Cycling - Folding Bikes

Folding bikes – an experiment - by Martin Sherring

Introduction
Penny and I borrowed two folding bikes as an experiment to see how they would help or hinder a 4-day trip to London, visiting friends scattered across the north and west of the city. We also used Cyclestreets.net to provide quiet routes around the capital – another first for us. Here’s how we got on.

Background
We’ve been toying with the idea of folding bikes for years, but somehow the benefits never seemed enough to justify getting more bikes. These days, though, we are using public transport a bit more, and there aren’t many buses from Culbokie – but if we could get to the A9, there are a lot more. We also do more leisure cycling than we used to, and it would be good to be able to hop on a bus or a train to get to the start/ finish. And the final push came from the increase in the Rose Street car park charges, which made it prohibitively expensive to leave a car there for a week away by train. (Since then the charges have been reduced, but they are still £7 for the first day and £5/ day after that.)

The trip
A friend offered us a lift into Inverness to catch the 07.55 train to London; from Kings Cross we had to get to Hampstead. The next day we were meeting friends in Chiswick, and then they were driving us (and the bikes) to see mutual friends in Northwood, where we stayed the night. The next day we had a party about 3 miles away, staying another night in Northwood. And then, on the final day, our friend gave us a lift to Hatch End in Middlesex, where we took a train to Richmond, lunch with more friends and an afternoon cycle to Euston for the sleeper home. Oh, and then a bike ride from Inverness back to Culbokie. In total, we probably cycled about 60 miles, and took the bikes with us in two cars, on two East Coast trains and two local trains.

The bikes
Both bikes were made by Dahon and have 20 inch wheels. One was a Ciao i7 owned by Transition Black Isle and is available to borrow (details at the end). This has 7 hub gears, and according to the Dahon website weighs 12.5 kg (but I think that excludes the rear pannier rack, so maybe 13 kg in practice). The other was a Vitesse D8, with 8 derailleur gears. This is about 1 kg lighter than the Ciao.

Portability
The bikes were a tight fit to get two into a car boot – and wouldn’t work in a small car or one with lots of other luggage. The long-distance trains were easy, the folded bikes went into the guard’s van. I hate to think what would have happened if we had tried to take them on a rush-hour tube train or bus – we certainly wouldn’t have been popular! The two local trains we took weren’t crowded and the bikes just sat by the doors.

Both bikes were quite heavy to carry any distance, and they have bits sticking out that catch on calves. Mostly it’s easier to unfold them and wheel them than to carry them, but we had one change of trains that involved going along one platform, up two sets of stairs and along a walkway. The stairs were hard work, and it wasn’t worth folding and unfolding the bikes for the short flat sections.

The Vitesse is easier to carry because it folds with the handlebars tucked between the two frame sections – so there’s one less thing to get in the way. Both have guards over the chains, so we avoided oily trousers.

Luggage
Both bikes have a rear luggage carrier. We took rucksacks and strapped them onto the carriers whilst we were cycling. That was a bit awkward, but not a problem in the context of an hour or more of cycling. It would be more irritating for a shorter trip to/ from a bus stop. There’s a bit of a knack to fixing luggage so that it doesn’t catch your feet as you’re cycling. I guess panniers would fit, but they aren’t so easy to carry when the bike’s folded up.

Cycling
The bikes were fine to cycle, and the range of gears was pretty good – we came back over the Black Isle ridge, and the hills were no more of a problem than on our hybrid bikes. The lack of a cross-bar makes them a bit harder to control when stationary. I think they must be a bit slower than full-sized bikes, but there isn’t that much in it. The 20 inch wheels are fine on moderately rough surfaces (canal tow-paths, for instance).

The routes
The routes suggested by Cyclestreets.net were excellent, almost all along residential streets and cycle paths. The routes are quite complex though, which makes the descriptions difficult to follow, and journey times were a lot longer than suggested, because we had to consult our notes at every junction – and there were a LOT of junctions. Also, a couple of times we took a wrong turn, and without a detailed map it was difficult to get back onto our route. If we’d been a bit better organised, we could have used a map downloaded onto our phone, but that would still be a bit of a fiddle. On the other hand, by the time we were on our way back to Euston we found ourselves on streets we recognised from the outward trip and we had got accustomed to the wording of the route descriptions.

Conclusions
Folding bikes seem to be mostly used for commuting, but this experiment helped convince us that they can also be useful for less regular trips. Our interest was in combining the bikes with lift-sharing or public transport to make a longer journey feasible without getting the car out. That seems to work, with the proviso that the Dahons wouldn’t be popular on crowded buses or trains, and fitting two of them into a car boot is probably impractical with smaller cars. If that is important, a Brompton, with its 16 inch wheels, may be a better bet.

When we were researching folding bikes we thought of the obvious pros and cons for particular models – folded size, weight, number of gears, luggage carrying capacity, price. There are a few other criteria which we hadn’t thought of until we tried these bikes. First, portability isn’t just about folded size and weight, the Ciao just wasn’t as neat as the Vitesse, and in practice the clumsiness was more significant than the extra weight. Second, we suspect there is probably a trade-off between portability and rideability. We haven’t ridden Bromptons much, but reports seem to suggest the smaller wheels make them a bit more “twitchy” and probably less suitable for rougher terrain. I’d recommend people try different models and makes before they buy.

Cyclestreets.net was great at suggesting a reasonably unthreatening route in unknown territory, but I’m not sure we found the best way to have the route details handy, and the descriptions take a bit of getting used to. We’d still recommend this approach, but allow lots of extra time and experiment beforehand with ways to keep the description somewhere accessible.

Overall, the trip was a great success, both as a way of researching the folding bike options and as a way of making the most of both bikes and public transport – and avoiding car park charges!

TBI folding bike loan
TBI’s folding bike is available on loan from Willie Mackintosh in Raddery. His phone numbers are 01381 621291 and 07525 415550 and his e-mail address is mackintosh@btinternet.com. Black Isle Bicycles also have a similar Dahon Ciao in their hire fleet, contact Giles on 07964 779663 or info@blackislebicycles.co.uk.

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