You already know folding bikes are supremely convenient. But it’s less obvious whether those tiny wheels and diminutive frames are actually zippy enough to enjoy riding.
After lots of daily commuting and leisure riding on a folding bike, I’ve discovered that the answer is a little nuanced.
In fact, we’ll see why things like small wheels don’t necessarily slow them down after all—or at least not in the way you might expect.
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In brief, is a folding bike slower?
On smooth ground, folding bikes are not slower than standard ones. They’re actually quicker to accelerate (thanks to less mass) and simply use different gearing to offset the difference in size.
Smaller wheels may lose more momentum on rough ground, but folding bikes generally aren’t intended for rough ground in the first place.
In addition, there are a few folding bikes with standard wheels, which eliminates any difference in speed.
We’ll take a closer look at these topics later, but first, a quick word on two practical considerations.
Other real-world factors to consider
In practice, my commute takes as long on a 16″ folding bike as on a full-size city bike. Both are just slightly slower than on a road bike, but far more comfortable thanks to their moderately upright posture.
What does matter is stoplight timing and energy levels, regardless of the bike itself. Hitting a couple extra red lights can add 10%, and riding when already tired or sore adds at least that much more!
Additionally, if you’re riding for practical purposes, then consider the time required to deal with your bike at either end.
For instance, let’s say you’re hypothetically a little faster on a full-size bike. However, you also have to spend several minutes locking up that bike and walking to/from a bike storage area, as opposed to taking a folding bike inside with you. In that case, the “slower” folding bike still results in an overall faster trip.
Here’s what we’re really talking about
The underlying question isn’t about the fold, but about the wheel size. You wouldn’t expect the frame’s hinges to affect the speed of the bike—and indeed they don’t—but it’s reasonable to think smaller wheels would have a negative impact.
Fortunately, that’s not generally the case.
Smaller circumference means the wheels need to spin faster to travel at the same speed. There’s negligible friction inside a well-maintained hub, so spinning faster doesn’t really sap energy.. That fact, combined with proportionately higher gearing, mean you can pedal at the same rate, with the same effort, to travel the same speed on a 16″ folding bike as on a 700c road bike.
Of course, there are myriad differences between road and folding bikes. But for practical purposes, speed is one of the smallest.
However, there’s one exception.
Rough terrain changes things
Larger wheels roll easily over things that smaller wheels struggle with. It’s perfectly intuitive, if you picture a drastic example like a truck versus a scooter trying to roll up the same curb. The difference between smaller and larger bicycle wheels is far less extreme, but the principle holds.
So, where does that leave you as a (prospective) folding bike rider?
First, stick with larger wheels for off-road riding. You’ll have a smoother, faster ride and better control in all situations. Most 16″ and 20″ folding bikes aren’t intended for trail use anyhow. From both speed and warranty perspective, you’re better off with a standard bicycle or even a large-wheel folding MTB like Montague sells.
Second, if your streets are littered with potholes and debris, then get at least 20″ wheels on your folding bike. The bike won’t fold down as small, but if that’s not a problem (e.g., on the bus or train), then the extra bulk will buy you a faster ride or at least safer ride on the whole.
Are folding bikes faster than mountain bikes?
Folding bikes have much lighter, slicker tires than mountain bikes, so folding bikes are generally faster on pavement. However, mountain bikes are much faster on trails thanks to large wheels, wide tires, and perhaps suspension that help you roll smoothly over obstacles.
However, some mountain bikes do fold. These use 24″, 26″, or even larger wheels and are therefore just as speedy as standard mountain bikes.
Riding posture also matters
To maximize speed on a folding bike, look for one that encourages a forward-leaning riding posture. That’s more aerodynamic, plus it helps you use your glutes and calves more efficiently while pedaling.
Normally, road bikes encourage that posture by using drop bars. Unfortunately, they tend to interfere with the fold, so drop-bar folders are rare.
What’s more, aero rims and other high-end racing parts just aren’t made for folding bikes. The vast majority of folding bikes are for commuting and casual use, so the market for race-ready accessories is not large.
Actual vs. perceived speed
If you hop on a folding bike that feels slower (or faster!) than your usual ride, it may still be an illusion.
Our brains associate vibration and feedback from the ground with speed. On some level, that makes sense. After all, nothing shakes if you’re not moving!
The catch is that different bikes transmit different feedback and vibration at the same speed. Your exact wheel size, tire width, tire pressure, saddle, grips, posture, and frame design all affect this. Consequently, the speed you perceive doesn’t always match the speed you’re traveling.