If you live too far from work to cycle, or you just don’t fancy riding all the way in winter, you can still get your cycling fix (and save time and money!) by using public transport or private car and then pedalling the last few miles. That’s easiest with a bike that folds quickly and compactly.
For while you can take a full-size bike on the train, it’s a hassle. Trains carry limited numbers of normal bikes, sometimes none at peak times, and operators may require you to book a bike place on a specific service. A folded bike is treated as luggage instead so you can hop on any train.
Technically it can be refused if it’s bigger than 100cm in any dimension and charged for if bigger than 90x70x30cm. In practice, virtually any folder will be admitted. And if it has wheels 20 inches or smaller and fits in an end-of-carriage luggage rack, you’ll never have any problems. Compact folders will fit in buses or taxis without causing arguments too.
Any bike must make compromises to fold to the size of a small suitcase. Wheel size is the main one. Small wheels don’t roll as well as bigger ones, especially through potholes. They’re not that much slower but if you want to ride further – or simply faster – efficient tyres such as Schwalbe’s Kojak or Marathon Racer will help.
Handling is different too. Small wheels sharpen the steering response, and a long, hinged stem can flex a little. Compact folders feel nippy around town. However, riding one-handed when signalling requires more concentration.
You seldom need a lock for a compact folder. It goes with you, parking under your desk, in a cloakroom, etc. Most have an optional bike bag; putting the folder inside is good camouflage for bike unfriendly places.
The British-made Brompton folds smaller and neater than anything in its class, to just 60x58x29cm. People stare like you're performing a magic trick when you fold or unfold it. It takes about 15 seconds, and the folded steel frame fastens together with the oily chain inside. The Brompton uses the larger size of 16-inch wheels (ISO 349). There are six base models: a standard 3-speed (M3L), a touring-style 6-speed (P6R), a sporty 2-speed (S2L), and a lighter, part-titanium version of each. There are lots of accessories and a la carte options, including lighting and luggage. The rear rack isn't much use but the front carrier is excellent. The Brompton's lively ride divides opinions. Weight: from 9.8kg.
Another British designed bike, the Mezzo is also engineered around ISO 349 16-inch wheels. Front and rear wheels tuck under, and the folding package is 81x68x38cm still compact, but about 25% bigger in each direction than a Brompton. The forward extension of the stem means that Mezzo doesn't need a hinge in its aluminium frame, and it has a roomier reach and stiffer-feeling ride than the Brompton. One version, the i4, uses a 4-speed hub gear; the others 9- or 10-speed derailleur gearing. Its frame and stem clamps self-close, which saves you time, and all models come with a mudguards and a rear rack. There's a commuter bag available for this. Weight: from 11.7kg.
Dahon is the world's biggest folding bike manufacturer and its range is vast, so we're focusing on one of its most compact models: the Curve, which folds to 67x64x34cm. It folds in half in the middle and the stem and seatpost drop down, whereupon it stands up by itself. There are two versions: the 3-speed D3, and the 7-speed XL. The latter has a small rear rack and either can be equipped with a head-tube mounted 'luggage truss', a less heavy-duty imitation of the Brompton's front carrier. The Curve uses the smaller version of 16in wheels (ISO 305) but with fat Schwalbe Big Apple tyres, which provide good ride comfort. It's keenly priced too. Weight: from 11.2kg.
The new kid of the folding bike block, the Kansi folds in half like a Dahon, albeit with a different clamping arrangement. Folding is simple and swift, although not as clever as the Mezzo or as compact as the Brompton, at 88x66x38cm. Its size is partly down to its larger, 20-inch wheels. These roll better than 16-inch wheels and help give the Kansi a more 'normal bike' ride. It?s available in three versions: the singlespeed 1twenty, the 3-speed 3twenty and the 9-speed 9twenty. It comes with a kickstand but few other accessories are available - only mudguards (£25), a small rear rack (£40), and a bag to stash the bike in (£40). Weight: from 10.4kg.
Cheap doesn’t have to mean nasty. Choose wisely and you can buy a decent new commuter bike for £250 or less.
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