You’ve heard of folding bicycles, but you’re not quite sure what they are, or why you’d need one.
A folding bike is a bicycle designed to fold into a compact form, for easy transportation and storage. Folding bikes are very popular around the world, and especially in cities. The advantages that a folding bike has in a city over a standard bike is three-fold:
- Portability. Most trains and buses allow a folded bike to come aboard, even during peak hours. Folding bikes also fit easily into the trunk of your car or a taxi.
- Theft Prevention. You don’t have to lock your bike outside, just fold it up and bring it in with you to the office, or while you’re running errands.
- Small Footprint. Because these bikes fold down into a small package they can be easily tucked away in any apartment, no matter the size of your living space.
Although folding bicycles may be the best bikes for living in a city, their unique design characteristics make them great for many types of riding. Folding bikes are ideal for world travel, bike touring, and group rides.
But you may be wondering, are folding bikes slow? Do I have to pedal more on a folding bike? Are folding bikes for kids? The answer to all three questions is no. These are some common misconceptions about folding bikes, all of which are rooted in the small wheel size. Most people people assume that smaller wheels are inferior, but there are many reasons why small wheels are just as good as, if not better than, larger wheels.
Small wheels don’t equate to slower speeds, or having to pedal more. What gives you speed when you pedal is the distance that the wheel travels for every full revolution of the pedals, this is called gear inches. It’s understandable to assume that a smaller wheel would have fewer gear inches than a conventional bike, because with the exact same gearing it does. But folding bikes compensate for this by using higher gear ratios. Take for instance a folding road bike like the Pocket Rocket, which uses a 53 tooth chainwheel and 9 tooth cassette cog to achieve 116 gear inches. That’s nearly 10 feet of travel for every full rotation of the pedals, which is just as good, if not better, than any standard full-sized road bike.
Small wheels require fewer spokes to achieve the same stability as larger wheels, which actually makes them faster. Here’s why: fewer spokes generate less drag than a greater number of spokes (they also weigh less) which lead to higher speeds. In fact, a small wheel is more efficient than a large wheel in speeds up to 16 mph, equally efficient in speeds from 16 to 33 mph, and is only less efficient in speeds faster than 33 mph. So, unless you’re riding with Lance Armstrong, you should be able lead the pack in any group ride.
Faster Acceleration & Better Maneuverability
If you’re riding in city traffic, fast acceleration and nimble steering are critical to safety. Smaller wheels accelerate faster than larger ones because they weigh less, which creates a lower moment of inertia from a full stop. So, navigating congested intersections and avoiding collisions is much easier with smaller wheels. Additionally, the smaller the wheel the more responsive it is to steering, making quick decisions easier to execute. Smaller wheels also place a higher pressure per square inch on the ground, increasing tire compliance with the road surface- this is especially helpful on wet surfaces and in tight turns.
So while small wheels can go just as fast, if not faster, than larger wheels they are also stronger. Beyond the quality of the build, what determines the strength of a wheel is the length of the spokes. The longer the spoke is the more leverage can be exerted against it. If you think about it in terms of bending a piece of rod with your bare hands, which would be easier to bend- a one inch length of rod, or a three foot length? From your own experience, you know that the longer rod is easier to bend. Well, the same is true of bicycle spokes- the longer the spoke the more flexible it is, and the more likely it is to bend or break. Not only is a stronger wheel less likely to break in an accident, it can also carry more weight. The ability to take a heavier load makes small wheeled bicycles ideal for fully loaded touring, or for carrying cargo.
Low Step Through & Low Center of Gravity
Another feature that makes small wheeled bicycles great for touring or transporting kids is the low center of gravity, which is the balance point of the bicycle. With small wheels, the balance point is naturally lower to the ground, and the lower it is to the ground the more stable it is. If you want to load your panniers full with groceries, pack all of your camping gear, or carry a couple of squirming kids, you’ll really appreciate having a low center of gravity.
Equally helpful in keeping the bike balanced is the low step through that small wheels provide. Step through refers to your ability to, literally, step through the middle of the frame of the bicycle. Conventional bike frames don’t allow for step through. Traditionally, they have a top tube that comes right up to the base of your seat, forcing you to tip the bike to one side and kick your leg up and over the rear of the bike. If you are doing this with a bike that’s loaded with heavy bags it’s very easy to get knocked over and risk injury to yourself and your bike. The low step through of a folding bike allows easy, balanced, and safe mounting and dismounting. Another advantage of the low step through is that its easier for anyone who is aging, or has mobility issues to get on and off of the bike.