How I learnt not to compare folding bikes with proper bikes (by riding some).
In 2007 I test rode three folding bikes in one day: the Brompton S type, the Mezzo and a Ridgeback based on a Dahon 20″ wheeler. This was my first time riding a folder, I was testing to buy and I didn’t. The experience made me realise what folding bikes are good for and what they’re not.
My first stop was Bicycle Doctor in Manchester and first up was the Mezzo (£550) with the Shimano Inter 4 drive train. The designers went to a lot of trouble to make the Mezzo a funny shape and, in its favour, the riding posture was okay. However it was peculiarly uninspiring for a bike with such a remarkable design. The salesman watched me come back into the shop and asked, “did you like it?” I wanted to say, ‘why would someone spend £550 on that?’ So much money, it seemed, for such a mediocre bike.
Next I tried a Brompton S (the £900 two-speed Brompton), which was worse: twitchy steering; difficult to actually keep it going in a straight line. Where the Mezzo had prepared me for disappointment, the Brompton delivered it. ‘What is all the fuss about?’ I thought. Folding bikes weren’t doing it for me.
But I persisted. Courtesy of Harry Hall, I pootled up and down Whitworth Street on a Ridgeback 8-speed (£400), a Dahon by another badge. A glimmer of sunlight: it rode almost like a normal bike. The larger wheels helped, the salesman said. On the downside, the fold was cumbersome, requiring the rotation of the handlebar, and at nearly 13kg it was too heavy for chucking onto a train. I went home to think.
The Brompton put folded package size ahead of ride, I realised, whereas the Dahon-a-like put ride before of size. The Mezzo was in the middle.
And if I was being honest I would have admitted that any small-wheel bike looks… well… a bit funny. Perhaps I was already conflicted at the thought of spending a week’s wages on something Zippo The Clown might ride in the circus ring. But I wanted something I could take on the tram. So, despite these misgivings, had the Mezzo been the friendly side of £400, I’d have bought it. Folding bikes, I told myself, are all about compromise. If I saw a Mezzo second hand, I’d buy it.
I didn’t see one. What I saw – and bought – was a Kalkhoff 8-speed, an aluminium Dahon-a-like without the problems of the Ridgeback (or indeed the Dahon). The Kalkhoff avoided the strange hinged stem arrangement, with a one-piece stem-and-bar that still allowed height adjustment, letting me achieve a riding position closer to the road bike I was used to. When half-folded (bars down, seat post down, pedals up), it was small enough that I could treat it as long, slim luggage, which was ideal for boarding a train.
Good ride vs small folded package: choose one
Imagine a spectrum with ‘good ride’ at one end and ‘small folded package’ at the other. A sub-£1000 folding bike will be somewhere on that spectrum, i.e. you can’t have both these qualities in one bike and you enhance one at the expense of the other. I needed these test rides to find out where on the spectrum I wanted to focus. I also needed them to know where to set my expectations of ride quality: lower, as it turned out. Folding bikes are for short rides, not long ones.
If you’re thinking of buying a folder, try a few, prepare to be unimpressed and remember that a folding bike is all about compromise.
Update: The Dahon-a-like I tried was a Ridgeback Impulse and I’ve subsequently acquired the bike on which it is based, the Dahon Impulse. The Kalkhoff was stolen and replaced with another aluminium folder, the Dahon MU P8. However, the Impulse is the most comfortable of these three.