Folding bikes are good for almost any non-competitive riding on reasonably smooth ground. And they’re perfect if your trip involves transit or cramped storage. However, small wheels mean a slightly harsher ride,
After owning and riding one daily, I’d say they’re more versatile than most people realize!
But are they ideal for every situation and every budget? Nope, assuredly not.
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Are folding bikes actually fun to ride?
Folding bikes are fun to ride non-competitively, on paved surfaces or maintained dirt/gravel. It’s also fun to have a bike you can bring almost anywhere, even when a regular bike isn’t convenient.
But folding bikes are not particularly fun on rugged terrain. The small wheels don’t roll as smoothly, so roots and rocks become extremely difficult to navigate. and their frames aren’t strong enough for big impacts.
Are foldable bikes good for long distance?
Folding bikes are not bad for long distances, but they’re not optimal. They usually lack multiple hand positions, which touring cyclists need for comfort and aerodynamics. They’ll also wear through tires quickly since small wheels have to rotate faster.
Consequently, given the choice of folding bikes vs. road/touring, practically all high-mileage cyclists prefer the latter. (That is, unless they have unusual portability/storage needs.)
Comfort for long distances
Most folding bikes put you in similar riding position to a hybrid or touring bike. That’s appropriate for long rides, since it’s a happy medium between a powerful forward lean and a comfortable upright position.
However, touring cyclists tend to prefer drop bars (and other more uncommon types) because they afford at least three different hand positions. When you’re riding for hours, it’s important to redistribute weight and to make yourself more aerodynamic or more upright.
But straight bars are more compact, so that’s what nearly all folding bikes use. Brompton’s P-bars and Bike Friday’s drop-bar Pocket Rocket are among the few exceptions.
Faster tire wear
Folding bike wheels are roughly 2/3 the diameter of regular ones, so they need to rotate 3/2 (half again) as quickly to maintain the same speed. That means they wear out half again as soon.
If you’d normally get 3000 miles from a pair of full-size tires, then you might expect 2000 miles (as a very rough estimate) from the 16″ or 20″ tires of a folding bike.
It hardly matters for everyday use. This might mean new tires every year instead of every 1.5 years. But for regular long-distance rides, you’ll need to carry more spares and perhaps plan on just a bit more maintenance.
(In principle, hub lifespan should also be less. But it’s harder to say in practice, since all decent ones last many thousands of miles, and there’s a lot of variation between hub models.)
Are folding bikes durable, or do they break easily?
Folding bicycles are generally as durable as regular ones. The frames tend to have stricter weight limits, but if you heed them, then they will last many years.
Besides the frames, folding bike components are similar or identical to components on non-folding bikes. Consequently, they have similar life expectancies, which this article on bicycle longevity covers in more detail.
In fact, small-diameter wheels may actually be more durable and less prone to bent rims or broken spokes. The smaller size means less leverage, as well as more spokes per inch of circumference.
Take care with hinge clamps
If any part of your folding does break or wear out prematurely, it’s likely to be a hinge clamp. You can mitigate that by keeping them just snug enough. Too loose and they’ll wiggle around with road vibrations; too tight and they’ll experience forces they weren’t designed for.
In the rare event that your hinge clamp develop play despite proper care, it’s likely to fall under warranty. Only new bikes carry warranties, however, so that’s probably the biggest disadvantage to buying secondhand.
Are folding bikes good for seniors?
Yes, folding bikes are a good choice for active seniors. They’re easy to get on and off and easy to store and travel with.
The low top tube is easy to step over, much like a step-through (“women’s”) frame on a regular bike. If it normally feels awkward or uncomfortable to swing your leg over the saddle, then this will be a welcome change.
They’re also ideal if you spend a lot of time on the road or on the water. Folding bikes easily fit into tight spaces like the trunk of a small car or cramped storage onboard a boat.
They aren’t necessarily lighter than regular ones—in fact, many are a couple pounds heavier—but their compact size makes them much easier to manipulate.
What are the disadvantages of folding bikes?
The main disadvantages are higher prices (for a given level of quality) and a slightly rougher ride. Component, accessory, and luggage/cargo options are also more limited, but still fine for most purposes.
Check out this article for a more detailed look at these and a few other drawbacks that you should be aware of.
Folding bikes are good for practical and recreational riding, as long as you avoid rough terrain or any sort of stunts. They’re best for commuters who need to fit a bike inside public transit, and are also a good alternative to locking up a bike outdoors.
However, small wheels can’t smooth out bumps like a full-size bike can. And while folding bikes are usable for touring and long-distance riding, regular ones are usually more pleasant.
So, you’re thinking folding bikes might suit your needs, and wondering which one to get?
On a tight budget, Dahon (here’s a brand overview) is a great starting point. They’re not cheap, but they’re one of the cheapest brands I’d actually trust for everyday use.
But for my money, Brompton makes the all-around best folding bike on the market. Not the most feature-laden, and certainly not the cheapest, but it’s hard to beat for any practical purpose. Here’s my long-term Brompton review which sheds more light on that.
There are several others worth considering for more niche purposes, but these two probably cover 90% of commuters and urban riders!