Once derided as cheap, nasty and heavy, folding bikes have rocketed in quality over the last couple of decades as commuting cyclists have demanded nicer-riding and better-folding options. We've whizzed to the office on folders, hoiked them on to trains, and into cars and stashed them under our desks to find out which are the best folders you can buy.
Good folding bikes aren't cheap, but they work so much better than single-hinge 'Shopper' designs that it's well worth paying the extra. If you're short on storage space at home or at work, a folding bike might be your best option
Folding bikes enable 'mixed-mode' commuting trips: ride to the station, pop bike on train, ride from station to work. That's almost certainly the use case that's made folding bike maker Brompton the UK's biggest bike manufacturer with worldwide sales of around 45,000 bikes per year.
The greatest British bike industry success story of the last twenty years, the Brompton has become almost synonymous with folding bikes to the extent that it even featured as the object of affectionate humour in the BBC’s self-parody W1A:
The Brompton has become wildly popular, selling over 40,000 a year and making the firm the biggest British bike manufacturer, because of its clever folding process. It shrinks in seconds so it’s only a bit bigger than its 16-inch wheels. Here's the official video on how to fold it which pauses so often it takes a lot longer to explain the fold than it takes to do.
The key features that make the Brompton’s fold work so well are the combination of a frame hinge and folding handlebar; the rear triangle that tucks away under the frame; the folding pedal; and the long seatpost that vanishes into and through the frame to hold the compact package together. But designer Andrew Ritchie’s great achievement was making all these elements work together so that a folded Brompton is small and easily carried, but rides well when unfolded. While Ritchie’s original 1981 patent has now run out, Brompton uses copyright and industrial design law to defend it from attempts to clone the bike.
With a starting price of £850 (for the currently-unavailable base-model A Line), a Brompton isn’t cheap, but as mentioned below, it’ll pay for itself within a year in many places. Two years of not buying a London Zone 1-3 Travelcard will even get you the top-of-the-line 7.45kg T Line with titanium frame, and carbon fibre fork, seatpost, handlebar and cranks.
Not quite a folder, rather the Ritchey Break-Away is a 'dismantler' a bike that's straightforward to take apart for travel, so the frequent flyers or Eurostar users among you can take a top-quality bike along without the hassle of a flight case.
The Ritchey Break-Away Carbon is a lightweight, performance-focused frameset that splits in two and packs down small enough to take as standard luggage when you fly. It really is a clever design.
The Break-Away splits at the top of the seat tube and at the bottom of the down tube, just in front of the bottom bracket, doing a similar job to S&S couplings but at a lighter weight. The top of the seat tube slots inside the end of the top tube, and the junction, which doubles as the seatpost clamp, is secured by two bolts. At the bottom, two flanges that meet on the down tube are held together by a hinged clamp that bolts around the circumference of the tube.
Marvellous as it is, the Break-Away Carbon is hard to obtain in the UK; we suggest dropping Ritchey a line if you're interested in one.
The Birdy is a more versatile folding bike than similarly priced compacts like the Brompton. That's not to say it's better: the Brompton beats it hands down as a bike-rail commuter. It's not the best folding bike for touring or training rides either; that would be an Airnimal of some description. But it's a jack-of-all-trades folding bike that does all jobs well.
The frame and fork of the Birdy are unusual in a couple of respects. For one thing, there's no hinge in the main frame. That saves weight and, more importantly, eliminates flex. For another thing, there's suspension at both ends.
The wheel size is a rather unusual 18-inch, but there are a few good tyre options available, mostly from Schwalbe, but the Birdy's ace card is its ride quality. It rides better than any other folding bike with wheels 20-inches or smaller in diameter. There's enough reach that you don't feel perched on it, the frame doesn't flex, and there's enough trail that it doesn't steer like a shopping trolley. You can race down descents at over 40mph and a Birdy still feels stable and safe, something that can't be said for all folding bikes.
Like many of Decathlon's practical bikes, the BTwin Tilt 500 comes with lights neatly incorporated into the shape of the frame. As well as looking tidy, that's one less accessory to buy. It folds down to a tidy package and represents Decathlon's usual ethos of surprisingly good quality for the money.
It also comes with mudguards, though that's a more common feature on inexpensive folders.
Montague makes a range of folding bikes with 700C or 26-inch wheels, starting with this 7-speed machine and going all the way up to the £2,500 SwissBike X90, which is billed as a high-performance folding hardtail mountain bike.
We’ve reviewed the slightly more expensive Boston singlespeed and liked it, but although some of the parts are downgraded here, the derailleur gears probably make this a more practical proposition for most riders.
Folding bikes are always a compromise between the folded package and the ride characteristics. It's not a straight line correlation but the basic rule is that the bigger-wheeled bikes are easier to get on with on the road, but not as easy to hoik onto a train. They don't get bigger wheeled than the Montague: this is a full sized 700C bike, so don't expect it to fit in your glove box.
Usually when you're talking about a folding bike there's plenty to say on the subject of how the fold affects the ride, but not here. We wouldn't advocate riding blindfolded but were you to try it you'd be hard pressed to tell this was a folding bike, there's nothing to give it away. The mainframe is nice and stiff without being overbuilt to compensate for the fold, the geometry and riding position completely normal with a fairly upright stance that's just about right for shortish town journeys.
Unfortunately, Montague UK appears to be still out of stock, but Montague bikes are worth looking out for on the secondhand market.
An excellent budget option, the Tern Link has an aluminium frame with what Tern calls an N-fold to compact it.
Folding the Tern Link is straightforward; it's not the collapsible magic trick of a Brompton or Birdy. First you deploy the kickstand, which enables the bike to stand up both now and when it's folded. Then lower the saddle all the way down. (Shorter riders might be able to lower the saddle later, but I found it hit the handlebar unless I did it at this point.) Then undo the main hinge and 'N-fold' the front end back, so that the Magnetix clips on the righthand fork leg and lefthand chain-stay butt together. Undo the stem hinge and drop the handlebar down against the front wheel. There's a rubber strap under the main frame tube to secure the stem – simple but effective. Fold the pedals and you're done.
The resulting package is bigger than a Brompton but still small enough for train's luggage rack. It's lighter than it looks and no more difficult than an entry-level Birdy or Brompton to carry. It’s best carried by the saddle as when carried by the main frame tube, it tends to flop open around the main hinge. The magnets holding it together aren't that strong.
If you don't like the idea of carrying the Link, for £40 more you can get the model with a Trolley Rack. This is a rear rack with castor wheels on it, so you can tow the folded Uno rather than carrying it. This rack includes a cover, so the bike looks more like luggage.
We’ve reviewed the now-discontinued singlespeed version, but the folding process is the same for Tern’s Link and Verge ranges; the latter bikes have very nice hydroformed frames.
The range of available folding bikes is large, and all they have in common is that, one way or another, they can be compacted into a smaller package without tools. There are large-wheeled and small-wheeled folding bikes, folding bikes with gears, one-speed folding bikes and folding bikes made from just about every material you can think of. Let’s take a closer look.
Folding bikes appeal to riders who need a bike that’ll fit into less space than a regular bike. Wonderful as they are, conventional bikes take up a lot of room and that makes it hard to store them in a small flat, transport them on a peak hour train or any sort of bus, or park them inside most offices. Get a bike that folds and all these things become possible.
The main use for folding bikes, then, is commuting, and especially commuting that involves a section of another transport type. Hand out at any major central London rail station for a while and you’ll see hundreds of folding bikes being assembled as their owners get off trains and head into the traffic.
That means modern folding bikes are being folded, carried and unfolded far more often than the cheap folding bikes of yesteryear, and that demands better quality of folding hardware, and lighter weight, or at least a folded design that lends itself to being carried. Unlike the old Raleigh Shopper, which was really only intended to fold enough to fit in a car boot, these bikes have to be easy to carry up stairs and along station platforms.
That means these bikes fold far more extensively, thanks to features like folding pedals, folding handlebars and extensible seat posts. To keep weight down, frames are aluminium, or good quality chromoly steel.
A good folding bike costs at least as much as a decent road bike, and in some cases more, but if the alternative is catching a bus or the Tube, it will soon pay for itself, especially if you can use the Cycle To Work Scheme to spread the cost. Bung even a £800 folding bike on Cycle To Work Scheme and in many cities, you'll be better off. Compared to a London Zone 1-3 Travelcard at £167.10 per month, a £192.00 Bristol Plus peak travelcard or a Cambridge Megarider Plus bus ticket for £25/week, the repayments for a folding bike are trivial.
Folding bikes usually have smaller wheels than the 700C we're used to on road, hybrid and mountain bikes. That can mean a less comfortable ride as a small wheel falls into potholes more easily and transmits bumps to the rider more readily. Small wheels also have a bit higher rolling resistance than large wheels.
However, these issues might be big problems if you were riding all-day epics but for the main use of folders — short trips to work, the shops or a railway station — they're much less of a hassle.
Nevertheless, the rubber suspension unit of the Brompton and the front and rear shock absorbers of the Birdy help to improve comfort
Even folders that just have a central hinge in the frame don't simply fold in two these days. The hinge is usually positioned and angled so that the parts of the frame nestle together to take up as little space as possible.
More sophisticated folders take this a step further with sections that tuck and telescope together so the folded bike is small enough to slip into places you'd never expect to fit a bike.
Today's super-compact folds are greatly aided by folder-specific components like folding stems and pedals. Folder makers used to have to get these made to special order at significant expense, but they're now available off the peg. If you want to make a round-town bike that's parked in the hallway less hostile to shins you can pick up a pair of folding pedals for a little as ten quid.
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John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.