Folding bikes fit a ton of utility into amazingly little space. That’s mostly thanks to ingenious design, but it also requires some compromises.
After owning one long-term, testing several more, and researching extensively, I’ve found a few things worth sharing. And that’s exactly this guide is going to do.
If you want to know what to expect from a folding bike, and whether one’ll suit your commute and lifestyle, then read on.
Compact storage is the main selling point
Easy storage in tight places is, by far, the best reason to buy a folding bike. That could be storage in your home, workplace, transit, or even the trunk of a vehicle.
Personally, I bought one to free up space in a small apartment that didn’t have dedicated bike storage. It was also far easier to store at the office, but more on that in just a second.
If storage isn’t a constraint, then you’re better off with a standard bicycle. It’ll have smoother ride quality, more options for parts and accessories, and usually a lower price with comparable components.
Folding bikes are excellent for commuting
Folding bikes are ideal for commutes that incorporate transit, since they can often fit under a train or bus seat. They’re also easier to get on and off board amid crowds. Once at work, folding bikes can be stored in a small indoor space, which may remove the need for a rack and lock.
For instance, they’re popular with multi-modal commuters who need to stow a bike under a train or bus seat. (I especially recommend a Brompton in this case due to its tiny folded size. But we’ll come back to specific recommendations farther down.)
If you plan to ride as part of a multi-modal commute, then it’s worth spending extra for a model that folds to an extra-compact size. (I’d strongly recommend a Brompton. It’s perhaps the smallest readily available model, and undoubtedly one of the best overall. Read my review for more information.)
For others, they’re the best alternative to missing or unsafe bike storage racks. After all, no need to lock up what you can bring inside.
Carrying some cargo is no problem
Most folding bikes can accommodate a bag with everyday work items, like a laptop and lunch. Large cargo can be an issue, since cargo capacity is more limited than on most standard bikes. There just isn’t as much room to mount it.
But if your usual load fits in a modest backpack or pannier, then it should be no problem to mount to a folding bike.
Nearly all manufacturers offer pannier-friendly rear racks. That’s always a wise choice, partly because most brands of racks and panniers are compatible with each other.
Better still, all Brompton and at least some Tern bikes have luggage mounts on the head tube (the part of the frame that the fork inserts into). That’s totally stationary when turning, so the mass of the luggage doesn’t affect handling. It also encourages a better front-rear distribution of weight compared to rear luggage.
Folding bikes aren’t noticeably slower
Folding bikes nearly all use 16″ or 20″ wheels. A few models use either larger (24″+) or smaller (12″) wheels, but those are not common.
And it’s not unreasonable to think that smaller wheels might lead to a slower ride. But do they really?
The short answer is a firm “no.” Folding bikes are not necessarily slower than full-sized ones, at least not on normal urban terrain.
If one wheel has half the diameter of another, it can simply rotate twice as quickly to carry you at the same speed. (Folding bike wheels are more like 2/3 the diameter of standard ones, but the principle is exactly the same.)
Nobody wants to have to pedal twice as fast, though, so folding bikes use different gear ratios to translate each pedal rotation more into rear-wheel rotations.
Now, it gets it a little more complicated when terrain is rough. Smaller wheels don’t roll as smoothly over bumps and potholes, let alone rocks and roots. Consequently, very rough terrain makes for a slower, rougher ride on a folding bike. Then again, most folding bikes aren’t sturdy enough for off-road use, so that’s not a common problem.
They’re as comfortable as most hybrid bikes
The most comfortable bicycles are ones on which you sit upright, resting your hands at a neutral angle with palms facing. That’s not always possible on a folding bike, but many conventional bikes don’t offer that, either.
As long as a folding bike fits you properly, you’ll be no less comfortable than on a typical hybrid bike, just like you might’ve owned or ridden already.
Look for one where the saddle is no higher than the handlebars (and ideally 1-2″ below them) when it’s at your desired height for riding. Even then, expect a slight forward lean, just like on most hybrids.
Likewise, a compact fold requires basically straight handlebars, so most folding bikes have hybrid- or mountain bike-style straight bars. Some people dislike that wrist angle, but ergonomic grips can help by distributing pressure and allowing more hand positions. I’m a die-hard fan of Ergon grips like these ones on Amazon, and will put their GP1 Biokork on every future bike. Just note that grips with bar-ends may make certain bikes harder to fold completely.
If you do need a more upright ride or palms-facing handlebars to be comfortable, then the Citizen Barcelona (available directly from their site) is probably the best choice among folding bikes. It might also be the only one. Otherwise, it’s easier to find that sort of relaxed posture on a traditional, Dutch-style city bike (you can read more here) or the many lighter-weight bikes inspired by Dutch ones.
They may be heavier than you’d think
You might think a diminutive bike designed for portability would be remarkably light, but that’s not always the case.
The average folding bike weighs 25-30 lbs. Low-end models with steel frames, plus many models with full-size wheels, can exceed 30 lbs. The very lightest titanium or carbon models weight less than 20 lbs. However, different bikes fold down to different measurements. A smaller folded bike will feel lighter and easier to manipulate than a bulkier one of the same weight.
Folding frames are geometrically smaller than regular ones, but they need roughly the same amount of metal to withstand the stresses of riding. Perhaps a bit more metal, in fact, due to the hinges, reinforcements, and fasteners that facilitate the fold. (Triangles are incredibly strong shapes, which is why regular bicycles are still based on triangles after all this time!)
If you’re willing to drop serious money–we’re talking four grand and up–then it’s possible to get a Brompton with titanium everything, or an all-carbon Hummingbird, down to 20 lbs or even less. In fact, this gentleman got an all-titanium clone of a Brompton frame down to an astonishing 5.20 kg.
Speaking of weight, one small benefit is that smaller and lighter wheels accelerate a little more easily. Less mass to get moving means less work for your legs. That’s why a folding bike may feel ever so slightly “snappier” from a dead stop, all else being equal. It doesn’t matter much in the big picture, but it’s a pleasant (if subtle) surprise all the same.
Folding bikes are safe, but know this
It can be disconcerting to think about riding something that’s made to fold up. Fortunately, there’s not much to worry about.
On the whole, your folding bike should be safe if you purchase from a reputable brand and source, regularly check for cracks, fasten the clamps firmly (but not exceedingly tightly), and observe the manufacturer’s warnings about terrain and weight limits.
It’s technically true that small wheels are less safe on large obstacles or rough terrain. But that’s not a practical concern, since there’s no reason to take one off-road or to ride it aggressively in the first place. (If that’s your goal, then go with a purpose-built Montague or Airnimal, for instance.)
To be fair, there have been several folding bike recalls due to frame issues. It’s important to note that most were low-end models that sold for well under $500.
But even Dahon and Tern, both mid- to high-end brands, have issued a couple of recalls due to frame/hinge cracks. If anything, this underscores the importance of inspecting the frame of any bike, folding or not. It’s better to catch a crack as it begins than to wait for something catastrophic. That’s especially true of aluminum frames, which are far more brittle than steel ones.
Then again, countless cyclists have ridden the same folding bike for many years, even on extended tours with cargo, without a single structural problem. I consider folding bikes safe in general, and all the more so with the simple, common-sense precautions mentioned above.
Here’s how much you’ll need to spend
Most quality folding bikes cost roughly $500-$2000 depending on component quality, included accessories, and frame construction. They often cost $100-$300 more than conventional (non-folding) bikes of similar quality. While it’s possible to spend as little as about $200 or as much as $4000+, most riders should avoid either extreme.
Low-end models tend to fold clumsily and use fussy, imprecise drivetrain components. They’re more prone to repair and adjustment issues, and may have hard-to-find proprietary parts. Ultra-high-end models are rarely cost-effective, and seldom do things that moderate alternatives don’t.
Perhaps prices are slightly high because folding bike buyers are just willing to pay more. But the likelier reason is engineering. After all, every bicycle frame is subject to strong forces in many directions at once. Adding hinges to it demands extremely careful engineering, additional testing, and good construction quality. That all translates to more money.
If your goals are daily commuting, errands, recreational rides, or anything similar, then the sweet spot for value is anywhere from $500-$2000. That’s a little more than typical city bikes of similar quality, which you can read more about here.
(Again, we’re talking about daily use. There’s no harm in spending less if you’ll only ride it on occasion. Just don’t be disappointed if ride quality, reliability, or the folding mechanism are underwhelming. And even then, I believe it’s safest to stick with well-known brands.)
The lower end of that price range, around $600-$800, covers some entry-level models from Dahon and perhaps Tern. Those are perfectly good for daily use, but they don’t have the upgrades like wide-range gearing and disc brakes, let alone internally-geared hubs, dynamo lighting, or extra-sleeking folding mechanisms.
Those features start to appear around the $1100-$1200 level. If your folding bike is just for brief and infrequent rides, then there’s no need to spend this much. But if it’s your everyday transportation, then those nice-to-haves may be money well spent.
$1200 is also the starting roughly the starting price of the simplest Brompton. These bikes have a bit of mystique, if not a downright cult following–of which I’d proudly count myself a member. I believe Brompton’s workmanship and ride quality are simply the best available. They also fold to an unbelievably small size. Others may disagree, but their reputation is no coincidence.
Moving closer to $2000, you’re looking at a 6-speed Brompton with dynamo lighting, or an incredibly well-equipped Tern Verge S8i (briefly covered here), or a thoroughly customized Bike Friday. These are all great purchases if you have clear needs and a consistent use for the bike, like all-weather commuting or extended bike travel/touring. But if you ride infrequently, or are on a tight budget, then a sub-$800 model will still serve you well.
Bottom line: is a folding bike right for you?
Most mid- and high-end folding bikes are enjoyable and safe to ride. They don’t ride as smoothly as a good conventional bicycle, but the latter won’t fit in your closet or under your desk!
The more you’re constrained by storage or transportation, the more prudent a folding bike is.
You’ll need to budget a couple hundred bucks more than you would for a regular one. But if that’s the price of keeping cycling a part of life, then in my book, that’s money well spent!