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I’ve recently spent quite a lot of time playing with folding bikes on my overseas adventures. While not my favourite bikes to ride long distances, this unique style of bike has allowed me to experiences countries and cities in a different way.
With a folding bike I can:
– See more of a country in less time.
– Skip the ‘dull’ areas and move on to places I’m more interested in.
– Go on bike tours with people with little cycling experience (the trip can be less about the bike riding).
– Pack my bike for a flight in minutes.
Folding bikes are all about compromise. The main trade-off is between cycling performance and foldability. In general, the smaller and more compact the bike, the less suited it is for long-distance cycling. For example, 16″ folding bikes have an unbelievably small fold but tend to feel a bit tedious on rides over one hour when compared to bikes with larger wheels.
This guide will look at the things you should consider when selecting the best folding bike for your bike tour.
There are two things to think about when it comes to the folding aspect: folding speed and the size when folded.
Folding speed is only really important if you’re folding and unfolding your bike multiple times per day. The quickest folding bikes take about 10 seconds, some of the slower folding bikes will take 10 minutes or more to disassemble. I prefer bikes that require no tools for the fold like the Tern or Brompton bikes.
Folded size is generally proportionate with any given wheel diameter. You can see below that the bike volume increases around 100 cubic litres at each wheel diameter. I’ve found that with a cover over the bike you can take any size folding bike onto public transport without anyone batting an eyelid. Without a cover, it seems you’ll have a harder time convincing someone it’s ok when the volume exceeds about 200 litres. Having a thin cover for a bike with wheels larger than 20″ is essential in many places.
Example Folded Sizes (HxLxW)
16″ Wheels: Brompton – 585 x 565 x 270 mm (23″ x 22.2″ x 10.6″) / 89 litres volume
20″ Wheels: Dahon Mu Sl – 660 x 820 x 320 mm (26” x 32.3” x 12.6”) / 173 litres volume
26″ Wheels: Tern Eclipse – 810 x 900 x 380 mm (31.9″ x 35.4″ x 15″) / 277 litres volume
27.5″ Wheels: Tern Joe Tour – 870 x 950 x 460 mm (34.3″ x 37.4″ x 18.1″) / 380 litres volume
The higher-performing folding bikes feel as laterally stiff as a regular bike, and this makes them an absolute pleasure to ride. I was able to comfortably pump out 100-150km per day in the mountains on a Tern Eclipse 24″, but the same can’t be said about a Brompton 16″ (which is suited to sub-50km on the flat). This is due to a few factors: your position on the bike, the gear ratios, the frame/handlepost stiffness and the wheel size.
The best performing bikes tend to use 20″ wheels and up, but just because a bike has big wheels does not mean it is good! Different frame designs, differences in frame/handlepost stiffnesses and the parts on the bike still vary greatly. You’ll need to organise test rides for a few folding bikes to see what feels best for you.
I’ve found that bike weight isn’t particularly important for touring performance, but a lightweight bike is certainly nice for carrying when folded.
Sizing and Fit
Folding bikes rarely come in more than one frame size. This is great if you’re of average proportions and not too fussy, but anyone out of the middle height range will need to compromise significantly. It still surprises me that folding bikes aren’t available in a size range.
The importance of size and fit will depend on how you plan to use your folding bike. If you’re wanting to cover long distances on the folding bike, you’re going to want something that fits well. If you’re pottering around cities and covering short distances, ‘fit’ is largely irrelevant (with the exception of seat height) as our bodies will compromise for short periods.
One of the only manufacturers to offer different frame sizes is Bike Friday. The pakiT model is available in six sizes and many of the other models are custom made for you. If you’re particularly tall (or heavy), Bike Friday is the company you should be looking at closely.
I’ve written much more about ‘fit’ in my review of the Tern Eclipse P18. As a very tall cyclist, I ended up fitting extra-long bar ends to achieve a riding position I was comfortable with for those 100km+ days.
Folding bikes typically come with 16, 20, 24, 26 and 27.5″ wheels.
It’s best to select your wheel size based on how you plan to use your folding bike. The more regularly you’ll be using public transport, the better it is to go smaller and more compact. If you’re after long-distance performance, you’ll want something with larger wheels and a wider gear range.
For example, my trip to Sri Lanka used public transport almost every day so I picked an ultra-compact Brompton. In comparison, my Thailand trip was mostly 100km rides with buses here and there. I picked a much higher performing Tern 24″ bike for that.
Folding bikes tend to have fewer gears than a regular bike. This will vary in importance based on what kind of riding you’ll be doing. As not all places are flat, your bike should have some low enough gears to help you up the hills. We can measure the gear ratios of folding bikes using gear inches. I tend to recommend a low gear of about 25 inches which will cover most gradients. A top gear of around 70 inches is fine for the city, but you will want greater than 100 inches for a higher-performing folding bike. You can read more about gear inches and how to calculate them HERE.
Internally Geared Hubs vs. Derailleurs
A great way to simplify a folding bike drivetrain is to use an internally geared hub. With the gears located inside the rear wheel they are less susceptible to damage and require less maintenance overall. The trade-offs are that there are bigger gaps between the gears and they’ll add about a kilogram to your bike. Some of the cheaper hubs also run a bit less efficiently than a derailleur drivetrain.
The best place to upgrade your folding bike will be the tyres. If you get something puncture resistant you’ll likely enjoy maintenance-free travel wherever you go. Schwalbe do a great range of touring tyres in the smaller sizes.
Unlike a regular touring bike, you can get away with a cheaper folding bike. This is because you’ll likely be covering shorter distances, and you’ll probably be carrying less gear too. That said, more money results in a lighter, more compact, higher-performing bike in general. I’d recommend US $500 as a starting point, but the quality stuff really kicks in after US $1000.
If you’re on a budget and you want to carry 10-15kg or more, you should definitely look into pulling a bicycle trailer. This will reduce the strain on the folding bike, and the trailer will sometimes even double as a carry case for the bike.
There are lots of different ways to carry your gear on a folding bike. My favourite way is to use a ‘luggage truss’ or ‘carrier block’ off the front of a folding bike frame. With these mounts, you can carry up to 31 litres of luggage (Brompton T-Bag). A set of panniers mounted to a rear rack are the next size up (40+ litres), and trailers are the next step after that (70+ litres).
You can read my article dedicated to carrying luggage on a folding bike HERE.
Summary: The Best Folding Bike
Folding bikes are all about compromise. Like standard bikes, there is no best folding bike for all occasions.
In general, it can be said that bikes with larger wheels (and therefore a larger fold) tend to perform better but are less suitable for public transport. On the other hand, the ultra-compact bikes are not as good for covering those longer distances but are super easy to transport.
The 20″ wheel size is often the best balance between performance and folding size. With this wheel size, your bike can perform exceptionally provided it uses a smart frame design and component choice. The 20″ bikes will also fold to be less than 200 litres making them easy enough to get onto any form of transport.