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Folding bike buyers guide

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This is a buyers guide designed to educate you about folding bikes (foldable bikes) so that you can make an informed decision and get the right bike for you at a minimum cost. Please also read:

First of all this is unbiased advice from my many decades experience with folding bikes, its not a lead generation tool where I try to get you to click on product links so I can make a 5% amazon sales commission.  In fact, on this page I have intentionally given no hyperlinks at all to insure you realize that this in unbiased information.  My only goal is to promote bike commuting and bike touring which I have loved doing since 1988 and my hope is that by helping you find the right bike, you will end up loving biking for a lifetime as I have.   If you google “best foldable bike” you will find a bunch of ridiculous websites whose only purpose is to generate 5% amazon sales commissions. The people writing these pages have never used the bikes and the ridiculous ratings like “features: 9.5/10” are completely random and just a way to lead you to the most expensive bike so they get a maximum commission.

I currently own 5 bikes, two of which are suitcase bikes.  My first suitcase bike was a “New World Tourist”, serial #125 from Bike Friday who was just getting started in travel bikes.  My second suitcase bike was another New World Tourist from Bike Friday but this one was serial #1315.  My third travel bike I got was a beautiful Co-Motion Americano which I got in about 2014.  Its now 2019 and I am looking into getting another travel bike which is the reason for this buyers guide.  I thought it was time I wrote down my experiences to help others choose the bike right for them.

See also:

 

Wheel size

The first decision you need to make when buying a travel bike is wheel size.  You can get either a 16″ wheel, a 20″ wheel, or a standard road bike wheel which is 700c.  Wheel size is everything.

Wheel size and performance: As far as performance, the bigger the wheel, the better.  The bigger wheel will have less rolling resistance and better braking ability.

Wheel size and comfort: The bigger the wheel, the smoother the ride.   I personally have ridden European cobblestone streets with 20″ wheels on my Bike Friday and can tell you that its possible but its my personal hell.  The small wheels follow every contour of the cobblestones which cause the handlebar to go up and down like a jackhammer.  A larger wheel smooths out the road imperfections.  A 16″ wheel over cobblestones would require walking the bike.

Wheel size and route options: When bike touring, despite the fact that the map shows pavement, you WILL encounter gravel.  I use a 28mm or 32mm 700c tire on my Co-Motion when doing bike treks and I can tell you that while not as ideal as a mountain bike, they can handle gravel fairly well.  With this setup, I have full flexibility in the routes I take.  When bike touring, you are often presented with a choice of a 50 mile stretch of smooth pavement  with horrible traffic and no shoulder … or a 25 mile stretch of beautiful gravel thru forrest.  With my 32mm 700c tires, I can take the forrest.   A 20″ wheel with big tires can work on gravel for short stretches as long as its not loose. A 20″ wheel on loose gravel will “trench” and make walking easier than biking.  Hitting a patch of loose gravel with a 16″ wheel will cause you to catapult over the handlebars.  Even pavement that seems smooth to a car will be torture with a tiny 16″ wheel.

Wheel size and transportability: From the above, you might wonder why you would consider anything other than a big 700c road bike wheel because they are more efficient, more comfortable, and allow you to choose all route options.  Easy!  Folding and packing! Its easy to make a 16″ quick fold bike that fits into an airline legal sized suitcase.   To my knowledge there are no 20″ quick fold bikes that fit into an airline legal sized suitcase but you can disassemble them fairly easily to fit with an hours work.   A full sized road bike like the Co-Motion with 700c wheels *can* be fit into an airline legal suitcase but it requires about 4 hours of disassembly and packing.

There is no one bike that is best for everything.  You need to decide what things are most important to you.

The Holy Grail of travel bikes

We are in pursuit of the Holy Grail of travel bikes.  The perfect bike would be made of titanium to be light and strong.  It would have 20″ wheels for high performance and comfort.  Most importantly, it would quick fold into an airline legal sized package so that you could just drop it into a hard shelled suitcase in a minute or two.  Brompton only makes 16″ wheels and does not pack into an airline suitcase.  The Bike Fridays have 20″ wheels and full airline packing kits but require significant disassembly to fit into a suitcase.   We are very close to this Holy Grail.  A kickstarter called Helix seemed to have the design down, took lots of advanced deposits from potential customers, and never produced a single bike.  People don’t realize that although building bikes is not as complicated as building cars, it requires a huge infrastructure investment to produce bikes of sufficient quality at a low cost.  A company called Seattle Cycles advertises the Burke 20 which also seems to meet this Holy Grail of folding bikes but its unclear if its truly available and if they have the production issues worked out.

The best foldable bike

Despite the fact that the google search term “best foldable bike” returns hundreds of pages, there is no such thing!  The best foldable bike … FOR WHAT?  There is a reason I have five bikes now and its because no one bike does everything just as just one motor vehicle does not do everything.  Do you want to carry 4×8 sheets of plywood and 14′ PSL beams in an overhead rack or do you commute 80 miles a day and need to get 55mpg?  You cant get one vehicle that does both!  This is the hardest part of buying a foldable bike – deciding what your  list of ‘must have’ features are.  The more you list, the more expensive the bike.  List too many ‘must have’ features and there will be no bike available even if you had $15,000 at your disposal.  Buy the bike you need now, not the one you think you might need later because by the time you actually need that future feature your bike will be worn out and need of replacement anyway!  We will talk a lot more about these criteria in a bit but first lets talk about the very important subject of foldability.

Folding bike, foldable bike, quick-fold bike, suitcase bike, packable bike, and travel bikes

A good place to start in a buyers guide like this is what separates these bikes from a normal bike.  All the bikes I am talking about in this buyers guide are ones that can be stored and carried in a space much smaller than a normal bike which is about 2m (6′ long) and 1.5m (4′) tall.  There are lots of reasons people like me want this.  It might be to fit them in a tiny Porsche Boxter trunk.  It might be so that the bike can be taken free on an airline.  It might be because you want to take it on public transit with you or it might simply be because you dont have room in your tiny apartment to store a full sized bike and it would get stolen if you left it outside.  Lets talk about the above terms.  “Travel bike” is an overall term that applies to all these bikes but there are two different ways they bikes transform into these smaller, travel friendly packages:

  1. By folding. (foldable bikes)
  2. By packing. (packable bikes)

Lets talk about the folding bikes.  A foldable bike, the quick-fold bike or the folding bike are all basically the same thing.  All these really mean the same thing, it means that you flip a few levers and in 10-60 seconds the bike is tiny so you can pick it up and put it in your trunk or take it on the train with you.

The second type is the packable bike.  The co-motion bike I have now is a great example of that.  It looks like a normal road bike except it has two precision titanium connectors in the frame so you can take the frame apart in two pieces. This is not a foldable bike, its a bike that can be dismantled and stored in a small suitcase but this can take a long time.  Instead of the 10-60s that a foldable bike takes, I allow 4-6 HOURS for disassembly and packing into the suitcase and 4-6 hours to unpack and assemble it.  Why on earth would you choose a bike that required 6 hours AND bike mechanic skills to pack or unpack?  Great question!  Its not because I am crazy but because its a REAL BIKE.  Foldable bikes have 16″ or 20″ wheels and my beautiful Co-Motion has normal 700c road bike wheels.  Whats the big deal you ask? Ride 20″ wheels over gravel or rough pavement and you will understand completely.  Tiny wheels not only have much higher rolling resistance but they are like riding a jack hammer.  You can do cobblestone roads in Europe (very common) with 700c wheels but with 20″ wheels you have to get off and walk. Dont even try to ride 20″ wheels on gravel.

Then there are quick-fold, packable bikes, for example, the Bike Fridays.  You can either quick fold them in 30s to take them into your apartment or you can spend 3 hours and pack it into its airline suitcase so that even the baggage handler monkeys cannot destroy it.

 

Taking bikes on airplanes

There are lots of great quick fold bikes out there and they can be really cheap as well.  No reason you cant get a quick fold for $300 to $700.  You might think that since they quick fold that it would be a no-brainer to check them as luggage on an airline – nothing could be further from the truth.  The first problem is that they are larger than the maximum size allowed for normal luggage and require the oversize baggage fee.  The second issue is that they are totally unprotected.  There are three ways you can take bikes on airplanes:

  1. Buy a hard shell bike carrier and put your bike in it after taking off pedals and handlebars. ($150 each way domestic, $200 each way international)
  2. Take your quick fold bike and stuff it in a duffle bag. ($150 each way domestic, $200 each way international)
  3. Pack your bike into airline legal sized suitcase. (Free or normal baggage charge).

Virtually all airlines use the 62″ rule (157cm).  Measure the length, width, and height of the bag and add them up.  If its over 62″, pay $300 (domestic) or $400 (international).  If its less than 62″ then you pay nothing or the minimal normal bag fee.  As you can see there is a BIG financial incentive here.  99% of the folding bikes out there far exceed the 62″ rule and most are 70″ to 74″.  You might get lucky sometimes but not likely as they love baggage charges as revenue because they know they have you – what are you going to do at that point?  Stomp your feet and say you are not going?  This is why I have always gotten a bike that fits into an airline legal suitcase and never had to pay a bike fee but it has come at the cost of time.  Both my Bike Friday New World Tourists and my Co-Motion Americano take 4-6 hours to assemble or disassemble despite much lower times quoted by the manufacturers. I am willing to spend 8 hours to save $600.  Its not only that though, its a lot more.  If you just shove your foldable bike in a duffle bag and had it over to the airline at the checking counter, what you will find at the luggage carousel at your destination is a bag of very expensive scrap metal.  Airlines are not gentle with luggage and if you are going to have a reliable and serviceable bike at the destination it has to be packed VERY well.

One surprising thing is that many manufactures who make folding bikes have discontinued offering their airline check in suitcases.  For example, Dahon used to have the “Airporter” suitcase for their bikes but it is no longer available. Tern who makes folding bikes also has a case called the “Airporter” but buyer beware – it is not airline legal because its dimensions total 72″ instead of meeting the 62″ limit.  They claim that simply smiling and being nice at check in has always let them avoid the excess sized baggage fee.  That might be true if you are a frequent flyer on that airline but I can guarantee you that if you have to fly a European based airline or a Asia based airline that they will slam you with the full price.  To my knowledge, Brompton does not make an airline checkable suitcase either.  Even if you search for “folding bike suitcase” on Amazon, you will only find one or two and none of them meet the 62″ limit.  Having taken bikes on dozens of flights I can tell you why this is, its because of customer complaints.  Unless you are meticulous about packing your bike and use cable ties to turn the dozens of loose parts into one solid, un-movable block, it WILL get damaged.  They probably just got tired of people demanding their money back because the suitcases did not protect their bikes.  If you want to take a bike on an airline, this leaves you with just two manufacturers to my knowledge: Bike Friday and Co-Motion.  I have used both their bikes extensively on many flights and can report that IF you pack them well then they will not get destroyed.  They will get scratched, I guarantee it.  They will get dings and dents, I guarantee it.  They will be functional though.  The last option is to design your own packing system for a Dahon, Tern, or Brompton.  You would be wise to study carefully the way a Bike-Friday is packed and the precautions they take when you design your system.  You need to realize also that even though your Dahon or Brompton is quick-fold, to get it in an airline legal suitcase is NOT quick.  To get it to fit and transport without damage, you need to do a lot of disassembly.  Not just taking the wheels off but removing the rear derailer, disc rotors, handlebars, and all the accessories.  Even though your quick fold bike can be folded in 30 seconds, count on 2-3 hours to pack it safely in a suitcase … if you can find one.

You might think this is all too much trouble.  Why not just rent a bike when you get there?  Best of luck to you.  How much of your vacation exactly do you want to waste looking for a quality bike that fits you?  Do you really want to have it a requirement that you fly in and out of the same city?  I have probably flown once or twice with a foldable bike every year since the 80s and never lost a bike or had it so badly damaged that it could not be ridden.  Scratched paint all the time.  Dings in rims quite common.  If you pack your bike right and anticipate everything that will happen, you are fine.  For example, if you have disc brakes then the discs MUST be removed from the wheels or they WILL get bent.  The rear derailer needs be removed from the frame or it will probably not work when you get there.  Everything needs to be cable tied firmly together so NOTHING moves at all – it needs to be a firm block. Anything that moves will be scratched, dented, or bent.

You can tell if a 20″ wheel quick-fold bike (90% of the market) will be airline legal by simply looking at it.  One frame hinge means not airline legal.  Two frame hinges means it will satisfy the 62″ requirement.  There is an optimal geometry for handling for a bicycle which is why all road bikes look basically the same.  With 20″ wheels, same thing, the bike is about 60″ long.  If there is just one hinge on the bike frame (90% of the market) then when the bike folds in half it will be about 30″ long and you have already lost the battle – you will never get Height+Width+Depth < 62″.  To beat the 62″  requirement you have two options, the frame must have two hinges or the wheels need to come off.  If the wheels have to come off, its not quick fold.

Multi-day bike treks

This is a topic near and dear to my heart.  I love bike touring and think it is the best way to see the world, nothing is like it.  You get away from the tour busses and tourists and see the real people and the real country.  These days I do one or two 14 day bike treks each year.  If you are going solo and bringing your own bike, this raises a very important question. Loop trip or one way?  Are you going to start and end in the same city or do you want to depart from a city different than you arrive in?   Its very difficult often to come up with nice routes that are a big loop but they are really easy to organize.  All you do is stay in the same hotel on the first day of your bike trek and the last and ask them nicely if they will let you store your suitcase and all the packing material for free. This works most of the time. If not, store it at a train station.

One Way Trips: One way trips let you choose the most scenic routes and let you see a lot more of the country rather than just a loop around a big city.  A one way trip is a lot tougher but its worth it in my opinion and there are two ways to do it.  The most time efficient is to fly into one city and fly out the other.  To do this though requires that you carry the suitcase the bike came in on your bike with you!  There are two clever ways to do this.  The first is the Bike Friday approach.  The hard shell suitcase the bike is shipped in becomes a trailer that you tow behind the bike and store all your gear in!  Nothing is free though.  This trailer with its 12″ wheels really slows you down but worse than that its width makes it rather stressful to use in many places because a lot of bike paths in Europe are narrow at points as are the bike lanes on the city streets.  The second approach is the one I used on my bike trek from Melbourne to Sydney with my Co-motion.  Co-Motion sells two cases for its bikes – a wheeled suitcase and a cloth duffle bag.  For this trip I used the duffel bag and used some thin plywood to protect the sides further.  When I arrived in Melbourne, I simply put everything in my panniers and on the rack and rode off to Sydney.

The second way to do a one way trip is really a pseudo-one way trip.  It allows you to get a roundtrip airline ticket in and out of the same city so you can store your suitcase in that city.  This is same as the first option for the loop route method except we bend it to make a one way trip. I did this last year when I biked from Vienna to Zurich.  I had a round trip into and out of Vienna.  I stored my airline suitcase and packing material in Vienna at the hotel where I stayed before and after the trip and then biked to Zurich. Things get really complicated logistically now though.   How exactly do I get my bike from Zurich back to Vienna so I can fly home?  The suitcase I need to pack it is sitting in a hotel in Vienna 1000km away!  One option is to find a train that lets you take the bike on in its fully assembled state which is very problematic and I would not recommend it. The other option is to have TWO packs for your bike.  The first is a airline durable suitcase which I left at the departure point of the trip (Vienna) the other bike bag is a foldable bike bag I took with me in my panniers on the ride to Zurich.  When I arrive in Zurich, I pack the bike into the canvas bike bag so that I can take it on the train.  When I arrive in Vienna, I simply plop the canvas bag into the airline suitcase – genius.

Carrying Gear

When bike touring, even if you are going from hotel to hotel, you will need storage.  At a minimum you need clothes to handle both heat and pouring rain as both can happen in the same day.  You also need at least 8 hours worth of food and water because when you are on the best bike routes, you are often in the middle of nowhere and restaurants/stores are few and far between.  There are three ways to do this: backpack, panniers, or trailer. I suppose it theoretically possible to get by with a back pack but I can guarantee you would be miserable.  The best option I find is to have a rack and panniers.  I like the old fashioned Ortlieb roll up bags.  You can try to get by with just two bags on the rear or you can opt for a better weight distribution and get front packs too.  What I find is that all packs get filled.  No matter how long the trek, I just use two packs for this reason.  With careful packing you can carry everything you need. With this option, you need to choose a bike that is made for touring.  What this means is that their will be threaded lugs that allow you to attach a rack.  The final option is a trailer.  As I mentioned before, Bike Friday has a very clever option where you can buy a trailer kit that converts the suitcase the bike comes in to a trailer to tow behind your bike.

Step 1 in choosing the right foldable/packable bike

Enough background info, I dont want to make your head spin any more so lets talk about how to choose the right bike for you.  First, look at the following list and chose ONE bike feature that is the most important to you in your bike buying decision and a second bike feature which will be used to decide in the case of a tie.  If you choose three, then you will never own a foldable bike because you will not be able to afford it, if it exists at all.

  1. the bike must fold quickly.  If you take the train to work every day and need the bike for the last 2 miles from the train station to work then its clear you need a quick fold bike.  No more than 60 seconds.  If you don’t plan on folding the bike that often then its not a ‘must’ that if fold quickly.
  2. the bike must be inexpensive.  The more you spend, the better the bike you can get.  A better bike goes faster and is lighter.  Set a price limit.  Just remember that you may need to cross items of your “Must” list to get a bike you can afford.
  3. the bike must  have high pedal effeciency. This is a really important point. By “pedal efficiency” I mean how fast the bike goes with a given pedal effort.  A cheapo heavy bike will barely go at a jogging pace with strong effort whereas an efficient travel bike can go 30mph.  How fast to you need to go?  If you are just going 2 miles from the train station to work every day then who cares how easy it is to pedal?  In fact, you might choose a heavy cheap bike just so you get more cardio in that short distance.  On the other hand, if your primary purpose of the travel bike is to do long distance bike treks like I do then pedal efficiency is your #1 priority.  The biggest factor in pedal efficiency is wheel size.  A 700c wheel is the most effecient but there are NO quick fold bikes with these big wheels – you need to spend 4-6 hours assembling and disassembling.  Remember what I said, you cant have it all.  You can either have quick fold OR you can have a high pedal efficiency but not both.  Other important criterial for pedal efficiency is the tire pressure and the quality of the drive train components.
  4. ultra compact folding (meets airlines 62″ rule). By this I mean that the height + width + depth of the bike case be less than 62″ (157cm).  Remember that if its more than that then you are paying $400 – $600 round trip to take your bike.  If you never plan on taking your bike on a plane then who cares?  If you plan on taking it with you often then a bike that does not meet the 62″ rule will quickly rack up airline fees far in excess of the bike’s purchase price.  To my knowledge, there are no quick fold bikes that fit in airline legal suitcases.  Note that although I have used the term “airline legal” you might choose this as your first criteria if you never plan on taking the bike on an airplane simply because you need a bike that folds as compactly as possible.  A perfect example of this is a Porsche Boxter owner like myself who want to have a bike in their trunk.  The only bike that can fit in the small trunk of a Porsche Boxter is one that meets the airline legal 62″ rule.  A quick fold bike with 20″ wheels and only one frame hinge will not fit in a Boxter, period.  Just like with being airline legal, for a quick fold bike to fit in the trunk of a Boxter requires two frame hinges rather than one.
  5. the bike must be a custom fit.  One of the cool things about Bike Friday is that they can custom make you any frame geometry you want!  The way it works is that you go to your local bike shop that deals with bike friday and either have you measure you for optimal fit or you bring in your favorite bike and they duplicate that.  Bike Friday builds you a custom goose neck handbar stem that makes it all work.

 

Step 2 – Find your bike!

This tool will help guide you to the right bicycle!  Select your primary decision criteria and two others and this tool will search its database to find the best bike for you.

 

[software under development]

 

 

Foldable Bicycle Types

Here is my current travel bike, its a Co-Motion Americano.  Its a normal geometry road bike with quick disconnects in the frame so it can be disassembled.  Here is a photo montage of the sequence required to get it into the suitcase.

 

Bike-Packingpacked-co-motion

To get an idea of how the logistics work, watch this 30 second time lapse video

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