If you’ve spent much time in large cities, especially in Asia, you’ve probably noticed adults riding surprisingly small-wheeled bikes.
Some have the conspicuous hinges of folding bikes. But, with a keen eye, you’ll notice that others lack those hinges. Those bicycles are called mini velos, and they can be incredibly convenient for certain situations.
Let’s take a closer look at their design, purpose, and a few brands worth checking out.
Here’s what a mini velo is
A mini velo is an adult bicycle with smaller wheels, typically 20″ or less in diameter, but otherwise standard bicycle parts. Unlike folding bikes, mini velos have rigid frames that do not collapse at all. They’re popular in dense cities where full-size bikes may be hard to store or carry, but an ultra-compact folding bike isn’t necessary.
It’s hard to say when mini velos were invented, since small-time inventors no doubt experimented with small-wheeled designs for decades. But mini velos probably first gained popularity with the success of Moulton Bicycle, founded in 1962.
Why buy a mini velo?
The small wheels of a mini velo make its easier to store in tight quarters and to carry through cramped spaces like stairwells, elevators, and transit facilities.
A typical mini velo has 20″ wheels. That makes its end-to-end length at least 9″ shorter than that of a standard road/city bike with 700c (29″) wheels. It’s usually even shorter yet, since mini velos usually have a shorter wheelbase (front-to-rear axle distance) than their full-size counterparts.
Their smaller wheels also require less vertical clearance to store. That may not sound like a major advantage, but it’s surprisingly helpful when you’re keeping a bike near furniture (such as your desk).
Another oft-overlooked advantage is that smaller wheels give snappier acceleration. There’s less mass to get rotating from a dead stop, so the same pedal power gets you moving just a little bit more quickly. It’s not a game-changing difference, but it’s a pleasant surprise in stop-and-go urban riding.
Incidentally, smaller wheels are theoretically a bit stiffer and stronger than ones with a wider diameter. After all, less diameter means less side-to-side force. This doesn’t always matter in the real world, though, since individual rims and spokes vary in strength.
All the above applies to folding bikes, too. But folding requires clamps and hinges, which mean more weight and fancy engineering to get similar frame strength. Mini velo designers can also take more liberties with geometry, since there’s no need to worry about how the frame will fold down.
Two mini-velo drawbacks (and what you can do about them)
Small wheels aren’t as smooth
It’s a fact of physics that smaller wheels feel less smooth on a rough surface. As the wheel gets smaller, the cracks and bumps are relatively larger, so they feel more jarring to the rider.
Does that really matter?
Yes and no.
On smoother asphalt, there’s virtually no perceptible difference between smaller and larger wheels (assuming both have the same type and width of tire).
But the differences grow as asphalt gets rougher, or potholes appear, or you venture onto dirt/gravel. There’s no exact threshold beyond which you can’t ride a mini velo. It’s a matter of personal preference. But as a rule, the rougher your ride, the more helpful full-size wheels are.
Traditionally, mini velos have basically the same tire clearance as road bikes. (That’s not much!) But some newer ones can fit wider tires, which offer more cushion and traction to mitigate the rougher ride.
In fact, here is a custom-made example with whopping 2.8″ tires for, well, just about any imaginable terrain. You sure won’t find that at your local bike shop, but it goes to show that small wheels are more capable than you might think.
A shorter wheelbase can feel unsteady
As mentioned earlier, mini velos usually have not only smaller wheels, but also a shorter wheelbase than full-sized bicycles. There are a few exceptions, one of which I’ll highlight toward the end, but this usually holds true.
The shortened wheelbase comes from proportionately reducing both the chainstay length (cranks to rear axle) and front-center length (cranks to front axle), much like on a folding bike.
That’s important for storage and portability, of course, and it also makes the handling feel nimble in tight situations (like on a sidewalk or weaving through traffic).
But just like a kayak can’t plough through waves like a yacht, neither can a mini velo tackle torn-up cobblestones with the surefootedness of a Dutch bike.
Now, that’s not to say it’s a bucking bronco. In fact, the wheelbase of a typical mini velo is in keeping with the wheelbase of a road racing bike. Perfectly reasonable and safe, just not optimal for laid-back cruising over choppy surfaces.
Whether this is a feature or a bug depends on your terrain and riding style. Besides, wheelbase length is just one factor in handling, alongside the head tube angle, handlebar style and position, overall sizing, etc.
But if you want maximum stability from a portable package, you may be better off with a folding bike. Brompton, for instance, uses a clever hinge design that allows for a wheelbase like a standard bike yet one of the tiniest folded sizes on the market. It comes at a cost, but most high-end mini velos aren’t cheap, either.
What kinds of mini velo bikes are there?
I’d group mini velos into three categories. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but as of writing, nearly everything on the market falls into one of them.
With each category, I’ll include examples of iconic models from the past or well-regarded ones you can possibly purchase new in 2021.
Availability is usually limited, especially outside Asia, so you may have to forego a test ride.
1. Road-style bikes with drop bars
This first category of mini velo is effectively a road racing or touring bike with shrunken wheels.
You can expect all the distinctive road components: drop handles, brake levers, shifters, fairly narrow tires, and so forth. And just like full-size road bikes, you’ll ride leaning forward in a fairly aggressive position.
The discontinued Mercier Nano, from mail-order stalwart Bikes Direct, was a great example of this style:
These are a fun and convenient choice for sport riding, quick dashes around town, and anything else a standard road bike is suitable for.
People do occasionally race them, at least as a bit of a novelty. Here’s an example of one such event from Japan:
2. Hybrid- or city-style bikes with flat bars
Some of the more iconic mini velos, like the Bianchi Merlo made for the Japanese market, are similar to standard hybrid bikes.
- More or less flat handlebars
- Slightly forward-leaning posture
- Medium-width tires
(Read my breakdown of city versus hybrid bikes for a more thorough explanation of how these things actually impact your ride.)
They’re practical bikes indeed, at the cost of a couple additional pounds over their sportier siblings.
3. Miniature cargo bikes
Cargo mini velos are truly a niche within a niche. So much so, in fact, that there are hardly any to choose from.
The Orbea Katu line exemplifies this style, and we’ll take a closer look at it a bit later.
The large basket and disc brakes are distinctive features at a glance. They’re also a bit longer with more relaxed angles than other mini velos–all for stability, of course.
What mini velo brands should I consider in 2021?
The selection of mini velos isn’t broad. In fact, the vast majority of bike companies don’t offer them.
On the bright side, that makes for a quick selection process!
If I were in the market right now, then these would be my top contenders. This isn’t remotely an exhaustive list, and won’t even wade into the realm of boutique small-wheeled bicycles from brands like Moulton, or any number of custom builders.
All-around use if money’s not an object: Velo Orange Neutrino ($750 frame only / ~$2500+ complete)
Velo Orange might be the coolest bicycle company you’ve (probably) never heard of. Even though you’ll virtually never see them in stores, and even online availability is limited, they consistently fill gaps that don’t interest larger brands.
And once in a while, they come up with something farther out of the ordinary: to wit, the Neutrino mini velo.
Building from the frame up is always fun, if expensive. But the Neutrino would be a perfect blank canvas, since it comes in three different sizes (most mini velos offer one or at most two), clears massive 2.3″ tires plus fenders, and has sliding dropouts for any possible drivetrain configuration (derailleur, internally-geared hub, or even single speed).
The disc brakes mounts (practically necessary with sliding dropouts) and plentiful rack mounts mean you can build it up for literally anything besides racing or aggressive off-road riding. For a utilitarian cyclist who still likes to have fun on the weekends, there’s no more versatile frame on the market with any wheel size.
The obvious drawback is the price. A Neutrino frame will set you back more than many complete mini velos, and you’ll need to raid the used parts bin to keep the full build under $2000.
That price is hard to justify (I’ve tried!) as a novelty or a new toy, but it’s well within reason for a unique but high-quality frameset that serves a purpose.
Heavy hauling in all weather: Orbea Katu 30 ($799 new, but expect to buy secondhand)
The bad news is Orbea seems to have discontinued their ingenious Katu line as of 2019 or so. The good news is they still pop up on eBay or in bike shops’ clearance sales–at least for now.
If luck is on your side, then you can’t do better for a practical bike in a small package. Better still, the Katu 30 introduced disc hydraulic disc brakes and a dynamo-powered headlight at a steal of a price.
(I’ve previously discussed whether you’ll really need disc brakes. In brief, cargo hauling is one scenario where they’re worthwhile. And as for dynamo lighting, read this overview to learn more about whether it’s right for your riding.)
This is the one bike in this article that I’ve personally ridden and can recommend firsthand. After all, it’s the only one that was (briefly) sold in large volumes through local bike shops.
So, how was the ride quality? Amazingly…normal. In fact, nothing about the ride quality alone suggested small wheels. The beefy 2.25″ tires undoubtedly played a part in its smoothness. It also has remarkably long chainstays for a mini velo. At 437mm they’re actually longer than you’d find on a road racing bike.
My favorite feature is the head tube-mounted front basket. In fact, that’s practically necessary for a cargo bike of any size. The issue with generic axle- or fork-mounted baskets and racks is that they noticeably affect how a bicycle handles. At some point around 10 pounds (in my experience), they’ll feel like they resist turning and straightening the handlebars. That’s a huge problem for sharp turns at low speeds.
But when the manufacturer mounts the basket directly onto the frame, then that problem disappears. The basket is stationary relative to the handlebars, so loads of dozens of pounds (or whatever their limit is) have little if any effect on the handling.
If you can’t track down a used or new-old-stock Katu, then keep an eye on eBay for a Cannondale Hooligan. This was an all-too-limited 20″ city bike complete with a head tube basket mount, disc brakes, and the all-around burliness its name suggests.
Your best readily available alternative may be a folding bike, specifically the Tern Verge S8i. However, it’s quite a bit more expensive at $2199, and its head tube-mounted luggage system holds about 15 lbs versus the Katu’s 35 (if memory serves).
While we’re in that price range, the Yasujiro mini cargo bike will set you back a grand for the frame only or $2575 complete. (Fun fact: Yasujiro is a brand of Merry Sales, which is also the parent company of Soma and New Albion. An both of those latter brands sold this same mini velo frame for a short period.)
Denmark’s Velorbis makes an über-traditional model called the Short John, available through Amazon (surprisingly enough) for a bit under $1900 to your door.
Finally, European customers can buy the rather similar Petit Porteur for a more modest EUR 840.
A more affordable, accessible all-arounder: Biria Mini-20 ($999)
Biria bikes seem far more common Europe than North America, but they offer direct and do have a few dealers dotting the US.
So, as of writing, their Mini-20 is one of the most practical options that North American readers can actually find on somewhat of a budget.
The Mini-20 has a 3×9 Shimano 105 drivetrain, in keeping with road bikes around this price point.
The handlebars have a comfortably swept-back shape, which I strongly recommend for all-around use (as my commuting handlebar overview explains). You can expect a fairly upright riding position, especially if you’re of average height or less.
The 1.125″ (28mm) tires are not unreasonable, but wider ones would’ve helped maximize traction and take the edge off of rough streets.
If you’re seeking a brand-new bike like the Biria, but cheaper, then there are three general options.
The first and easiest is a folding bike. While the folding design has some functional and aesthetic drawbacks, it’s also far easier to find at any price range, but especially lower ones.
The second is to order from a more obscure brand with a decent online reputation. I’m not personally familiar and can’t make any firsthand recommendations, but London Bike Cartel seems like a reasonable option.
Finally, keep in mind that mini velos are far more popular in East Asia, particularly Japan, than almost anywhere else. That means Japanese e-commerce sites like Rakuten have an enormous selection. You’ll need to be comfortable reading parts lists and geometry charts, since English-speaking customer service isn’t a given.
Mini velo FAQ
How does mini velo sizing work?
Most mini velos come in one or two sizes, although brands like Velo Orange do offer a third size for taller customers.
If two sizes are available, then the threshold between them is typically around 5’8″, but varies among brands.
One-size-fits-all models typically have extra stem, handlebar, and/or seatpost adjustment to accommodate most adult riders. It’s always possible to swap the stem and/or handlebars altogether, since they’re entirely standard parts. Still, tall riders (perhaps 6’2″ and above) may struggle to find one that fits properly.
Are mini velos slower than regular bikes?
No, mini velos are not inherently slower than any other type of bicycle. Smaller wheels have to rotate faster to travel at the same speed, so mini velos (like folding bikes) use higher gearing to achieve faster wheel rotation without pedaling faster. With similar effort and posture, you’ll travel the same speed on a mini velo as on anything else.
For a closer look at how gearing relates to wheel size, check out this section of my guide to commuter bike gearing.
However, the wheel size can slow you down slightly on rough terrain. Smaller wheels are less smooth over rough ground, which may slow you down slightly. You can mitigate this effect by using the widest tires your rims and frame will accommodate. Frankly, though, it’s not a serious problem unless you’re racing or riding extensively off-road, neither of which are good uses for mini velos in the first place.
Should I get a mini velo or a folding bike?
If wheel size is your only obstacle to keeping a regular bicycle, then opt for a mini velo. If you need a drastically smaller package–no more than 26″-36″ in any direction–then a folding bike is the only choice.
While a folding bike is obviously more compact to store, its size comes with some tradeoffs. For instance, the folding frame designs adds at least a few ounces of weight, $100-$300 to the price (for comparable parts), and additional points of failure.
Furthermore, bicycle frames traditionally have a triangle shape because it’s a structurally efficient design. It’s both stiff and light at the same time. However, it doesn’t fold down very neatly, so most folding bikes use a single-beam design instead. But mini velos don’t have to fold, so they’re free to use that lightweight, conventional triangular frame.
However, it’s easier to find folding bikes in general. And it’s much easier to find folding bikes with fenders, racks, dynamo lighting, and other city-bike essentials. You can customize most mini velos in a similar fashion, but they almost never include those accessories off the shelf.
A folding bike may also be more practical if you’re not comfortable buying sight-unseen. They’re sold almost everywhere, both new and used.
Conversely, consider a mini velo if availability isn’t a concern, and you want your ride to feel as “normal” as possible in a small package.
Is a mini velo good for commuting?
There’s enough variety of mini velos that it’s hard to answer categorically. But if a) storage is a limitation and b) you don’t have any particular need for a folding frame, then a mini velo is worth considering.
For instance, many bike commuters need to carry a bicycle up and down tight staircases at home or at the office. In that situation, full-sized wheels are cumbersome to manage and can obstruct other people. It’s also easier to get oneself dirty by brushing against them.
Mini velos are easier to handle in that scenario, and can often be stored at your desk or in a closet where conventional bicycles don’t fit.