by Ben Barnard
The relationship between bicycles and airplanes is intuitive, long-standing and born of practicality. Who could forget that the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss found their way to airplanes through the doors of bicycle shops. Well into the 21st century, bikes and airplanes still have a certain affinity.
But its hardly a perfect fit. Human-powered two-wheel transportation might seem a perfect solution for getting from the airport to a nearby destination, but the concept is not without warts. The bikes themselves arent the problem, its getting them into the airplane without scuffing the paint or slicing the upholstery, hence the folding bicycle.
Bicycle purists used to sniff at folding bikes but over the years, they have become ever more sophisticated and although top-of-the-line folding bicycles can cost more than $1000, the market offers quite a few choices at price points well below that. And after all, if youre not a two-wheel enthusiast, why spend that much for something you use only occasionally? With that observation on the table, well make a second: Even a bicycle nimrod will sense the riding difference between a quality, well-designed bicycle and a cheap Chinese knockoff. The handling is more stable, shifting is smoother, brakes more predictable. If youre riding only a mile or two from the airport to your favorite caf, hinky shifting might not be a bother. But it will be if you ride often or ride far.
For airplane use, the overriding consideration for a foldable is how small it folds up and how easy it is to fold. In our view, this is just about the entire show. If you cant get the bike into the airplane easily, what good is it? To a large extent, then, the kind of airplane you have determines the size of bike you can accommodate. The cabin of a Cherokee Six is spacious enough for three or four bikes, while a Mooney bulks out with one or two, tops.
We tested four models of folding bikes we consider to be representative of the types available at reasonable prices, say under $700. Dahon, we should note, has many more foldable models than the two they sent us for evaluation.Many of these share similar design traits, so our findings may apply across the line.
The Montague Paratrooper ($645, www.montagueco.com) is a trail-ready folding bicycle for those who spend more time off the road than on it. Its the product of a joint venture between Montague, a Massachusetts-based company in business since the late 1980s and the Department of Defense equipment research and development arm. Theyve created a foldable all-terrain bicycle that could be deployed with a paratrooper-slung on a releasable line so the bike lands ahead of the jumper, reducing his landing weight.
The thinking was that an easily deployable rugged mountain bike would be an asset for scouting and special ops in place of high observable motorized vehicles. The product that emerged is much like the bike now available for retail. It features a front disc brake, front shocks, knobby tires, a matte green military paint job, 24-speed rapid-fire shifters and a folding system that maintains the frames integrity by swinging the bikes rear quarter to the fore frame with a hinge that doesnt split the tubing. The folding hinge is controlled by a single quick-release that has two locking systems if you forget to clamp it down to the closed position. Overall, folding is easy, but the front wheel has to be removed to achieve minimum size.
We have some small gripes with the Paratrooper. It arrives in a box 95 percent assembled. All you have to do is attach the pedals with a wrench included in the package. But the pedal studs and cranks are made with two metals of different hardness and because the studs have reverse threading, cross-threading is a possibility. (It happened to us.)
Another problem we found on all of the bikes is that fasteners holding the stem, handlebar, front and rear brakes and drailleurs, appear to be made of plated steel thats not as resistant to corrosion as the stainless steel used on spokes and the alloys found in the other components. Fortunately these parts are inexpensive and easy to replace.
The trails at the Alafia River State Park in west-central Florida, where we tested the off-road capabilities of the Paratrooper, are strewn with roots, rocks, banked corners and sand just waiting to dump a rider too quick to spike the front brake. The front disc brake allows you to apply full pressure while it gradually engages the disk, helping you to avoid locking the wheel and pitching head-first over the handlebars. Further, the suspension fork comfortably soaks up the bumps. The Paratrooper performed well on this demanding terrain. The only problem we had with it during our trials, and its a minor one, was with the seat post, which arrived slathered in grease and was so lubed-up it abruptly bottomed out. Cleaning the post and retightening helped.
Dahon (www.dahon.com) is the largest manufacturer of folding bicycles in the world. David Hon, a physicist and company founder, began experimenting with folding bike technology in the early 1980s. Dahon has offices in California and Taiwan, a manufacturing plant in Macau and a 28-model product line. We trialed the Cadenza ($499.95), a full-size road bike new to the market, and the Helios ($579.95), an eight-speed cruiser with 16-inch wheels and a miniature frame that compensates with an extra-long seat tube and handlebar stem.
With its skinny tires and light-weight aluminum frame and components, the Cadenza is a fast road bike that affords a rider an upright posture, as on trail bikes and cruisers. Its ideal for long-range riding on asphalt, although more serious riders will be disappointed with its minimal 16-speed gearing and somewhat fickle grip shifters.
The carbon-wrapped aluminum handlebar and ergonomic bar ends are notable features, for this is mid-priced bike, as is the quick-release folding stem.We found the WTB Rocket V seat a bit uncomfortable, requiring a pair of padded cycle shorts for the veteran and neophyte alike.
The Helios is a top-of-the-line folder that can fit, quite miraculously, into very tight spaces, like the baggage compartment of our Mooney. A larger baggage compartment might hold two bikes, as would the typical back seat in a four-place airplane. The Helios was the only bike that would fit into our Mooney.
Although the 16-inch wheels relegate it to bike paths and sidewalks, where you may find yourself routinely overtaken by joggers and ambitious power-walkers, the Helios and folding bikes like it are the only bikes that you can truly take anywhere. The Helios was the most manageable bike in our group in terms of portability; it has magnets attached to the front and rear forks that hold the folded frame together-a very thoughtful innovation, in our view.
The Dahons employ the most effortless folding system of the group. A hinge with a tensioning bar separates the main frame tube from the small upper tube, which links to its mating part with a metal coupling. This system folds the bike in half symmetrically, which makes it easier to store because it will sit upright and you dont have to remove the wheels. However, because the frames tubing is separated, these bikes seem more susceptible to frame-wear from excessive weight or impact. While riding, we noted the faint sound of metal on metal as the tubes shifted over a bump or when we were pumping hard uphill. This may be the inevitable compromise of having a bike that folds.
Our sister marine publications were also looking into folding bikes so we decided to take a look at the Port Runner ($299.95, www.westmarine.com) from the mass-retailer West Marine as a bargain alternative. The Port Runner has a hinged single frame tube secured with a quick release to open and secure it.It has an elongated handle bar stem and seat post like the Helios, although a screw is used to operate the folding stem instead of a quick release.
We like its 30-pound-capacity cargo rack with built-in bungees but the Port Runner wouldnt go into either the Mooney or the Bonanza baggage compartment, despite having a frame geometry similar to the Helios. It would fit into a larger aircraft, say a Bonanza A36 or Cherokee Six.
The Dahon Helios is the walk-away winner out of this group because of its quality and portability. Our reservations about the Dahons folding mechanism are assuaged by the knowledge that youd have to weigh over 230 pounds (the stated weight capacity) or ride them off a cliff to break the frame. Check out Dahons full model line for more options. We think all of these bikes are nicely designed and made.
The Port Runner is not a bad purchase considering its nearly half the price and offers a very similar ride and only slightly larger dimensions. But its not as well made as the Dahon, in our view.
Both the Montague Paratrooper and the Dahon Cadenza are quality bicycles that perform just as well as their rigid counterparts and although they are easier to transport than a rigid bike, theyre a bit on the large and heavy size for airplane portability.
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-Ben Barnard is Aviation Consumers assistant editor.