The Best Folding Bike for Touring: My Pros and Cons List

by wheretheroadforks

Lately, I have begun experimenting with folding bike touring. I took a short tour on a Dahon and test rode a Brompton and a Bike Friday. I put together this list of pros and cons of touring with a folding bike to help you decide whether or not folding bike touring is for you. For an analysis of 8 of the best folding bikes for touring, skip to the second half of this article.

I also made this short video to outline the main points of the article.

Folding Bike Pros

  • Folding bikes are free to fly with- This is the biggest benefit I have found to folding bike touring. As long as you can pack the bike down into a package with dimensions totaling less than 62 linear inches (158 cm), and weighing less than 50 lbs (23 kilos), the bike will fly as a regular checked bag with most airlines. Checking a folding bike is usually free on international flights where one checked bag is included in the fare. On domestic flights, you may need to pay $25-$50. Each airline charges a different rate to check a full sized bike. On average it costs between $100-$200 each way. Some airlines charge up to $500 to check a bike. Of course, some airlines are much cheaper. For example, Alaska Air will fly your bike for only $25. Many Asian and Middle Eastern airlines allow full-sized bikes as regular checked luggage. It pays to do your research before booking. 
  • Folding bikes can be taken on buses, trains, and in taxis- Even if bicycles aren’t allowed, you can simply fold up the bike, slip it into a big bag, and nobody will know what it is. This gives you the freedom to skip boring or dangerous sections while touring. In my case, I love trains and ride them every chance I get. Touring on a folder allows me to enjoy train travel whenever I want.
  • You can explore more places more easily with a folding bike- For example, maybe while you are touring you decide that you want to take a budget flight to a nearby island or another country. With a folding bike, you can just pack it up and fly relatively hassle-free. If you tour on a full-size bike, this side trip may be cost-prohibitive or impossible.
  • Folding bikes are more likely to be allowed in hotel and hostel rooms- Many hotel managers don’t want bikes in the rooms. The reason is that bikes are dirty. They can bring mud and oil into the room. While understandable, most bicycle tourists don’t like these policies. Because folding bikes are much smaller and can even be stored away in a large bag, it is generally less of a problem to bring the bike into the room. This gives you extra peace of mind. You don’t have to worry about your bike while it’s locked up outside or in a storage room where who knows who has access.
  • Folding bikes are easier to pack up for transport- For flying, you don’t need to go through the hassle of finding a full sized bike box. You can just make an appropriately sized box by cutting and taping smaller boxes to size. For ground transport, you can just carry a folding bike bag and store the bike inside of it when taking a bus or train. 
  • Folding bikes are easier to transport to and from the airport- With a folding bike, you can pack the bike up in the comfort of your hotel and just take a cab or public transport to the airport. This may not be an option with a full sized bike because a bike box won’t fit in many small cars. You would have to ride to the airport with the box strapped to the bike and pack all of your gear there. This is more stressful and really not fun if you have a flight in the middle of the night. It can also be a problem if the airport is located far outside of the city center. 
  • You don’t have to worry as much about getting stranded- If there is a catastrophic failure on your folding bike and you can’t ride it, you can haul it in even the smallest of cars. This isn’t an option with a full-size bike.
  • More airline options when you need to fly- Because you don’t have to take into consideration the cost of checking an oversized piece of luggage, you can fly whatever airline is the cheapest when flying with a folding bike. You can also fly on smaller planes that can’t accept full sized bikes. 
  • You can hitchhike with your folding bike- Because a folding bike is so compact, it can fit in the trunk or back seat of almost any vehicle. This opens up the possibility of integrating hitchhiking into your bicycle tour. 
  • You can bring your folding bike into your tent- If you travel with a two person tent, you can fit the folding bike inside to protect it from the weather or theft. If you are staying at a campground, you can store your bike inside while you are away.
  • Folding bikes are a conversation starter- Everyone wants to learn about the bike and see how it works. Making friends and meeting people is easy with a folding bike. This is only true in countries where folding bikes are rare. 
  • Folding bikes are easier to mount and dismount- The step-through frame allows you to easily get on and off the bike. You don’t have to throw your leg over the top tube every time you want to get on your bike. This can be a plus for people with joint problems. 
Brompton folding bike

Brompton folding bike in France

Folding Bike Cons

  • Some components wear out more quickly- Hubs, rims, and tires, in particular, won’t last as long on a folding bike. The reason is that they need to make more revolutions to take you the same distance as a full-sized bike. Because of this they wear out and need to be replaced more often. This adds maintenance costs.
  • Folding bikes have proprietary parts- Some brands are better about this than others but all folding bikes have at least a few non-standard that are brand specific. If one of these breaks or wears out, you’ll have to buy a replacement from the manufacturer. Third-party options are usually not available. One example is the hinge. If the brand goes out of business in the future, you may have trouble finding some parts. The Brompton probably has the most proprietary parts. Bike Friday folding bikes seem to have the least. The Moulton, Dahon, Birdy, and Tern fall somewhere in between.
  • Some folding bike parts are hard to find- Some parts are non-proprietary but are just odd sizes. For example, 16-inch wheel parts and short cage derailleurs are common on folding bikes but not on full-sized bikes. Many bike shops don’t keep these in stock. This can be a problem if you’re touring in the developing world. You may need to have spares shipped in if something breaks or wears out. 
  • Folding bikes are more fragile- They just can’t take the beating that a full-sized touring bike can. This is mostly because the hinges make for a weak spot in the frame.
  • Folding bikes are more expensive- If you compare a folding bike with a full sized bike of the same price, the full-sized bike will have much better components. A similarly specced folding bike will be significantly more expensive. This is probably due to the added complexity of the folding mechanism. 
  • Folding bikes can’t haul as much weight- Because of the hinge and long seat tube and stem, folding bikes have a lower carrying capacity. Most folding bikes can safely haul around 110 kilos or about 240 pounds. This includes the rider and gear. If you’re a bigger person or like to travel fully loaded, that’s just not enough. For comparison, a decent full size touring bike can easily handle 300 pounds. Some can carry much more. 
  • Folding bikes aren’t as fast as full sized bikes- Pretty much every manufacturer of folding bikes will say that they are just as fast, but I’m not buying it. The smaller wheels accelerate faster, but they also slow down faster. Top speed is lower as well. Maybe I’m wrong but this is just my experience from test riding folding bikes.
  • Folding bikes are less efficient- Because of the smaller wheels, you need to spend more energy to keep the bike rolling. Small wheels just don’t have the inertia that large wheels have. This means that you will cover less ground while using more energy. For example, maybe in a full day of riding you travel 40 miles on your folding bike. On a full sized bike you could travel 50 in the same amount of time while burning the same amount of energy. Over the course of a long tour, this adds up. You might cover 200 miles less per month.
  • Folding bikes ride rougher than full sized bikes- Because of the smaller wheels, folding bikes don’t roll over potholes and bumps as easily. This means that folding bikes aren’t as good for gravel and off-road riding. Some folding bikes offer suspension to improve ride quality.
  • Folding bikes won’t last as long as standard touring bikes- Though you’ll likely get thousands of miles out of any folding bike, it probably won’t last as long as a rigid steel framed touring bike. Depending on the brand, the hinge is a weak spot.
  • Folding bikes look kind of funny- You’ll look like a clown riding a tiny bike. This bothers some people and others don’t care one way or the other.
  • Folding bikes attract more attention- People will want to talk to you and ask questions about the bike. They will stop you to ask you what you’re riding and how it works. Whether or not this happens depends on the country you’re riding. It can get annoying if you just want to be left alone. 
  • You’ll most likely ride less than if you were traveling with a full sized bike- Because it is so easy to throw the folding bike on a bus or train, you’ll probably end up riding less. For bicycle touring purists who want to maintain a line, this isn’t really acceptable.
brompton travel

Brompton folding bike


More Cycling Pros and Cons Analyses from Where The Road Forks

Things to Consider When Choosing a Folding Bike for Touring

  • Wheel size- The most important choice you’ll have to make. Most folding bikes have either 16″ or 20″ wheels. Some have 24″, 26″, or even 700c. To help you decide, check out my 16 inch Vs 20 inch folding bike pros and cons list.
  • Folded size- If you plan to fly with your folding bike, look for one with folded dimensions that are less than 62 linear inches (158 cm).
  • Luggage options- Consider how you will carry your stuff. Some folding bikes, like Bike Friday, can use standard racks and panniers like any other touring. Some brands, like Brompton, offer proprietary luggage options.
  • How long it takes to fold- If you plan to fold the bike often, you’ll want to choose one that is quick and easy to fold. Some take as little as 20 seconds to fold. If you only plan to fold the bike for flights, you can consider folding bikes that disassemble instead of fold. These may take 15-20 minutes to fold compactly. 
  • Parts availability- As mentioned earlier, some folding bikes use proprietary parts and uncommon sizes. These may not be available in every bike store. If you plan to tour in locations where replacement parts are harder to come by, such as the developing world, choose a folding bike with fewer proprietary parts. If you’re staying close to home, this doesn’t matter as much.
  • Gearing- If you’re planning a long tour or you’re touring in an area with a lot of elevation change, you’ll want more gears. If you’re touring flat regions or in cities, you can get away with fewer gears. You will also have to choose between internal gear hubs and derailleurs.
  • Comfort- Some folding bikes are small and may feel cramped for taller people. Some offer excellent adjustability and are great for all sizes of people. 

The Best Folding Bikes for Bicycle Touring

A handful of companies make folding bikes that are suitable for touring. They each have strengths and weaknesses. Below, I’ll outline a few of the best options. 

Brompton

The Brompton is probably the most popular folding bike for touring. The reason they are so popular for touring is that they have the most compact fold of any folding bike at just 585 mm X 565mm X 270mm. They can achieve this small fold because of the iconic Brompton design as well as the use of small 16-inch wheels.

When folded, you can slide the Brompton into a bag and it becomes a standard piece of luggage. You can take it with you on pretty much any bus, plane, train, and even busy public transportation. Nobody will suspect that you have a bicycle with you. 

Brompton bikes are also of very high quality. They are handmade London from high-quality parts. People typically get many years of good use out of their bikes. 

The main drawback of Brompton bikes is the fact that most (about 70%) of the parts they use are proprietary. These include the derailleur system, rack, brakes, and many others. Depending on where you tour, you may not be able to find replacement parts. Brompton does not have dealerships in every country. You may be out of luck if a critical part fails. Brompton bikes are also very expensive. Expect to pay $1200-$1700 for a touring capable Brompton.

One of the best models for touring is the Brompton M6R.

Folded Brompton folding bike

Brompton in folded form

A whole community exists of people who tour on Brompton folding bikes. The best resource I have found is The Brompton Traveler. This site is full of videos, reviews, recommendations, and ride reports all about traveling on a Brompton folding bike. Learn how to safely pack the bike, make repairs, and more.

Also, check out this cool article about a month-long Brompton tour from The Path Less Pedaled.

Bike Friday

Bike Friday specializes in folding bikes that are designed for long-distance touring and air travel. Each bike is handmade to order in Eugene, Oregon. The company claims that they can build the bike to feel just like a full-sized touring bike and that there is no downside. The frames are made of steel and are very durable. They use 20-inch wheels and are able to pack down to fit into a carry-on size suitcase. Their two touring models are:

  1. New World Tourist- This is their classic touring bike.
  2. Pocket Llama- This is their expedition or bikepacking bike.

The biggest benefit that Bike Friday touring bikes offer is that they use all off the shelf parts except for the frame and folding mechanism. There are no other proprietary parts. This means that you can find replacement parts wherever you tour. You’ll never have to special order replacement parts. 

The biggest drawback to Bike Friday is that they are very expensive. Base models start around $1300 and from there, the sky is the limit. A decent touring setup would cost around $1800-$2000.

Another drawback is that these don’t fold as quickly or compactly as the Brompton. The frame folds near the bottom bracket and the handlebar and seat tube detach. They fold down to around 32″ x 25″ x 14″. Maybe a bit smaller for small framed versions.

I took a test ride of one of these and really liked geometry and the way it rode. It did feel just like a full sized bike. 

folded Bike Friday

Bike Friday in the folded position

Here are two reviews from guys who have put a lot of miles on the Bike Friday New World Tourist:

Montague

Montague Bikes were designed under contract from the US military to be carried by paratroopers when jumping out of planes. They are unique in that they use standard 26 inch and 700c size wheels for their folding bikes. Because of this, they offer all of the handling benefits of full sized bikes.

Montague bikes use tough aluminum frames and mostly off the shelf components. There are only a couple of proprietary parts, mostly in the folding mechanism. You can easily mount a standard-sized rack for touring. Some models include the rack in the price. Mountain bike and road bike versions are available. 

The biggest drawback to Montague folding bikes is the fact that they don’t fold down very compactly. When folded, they measure around 36″ x 28″ x 12″. This is too large to avoid most airline oversized bag fees. You’ll end up paying the bike fee to check it. You can, however, easily bring the bike on most buses and trains when folded.

Another drawback is that Montague uses pretty low-end components on their bikes. Before setting out on a long tour, you might want to upgrade the drivetrain to something a bit more durable.

Quite a few people use these bikes for touring. Check out the Montague blog here to read about their experience. 

You can purchase Montague bikes on Amazon. Their most popular model is the Montague Paratrooper. The Montague Paratrooper Pro is also available. It offers slightly upgraded components.

Dahon and Tern

These two companies produce similar bikes and share a strange history. The Tern company was founded by the wife and son of the Dahon company. This resulted in litigation which ended in 2013.

Both Dahon and Tern offer a wide range of folding bikes with wheel sizes from 16 inch to 650b. The most common wheel size is 20 inch. Most of their frames are aluminum but they do offer a few steel models as well. Some of their bikes use derailleurs and some use internal gear hubs. Price-wise, these companies offer some of the most budget-friendly folding bikes for touring. Between Tern and Dahon, you have a lot of options to choose from.

Fold wise, an average Dahon or Tern folds up to about 65 cm x 32 cm x 79 cm (25.6” x 12.6” x 31.1”). This is slightly oversized for most airlines. You can do a bit of disassembly to make them fit into an airline acceptable 62 linear inch box. 

One of the most popular models is the Dahon Mariner Folding Bike. This bike features an 8 speed rear derailleur and 20 inch wheels. The frame is aluminum. This model would be great for light touring. To see what these bikes are capable of, you can check out this interview with a couple that rode their Dahon folding bikes from Cairo to Cape Town.

Birdy Folding Bike

A German company called Riese und Müller designs Birdy Folding bikes. They are built in Taiwan by Pacific Cycles. These bikes offer full suspension and are of very high build quality. The frame has no hinge. This adds strength and durability. A wide range of gearing options are available with both derailleurs and internal gear hubs. Birdy bikes are a popular choice for touring. 

Fold wise, Birdy bikes are larger than a Brompton and about the same as a Dahon. They measure about 80 cm x 62 cm x 34 cm when folded. They can fit into a standard airline acceptable case. Unfortunately, you’ll need to remove the pedals, rack, and 

The biggest drawback to Birdy bikes is the price. They are very expensive. Prices start around $1600. Another drawback is that most models use 18 inch wheels. This is an unusual size. It can be hard to find tires and rims. 

Airnimal Folding Bike

Airnimal is an English folding bike company that makes a range of high-quality folding bikes that are suitable for touring. Their bikes come in a variety of sizes and configurations. Most models 24 inch wheels. They offer a few 20 and 26 inch models as well. They offer flat bar and drop bar models. Several drivetrain options are available including derailleurs and internal gear hubs. Their touring bike, called the Joey, starts at around $1600.

Fold wise, Airnimal bikes aren’t too compact. This is due to the larger 24 inch wheels that most models use. You probably won’t be able to pack one of these bikes into a standard airline acceptable case. They do pack down small enough to bring on most busses and trains.

Moulton

Moulton Bikes were originally designed in 1962 by Dr. Alex Moulton. His goal was to improve on the classic bicycle design. He used smaller wheels to improve acceleration and designed a frame that was strong and easy to mount. Over the years, several versions were created and the company changed hands multiple times.

Today, the Moulton bikes are built by the Moulton Bicycle Company. They aren’t really folding bikes. Rather, some models separate so they can pack into a case suitable for airline travel. These bikes feature a unique full-suspension design and small wheels with high-pressure tires. The frames are unique and beautiful. 

The biggest drawback to Moulton bikes is that they are expensive. Prices start around $1600 for a base model. Some of their higher-end models sell for over $15,000. They are also not quick folding like some of their competitors. 

Alternative to Folding Bikes: Breakaway Frames

If a folding bike is too much of a compromise, one other option exists with all of the benefits of a full sized bike that can still be packed into a standard airline sized package. That is the breakaway frame. You have two options:

  1. S&S Couplers- These can be installed on steel and titanium frames only by a handful of authorized shops around the world. Check out sandsmachine.com for more info.
  2. Ritchey Breakaway- This is a similar system to S&S. The frame comes apart for packing. These frames are only made by the cycling company Ritchey.

The only drawback to these frames is the cost. You’ll pay about an $800-$900 premium for an S&S coupled frame, for example. If you fly often, this can pay for itself after 3-5 round trip flights depending on which airlines you fly. 

Final Thoughts on Touring With a Folding Bike

A folding bike is definitely a viable touring option. Online, you’ll find hundreds of ride reports of successful folding bike tours all around the world. People are riding folding bikes across the Pamir Highway, Carretera Austral, through Africa, and beyond. With a solid frame and components, a folding bike is as capable as a full sized bike. 

Personally, I’m not really a bicycle touring purist so I don’t care about keeping a line and riding the whole way. I’m happy to fly or bus from place to place. Being able to easily transport the bike makes up for most drawbacks in my mind. The freedom is valuable. 

I also fly quite often so it would be nice to be able to take my bike with me and not have to pay the ridiculous fees that airlines are charging to travel with a bike these days. In fact, after a few flights, I can make up for the premium I pay for a folding bike in saved airline fees

Have you done any folding bike touring? Comment below with your thoughts and experience! 

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20 comments

Albert Muthumbi April 14, 2019 - 8:42 pm

This one of the best folding bikes guide on the internet, well explained and articulated. I also like how the features, characteristics and bulleted points are done.

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wheretheroadforks April 14, 2019 - 10:01 pm

Thanks for reading!

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Alex Gordon April 4, 2020 - 5:05 am

Well said Albert Muthumbi. I agree.
Maybe “not being a bicycle purist” is why.
I own a Brompton (which I use in London) and a Bike Friday Pakit (doesn’t fold as nicely but much lighter – handy in a 5th floor “walk-up” in HK). They are both good bikes. Which is for you will depend upon which of folding’s advantages are most important, not that you’d know that from most online discussions as they tear each other’s throats out and assume the others are ill-informed fools – in a two-wheeled version of the tedious PC/Mac debate.
One minor “pro” for folding bikes is wheel buckles – they don’t really get them (or, at least they must, but it’s much less of an issue).

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Mike Watkins April 27, 2019 - 9:05 am

A very informative and enjoyable site thanks. I bought a Dahon Vitesse D7-HD three years ago for commuting. Last year I started touring in Europe on it, easy for me as I live in Eastern England and have a good ferry service to Rotterdam nearby. I choose to stay in hotels, but have evaluated carrying basic camping gear which i feasible. I carry basic spares, and use cheap throw over panniers lined inside with tough plastic bags. I have just added a KlikFix front carrier bracket, to which I can attache a basket, rack or bag. I modified a shoulder bag by lining one side with wood to give it stiffness, and fitted a KlikFix adapter plate so the bag fits onto the front headstock. I do avoid steep hills, cycling mainly along riverside paths (of which there are many in Germany). Holland is flat and I’m easily able to cover up to 60km per day. I use the train to get to a starting point, and occasionally base myself in one place for a few days and use train/bus to travel out for the day and ride back. Carrying a full size bike on public transport is, as you say, difficult sometimes. I prefer to ride sections of a route or visit an area or city of interest, rather than ride ‘all the way there and all the way back’ so a folding bike is ideal, comfortable and convenient. As far as the Dahon is concerned – its the ‘bees knees’ as we say in the UK!!

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wheretheroadforks April 27, 2019 - 4:00 pm

Thanks for taking the time to write this out! It’s great to hear about others touring with folding bikes. Sounds like you’re able to carry quite a bit of gear on the Dahon. I like the idea of choosing a city as a base then making day trips out to surrounding areas. Great way to get to know an area without having to haul all of your gear around all the time. I’m more of a traveler than a cyclist so being able to move around more easily on buses and trains is the biggest benefit to riding a folding bike in my mind.

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Andy July 18, 2019 - 3:06 pm

Great article, practical notes. I also have a Dahon – friend gave it to me 4 years ago… or about 3000 miles ago. Several other advantages to mention – easy to get on/off (more of a factor for us senior guys) and ease of use in cities. When parked I fold the handle down, seat down – that makes it maybe less attractive to a potential person who may want to “borrow” it. Yeah, while riding we look goofy and we set no speed records – but for travel mode isn’t that OK?

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wheretheroadforks July 18, 2019 - 4:31 pm

Great tip about folding the seat and handles while parked. Most theives probably aren’t familiar with folding bikes. It also buys you some time in case someone was trying to ride off with it. I’ll add your other advantages to the article. The low stepover height definitley makes getting on and off easier. Yeah, I think folding bikes are ideal for travel. Speed doesn’t really matter and having the freedom to catch a bus or train is always nice.

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Deb August 2, 2019 - 10:30 am

Hi,

Interesting but I thought you might like to hear my opinions on my Airnimal which you only mention briefly.

It is an Airnimal Joey with 24″ x 1.75″ tyres on which I have added a rear hub motor. A dual speed one as I spent week in Slovenia where there were long hills on dirt roads. I took 11 trains altogether on my 2 week trip and it was a bit frought at times it generally went well and went mostly free. Since my last trip to the Pyrennees I have added skateboard wheels to make it easier to wheel about. I have designed a fitting for the front of the frame so I can mount a klickfix bracket so I have a front bag that is independent of the steering. I have also designed and had made a klickfix bracket for my Brompton front bag which just fits over the wheel and under the brake levers.

Although it has no suspension I used it last month cycling (mostly) over mountain passes and on trails in the highlands of Scotland where articles suggest you should use a mountain bike. Yes, I had to get off a lot and cycle downhill quite slowly as bits were very rocky, but the following 30 miles on tarmac were great and I went home on the train. When fully folded it just fits into a large luggage space if necessary. It’s a clumsy fold but a great ride. I’m very happy with it.

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wheretheroadforks August 2, 2019 - 7:02 pm

Thanks for taking the time to write this out. I’m not very familiar with Airnimal bikes. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen one here in the US.

How do you like the 24 inch wheel size? It seems like a good compromise between a full size wheel and a 20 inch folding bike wheel. Having the ability to handle some poor road conditions really opens up your options in terms of where you can tour.

I’m glad to hear that you’ve been able to take so many trains without being charged a bunch of extra fees. I’ve been thinking about doing a tour either through the Balkans or maybe the Caucuses next year with a folding bike. I’d probably mix in some buses and trains along the way. Still not sure which bike to go with.

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Deb August 4, 2019 - 6:11 am

I am only 5foot 6 and I have always struggled with bike frames that are suppossed to be the correct size but I find I have to stretch too much so the 24in feels good. I have never ridden a 26in wheeler but the 24in is a much better fit than a 700c (ERTRO622 wheel size). I haven’t ridden a 20in bike either but I do have a Brompton at only 16in but I wouldn’t like to tour or do a long day on it.
Slovenian trains have the best cycle carrying facilities with loads of spaces but you do get charged per journey – about $3.50 I think. A folding bike goes free in Germany on the train I was on but an Austrian railways guard was a bit petty about the bike but the train did have about 6 hooks.
I have no experience of the buses. Have a good tour wherever you end up going.

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wheretheroadforks August 5, 2019 - 9:22 am

Thanks for the info. I was also considering a Brompton. 16-inch wheels probably aren’t ideal for touring but people do it. Good to hear your take.

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Derrick March 6, 2020 - 11:57 pm

Hi. Another option of a “collapsible” bike is the Pacific reach. Actually almost a mini-velo. It uses 24” wheels as well and packs smallish for flying. It has a special place on the frame for clipping a detached front wheel to. However, it also has full suspension.
Read of someone who takes it to every overseas conference. Not as small as a folder, but may suit some people’s requirements.

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wheretheroadforks March 9, 2020 - 7:37 pm

Good suggestion. I had never heard of the Pacific Reach. Just looked it up. I like the mini velo look. It might be a good choice for some.

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peter Stock April 15, 2020 - 8:09 pm

Great writeup.
but let’s address this “folding bikes are slower” myth.
I was talking a friend through the purchase of a BikeFriday and she too was held back by the “slower” fear. which caused me to drill down and actually so some research.
here’s what I found:

Email to her #1
The small wheels have nothing to do with speed.
though it is true that you need a heavier gear ratio (Higher gears) to hit the same speeds (because all things equal – i.e. same chainring – on smaller wheels does cover less ground.
but you can adjust the gear ratio to compensate.
this covers it well (albeit for 650c wheels, which are only slightly smaller than 700c wheels.)

http://www.rodbikes.com/blog/whats-the-effect-of-wheel-size-on-speed/

but also read these comments:

Are Bike Fridays as FAST as a regular bike?
Tests have shown that up to 16 mph, the small wheel is more efficient than a big wheel. Between 16 and 33 mph, there is little difference. Over 33 mph the gyroscopic effect of the big wheel makes it more effective. Most folks do not go over 33 mph.
— Source: 1984 Olympic Men’s Road Race Gold Medal winner, Alexi Grewal during a conversation with Jeff Linder. Alexi owns a Pocket Rocket.

Here’s what customers say:

BIKE FRIDAYS ARE FASTER I

From The Yak!:

Date: Fri, 24 Mar 2006 07:58:33 +0100 From Joost van Waert Subject: [Yak] Bike Friday is faster

I ride a BF Pocket Rocket Pro and also a regular road racing bike. I ‘race’ every week with the same bunch of guys. This is how I have found out that the Bike Friday is definitely faster than a big wheeled bike.

It took me a long time to figure out just WHY that was. After some years of riding a BF, I read an article about spoke turbulence (3).

(1) John Allen and Eileen are right in saying that ‘rotating weight’ only affects the speed when accelerating; (2) Rolling resistance IS a bit greater with little wheels, but, the faster you go, the less important rolling resistance is. Air resistance becomes the most important factor.

(3) The main reason why little wheels are faster is mentioned by John Allen as ‘drag’. A 20-inch wheel also has less frontal surface than a 28-inch wheel, but the main speed advantage of the smaller wheel can be found in the TURBULENCE that a rotating wheel generates. A small wheel (with fewer spokes!) generates much less turbulence-drag than a big wheel. That is the main reason for our advantage of big wheelers at high speeds.
Joost van Waert The Netherlands

Email to her #2
furthermore.

from this page about Moulton, one of the pioneers in small wheeled bikes.

http://www.moultonbicycles.co.uk/heritage.html
1986 – In the Autumn of 1985, at the International Human Powered Speed Championships, a fully-faired Moulton ridden by Jim Glover broke the 200 metres flying start speed record, at 50.21mph (80.79kph). Then on August 29th 1986, at the same event, he broke his own record at a speed of 51.29mph (82.54kph) which still stands today for the conventional riding position. The Moulton ridden was an AM SPEED with the fairing designed by Doug Milliken of Buffalo, NY.

Yes, it had a full aerodynamic fairing but the world bicycle speed record was set on a small wheeled bike. Moultons take 17″ wheels, so even smaller than a Bike Friday.

So, basically, you have no excuses for feeling you are moving too slowly.

Now your NWT will not feel as spritely as a Pocket Rocket, the BF equivalent of a road racing bike. But it will always be close.
Plus your riding position with those flat bars will always be slightly less aerodynamic than ideal for pure speed.
Peter

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wheretheroadforks April 22, 2020 - 3:49 pm

Thanks for taking the time to write this out. Great info here. I had never heard of spoke turbulence before. I guess that’s why aero wheels exist. I thought the added momentum of larger wheels would be more significant. After thinking about it, it might not matter because larger wheels take more energy to reach the same speed as smaller wheels.

If small wheels are faster and more efficient than large wheels at speeds less than 33 mph, I wonder why they aren’t more common? For on-road use, it seems like smaller wheels are better than larger wheels in pretty much every way. They are lighter, less expensive, use fewer materials to build, cause less drag, etc. Maybe it’s all about looks. It seems like larger wheels are really only beneficial for off-road use.

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Martin November 6, 2020 - 2:23 pm

Peter is right. Smaller wheels are not smaller, size has nothing to do with it.
Frankly, it’s hard to understand why this myth about “smaller wheels are slower” lives so long.

Basing on physics, there are only three factors that would make a bike slow down on a flat road: rolling resistance, air resistance, and internal resistance of the bike (all moving parts). Without those three elements present, a 16-inch bike and 28-inch bike would just keep moving forever.

Inertia has absolutely nothing to do. If the rule “the bigger the faster” was true, than the fastest bike out there would be a super-heavy 50-inch huge bike. Since the inertia of such huge wheels is also huge, the speed and efficiency should be fantastic, right? Wrong! On the contrary, it would be a very slow and inefficient bike. But not because of the size and weight of the wheels. It’s because of resistance factors.

I’ve been riding bikes for 30 years and moved to folding bikes just a few years ago. I’m not moving back. My 20-inch Carrera Intercity folding bike looked at first like it should be slower than my older 28-inch Cro-Mo bike. But it wasn’t, it was just an illusion. But I remember also that 20 years ago I used to have a really cheap no-name folding bike. It was terrible. Very slow, required lots of energy.

The smaller wheels obviously help reduce the air resistance (air turbulence included). That makes a smaller bike go faster. However, it’s not that simple. If it was the case, the fastest bikes would be 1-inch wheel bikes. They are not, because smaller wheel also mean more more internal resistance, as a small wheel needs to turn more times than a bigger one to go a mile. And the internal resistance of all the moving parts touching each other is increased. That’s the reason why very small wheels are very small. That also means that the quality of all the moving parts in smaller bikes are much more important than in the bigger ones. Shortly: spend more money if you want your folding bike go as fast as it should.

The rolling resistance of the tires is also important. It depends on the width of the tire and on the quality and design. Assuming the same width, the smaller wheels mean actually smaller resistance, as the area that touches the ground is also smaller. The case here is simple: the smaller the better. That’s why trains are so energy-efficient vehicles: the area of their wheels touching the tracks is incredibly small (about a size of a coin)

The position of a rider matters a lot too! When you sit straight (it’s usually the case with folding bikes) the air resistance is bigger and muscle efficiency is smaller. It contributes to the illusion that you go slower because your wheels are smaller.

Considering all this, there is no reason to assume that 20-inch bike should be inherently slower than a 28-bike. There are just too many factors to consider. According to my experience the most important is the quality of the bike. Then, air resistance (design of the bike is part of it). Last, resistance of the tires rolling on the ground.

The inertia argument that I read everywhere is based on intuition, but not on physics. It’s simply not true. If it was the case, wouldn’t the professional racers use bicycles with wheels as big as possible? But they don’t, do they? They stay with 28-inches for a reason. Apparently this size provides stability, safety, right position for a rider and an optimum combination of all the resistance factors in racing conditions.

But since we do not need folding bikes to race (usually) I see no reason why our small-wheel bikes with a couple of good tires should not be just as efficient as any 28-inch bike.

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Tom Stickland August 25, 2020 - 5:25 am

I’ve ridden several 20″ folding bikes and they are surprisingly capable. I think their main weakness is from frame flex and the long route from the handlebars to the crank which wastes energy as the parts flex. The paragraph about wheel sizes and inertia the article is questionable. The reduced inertia of the smaller wheels is not a significant factor – they accelerate easier and also decelerate easier. That will make very little difference to energy use on a flat road. They won’t flatten out bumps as much as large wheels which will give some increased losses. Their higher rotation speed will probably give slightly higher losses in the bearings too. My view is that the main inefficiency of folding bikes is due to the flexing effects and sometimes the compromised position caused by a single frame size.

I’m currently considering a Tern Eclipse 24/26″ wheeled bike versus an Airnimal Joey. The latter has no hinges between the cranks and the handlebars which should give it a slight advantage. It’s an ungainly looking bike though.

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wheretheroadforks August 29, 2020 - 5:51 pm

I agree with you about the reduced inertia being insignificant. While riding, smaller wheels feel less efficient than larger wheels but I’m not exactly sure why Maybe the difference is in my head. Smaller wheels create less air resistance and are lighter but still feel slower. It could be that frame flex causes the energy loss. The bearings are another possibility that I hadn’t thought of. Anyway, great points.

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Charlie Morgan October 3, 2020 - 5:43 am

Hello! Nice article, for which my thanks. I have a Dahon Vitesse, which is now about ten years old and has gone through many iterations in terms of componentry. I love it. Strength wise, I find it amazing. On a gentle ride (to the pub) a few years ago, I got a fly inside my sunglasses whilst freewheeling down a steepish hill. The result – when the fly was dislodged by frantic head movements, I looked down to see the front wheel heading towards the high verge at the side of the road. I recall thinking that pain would result! I did a 180 through the air and landed, thankfully, on the verge, removing a tennis ball-sized lump from the back of my helmet in the process. The bike? Slight buckling of the front wheel (original 20 spoke, single-wall rim) and nothing else. I was able to continue to the pub for a pint to soothe my shattered nerves! I now have 36 spoke wheels front and rear.
Before that, I did a nice tour down part of the Loire and since I have wandered about Brittany with some shorter trips between.
I have changed the gearing to something too low for the “purist” but I have no objection to freewheeling. Several ‘bars have been tried, but I’m back to straights. I tried cantilever brakes, but am changing back to Tektro linear pull. I’ve tried a number of saddles (it’s an age thing) and am presently experimenting with a Spongy Wonder noseless one. I gave up on the original folding pedals and now use Wellgo MTB ones.
Next time I plan to go for a bikepacking saddlepack/handlebar setup and remove the rack. I always go pretty minimal.
In all, my Vitesse has given very many hours of joyful solitude on quiet roads and byways. I love it!
Charlie Morgan

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wheretheroadforks October 11, 2020 - 1:50 pm

Great review of the Vitesse. Sounds like it can handle a beating. One complaint I have with folding bikes, in general, is that they don’t feel quite as robust as full-sized bikes. Having said that, I’ve never had any durability problems. I think 36 spoke wheels are a good idea though.

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