When I bought the Dahon Vitesse, like many folding bike riders, it was a “first bike,” and I went into it knowing considerably less about bicycles than what I know now. Since then, you’ve seen how much it’s changed over the three years I’ve had it at this writing.
It also has to be said that as far as platforms go, with the Vitesse D7, I started at the bottom of the pile. The process of making the bike keep up with my developing abilities as a cyclist was costlier and more involved than I’d like, but it did help me understand the mechanical nitty-gritty of bicycles more.
That got me thinking. Given my current knowledge, if I was in the market for a folding bike now, or if I was advising someone I knew who was eyeing one…what would I be looking at?
AT LEAST EIGHT COGS ON THE BACK WHEEL
This is priority number one. Make sure whatever folding bike you consider possesses at least an eight-speed drivetrain. This means that its stock wheelset has a rear hub ready to accept 8, 9 or 10-speed cassettes on its splined freehub body, considerably reducing on your expense, since you won’t need to switch out hubs or wheelsets.
Bikes with 6- or 7-speed drivetrains are based around freewheels, screwing onto a threaded rear hub. They’re fine to start with, but as far as drivetrain development and upgrade options go, they’re dead ends.
The rear hub is the foundation of most bicycle drivetrains; if you want the bike to grow with you, it is imperative you buy a bike with the correct one. Fortunately that just means that, at the minimum, an eight-speed bike is your best bet.
A REAR DERAILLEUR HANGER
This is easily second priority. I was lucky with the Vitesse, as it came with a rear derailleur hanger, albeit one fixed to the frame and non-replaceable.
Many of Dahon and Tern’s bikes come with Neos rear derailleurs. This used to be Dahon-speak (or Tern-speak) for “no rear derailleur hanger,” because these mount directly to the chainstay. This greatly limits your upgrade options for rear derailleurs. Fortunately this seems to have changed, and Tern at least offers aftermarket dropouts that can mount rear derailleurs – and makes bikes that can use them.
Sure, you can upgrade the rear shifter alone, as the rear derailleur is just a slave to it anyway. The moment you introduce drastically different cassettes into the picture, however, you might end up regretting being stuck with a Neos unit.
A DOUBLE CHAINRING CRANKSET
It’s not up there in terms of priority items…if we were back in 2013. These days, it’s hard to ignore the breadth of inexpensive folding bike options that come with a road double crankset as stock equipment.
Many folding bikes have a large single chainwheel of around 52T attached to their cranks. The intention is to give the bike’s drivetrain the gearing to emulate a full-size bike, reducing the need to spin the pedals at a crazy high cadence. This works most of the time…on the flats. Introduce a mild uphill gradient, however, and it’s tough negotiating it with such a large chainring, even mashing away with a 30T cog at the back.
It becomes very handy, then, to have a smaller second chainring as a bail-out gear. Yes, bikes that have double cranksets (and relevant shifting hardware) are usually a little more expensive, but I feel it’s money well spent. Otherwise, the bike’s frame usually doesn’t have any provision to mount a front derailleur, which means resorting to front derailleur adapters…that can be expensive and hit-or-miss in effectivity.
Luckily, LitePro specialized itself around Dahon’s and Tern’s bikes, and other bikes with a seat tube outer diameter of 40 mm. Some bike brands however aren’t so lucky, such as Doppelganger.
Riding my TCX for two years now, I am totally sold on disc brakes. Sorry, rim brake fans, but they’re simply inferior. In my amateur motorsport days, I spent four years beating more powerful cars lapping around a racetrack simply because I had better braking as my primary weapon.
That said, my only concern with disc brakes on folding bikes is bimodal commuting. In a crowded train or bus, a rotor can get bent out of shape, have undesired liquids spilled on it, have somebody else’s finger or leg cut on it…or some other mishap.
And by the way, disc brakes are a feature of the frame itself; the frame tubes are strengthened to cope with the forces generated by these brakes. Attempting to retrofit disc brakes on a rim brake frame is a very bad idea.
WHEEL SIZE: 406 MM VS 451 MM
Due to the influence of both road bikes and mini velos, the 451 mm wheel size (the “fractional” 20″ size, e.g. 20″ x 1-3/8″) has gained popularity. The larger wheel size boasts many benefits, such as improved speed and decreased rolling resistance. Aesthetically it certainly looks nicer, and bulks up the frame of a folding bike quite nicely.
The 406 mm size (the “decimal” 20″ size, e.g. 20″ x 1.5″) is a folding bike mainstay for one big reason, however: BMX. Unless BMX dies out or becomes out of fashion, the supply of 406 mm wheels, tires and inner tubes isn’t going away.
Besides consumables availability, there are other downsides to a 451 mm wheelset. You can’t get a 451 mm tire wider than 35 mm, and fenders this size can be harder to find. Technically, you can make a folding bike frame equipped with 406 mm wheels work with a 451 mm wheelset, but it will require relocation of the V-brakes.
451 mm wheels are tempting, but I can’t recommend them. Not yet, at least.
The default choice for many is aluminum: affordable, relatively light, and can be made pretty strong. Not the best reputation for ride quality, though, which is why you rarely ever see forks made out of the stuff. Combine that with the inherent disadvantage in ride quality on smaller wheels, and you’ll see why comfort isn’t a strong suit for most folding bikes.
Too many people underestimate steel, thinking that it’s heavy and cheap, but 4130 chromoly steel largely addresses those negatives while providing the material’s legendary ride quality. Indeed, my Vitesse came with a chromoly steel fork.
The whole business of folding these bikes introduces the risk of water ingress and rust, however, so I’d give the nod slightly toward aluminum. Stainless steel or titanium would be great options but cost too much.
Look, it’s perfectly fine to get a 6- or 7-speed folding bike with rim brakes. Given proper maintenance it should give you years of enjoyment as is.
Unfortunately, it’s also a lousy platform for upgrading to better componentry. Depending on what bike you buy, it’s completely possible to spend more than its purchase price in upgrade costs alone.
At the very least, budget permitting, I’d recommend a 2×8 folding bike with 406 mm wheels and disc brakes. It will be more expensive at the outset, but it’s better equipped to grow alongside you as a cyclist, and should offer better bang for your buck overall.
I hope you found this interesting, informative or educational. Let me know what else you want to see featured on the blog by leaving a comment. Happy riding.
9 thoughts on “If I knew then what I know now, and bought a new folding bike today…”
Hi, thank you for your well written article and sharing about foldables and insights to lesson learnt. Understand there’s some new makes and models since your article was posted.
I am new to foldable, and looking to buy a 2 for me and my son. We are both tall with me being over 6ft 2in. Based on your experience and what you know, what foldable make and model off the shelves we should go for?
While there have been changes since I wrote the original article, Dahon and Tern are still solid options. Most of both companies’ models cater for cyclists up to 6’4″ and 220 lb. as per their documentation.
Within the Dahon folding bike lineup, I’d personally pick the Launch D8 if it’s available. It’s a further refinement of my Vitesse frame, with a stronger jigsaw-puzzle-style frame hinge, and comes with disc brakes and an 8-speed drivetrain out of the box. If the Launch D8 isn’t available, either the Boardwalk or Speed in 8-speed guise are good options if you’re okay with V-brakes. If disc brakes are a priority, I think the Horize model has them.
I’m much less familiar with the current day Tern lineup, but the Link and Verge models have always been easy recommendations if you can afford the price premium over Dahons.
Thanks for this article its really good for starters like me hunting for a foldie now. Was into MTB many years ago but my slip disc meant my bike is rotting at home and was hesitant to get onto the foldie bandwagon due to the pandemic but i thought i should get some exercise in now. What you suggested i was also looking at 20″, 18 SPD, Disc Brakes. Was looking at a budget of below $1K any good recommendations? I was snopping around Fnhon tornado but the disc brake models are out of stock.
The Fnhon Blast and Crius Master-D could be good options. Not sure if they’ll have double cranks but they should be able to accept them as an upgrade route.
Went to test ride the Sava Z1 Caebon 9spd and i realy like it and for the price of about $1k i think im quite set on it as a “first” bike :p it seems quite upgradable, decent parts, Shimano Sora, Tektro disc brakes, but importantly it rides well
Hi. Just wondering what you think about internal gear hubs? With folding and unfolding, wouldn’t an internal gear hub be better than derailleurs? Of current folding bikes, I’ve only found Tern with internal gear hub and more than 3 speeds. Any opinions / comments are appreciated. Thank you.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Agreed, IGH bikes are pretty good. The only real downside for me is ease of repair. Apart from oiling the internals via a grease port, and replacement of shift cable(s), a typical IGH isn’t really user-serviceable. It’s got much more in common with a car’s automatic transmission than a typical bike drivetrain.
An IGH bike also typically is made with horizontal dropouts for setting chain tension, meaning conversion to a derailleur drivetrain isn’t easy. There are some with vertical dropouts paired with an eccentric bottom bracket for setting chain tension, but so far no folding bikes I’ve seen fit that bill.
In my neck of the woods, there aren’t a lot of available IGH options, at least in terms of built bikes. The only one I remember seeing was a Tern Verge X30 with the SRAM Dual Drive setup – a 3-speed IGH paired with a 10-speed cassette drivetrain. That was a very pricey bike.
Tern has 3 IGH. — The Verge, 8 gear, disc brakes, 20″ tires, $2,200. — The Node, 7 gears, V brakes, 24″ tires, $1,300. — The Link, 7 gears, V brakes, 20″ tires, $1,150. I’ve been looking for a used folder because I really don’t want to spend that much. I think Downtube has IGH, but while it looks like a nice folder, the minimal information online is not that good. I’ve read that IGHs are good for people who want less maintenance on their bike. Plus, many of the folders use lower end derailleurs that ghost shift or over time actually fall apart (Shimano Neos that are on Dahon). There is another website where the guy owns high end folders like Brompton, but has been very impressed with Zizzo’s Liberte and Urbano. Both under $500 with derailleurs, not IGHs. Any thoughts or suggestions about Zizzo or other folders under $500. This would be my first folder. Thank you for your help.
The chainstay-mounted Neos derailleurs Dahon uses are Suntour units if I’m not mistaken.
I haven’t heard of Zizzo nor do we get them in my neck of the woods, so I can’t help you there.
Looking for a used IGH foldie is probably the most cost-effective option but that may also be the hardest. I’d go for the Tern Link among your options. Dahon should also have a Vitesse D7i that fits the same bill for a slightly lower price.