Touring with a Folding Bike


by Byron on May 21, 2011 at 11:48 AM

RetweetI was surprised by all the questions about the Brompton during the Climate Ride and I tweeted some responses.

How much farther are your riding than us with those little wheels? The mileage is the same. Just faster.

Folding, Really?

Having spent years traveling with a bike, I figure most cyclists have already seen an S&S and Moulton-type separation, Brompton or Dahon, but some Climate Riders were genuinely puzzled by the bike and why I’d ride one at all. The long history of small-wheeled bikes is for another blog and blogger. For me, of all my travel-related bikes, I chose the Brompton for this trip because of quick fold and steel ride. The Brompton folds in seconds, is made of steel, and I can carry it in a hardshell case. That means I hand it to the gate agent with no extra fees, arrive at my destination, unfold it, and I’m riding as soon as I’m out of the hotel lobby.

A pause in the action

The steel makes for a comfortable and surprisingly sporty ride. I wrote about performance folding, a few years ago when I brought the S-Type back from London. I rented this M-Type from Clever Cycles for the trip. I just spent the weekend with the Climate Ride and had tight connections getting there and back.

The M-Type is a 6 speed. It was geared enough for the Climate Ride, but the shifiting steps are huge. If you’re used to the road, like I am, that’s an abrupt change. You don’t have a 10 speed with a little more for the climb or the flats. Just shift with two triggers to climbing or rolling along.

Caught these two, around the next bend in the road

After grabbing for another gear that wasn’t there, I eventually learned that it’s best to not force the Brompton. Ride the bike within its limits and it’ll reward you. Don’t to push too hard, but ride with a steady, consistent, cadence. In other words, a folder is not a road bike, but does its own thing very well.

Small wheels spin up very fast and also spin down just as fast. The biggest difference I noticed was far less momentum than my road bike. Sitting more upright and with a airdam for a bag on the front, El Brompto is not exactly aero or slipping through the wind. I rode mostly in two gears: I called them high and low. It was right shifter mid-spot and then left shift up or down. I also ignored the fast group up the road. I wanted to detune from being a roadie and met people on the ride. I was there to tour.

The tradeoff is the time it took me to finish the ride, shower, change, and pack before getting in the car with P.J. was about 20 minutes.

Through a covered bridge

Tell Me What It Look Tell Me What It Is

Todd wrote about touring with a Brompton down the Pacific Coast and found that folders, “are amazingly versatile, appealing to hardened bike geeks like me, as well as to … well, all kinds of people.”


Todd’s view for hundreds of miles

He continued

The number one question asked along the way was “why are you riding that?” as if obviously it were a poor choice. Even I suspected in advance that there would be times I’d regret this choice, in defiance of so much conventional wisdom. I admit also that I enjoy doing things differently for its own sake, but the plain truth is that I made better time with this setup, in greater comfort, than I did almost exactly 10 years prior on this route riding a lavishly appointed custom touring bike. I was in better shape then, too. I will tour this way again without hesitation. The diminutive unlikeliness of the bike helps remind you that touring isn’t about the equipment: you yourself are flying!

Less Than Epic

Like Todd, I had my own realizations on the ride and and it was how we expect epic adventures to change us in some way; give us all the answers. But really, when it’s all done - you just get a glimmer.

Each ride I do is a glimmer of the next one.


For more, see my post on staying charged and connected on the Climate Ride, the people I met, and photos on Flickr.

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We’ve traveled with folders for years.  Each bike design has it’s own weaknesses and strength. The hardest part of deciding which folder to choose is finding what features you can or can’t live without.  It is human nature to want all the bells and whistles.  Do we need 24 gears or would 8 be enough ? Do we need 20” wheels, 16 or need a big wheeled bike ?
It is like buying a car.  Some will be happy with a basic Corolla, some would need a fancier model.

Folders have basic design limitations just because they fold into a smaller package.  They tend to have long stems and seatposts.  With a long stem,  there is some flex into it.  Can’t really rock it (like standing up on long hill climbs) like a big wheeled bike as it will lead to stem failure if done too much.  Is it a flaw ?  Certainly not !  It is just a design limitation.  Learn to live with it and you’ll be fine. 

They also tend to have smaller wheels.  So to achieve the fast gears of a big wheeled bike, you will need bigger chainrings on a folder.  I think the hardest obstacle of riding a small wheeled bike is getting used to the look.  A vast majority of the population look at small wheeled bikes as kids or circus bike.

I currently ride a 6 yr old Dahon Speed (affordable at the time). I’ve changed the stock 53t ring to a 38 so I can climb most of the hills in our area. I’ve learned to forego spinning on decents with such low gears - I just coast. A rack in the back for a trunk bag.  With this setup, we have toured extensively.  Last trip on this bike was a self contained tour from Passau, Germany to Vienna Austria.

Travelbike, thanks for the comment and you’re correct on climbing on a folder bike. Much better to stay seated and spin as much as you can or push the gears. The steerer mast is inherently flexy. As I wrote in the post, I’ve traveled with all types of bikes and choose the one per the terrain and stay. When we’re vacationing in Maui, it’s the S&S bike.

I travel a lot with my Montague folding bike, so fortunately, long stems and seat posts and small wheels weren’t things I had to adjust to at all. I have to say that the full size wheels and regular gearing were especially nice when I was in Belgium and rode up some killer hills.