Are Folding Bikes Slower and More Difficult to Ride? [ANALYSIS]

A packed subway station at peak times during a boil-in-the-bag summer’s day. A hemmed in train station car park in winter with ungritted pathways and traffic jams en route

Commuting to and from busy towns and cities can make martyrs even of the most enthusiastic and loyal employees. On average, adding 50 minutes to a working day in the EU, the commute fuels our constitution. It is a necessary evil for many, a chance to find some quality time for others, everything from catching up on some reading, some work or some shut-eye.

Cities and towns have been getting more densely populated as each decade passes. The World Bank records a near ten-point increase in the urban population as a percentage of the total population from the beginning of the 21st century. It stood at 56.15% in 2020. 

Transport links and hubs are developing to cope with the increased pressure placed on them. It takes time to make decisions however, and expansion is affected by historical routes and infrastructure planning. Weaving in and out of the complex meetings, budgetary control and viewpoints of competing decision-makers feels like the walk to street level after your train carriages burst open and spill their contents onto the chicken run platforms each weekday morning.   

The World Bank report indicates that citizens of the world are moving from rural areas to urban areas and for many working people, this will mean cutting out a part of that daily ritual. They may no longer have to catch a train or queue at a park and ride before catching sight of the office block or factory gate. 

Taking a bicycle to work is a growing trend being taken very seriously by planners. Bicycle use is soaring and not just amongst those seeking some weekend exercise. Commuters have woken up to the fitness advantages of this most egalitarian pursuit. Roads are being repopulated and ribbons of different coloured paint now mark out cycle lanes throbbing with City staff and cargo bicycles delivering office supplies and documents.  

The century-old method of coming into cities from commuter belts which encircle them still remains solid for the time being. Home to suburban station to city station to work to city station to suburban station to home. But the component parts of this cycle are shifting as we move to more supportive networks and cleaner, less dangerous routes to and from work. 

One specific and highly adaptable version of the commute comes in the shape of the folding bike. First developed for speedier military manoeuvres in the late 19th Century, the practicality of reducing the dimensions of a machine to optimise space and portability is delivered in a beautifully simple package. They are becoming a part of the fabric of the daily commute with their award-winning designs converting riders of regular bikes by the hundreds.

Folding Bikes vs Regular Bikes

Folding Bike Regular Bike
Shrinks down to a compact carrying and storage shape, usually via a hinge system and folding seat post and handlebar stemNo folding device although wheels fitted with quick release bolts can reduce overall size slightly
Most popular versions have 16 inch / 41cm or 20 inch / 51 cm wheel diameterMost popular versions start at 26 inch / 66 cm or 27.5 inch / 70 cm wheel diameter
Regularly permitted on trains, subways and some busesPermitted on trains and some subways but becoming more controlled

Folding bikes are practical and convenient for commuters relying on other forms of public transport. They fold up and down quickly after some practice. They are quirky to some. The increase in popularity means that they are becoming a regular sight for other commuters.

Regular bikes commuting with other forms of public transport is a less harmonious marriage. They can block aisles and have more exposed mechanical parts which can catch or rub on other passengers’ clothes and yours. They are cumbersome to carry around and can require constant babysitting to avoid them falling or turning against other passengers. 

If you have other considerations at either end of your working day and decide on another method of transport, you can still take your folding bike with you around the urban area as required. An impromptu dinner after work that slides into the late evening may mean you leaving your regular bike at work and affecting tomorrow’s commute. Carrying a folding bike improves that decision. There is additional security in knowing it stores easily under your workspace too.

Some folding bikes come with carry cases to make their transportation even more convenient. Some even fit airline carry-on luggage standards. Many models include mounting points for mudguards / fenders, racks to carry panniers and other bags. 

New entrants to the folding bike market have been attracted by government investment in cycling infrastructure and employers seeking ways to encourage commuting by foot or bike. The growth in popularity of electric powered bikes fits hand in glove with the objectives of folding bikes.

Are Folding Bikes Safe?

Although smaller in proportion to regular bikes, folding bikes are not hard to ride. The rider is just as visible to other road users. Some learning is required as the ride experience can be a little more frisky. Their frames are manufactured to similar safety standards as for regular bikes.

The frame geometry of a folding bike is different to a regular bike in order to support the size reduction and folding mechanism. The design requires some changes to the riding position of your body. You will struggle to adopt an aerodynamic tuck position but winning a time-trial by riding fast should not be why you are buying a folding bike.

The essential engineering required to ensure an effective overall fit for every rider can be a little spoiled despite the award-winning designs. The distance from the bottom bracket to the middle of the head tube, the position of the saddle and the handlebars are usually similar to regular bikes. Some folding bikes’ wheelbases are the same as regular bikes. A road test and fitting is still recommended. Most folding bikes have a rider weight limit.

The components of a folding bike should neither deter regular cyclists or recent converts. Some manufacturers choose proprietary parts but you should still be able to recognise the cranks, chainsets, derailleurs and braking systems. To reduce space, many folding bikes are fitted with hub-gearing. These are fairly bullet-proof and shouldn’t let you down.

Are Folding Bikes Slower?

The design behind folding bikes and the riding posture are at odds with achieving and maintaining the speed of a regular bike. As the manufacture of folding bikes grows out of a niche industry into the mainstream, research will continue to provide the materials and design tweaks to go faster. 

Moving into the mainstream means diversification from the base model. Without channeling the pioneering spirit of 1970s mountain bike or BMX mavericks. Progress comes in the form of adding electric batteries, or lightweight materials such as alloy steel. Folding bikes are still heavy. You might feel this less when riding one, but carrying one up a couple of flights of stairs at the station or office could become a burden.

Like most regular bike models, you can pay more money in a bid to make you go faster.

Are Folding Bikes Harder to Ride?

A folding bike takes time to get used to as you adapt your body shape and riding style to cater for the differences you’ll feel. Riders highlight a ‘squirrely’ ride as the headset is further away from the wheels compared to a regular bike. Small wheels are less well equipped to handle bumps too.

Many of the challenges you face are relatively easy to overcome. You may need to adapt your route to stick to cycle lanes. Manoeuvrability will be affected a little by weight and wheel size and you’ll really notice vibrations. 

Using designated cycle lanes is assisted by improving their visibility and width. Some cities are adopting new approaches to shared use of road junctions with a bias towards cycling safely and the road surfaces are improving over time. If you remember you are commuting to work and not racing for the World Championships or a Strava segment, you’ll be just fine.

Folding bikes are not as good for long rides as regular road bikes or hybrid bikes. This is an accusation which can be levelled at single speed or fixed gear bikes too. It’s not a question of comfort but more of gearing efficiency and road stability at higher speeds. They actually require less force from your legs to pedal. 

They are not going to be as good for hills as regular bikes, up or down. Many cyclists will stand and pedal out of the saddle when going uphill. This introduces different muscle groups to your riding style and can ease pressure on the lower back. The smaller wheels make standing up on a folding bike difficult. They influence the stability needed when standing. They also don’t coast as well as larger wheels when you are going downhill and should be enjoying not pedalling.

Maintenance is just as important a consideration for folding bikes as for regular bikes. Be prepared to pay a little extra for specific replacement parts and essentials. Most of the usual DIY jobs like repairing punctures and replacing brake pads are the same. 

The longer-term considerations should not be overlooked and a service programme should be booked in with a professional, for the sake of stability and peace of mind.

What Are Folding Bikes Like to Ride?

Once considered a little nerdy and cheap looking, perhaps with the exception of a Brompton, as the demand for alternative forms of commuting transport has grown over the last two decades, the considerations for more efficient folding and carrying options are allied to an improved riding experience.

Manufacturers are considering more of the mixed-mode type of commuting and the lifestyle of an owner – not just ride to the station, pop the bike on the train and then ride from station to work. A folding bike literally and figuratively fits into the rider’s urban world. 

There are a range of handlebar designs which promote whichever kind of position suits you. You can buy dropped handlebars. Hybrid style handlebars and butterfly handlebars offer more than a handful of positions to suit. This is important because stability at speed is compromised by the smaller wheel size.

Finally, make sure you check and maintain the essential things. Are the tyres inflated correctly? Are the brake pads rubbing (they may get knocked during repeated storage and folding)? How do the wheels run when coasting? Do the folding mechanisms operate accurately?

Folding bikes are a useful and efficient method of commuting in modern cities. They are practical for shorter trips, adaptable for carrying luggage and portable to fit into an urban lifestyle.  

Kevin Glenton

Kevin Glenton

Kevin is a freelance sports journalist. He cycles on towpaths, defunct railway lines, national cycle routes and minor roads in order to explore. His home is Manchester, hemmed in by the Peak District and Pennines. A love for their steep roads remains unrequited. You can read more from Kevin here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *