folds into such a compact package.  Quickly lifting the Brompton’s seat post causes the rear wheel and triangle to swing under the frame, greatly reducing the bike’s length and allowing it to stand upright on its own in what’s known as a half-fold.  This is enormously useful not just as a kickstand, but for taking the bike inside the corner deli and instantly folding it far enough to be a non-nuisance to others.  Folding the bike entirely except for the steering post allows it to be pulled around by the handlebars as a compact package on caster-like wheels attached to the rear triangle, very much like a suitcase.  The final move required for folding, lowering the seat, firmly pins the folded package together with the seatpost.  The simplicity and effectiveness of this finishing touch makes the Brompton feel unimprovable.  A simple block of rubber cushions the rear triangle against the seatpost, providing rear suspension.  With ”extremities” including the front fork, steering post, seat post and rear triangle available in titanium, the Brompton can shed a couple of pounds while gaining additional ride-softening.  Dispensing with the three-speed rear hub and relying on two speeds can drop a few more pounds and make for a bike that’s very easy to carry and adequate to relatively flat urban terrain like most of New York’s.  Bromptons come in a wide range of colors that can be independently applied to the main frame and to the extremities, allowing for a huge degree of personal expression.

Nationality:  British design, made in London

Introduced:  1981

Wheel size:  16 inch / 349 cm

Frame material:  steel

Weight:  from 20 pounds, including seat and pedals

Speeds:  1, 2, 3 or 6

Ride quality:  good

Folded size:  22.2H x 21.5 L x 10.6W

Folding speed:  20 seconds

Rolls folded:  very well

Carries folded:  very well

Stands folded:  very well

Cost:  from $1,000

Pro:  Very compact, stable and maneuverable when folded; rear suspension; personal expression opportunities with color

Con:  cannot be customized or adjusted except for seat height.  

Brompton website

A Brompton review

The Brompton fold demonstrated

 

 

Dahon Curve 

 curved3-us

CurveD3Folded

The Dahon Curve D3

Founded in 1982 by laser physicist David Hon, Dahon commands two-thirds of the world’s folding bike market and currently sells 35 models.  If your local bike shop carries a folding bike, it’s most likely a Dahon.  The bikes range from cheap and heavy with ephemeral parts to expensive and high-performance with durable components.  The company’s only current 16-inch wheeled models, the Curve SL and D3, fall into respectable enough positions on this continuum.  At $599, the Curve D3 is the most affordable bike considered here.  In contrast to the way the Brompton folds into a tightly pinned-together package, the Curve’s folded shape is held together by magnets and rather floppy.  Dahon’s are available with integrated floor pumps concealed in the seat post, a very elegant and useful feature.

Nationality:  Los Angeles based, made in Asia and the Czech Republic

Introduced:  2007

Wheel size:  16 inch / 306 cm

Frame material:  aluminum

Weight:  22.3 for SL / 25.4 for D3

Speeds:  9 for SL / 3 for D3

Ride quality:  good

Folded size:  24.2H x 26.9L x 12.9W for SL / 25H x 26.1L x 13.3W for D3

Folding speed:  15 seconds

Rolls folded:  fairly well

Carries folded:  poorly

Stands folded:  fairly well

Cost: $999 for SL / $599 for D3

Pro:  light weight for SL / low cost for DL3

Con:  doesn’t lock together well when folded

Dahon website

A Dahon Curve SL review and Curve D3 review

The Dahon fold demonstrated

Mezzo

Mezzo

MezzoFolded.small

British engineer Jon Whyte, the Formula 1 and mountain bike designer, said of his Mezzo, “I spent eight to nine times more time on the development of this project than the work I did on the Whyte mountain bikes.”  His sharp looking bike may just be Brompton’s worst nightmare.  Its fold is not as small as the Brompton’s and requires an extra step, but its compactness and stability are a close second.  In return for its slightly larger fold, the Mezzo outdoes Brompton with a standard rear hub that allows for more gearing options, a less flexible unjointed frame, and a larger range of handlebar positions, all contributing to greater performance and comfort.  The Mezzo occupies territory halfway between the Brompton’s emphasis on fold and the Tikit’s on performance.

Nationality:  British design, distributed by California’s Marin Bikes, made in Asia

Introduced:  2004

Wheel size:  16 inch / 349 cm

Frame material:  Aluminum

Weight:  from 24.25 pounds

Speeds:  4, 9 & 10

Ride quality:  very good

Folded size:  24.8H x 27.2L x 12.2W

Folding speed:  20 seconds to unfold, 10 seconds to fold

Rolls folded:  fairly well

Carries folded:  fairly well

Stands folded:  well

Cost:  from $900

Pro:  Approaches the Brompton’s compact, stable fold with a better ride, more adjustable fit and greater gearing options

Con:  Requires an extra step to fold and doesn’t fold as small, compared to the Brompton

Mezzo website

A Mezzo review

The Mezzo fold demonstrated

 

 

Strida

Strida

 StridaFoldedcorrected

Designed by yet another British engineer, Mark Sanders, the Strida may have the most radical and elegant shape of any folding bike.  It has a surprisingly comfortable, cruiser-like upright riding position.  While its kevlar belt eliminates the grease and maintenance of a chain, it limits the bike to one speed (or two, at a steep 50% cost increase).  This bike rivals the Brompton for intermodal potential, but provides a slower ride that’s best confined to fairly flat terrain.  Nonetheless, it is certainly a more serious bike than the novelty of its shape might suggest.  On buses or trains, the uniquely vertical nature of its fold makes it almost a walking stick for the standee, but its inability to stand upright on its own is a drawback.  It can, however, be leaned against a wall with the brakes engaged so it doesn’t slide down.

Nationality:  British design, made in Taiwan by brand owner Ming Cycle

Introduced:  1987

Wheel size:  16 inch / 306 cm (with 14 and 18 inch versions available) 

Frame Material:  Aluminum

Weight:  22 pounds

Speeds:  1 (with dual available at $1200)

Ride quality:  Fair

Folded size:  45H x 20L x 9W for standard model Strida 5.0

Folding speed:  7 seconds

Rolls folded:  very well

Carries folded:  well

Stands folded:  not upright, but in a near horizontal position (image above); leans well

Cost: from $800

Pro:  compact folded footprint; clean, maintenance-free drive train

Con:  not comfortably ridden for longer distances

Strida website

The Strida fold demonstrated

Test Ride 

All of the bikes described above except the Dahon Curve SL are stocked at bfold in Manhattan.

Most are also stocked at Trophy Bikes in Philadelphia.

More on Folding Bikes

The Folding Cyclist

The Folding Society

A to B Magazine

8 Responses to “5 Folding Bikes for the City”

  1. Galfromdownunder Says:

    The Bike Friday’s ‘large folded size’ didn’t stop if from getting through 9 of the 11 buildings in the tikit on trial on 2007 http://www.bikefriday.com/tikitontrial – and one of the buildings that didn’t allow it – the New York Public Library – didn’t allow the Brompton either. Perhaps under the ‘con’ for Bike Friday you could modify it to ‘large folded size compared to a Brompton’ as you have done with the Mezzo, since the Brompton is clearly your benchmark here.

    Now all we have to do is get people out of their cars for short trips and moving under their own power. It might start here, by putting the horse before the cart:
    http://galfromdownunder.blogspot.com/2009/06/folding-bikes-start-with-horse-before.html

  2. David Lam Says:

    Excellent information from an interesting angle. Well done!

  3. Pei Says:

    I loved the story of the folding bike and its European origins. The technical part after was very thorough.  Now a light bulb is blinking in the back of my mind :)

  4. Foo Says:

    Since you describe the Tikit as the “performance” bike of the collection, it might be helpful to also show a picture of configuration which emphasizes the bike’s customizability.  I can’t think of any better than the Speeding Tikit.  Pics:

    http://tinyurl.com/yj22c7y

    http://tinyurl.com/ygnn97t

  5. Gareth Says:

    Fascinating post. Two observations.

    You mention that most of the issues with compact bikes are created by the need for it to fold. I generally agree, but one reason why small wheel bikes will not make it into the pro peleton is the lack of stability created by the revolving mass in the front wheel. This requires the rider to concentrate more on a small wheeled bike in keeping the bike upright and moving in a straight line. This is not an issue on short urban trips, but would rapidly become one in a competition over many miles. Anyone who doubts this should compare the difficulty of riding with no hands on 16″ and a 700c wheeled bikes.

    Second observation is more trivial. You mention the UCI as regulating the Tour de France. They did, and they wish they still did, but in 2009 the TdF organisers decided they could do without the UCI. This led to a rather public spat with the UCI rather impotently threatening riders with sanctions if they took part in the race.

  6. Sue Says:

    One of the perks about folding bikes may be that they have small wheels, but I have a full-size Montague folding bike, & I love it.  Once unfolded, it’s a standard size and it rides with great sturdiness and comfort, so I never feel like I’m riding something that I can also fold down and store in my car or closet.  I wouldn’t trade the comfort while riding just so I can have a bike that folds a bit smaller.

  7. FoldingBikeLife Says:

    Excellent piece on folding bikes in the city. After years of putting off getting a bike in NYC, I finally bit the bullet a month ago and picked up a folder. I couldn’t be happier with the decision and for once actually look forward to my daily commutes!

    I’ve actually had the recent opportunity to test ride several different folders and have been reviewing them on my site and a few others. Not all folders are created equal :)

  8. Steven Fleming Says:

    Wonderful article. May I refer the avid scholar of architecture and small wheel bikes to a little piece I wrote on Norman Foster and his Moulton space frame:
    http://behoovingmoving.livejournal.com/62106.html

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