The Utility of Folding Bicycles

It’s cute, but is it practical? That’s the question many folding bikes elicit. Sure, it looks neat, but how well does it actually function?

The competition heats in blazers and ties at the Eastbourne Cycling Festival.

Form follows function. Ergo, the form of a folding bike should follow its function. Folding bikes are designed to be compactly carried and stored in other vehicles, but still provide reliable transportation. Tourists, commuters, students and soldiers all appreciate a bike that can be compactly brought along and deployed easily.

Folding bikes, or “folders,” have been around since the the first cyclist wondered, how can I get that on a train? The earliest folding bike, a penny farthing, or “high wheeler,” didn’t have a folding frame, but rather had a sectional big wheel that could break down into pie slices for storage and transport. The invention of the now-ubiquitous safety bicycle led to the contemporary standard of folding frames. The French and Italian armies were early adopters of folding bikes for their bicycle infantry, who were expected to carry their folders across terrain too rough to bike, as well as into battle (the latter proved to be suicidal in The Great War). During the Second World War the British army issued thousands of folding bikes, the “Type G Apparatus,” to its troops, and folders parachuted into battle on commando raids.

Elite Italian Bersaglieri troops pose with their folding bikes during an alpine training exercise, circa 1900.

Military history aside, folding bikes are a favorite amongst commuters and nomads. While folders are but a tiny percentage of the North American market, they dominate over a fifth of the East Asian market. In Asia, as elsewhere, commuters like a bike that they can bring onto buses, trains and ferries, where traditional bikes are often banned. Amtrak welcomes folding bikes as both checked and carry-on luggage, provided they fit a certain size. Folding bikes can be checked on airlines as well. (Be warned though, that some airlines will charge an extra fee for a bike if they’re told it’s a bike, even if it fits all other size and weight restrictions. So don’t advertise what’s in the bag.)

An American soldier rides a Montague Paratrooper folding mountain bike on Kandahar air base in Afghanistan.

The quality of folding bikes mirrors that of standard bikes: you get what you pay for. If you spend more than a thousand dollars, you can expect a quality machine. If you spend less than a couple hundred bucks, you can expect an unreliable piece of junk. (Hint: if your folding bike shares a label with a discount wristwatch or was bought at Walmart, it will make a great footrest, but little else.)

Brompton and Dahon folding bikes abound at marinas and RV parks. On boats and campers, space is at a premium. A folding bike allows travelers to make quick trips and visit places that bigger vehicles can’t go.

College campuses are also a favored abode for folding bikes. The intelligentsia appreciate a bike that’s small enough to stash in a cubicle or beside a classroom desk.

And finally, an often under looked benefit to folders is that their portability makes them more secure. It’s harder to steal a bike that’s stashed under a desk or in a hotel room, compared to a bike locked all by its lonesome to a telephone pole. Worried about having your bike stolen? Then just take it with you!

It may not be an Autobot or a Deception, but it's definitely a transformer.

Author Wesley Cheney departs for Skagway, Alaska on the Ides of April with a Peugeot Nouveau folder, where he will be working as a bicycle tour guide for Sockeye Cycle Co.

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