Folding bikes lead to greener pastures
“Hey!” bellowed a voice across the Jasper train platform, “Is that one of those collapsible bikes?” Michelle and I had just gotten off VIA Rail’s westbound line and while she and her Dahon MU XL lounged at Freewheel Cycle, I was left to unfold my Dahon Speed TR surrounded by panniers, helmets and curious tourists in the shadow of the station.
“Yes, it is,” I said patiently over my shoulder. We were halfway through our four-week rail-and-bike exploration of western Canada, and our pair of tour-ready folding bikes never ceased to draw stares and questions.
“What’s something like that cost?” the American asked, stepping closer.
“Folding bikes range in price from $200 to $2000,” I replied. “Do you want to see me fold it?”
“Oh yeah!” he gushed.
“Great!” I straightened up, “That’ll be ten bucks!”
I’ll admit that part of the draw to travelling with a bike is the freak/rock-star treatment you get when you stop and mingle with the civilians. Ride a brand new 20″ folder that you are test-riding with full tour racks and bags, and you are irresistible. The towering handlebar stem and seatpost suck them in, and then ~ when you explain that this little bike is actually capable of carrying a full-grown woman and all her gear up and over the snowline of the Canadian Rockies’ 300km Icefields Parkway ~ they are yours to exploit for cash or laughs.
Seriously, though, I got a little goofy myself when I first laid eyes on the bikes in Vancouver’s Dahon dealership, JV Bike. Owner Janko Veselinovic demonstrated the Speed TR’s unique features: a 24-gear drivetrain comprised of a 8-speed rear derailleur working with a 3-speed internal rear hub rather than a front derailleur; a floor pump integrated inside the oversized seat tube ; and of course, a hinge in the handlebar stem and chro-moly frame that enables the beast to fold in 15 seconds flat.
The MU XL is more of an amped-up 8-speed city bike than a touring bike, but N.A. Dahon representative Steve Cuomo suggested we include it in the trip because ~ like the Speed TR ~ it comes with a heavy-duty rear rack; a comfy cutaway saddle and flared handlebar grips; and the 15 second rule.
Both bikes weigh about the same (a chro-moly frame, hefty seat tube and dynamo/internal gear hubs add up to about 13kg or 28lbs), provide illumination with hub-generated front lights and battery-powered rear, and ride on high quality Schwalbe tires; but the difference is in the details.
While the Speed cushions your ride with fat two-inch wide tires, the MU slims down the rubber and sucks up the bumps with a suspension seatpost. The Speed requires you tweak your handlebar position with an allen key; while the MU quick-releases it for instant rotation then telescopes the handlebar post up or down. Both bikes shift with a turn of the wrist, but the Speed adds a thumb shifter for its hub gears and a couple of surprisingly useful bar-end stubbies. Snappy V-brakes, pull-out pedals and full fenders are standard on both bikes; and bottle cage braze-ons and “KlickFix” luggage mounts complete their tour-readiness.
I rode each bike around the city for a couple of weeks before venturing onto a highway and funnily, all the things I liked about them had nothing to do with their foldability: the super-low horizontal frame allowed me to easily mount and ride the bikes in a tight skirt. The small wheels made them very manoeuvrable when steering around pedestrians on the sidewalk. The kickstand took the challenge out of resting the bike when chatting with friends, and the onboard lighting system made the dark ride home from the bar a no-brainer.
That said, the bikes did need some adjustments to make them trip-worthy. I put a front rack (extra), and bottle cage on the Speed, and Michelle added a cage and swapped the quick-release flat pedals with her own clipless. My Ortlieb bags fit the fat-tubed aluminium racks fine, but Michelle’s Axiom panniers didn’t have adjustable hooks, so she had to rest the rear hooks on the rear light casing to avoid heel strike. The handlebar stem configurations on both bikes made it impossible to mount our current handlebar bags, so I stored my purse in a front pannier, and Michelle jury-rigged a MEC drybag and a couple of reflective leg bands.
At rest, the bikes folded in three easy movements and a magnetic clip system generally prevented the frame from splaying when lifted and loaded. A former Greyhound driver, Michelle suggested that the folded bikes’ size might still be excessive for some carriers, but we agreed that if craftily bagged, they could pass for regular luggage.
In motion, the bikes were a revelation. The smaller wheel size meant that not only did the bikes feel nimble when fully loaded, but stable as well. Steering, braking, stops and starts were agile yet safe. Rather than perform an acrobatic leg swing over a fully loaded bike to get started, you could simply step over the low frame. The fold hinges felt secure. Pedalling efficiency on the smaller wheels seemed fine ~ I normally travel with a 26″ wheel bike, so I don’t get anal about weight, distance and wheel revolutions per pedal stroke. What we did both notice is that the combination of ergonomic saddle, grips and bar ends kept us pain-free through the whole trip.
Complaints? We had a couple. We were gob-smacked by Dahon’s decision to put oversized light-and-motion-sensitive battery-powered lights on the rear. They cracked easily, they didn’t come on in low-light conditions, they didn’t stay on when stopped when riding or when stopped at an intersection, and they didn’t have manual settings to override these shortcomings. This was quite a concern when descending from Bow Summit in a high-altitude snow fall. At dusk. [2010 note: Dahon has changed the specs in response to consumer feedback. – UR]
On the ascent, Michelle reported that her 8-speed MU was a few gears short of ideal, especially when fully loaded on a mountain climb. Go figure. On the downhill her high-pressure tires allowed her to go like spit, but neither of us had travelled with the bikes long enough to trust them full-bore on the mountain drops. I could have used another uphill gear or two more on the 24-gear Speed, but I blame that on operator issues.
Dahon’s website (www.dahon.com) tags the Speed TR at $925.99 and the MU XL at $899.95 USD. It’s a newsy and appealing site balancing tech-and-spec’s with “one of the friendliest bike forums on the web.” According to the site, California-based Dahon strives “to convince more people, organisations and governments to use more environmentally-sustainable forms of transport”. They support cycling organisations such as Bike to Work Day, Trips for Kids and the Mobile HIV/AIDS Clinic. And, they say, they’ve been supporting “green mobility” since 1982.
I support green mobility too ~ and if you give me ten bucks, I’ll show you how.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of Momentum Magazine