Know when to fold 'em

Though imperfect, niche bikes offer a solution for cramped commuting

By Kytja Weir
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2008
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Many commuters reconsidered their gas-guzzling autos when fuel prices hit record highs this summer, turning to trusty bicycles whenever they could. And even now that gas prices are lower, some riders are still wheeling to work.

But riders hit snags if they need to take a bus or train to complete their trip: As many as half of all MBTA buses still lack bike racks, and the subway lines that do allow bicycles ban them during peak hours. There's also always the concern about finding a safe spot to park.

Enter the folding bike, which contorts like a pretzel. Easy to store under a desk and take on a train, boat, or plane, such bikes have long been popular in Europe and now they are making inroads in the United States.

"We're seeing a lot more of them," said Joseph Cosgrove, director of planning and development for the MBTA. "They're a good option we're promoting given the parking constraints of our system."

The Globe tested three brands of folding bikes - Bike Friday, Dahon, and Strida - finding them neat, but imperfect.

Such bikes are not like Ikea furniture, to be disassembled once in a rare while: They fold and unfold within 30 seconds.

But the bikes aren't cheap. The least expensive tested, the Dahon Vitesse, costs $659.95, and Bike Friday models start at $999.

The bikes also weigh more than 20 pounds each and remain unwieldy when folded. Users can wheel the folded bikes on flat surfaces, though stairs in a crowded subway station would be tough. The folded Strida was by far the easiest to roll around; the other two were hard to guide since they are low to the ground and unbalanced.

Memet Özgören, a service technician at Ace Wheelworks in Somerville, recognizes the necessity of such bikes but dislikes them. He says, "I've seen a few better mousetraps."

He cautions buyers that folding bikes require hard-to-find parts when something breaks, which only add to their cost. They also usually have small wheels, which create a bumpier ride and require more pedaling.

Typically, he notes, such bikes also aren't as comfortable for long distances, in part because they can be hard to fit properly. Yet for Charmaine Ruppolt, 50, a folding bike gives her an easy way to travel with her wheels. She has taken her Bike Friday on a train to New York City for a day trip and commuted more than 30 miles to work. Others stow them on sailboats for excursions onto land, while people who live in tight apartments value their small size.

The bikes are also a joy for those interested in smart design. When folded, magnets unite wheels, and pedals flip inward. The Dahon Vitesse hides a tire pump in its seatpost. And the Strida 5.0, with its striking triangular silhouette, graces design museum shops.

All the bikes serve as good options for someone who truly needs foldability. The Dahon won our vote for providing a solid commuting bike for a lower cost than the others. But such bikes aren't for everyone, and most people could stick to standard bikes.

Yet those who love them are serious devotees. Owners of Bike Friday models, in fact, are known to form clubs and meet up for trips. And, they say, their wheels spark conversations wherever they go, winning even more converts.

Cost: $659.95
Folded size: 12" x 27" x 32"
Weight: 26.2 lbs
Pros: The seven-speed bike looks much like a regular bike and seems sturdy. A smartly designed air pump hides in the seatpost.
Cons: It doesn't roll as smoothly as the Strida when folded, making it awkward to tote around.
The final word: As a less expensive model than the other two, the Dahon offers a better deal while still providing a good bike with more than one gear. It's our choice for the regular commuter who can comfortably carry 26 pounds.

Cost: $999
Folded size: 16" x 24" x 35"
Weight: 24.5 lbs for a medium bike
Pros: The basic Tikit features eight gears and a built-in bell and offers a comfortable ride. Bike Friday offers off-the-shelf bikes or customized bikes costing significantly more. Owners are a devoted bunch who form riding clubs nationwide.
Cons: Bike Friday's entry-level bike costs $999, a hefty investment. It also cants to the side when rolled in folded position, making it harder to control than the folded Strida.
The final word: A good option for a serious rider looking to log miles who wants the flexibility of a folding bike.

Cost: $800
Folded size: 45" x 20" x 9"
Weight:22 lbs
Pros: The stylish triangle frame earns it a place in museum gift shops. Instead of a metal chain, it has a Kevlar greaseless belt drive, which is kind to commuters' work clothes. It features a built-in bell and ingenious-but-simple loops on the brake handles that allow the rider to lock the wheels for carrying. It also folds up long and tall, making it easy to roll. A small wrench tucks under the seat for easy adjustments.
Cons: The bike offers just one speed. The steering takes some getting used to because the 16-inch front wheel on the triangle frame pivots differently than on a regular bike.
The final word: The sleek, unconventional design offers more for the style conscious than the serious rider who seeks multiple gears. But it's a great option for the city dweller who doesn't plan on long distances.

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