Folding and road bikes can both eat up long miles on pavement. I’ve owned and loved both for commuting, extended weekend outings, and virtually everything else on asphalt.
Although it’s hard to go wrong, most people will end up happier with one over the other.
So which is right for you, and how can you tell? Read on to find out.
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Should I get a folding or road bike?
Folding bikes are preferable to road bikes if you use transit or deal with tight storage spaces. They’re simply more compact and convenient. But if not, then get a road for a smoother, quicker ride at a better price and weight.
To put it another way, the convenience of folding comes at a price both literally and in terms of features and capability.
Reasons to choose a folding bike
The best folding bikes (like the near-flawless Brompton) are surprisingly capable, and feel surprisingly…normal. In fact, if you look away from the bike itself, it’s surprisingly hard to tell you’re on something with such small wheels.
We’ll get to the compromises later, but first, here are some unique upsides worth thinking about.
Ideal for transit (& small spaces)
Portability and storage are by the far best reasons to choose a folding bike over a road bike. If you need something to fit under a seat or in a little closet, there’s simply no other option!
Despite any trade-offs in components and/or ride quality, a folding bike is the only practical way to ride when space is that limited. (And again, good folders are perfectly enjoyable to ride, so it’s hardly a sacrifice.)
An added benefit of easy storage is that folding bikes are easy to store securely indoors. Road bikes, like all full-size bikes, need the storage space of a full bike rack. If that’s not available (or not trustworthy), then a folding bike is a simple security solution.
Easier to share with others
One oft-overlooked benefit is that folding bikes adjust to fit a wider range of people. They’re generally one-size-fits-all, so most have huge ranges of seatpost and even handlebar adjustment—usually with a quick release for convenience.
Road bikes, on the other hand, come in far more specific sizes. There are usually several sizes for each model, with minimal room for adjustment. Most road riders also choose handlebars and stems carefully to create a perfect match for their anatomy and preferred riding posture. That means a terrific individual fit, but it’s also why road bikes are harder to share as household transportation.
All else being equal, smaller wheels are quicker to accelerate because they weigh less. Lower rotational mass requires less effort, which translates to a snappier feel from a dead stop.
To be clear, it’s not like road bikes feel sluggish. But assuming identical tire width, road bikes just don’t have the extra bit of liveliness that you’ll enjoy on small-wheeled folding bikes (or mini velos).
Reasons to choose a road bike
If you don’t require transit or small-space storage, then choose a road bike for general-purpose riding.
It’s no accident that road bikes and other more traditional designs are, well, traditional. Compared to folding bikes, they’re just a better blend of value and performance for conventional purposes.
Smoother-riding & more capable
I mentioned earlier that the best folding bikes feel rather normal.
However, they’re not exactly the same.
First, road bikes’ larger wheels feel smoother on bumpy ground. As wheels get larger, they’re more able to “bridge” small dips and maintain momentum over bumps and debris. This isn’t usually a practical problem, especially if you stick to pavement. But if the streets are ridden with potholes and construction waste, then you’ll appreciate the full-size wheels of a road bike.
Second, road bikes usually have stronger frames and higher weight limits. That’s certainly the case for gravel road bikes, although not necessarily for ultra-light, carbon-fiber race bikes. Neither is ideal for off-road riding, however. Every hinge is a potential point of failure, and it’s usually not practical to reinforce them enough for trail riding. (There are exceptions, but this applies to pretty much all urban folders, like Brompton, Dahon, Tern, and all their competitors.)
Road bikes often cost $100-$300 less than folding bikes of similar quality. They don’t need such proprietary frame design, which means cheaper design and production, and ultimately a smaller price tag. To look at it another way, the same amount of money will get you a road bike with slightly better parts (especially derailleurs and shifters).
Speaking of which…
More luggage and accessory options
Thanks to more space and more generic frame designs, it’s easier to accessorize road bikes than folding bikes. Any bike shop will have a wall full of add-ons and upgrades to make your road bike your own.
To be fair, there are still options for folding bikes, and many of them are great. For instance, Brompton’s headtube-mounted luggage is one of the best systems for any type of bike. And most brands sell custom-designed fenders that fit like a glove. But as a rule, those cramped and proprietary folding frames mean fewer options beyond that manufacturer.
The same goes for parts and components, which leads to…
More spec & gearing options
Compared to folding bikes, most road bikes have wider gear ranges and far more options for every component. Such a wide range includes very high and very low gears at the same time.
Conversely, it’s typical to find a 6- or 7-speed drivetrain on a folding bike. Some even have just three, via an internally-geared hub. That’s enough speeds for practical purposes like commuting/urban riding. But if steep hills are on the horizon, then it takes more planning (and possibly a new chainring or cassette) to comfortably climb on a folding bike.
(I should clarify that folding bikes with 18-speed and even wider drivetrains do exist. They’re just not common, since few folding designs have space for additional chainrings up front.)
In addition, folding bikes usually can’t accommodate drop bars. To be clear, it is technically possible to mount any bars on most folding bikes. However, those bars will stick out when folded, or even block it from folding in the first place. Flat or riser bars are necessary for anything even close to the compact fold of a Brompton.
Same weight or lighter
You might think those diminutive folding frames would be lighter, but it’s usually the opposite. Road bikes tend to weigh the same as or less than folding bikes of similar quality.
For instance, a folding Dahon Mariner D8 and a Specialized Allez might be the most popular entry-level models of their type, and cost within ~$130 of each other. Even though the compact Mariner seems far less massive, it actually weighs about 28 lbs versus the Allez’s 21 lbs.
Why the deceptive similarity in weight? Simple: engineering. As mentioned earlier, frame hinges are potential failure points. In addition to hinge plates and hardware, they use ample gussets, welds, and so forth to prevent collapse.
But the conventional non-folding design—basically two triangles, front and rear, sharing the seat tube—is incredibly strong with minimal material.
In fairness, there are two shockingly light folding bikes (Brompton T Line and Hummingbird) that weigh a paltry 16 lbs, give or take. The only catch is those flyweight folders cost hundreds or even thousands more than their non-folding counterparts—assuming you can find one in the first place, which is no small feat.