As terrific as on-airport cafés and crew cars are, there are plenty of times a few inconvenient miles separate the airport from your real destination. A bicycle small and light enough to carry with you could make all the difference in multiplying your aircraft’s utility.
The good news is that the recent surge of interest in biking has brought several more folding bike options onto the market. We’ll just look at compact folding bikes—small wheels and frames to minimize space and weight. There are also full-size folding bikes that we may look at in a later issue.
There are literally dozens of compact folder models out there. So we asked manufacturers to send us their best choices for this mission: Small and lightweight bike to travel three to 10 miles with a light bag. To test, we ran each bike multiple days on our hilly, six-mile daily commute, and brought together a group of pilots to try the bikes on the tarmac and in their airplanes.
The Brompton Solution
Brompton has been in the folding bike business for a long time, and it shows. It’s the smallest and most secure when folded, while still being the second easiest to fold. The drivetrain folds between two halves of the frame so you’re much less likely to touch the greased chain or have it brush against your aircraft interior. The folded bike is the most secure of any we reviewed, so there’s no risk of it unraveling as you maneuver it into place.
But what really set the Brompton apart was that provided for the details beyond just folding up the bike. You can leave the handlebars extended while folding up the bike and wheel the compacted bike behind you like a rolling suitcase. A clip on the front of the frame holds any of a wide variety of bags with capacities up to 1890 cubic inches. You can even leave the bag clipped to the frame when folded up. There’s also a wheeled bag for the entire bike.
The Brompton isn’t flawless. Most compact folders are less stable than full-size bikes, but the Brompton’s 16-inch wheels and short wheelbase make it the squirrelliest of all the bikes we rode. It’s not unsafe by any means, but turns you’d confidently race though on a road bike will give you pause on a Brompton. There’s a rubber mount that gives the Brompton a partial rear suspension (think Mooney landing gear rubber pucks). We only rode the firm suspension version. The soft one might be less stable. We also rode the hardest, smallest tires. Wider tires might tame the ride a bit more.
Each Brompton is built to order, with prices starting about $1300. The biggest choice is probably the drive system, which can be one to six speeds. We enjoyed the six-speed, wide-range we tested, but it’s an odd combination of a three-speed rear hub and a two-speed derailleur. The handlebar shifters also have a cheap, plastic feel in stark contrast to most everything else on the bike.
There’s also an $811 option to shave about two pounds off the frame with some titanium parts. Even with all steel parts, the Bromptons weigh under 26 pounds.
Your Bike Friday
Bike Friday custom builds folding bikes, targeting serious bike users. Their models range from the space-saving Tikit we tested, to nearly-full-size bikes, tandems and recumbents. The Tikit was the fastest and easiest fold once we mastered it. It has 16-inch wheels like the Brompton, but its geometry gives it a more stable feel. Bike Friday says customers have ridden centuries (100-mile races) on Tikits. It wouldn’t be our choice, but the model is quite comfortable.
Like the Brompton, the drivetrain folds between frame members, however, the Tikit we tested used a grease-free belt drive anyway. This was the optional high-end Gates belt drive. It worked flawlessly, even under high torque and it was quieter (and lighter) than a chain.
The belt drove an 11-speed internal-geared hub to provide a wide range of gears and smooth operation. The Tikit can be ordered from single speed up to this 11-speed model. Bike Friday customer service is second to none, something we got to test when the 11-speed hub on our Tikit failed. We had our replacement within days.
The Tikit’s fast fold makes it a bit long when folded, which made it more challenging in confined cargo spaces. The bike is solidly built, but has a somewhat “homegrown” look that might be a turn off to some. For example, our Tikit came in a Samsonite suitcase that converted to a trailer and connected using a repurposed pneumatic tool hose. It worked great, but looks odd. Another ding is that seat and handlebar adjustment requires a hex wrench.
Tikits start at about $1400. The model we tested was $3500—light-duty cyclists need not apply.
Dahon and Breezer
There are good folder options well under $1000. Dahon, probably the most recognized name in folding bikes, sent us two models: The Mariner M7 and the Formula. The Breezer bike company sent us their Ziggy, which is built for them by Dahon, so it’s quite similar.
The Mariner, Formula and Ziggy all use the same lightweight aluminum frame and folding system. This is a multi-step process: Drop and twist the seatpost, twist up the handlebars, extend the handlebars, drop the handlebars, fold the frame, fold the pedals if necessary. Get all the pieces rotated and extended right, and a magnetic catch will hold everything folded together. The dropped seatpost cleverly becomes a stand for the folded bike. Reverse to unfold.
The three bikes are set apart mostly by components. The Mariner has a seven-speed derailleur, fenders and a rear rack. The Ziggy is much like the Mariner, but with a seven-speed internal hub and a pump built into the seatpost. The Formula sports a high-performance tires, disc brakes and 18-speed Shimano Tiagra parts.
A shortish wheelbase but with 20-inch wheels make these bikes middle of the road in terms of handling. The Formula handles better than the other two due to its tires, but we think the lack of fenders for wet roads and a rear rack make it less suited to most pilots’ mission. The Dahon locking mechanisms are simple and solid, but we wonder about the longevity of the plastic safety catches covering them.
The other ding we see on the Dahon-style is that the fold puts the gears and chain on the outside where it’s more likely to mark you and your interior with grease. Putting the bikes in a bag is a good idea. The Ziggy’s internal hub and partial chain cover make this much less of an issue.
The Mariner is a good value at $539. The Ziggy is $759, and the Formula is $1259, due to the high-end components.
Dynamic and Downtube
Dynamic’s Sidekick and Downtube’s IX are the high-tech entrants. The Sidekick is unique in that it’s a shaft drive—no chain or belt. The system is butter-smooth and almost silent. Combined with an eight-speed internal hub this eliminates any potential for chain-grease mess.
Our Sidekick came with the optional Slidepad brakes, where a single brake lever actuates the rear brake and that brake actuates the front one. Dynamic claims the system virtually eliminates the chance of “over-the-handlebars” accidents, and simplifies the cabling of the bike somewhat. We found the system worked as advertised, but probably would frustrate a serious rider used to precise braking control. It’s also a single-point failure for your bike brakes, which rubs many pilot types the wrong way.
The Sidekick both folds and rides comparably to the Dahons or Breezer, but the latching mechanisms are a bit more robust on the Sidekick, which we liked. Dynamic includes a strap to hold the Sidekick folded up, which is a bit inconvenient. Changing a tire on the shaft drive is just one extra step over a conventional chain, but it exposes the greased drive gears and could get messy. (We should say that changing a rear tire on any of these bikes usually requires a wrench and some fiddling. You might be better off folding it up and sticking out your thumb for a lift.)
The Downtube IX is a full-suspension folder and a surprisingly good rider. Stability for the Downtube was second best of all the bikes we tested, due in part to a slightly longer wheelbase than most others. It also sports beefy locking mechanisms and lacks anything but a strap to keep it folded up.
We question the value of a full suspension, however. The front and rear shocks definitely suck up road vibration and even sizable potholes. But the full-size rear derailleur on 20-inch wheels makes for little ground clearance. You won’t be doing serious single-track on this bike. Not for long, anyway.
On penalty for the gadgets and beefiness of the IX and the Sidekick is weight. Each bike weighs about 32 pounds—four to eight pounds more than the competition. The Downtube is a fair value starting at $499 (the company has some other, cheaper models as well). A comparable Sidekick will be about $250 more.
One of the taglines for this bike is, “a great bike that happens to fold.” We couldn’t agree more. The Xooter was, hands-down, the best riding bike of the lot. It has all the stability of a full-size hybrid (around-town) bike, even on 20-inch wheels. It’s quite light and uses decent, if not top-of-the-line components.
The fold is fast and clever, but not that small. We couldn’t get a folded Xooter into several small aircraft without significant disassembly. The Xooter would be a great bike for tucking in the corner of your office or the coffee shop. But unless you fly something big enough to require a type rating, it’s probably not your best bet for tucking into an airplane.
Worth the Bucks?
None of these bikes are cheap, and some are more than high-end road bikes. Is it worth the money?
Well, Schwinn sent us their $250 Hinge. It’s heavy, rides like a truck, doesn’t fit tall riders and has only one speed, so it had better be a level ride to town. We think the $250 spend on it would be wasted because after a few frustrating trips, the bike would just gather dust in your garage.
This is what made the Brompton such a standout: It was so convenient. So, if you want to invest enough to get a bike you’ll enjoy using regularly, we think it’s worth it. If you want a good bike value that you don’t expect to use all the time, we like the Dahon Mariner. If you’re on the other end of the spectrum and want a folder capable of serious, all-day rides, contact Bike Friday and have them custom craft your dream machine. You’ll pay handsomely for it, but we doubt you’ll be disappointed.
One decision you’ll have to make with many of these folders is whether to go with an internal geared hub or conventional gears with a derailleur. All internal hubs mean a weight penalty of an extra pound or two, but they keep greasy gears out of the way and can be shifted while you’re standing still.
We weren’t overly impressed with the Shimano internal 8- and 11-speed hubs on some of these bikes. They seem finicky with the setting for correct shifting, and multiple folds and unfolds seems to exacerbate the issue. Readjusting the shifting takes only a minute, but it’s an annoyance. The 7-speed Shimannos and the Sturmey-Archer ran perfectly (although the Sturmey is rather noisy). Some bikes offer an option for a NuVinci continuously variable hub, which we’ve ridden and think is the smoothest, quietest internal hub there is.
And as comprehensive as we tried to be, several companies didn’t reply or didn’t have bikes available. Tern, Citizen, Vela, Origin 8, Giant and others also have compact folders. We hope some of the criteria here will inform your own research if you search further for the perfect portable bicycle. Let us know if you find another winner.