Folding Bikes: What You Need To Know Before You Buy

Published Categorized as Bicycles, Bike comparisons & guides, Folding Bikes, Gear & Guides

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.

This article might contain affiliate links. As a member of programs including Amazon Associates, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Here’s whether folding bikes are good

Folding bicycles range from poor to excellent quality. Good ones are as durable, efficient, and fun as any regular bike, even on long distances. Folding bikes will never feel as smooth on rough terrain due to smaller wheels, but they’re excellent for urban cycling, commuting, leisure riding, and travel.

In fact, if you’ve wanted to cycle but couldn’t because of tight storage space, then folding bikes are the ideal solution.

So, are folding bikes worth it? Yes, folding bikes are well worth it if you have limited storage space or you want to combine cycling with transit. This makes them ideal for urban commuters.

They do cost more than standard bikes of comparable quality (more on that later), but good ones are a joy to ride and will last as long as any other bicycle.

Most come in just one size

Generally, folding bikes do not come in different sizes—just a single frame size and wheel size per model. The main exception is full-size folding bikes (from brands like Montague), which do offer a couple frame sizes. Still, they’re quite rare in the folding bike market as a whole.

And despite what you might expect, larger wheels don’t always mean a large frame. For example, a Brompton with diminutive 16″ wheels (plus the higher handlebars bars and a telescoping seatpost) can accommodate riders up to roughly 6’8″. Yet a full-size Montague folder with 700c wheels maxes out at about 6’4″.

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. As a bonus, it was also easier to store at the office.

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.

As a middle ground, you might also consider a mini velo, which also has small wheels but does not fold. They’re more portable and easier to store than full-size bikes, yet lighter and sturdier than folding bikes.

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.

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.)

Transportation aside, they’re also a great 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.

Nope, they’re not harder to ride

Folding bicycles are as easy to ride as full-sized ones. They may even feel easier to handle for smaller riders who are overwhelmed by standard bikes. Bikes with small wheels don’t ride as smoothly over bumps, but they’re quicker to accelerate, steadier at low speeds, and more nimble in tight spaces.

The low center of gravity may also improve cornering.

To be clear, you’ll notice a different feeling the first time you ride a folding bike. It’s not objectively worse, just different from what most of us are accustomed to.

But after a few miles, or even a few laps around the block, a well-fitting folding bike will feel more…normal…than you might expect.

Folding bikes aren’t necessarily slower

It’s not unreasonable to think that smaller wheels might lead to a slower ride.

But are folding bikes actually slower? The short answer is a firm “no.” On normal urban terrain, folding bikes are not slower than full-sized ones with similar riding posture.

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. Regardless, it’s much less diameter than the typical 26″-29″ on regular bikes.

If one wheel has 2/3 the diameter of another, it can simply rotate 3/2 as quickly to carry you at the same speed.

And that doesn’t mean pedaling half again quickly! Nobody would want to do that, 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.

This question is a little more nuanced than it seems, so check out this article on whether folding bikes are slower.

They’re as comfortable as most hybrid bikes

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.

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 create that posture, either.

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 of its kind, as of writing.

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.

A folding bike should fit like this

Casual riders should choose a folding bike whose saddle is no higher than the handlebars (ideally 1-2″ below them) when it’s at the desired height for riding. You should lean just slightly forward, just like on most hybrids.

Most folding bikes are one-size-fits-all, but many have handlebars with telescoping adjustment to suit different rider heights.

Saddle height is also adjustable, just like on any other bikes (and here’s how to set saddle height quickly).

Very tall riders may need an extra-long seatpost, since too little seatpost insertion is not structurally sound. (The minimum is usually around 100 mm/4″, but check with the manufacturer or manual to be safe.)

They may be heavier than you’d think

You might expect a diminutive bike designed for portability to be remarkably light, but that’s not always the case.

The average folding bike weighs 25-30 lbs. Ones with low-grade steel frames or larger wheels can easily exceed 30 lbs. The lightest titanium or carbon models weight less than 20 lbs. However, different bikes fold down to different sizes. A smaller folded bike feels lighter 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. Probably even more metal, 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, so 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 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.

Folding bikes from reputable manufacturers do not break easily with normal use. That means tightening clamps moderately, observing the weight limit (including apparel and cargo), and avoiding rougher terrain than it was intended for. As with any bicycle, it’s still important to inspect your folding bike’s frame for cracks between rides.

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. They’ll be safer and more fun than pushing a city bike beyond its limits.)

For any metal-framed bicycle, a catastrophic failure like snapping in half is usually the result of small cracks that went unnoticed as they grew. It’s exceedingly rare for these things to happen out truly of the blue, and even rarer yet with non-fatiguing metals like steel or titanium.

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.

And 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.

Most folding bikes aren’t ideal off-road

It’s easy to take a folding bike just about anyway…but “anywhere” has some limitations.

For instance, can you take a folding bike off-road? If so, is it pleasant to ride?

Most folding bikes are fine for well-maintained dirt or gravel paths, but not for off-road trails with roots and rocks. That may violate the warranty and create safety risks. However, folding MTBs are available, which are good for cross-country riding but not extreme mountain biking.

Folding bikes designed for city/pavement use have relatively narrow tires, which limits grip and shock absorption. Gear ranges are usually narrow and fairly high, so steep off-road climbs are extremely difficult.

Most important, standard folding bike frames aren’t made to withstand the stress of plowing through roots and rocks. The hinges are a particular concern.

Consequently, the warranty usually excludes “cross-country use” or “trail riding” or similar terms. That gives you a good idea of what the manufacturer consider the bike safe for.

They’re like any other city/hybrid/commuter bike in that respect.

That said, gentle off-road jaunts are entirely possible. Just stick to maintained routes like canal paths, municipal trails, shortcuts through parks and fields, and so forth.

Those places are free of obstacles that could damage the frame, wheels, or other parts. Likewise, the lack of big bumps means 16″-20″ wheels still roll smoothly enough.

But if you’re itching to tackle gnarlier trails, then look for a folding mountain bike instead. They have wide gear ranges, knobby tires, sturdier frames, disc brakes, and even suspension.

The trade-off is weight and portability. Rugged parts are necessarily heavier. Besides, most folding MTBs have 24″ or 26″. They won’t fit under your desk or your train seat like a Brompton would!

Yes, there are weight limits

All folding bikes have a weight limit. It varies but is often around 220 lbs-242 lbs (100 kg-110 kg) including your apparel and any cargo. Any rack or basket will have its own weight limit, which factors into the overall limit. Heavier riders should consider folding cargo bikes, which support far more weight.

For almost any model on the market, there are reports of customers riding safely despite exceeding the limit by 20+ lbs. I don’t advise you to push the limit, but realistically, it’s a conservative number.

Below are the manufacturer weight limits for some of the most popular folding bikes on the market today. Always check with the manufacturer to determine a) what cargo weight limits apply and b) whether they’re part of the total limit.

BrandModelWeight Limit
Bike Friday(most)230 lbs (104 kg)
Higher limits available as special order
Brompton(all)242 lbs (110 kg)
Citizen(all)220 lbs (100 kg)
DahonCurl286 lbs (130 kg)
DahonHit300 lbs (137 kg)
DahonBriza, Launch, Mariner, Mu, Piazza, SUV, Vybe230 lbs (105 kg)
DahonVisc220 lbs (100 kg)
TernCargo Node350 lbs (159 kg)
TernGSD440 lbs (200 kg)
TernHSD374 lbs (170 kg)
TernBYB, Eclipse, Link, Node, Vektron, Verge230 lbs (105 kg)

Here’s how much you’ll need to spend

Most quality folding bikes cost roughly $500-$1500 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 more modest alternatives don’t.

Why are folding bikes more expensive in general? It’s possible that folding bike buyers are just willing to pay more for practicality. But the likelier reason is engineering. After all, every bicycle frame is subject to strong forces in many directions at once. Adding hinges demands extremely careful design, 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 $600-$2000, give or take. That’s a little more than city bikes of comparable 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.)

Entry-level: $600-$800

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.

Nice upgrades: $1100-$2000

Those fancier 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 worth every penny.

$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 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 stellar reputation is no accident.

The best of the best: $2000+

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, it’s money well spent!