Folding bikes don’t sacrifice much in order to pack down so tiny.
Besides the obvious—small wheels—they’re essentially as capable and full-featured as a standard bike. And that certainly applies to the drivetrain, too.
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Here’s Whether Folding Bikes Have Gears
Most folding bikes have 3-9 gears, although some have up to 27. Single-speed folding bikes are also available. Three speeds suffice for flat areas. Nine speeds are plenty for most practical purposes, but you’ll probably want more for long-distance rides or off-road use.
The range of 3-9 gears is common for two reasons.
First, many folding bikes have an internally-geared hub (IGH) to minimize maintenance, adjustment, and weather exposure. Most affordable IGHs have 3 speeds, and some mid-range ones have 7-8. (Eleven-speed IGHs exist but are expensive. You’ll see them on a couple of flagship Tern models, or optional upgrades elsewhere, but they’re not common.)
Second, today’s entry- and mid-level rear derailleurs have 6-9 speeds. You cannot have more gears without using a fancier rear derailleur and/or adding a front derailleur. Those options would increase price while adding gear range that most folding bike customers just don’t need.
Besides, some folding frames don’t have space for a front derailleur. Clearances are tight in order to keep the folded size to a minimum, which sometimes requires sticking to a single chainring up front.
(The excellent Brompton folding bike (reviewed here) optionally comes with a 3-speed IGH and 2-speed rear derailleur, for a total of 6 speeds. That particular hub and derailleur are both proprietary, and work well, but I’m not aware of any other brands that offer that combination.)
However, more and more folding bikes are sold to sport/fitness cyclists who demand the same gear range as a road or hybrid bike. A few models accomplish this by using high-end rear derailleurs with 11 speeds (and an ultra-wide-range cassette).
That 1×11 drivetrain configuration is popular on virtually all styles of bikes these days. It has almost the same range as a conventional 2×8 or 2×9, but with only one shifter to worry about and one derailleur to maintain.
But 11-speed derailleurs and wide-range cassettes tend to be expensive, so there’s still plenty of room in the market for the classic 2×8 and 2×9 set-ups. (There may also be cases whether the physically larger 11-speed cassette and derailleur would obstruct the fold.)
How Many Gears Does Your Folding Bike Need?
If you ride in a fairly flat area, then a 3-speed internally-geared hub or 6-speed derailleur is enough. Consider 8-9 speeds for hillier terrain, or 11+ for heavy cargo (unlikely on a folding bike), touring, or MTB use.
Keep in mind that overall gear range—the ratio between the highest and lowest—matters more than the exact number of gears. Gear range is a little more involved to figure out, so check out this deep-dive into gears for commuter bikes to learn how.
The main implication is that a 1×11 drivetrain with a wide-range cassette may provide a bigger overall range (higher high and/or lower low) than a 2×8 with a regular cassette. It all depends on the exact drivetrain specs, so plug your bike’s info into this calculator for exact numbers.
There’s no harm in buying a folding bike with more gears than you need, but it may cost a little extra. And if you can comfortably ride a single-speed, then you’ll eliminate a lot of ongoing maintenance. Here’s a geared vs. single-speed comparison to help you decide.
How Do You Use Gears on a Folding Bike?
You shift gears on a folding bike the same way you would on any either. If it feels too easy to pedal, then shift to a smaller rear gear or larger front gear. If it feels too hard to pedal, then do the opposite, and shift to a larger rear or smaller front gear.
- If your folding bike has a derailleur, then you can only shift while pedaling.
- If it has an internally-geared hub, then it’s best to shift while not pedaling.
- (If it has both, like on a 6-speed Brompton, then pay attention to which shifter you’re using!)
Can Folding Bikes Go Fast?
Folding bikes can go as fast as standard bikes. The smaller wheels simply rotate faster to travel the same speed. They achieve that through higher gear ratios, so each pedal stroke can translate to more revolutions of the wheel, but identical forward motion compared.
On any bicycle, speed is basically gear ratio * wheel circumference * pedal rpm. Folding bikes have smaller wheels, of course, so they use higher gears to offset them. That lets you pedal and travel at “normal” speed.
Strictly speaking, small wheels don’t roll as smoothly over rough terrain. Folding bikes may lose momentum and feel a little slower over poorly maintained routes, let alone off-road. However, that has nothing to do with gearing, and there’s no perceptible difference on smooth pavement.
Is There a Fixed-Gear Folding Bike?
No major brands sell a fixed-gear folding bike. However, several companies sell a single-speed (freewheel) folding bike.
You probably could convert a standard folding bike to fixed-gear by using an eccentric rear hub, like the White Industries ENO. Pay close to attention to axle size and hub spacing (some folding bikes are non-standard) and think about whether chain tension will cause issues with the folding mechanism.
All in all, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it will be easy, cost-effective, or reliable. You’re probably better off just to ride an off-the-rack single-speed with a freewheel…or stick to regular fixed-gear bikes.
Wrap-Up: Gear Options for Folding Bikes
Folding bikes generally offer the same gearing options you’d find on regular city, road, or hybrid bikes. Most have 3-9 gears via an internally-geared hub or rear derailleur. Some offer up to 27 gears through a combination of front and rear derailleurs. On the other end of the spectrum, single-speed folding bikes are also common.
Smaller wheels need to spin faster to travel the same speed, so folding bikes use higher gear ratios regardless of the number of speeds.