A 16 inch wheel folding bicycle is ideal for travelling
Im a committed cyclist. For more than ten years, I have ridden the 8 km to work in downtown Toronto (even in winter) almost every day. Cycling is the finest form of transportation ever invented.
At home, I use a regular full size bike. However, I find that when I go for trips to distant places, a 16 inch folding bike is the ideal travel companion. It doesn't go quite as fast as a full sized bike, but it is still a lot better than walking. The first time you get on one, you may be alarmed by how twitchy the steering feels due to the small wheels, but in a few minutes you get used to it. The small wheels make for a very small turning circle, and you will find that you can maneuver it much better than a regular bike in tight spaces.
Some people do take full sized bikes along on trips, but that only really becomes worthwhile if you are going to spend almost all your time in the saddle. In most cases, it is a major hassle to combine a full sized bike with other forms of transportation. Packing it for an airplane trip requires special containers, and often an extra payment. Taking it along on trains, buses, subways and taxis is at best a hassle, and in many cases simply not permitted.
Its compact size also makes a folding bike ideal for commuters who live too far from work to ride all the way, but can take a small bike on the train or in the trunk of a car part of the way. The bike can be taken along to complete the last part of the journey, and be stored away in a corner of the office during the day. This is quite a common practice in Europe. In London, in particular, folding Brompton bikes are a common sight. (The Brompton's frame folds in two places, creating an amazingly compact and portable package.)
A small folding bike fits into a regular sized suitcase a 30 inch one in the case of my old Dahon folder. The particular one I took on my last trip to England and France was a bit on the heavy side, about 29 pounds. If you want to spend more money, you can get the very lightweight Dahon Presto Lite aluminum folder that weighs about 20 pounds. Certainly, if youre carrying it up and down stairs, as you will sometimes, a few pounds will make quite a difference to your comfort.
How much you want to spend will reflect both your resources, and the increased risk of getting it stolen if you have a very expensive one. If you are using this bike for touring around, you are going to want to stop and go into stores and museums and leave it outside locked up. The more valuable the bike, the bigger the lock you will need to put on it, and of course a strong lock is itself pretty heavy.
Having a little bike like this with you lets you cover much more territory in a given amount of time, and see much more with less effort. It is the ideal way to do city touring. The distances to be covered in major cities are often exhausting if you walk all day, but a breeze for even a tiny bike like this. When you need to cover a longer distance, you take it with you on the subway. I found Paris and London reasonably bike friendly, with numerous bike paths and bike lanes.
One of the joys of the small wheel is that it makes the bike far more maneuverable than a larger bike. It turns on a dime. It will generally be tolerated in areas of dense pedestrian traffic, as you can weave easily through the crowd without worrying about hitting anybody. I have ridden mine on sidewalks in Paris and Budapest, with no angry stares from the policemen I passed. In London, perhaps because folding bikes are more common, riding them on the sidewalk is forbidden.
Budapest in particular is a very bicycle friendly city, with generous bike lanes. The main boulevards have very wide asphalt sidewalks, and the police there tell you (whether correctly or not) that it is legal to ride on these sidewalks. Of course, as seen in the photo below, they also allow cars to park on the sidewalk, so pretty much anything goes.
I don't ordinarily avocate riding a bike on the sidewalk, but sometimes it's a necessity to get around some difficult areas. With a small wheeled bike, there is minimal risk of hurting somebody. (In Toronto, by-laws allow bikes with wheels of 24 inches or less to ride on the sidewalk.) In crowded stop and go conditions, a 16 inch wheeled bike is actually much faster than a regular bike. The small wheels have much less inertia, and you can stop and start quickly with little effort.
I wouldnt necessarily recommend urban cycle touring to everybody. You should first become an experienced urban cyclist in your own city, and be comfortable in traffic. The usual precautions should be obeyed, including wearing a helmet. (I took mine off for the picture in front of Notre Dame, but wore it when riding.)
My Giatex: A New Style of Folder
In February of 2004 I became one of the first in North America to own a Giatex Stretching Bike, which was briefly distributed by a Canadian company that is no longer in business. This is a completely new and very clever design. (They are still available from various on-line dealers.) Its steering column folds down like the Dahon's. However, instead of the frame folding in the middle, it has a large stainless steel bar along which the back part of the bike can slide. It is therefore a "telescoping" bike. It telescopes down to a length of about 35 inches, compared to 30 for the Dahon Piccolo. However, if the front wheel is removed (it is held by bolts, so you need a wrench), the length of the Giatex becomes about 28 inches, allowing it to be put into a relatively compact case.
In my opinion this sliding mechanism on the Giatex is easier to use than the somewhat awkward actions involved in folding up a Dahon. I would guess that the Giatex will also be more durable. It rides very well, and has surprisingly good components for the price. The seat post, cranks, rims, and hubs are all alloy, keeping the bike down to a manageable 25 pounds in weight. It offers a 6 speed Shimano rear derailleur, which is far superior to the 3 speed gear inside the rear hub of the Dahon. Even fully extended, the bike is rather short, and it is advisable to add bar ends to extend the handle bar forward.
The gearing is aimed at making the bike easy to ride rather than fast. The rear freewheel has cogs from 13 to 28 teeth, while the chainwheel is 45 teeth. The resulting gear inch span is from 24 to 52 inches. (This is a much more useful range than the 43 to 80 inch range on the Dahon 3 speed, which makes it very hard to go up a steep hill.) The Giatex's lower end is comparable to the low gears on a mountain bike, meaning that you can ride the Giatex up a pretty steep hill without pedaling very hard. In the highest gear, spinning the pedals around 100 times a minute (usually considered the best cadence), you would go about 16 miles per hour on a level surface. That's not quite in the Tour de France range, but more than adequate for the relatively short trips most people would use this kind of bike for.
Given the fact that the Giatex is priced to sell for considerably less than the comparable Dahon Piccolo, and has much better gearing, I would say that it's a real winner. I hope that the Giatex will attract more riders, and will make more people aware of the joys of riding one of these tiny bikes.
I took the Giatex with me on a trip to New York City, and I was very pleased with its performance in maneuvering around obstacles in the tight urban spaces of that very congested city. (There are some very nice cycling areas in New York, such as the bike path along the East River running north from the ferry docks near Battery Park.) The Giatex fit very comfortably in the trunk of a small car, along with luggage, making it an easy decision to bring it along.
The best selection of folding bikes in Toronto can be found at Urbane Cyclist, 180 John Street just north of Queen, www.ucycle.com. It's also the best bike shop in Toronto for people who use bicycles for real transportation as opposed to just recreation. They're a great bunch of people to deal with, and always very helpful. Other Toronto stores with selections of folding bikes are Bikes on Wheels on Augusta (Kensington Market) and Uncle Jacob on Spadina.
I often combine cycling with photography, and some of my photos are available for sale as stock photographs. To view my portfolio, please click here to go to istockphoto.com
Copyright (c) Peter Spiro 2004, 2009.