Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Small Is Beautiful

Sarah Chan is stylish and practical on her Dahon D3.

While there isn't a single wheel size that is perfect for every bicycle, owning various small-wheeled bikes over the years has given me an opportunity to get acquainted with the virtues of having a petite machine. While my 29er Octocog is a machine well-suited for the high, rocky wilderness, tiny wheels let my Dahon D3 go many places that my 29er cannot. The city, the train station and the crowded coffee shop all remind me that small is beautiful.

On her blog Sarah Chan tells this story:

"...we ran into some guys who were ogling the bike and having a smoke while I unfolded the Dahon back into it's fully functional form.

A few minutes passed with chit chat about the thing, and I offered for one of the guys to test ride it up and down the block since he was so curious about whether it was fast at all. This is where his friend told him that the only important thing was knowing it was faster than walking. I never heard somebody put it that way before but... that's a good way of looking at it!"

While it is true that small wheels don't hold their speed the way a bigger wheel does, that lack of momentum when rolling means that the wheels also have less inertia when stopped. A little wheeled bike rolls up to speed rapidly and the bike is very maneuverable. The way I tend to describe it is by saying that the little wheels may not be fast, but they are quick. In stop and go city riding, my Dahon tends to be my fastest bike.

People also seem to have a hard time grasping that gear ratios can let a small wheel cover a decent bit of distance for a given pedal stroke. I've ridden a full super-randonneur brevet series as well as Paris-Brest-Paris and London-Edinburgh-London on a 20 inch wheeled Bike Friday and I lost track of how many times I've been asked "don't you have to pedal a lot more to make those little wheels go?" Eventually I just gave up trying to explain the gearing and instead decided to look very serious and say "Yes, it is much, much harder. Fortunately, I'm much tougher than all those other fellows!" And, for the record, Matteo Luzzana is even tougher than I am. He rode LEL on a Brompton T3.

My first folding bike was a Bridgestone Picnica, the machine that made a horrible commute wonderful. At the time (about 26 years ago), Christine and I were living in Bridgeport, CT, she was a brand-new stay-at-home mom and I was working in White Plains, NY. The drive along I-95 was miserable, but I found a van-pool that went from Stratford CT to Purchase NY. So instead of fighting traffic everyday in a car and pouring a lot of gas in a tank, I paid my way into the van-pool. In the morning, I'd ride my bike to Stratford and fold the bike. The bike and I rode in the van to Purchase where I unfolded the bike and rode to White Plains. In the evenings, the process was reversed. I saved money, time and a lot of aggravation. I could read on the van instead of fume at traffic. I got exercise everyday riding my bike. My folding bike and the van-pool made bike commuting possible, even in an "impossible" situation.

While the classic folding bike scenario is a multi-modal journey involving a van or a train or a bus or a plane, having a compact bicycle has many other rewards. Lynette Chang, author of "The Handsomest Man in Cuba" and inventor of the Traffic Cone Bag, rides a Bike Friday because, as she says, "it fits her five-foot-nothing self." Folding bikes are a great option for shorter people looking to get a quality bike. While it can often be hard to find a good conventional bike that fits a person of short stature, folding bikes tend to size down well. This fact can make them great bikes for growing kids, a fact not lost on Anne's daughter over at Car Free Days. Apparently this mothers and daughters sharing bikes thing still holds when the mother and daughter are both adults as well, as evidenced by Melanie and her Mom.

Some folding bikes also fit taller folks. While I personally love my little Dahon Curve D3, it's not a bike I'd recommend to someone over six feet tall. The five-foot tall Sarah Chan does say that her six-foot-four husband sometimes rides her D3 but "Admittedly, it's comical." Actually, that comic effect holds true for darn near anybody on a folding bike, we really do look kind of goofy. And maybe it's my imagination, but it seems to me that drivers are less aggressive when I'm on the Dahon instead of one of my more conventional-looking bikes. I know I'm less aggressive. As I've said before, it is impossible to imagine that you are Lance Armstrong while riding a tiny folding bike.

But tall fellows, like Lazy Rando Vik, can and do log many happy miles on folding bikes. Vik points out another great virtue of a small folding bike in his Bike Locking Case #4. As Vik notes, the best way to lock your bike is to not have to lock your bike by keeping it with you. Tikets, Dahons and Bromptons all fit easily under cafe tables and pack into small corners of small apartments. If you have a car, a folding bike can be quickly and securely stowed in the trunk.

As someone who lives car free in a second story apartment, I can tell you that one reason my Dahon gets used so often is that it is an easy bike to carry up and down stairs. My smallest bike happens to be my lightest bike and my easiest bike to maneuver in tight spots.

Many folks think a cargo bike has to be some massive machine with loads of hauling capacity but in several decades of car free living, I've only found a few occasions where I needed to lug big things around. So, for me, owning a "cargo bike" has never been a priority. Almost every day I do wind up hauling some cargo, but in some sense every bike is a cargo bike. It just depends on how much cargo you are interested in hauling. Melanie's little pink Dahon is the cutest cargo bike ever. If you want to haul more gear but still stick with something compact and foldable, Burley makes a wonderful folding trailer. As the photo of Sarah on the top of this blog illustrates, with the small front wheel there is a lot of room to hang a bag from the handlebars on a folding bike.

Todd from Clever Cycles in Portland wonderfully illustrated just how versatile and fun a folding bike can be by riding his Brompton down the Pacific Coast last August. As Todd described the "perma-grin" that set in on the fifth day of that tour I knew exactly what he meant when he said that he "touched the wire that powers everything." Todd knows that a small machine can connect you with a big, wonderful world. Todd recently reminded me of one of the more interesting aspects of having a small little bike: the social side of things. As Todd says "folding bikes are almost as effective as dogs at breaking social ice. They give strangers something to ask about." If you want to meet people, get a folding bike.

While I'm sure there are many reasons someone might want a folding bike or find one useful, the single best reason I have for owning my little red bike is the big grin it puts on my face pretty much every time I ride it. That, more than anything else, is why I keep those little wheels rolling.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Tim K said...

Once again, you called it right Kent! We've really been digging the Bromptons.

Though we have a full stable of options, I find that we all gravitate to the folders pretty frequently (though it's pretty amusing to see our 4'10 daughter and 6'6" me able to ride the same Brompton).

Readers out there who haven't tried a modern folder should give 'em a try.

Micheal Blue said...

Kent, I commute to work on Dahon Mu P24. I love riding it, but I'm frustrated with the fold. It leaves the chain exposed, plus everytime I fold/unfold it I get dirty from the aluminum parts, regardless of how careful I am.
I find it interesting that you ride a Dahon instead of the Bike Friday. BF seems to have much better folding. When I was buying the Dahon, there was a BF bike for 500 bucks more. Now I regret not spending the extra money...
On another note, being able to fold the bike and leave it in my office has paid off a couple of times. The last time was a few weeks ago. The morning ride was very nice, but in the afternoon the temp dropped and a 52kph wind was blowing (headwind to my return commute). So I took the public transit instead. I think that
folders especially with 20" wheels are the best bikes for someone who can have only one bike and doesn't have much space to store it.

Kent Peterson said...


While I've had Bike Fridays in the past (New World Tourists) I wanted something more compact that would fold faster. While many folks love them, the Bike Friday Tiket never felt right to me. See:

Of course it's a different strokes for different folks thing. And of course people love their Bromptons but as I've noted before, my little Dahon seems to have Brompton-proofed me.

I do have a bag for my Dahon & I haven't had an issue with dirt and grime. Plus it has internal hub gearing, so I don't have to worry about a derailler getting dinged.

The best thing is for folks to try some different bikes and see what works for them.

She Rides a Bike said...

What a fun post and links! I'm so excited about taking my Dahon Echo 3 to San Fran next month and testing it on those hills. A folder is definitely great for meeting people. I get so many questions and comments- all positive. Great fun.

Satchel and Tea said...

Once again I'm totally inspired! I've seen you talk about these bikes for ages, and they just seem so fun. I did a quick search on the Dahon website, and the bike they suggested for me (the Curve) is $999. Is there anything cheaper than that around here? I'd love to try one out.

JuliaR said...

Good post. Thanks for introducing me to two women on bikes blogs too! I just "inherited" my Dad's electric folding Schwinn with 16 inch wheels. My husband has two Bike Fridays and we have a Friday tandem but the Schwinn is MY first small wheeled bike and our first electric. I would not have got an electric but since Dad was giving it away (at 82, he decided he was too old to ride, which I don't think he is but he has his own mind), I took it. I only had two rides on it before the snow fell last November but I am looking forward to getting it out in the Spring and wearing a skirt while riding it. When I rode it last Fall, I reported that it went as fast as... "who cares, it's faster than walking". I don't know how many miles the battery will last and it doesn't have gears, so I wouldn't want to pedal it up any hills. But, it was free!

Sonia said...

Kent, how goes it? Got an order for the Traffic Cone Bag from William de Rossett:
"Dear Lynette,
You can thank Kent Peterson of Greater Seattle, WA. Cheers, Will"
I didn't know anyone over there knew about it
Here's to some great memories

Kent Peterson said...

Satchel and Tea (aka Hollie)

While the Curve SL is about $1000 these days, a curve like mine, the D3 is selling for $600. The Eco 3, a slightly bigger 7 speed 20 inched wheeled machine, is selling for $379 now. Here in Seattle, Folding Bikes West in Ballard is a great place to check out folding bikes. They have Dahons, Bromptons and some others.

If we ever manage to get together for a 6 books in a backpack meet up, I'll bring my Dahon and you can take it for a spin.

Clever-title said...

I'm always surprised that people have such a hard time understanding that gearing can compensate for small wheels. I huess people are so used to seeing small wheels on tricycles and pixies that they have a hard time overcoming that impression.

Oddly, I even see similar things in bike forums dicussing internal gear hubs. People complain that the Sturmey-Archer IGHs have high gear ratios, so they're only suitable for small-wheel folders - they have a hard time understanding that you can compensate on a 26' or 700c by using a small chainring or large cog. (In my opinion, this was a good decision by SA, since it was easier for me to put a 33t on my 700c commuter than it would be to find a 60t for a folder)

Davey Oil said...

Heya Kent,
Good post!
The convenience of folders really cannot be overstated. What I am glad you keep highlighting is the responsiveness of the ride and the total fun of little wheels. One thing I have been appreciating lately is the cornering advantage of the short wheelbase on my tiny bike and how that allows me to imagine that I am riding way more awesomely when really I am tootalling way more slowly and probably looking like a circus bear while I do it.
Actually, I just got Ruby the Micronaut back up and running last week. Now with a sram dual drive she's got such a gear range as to be unstoppable! This is actually pretty handy since I've added at least ten pounds of extra steel to the already considerable British machine and since I need to be able to haul some serious piles of junk in her basket around this hilly city. I think she might be in the running for "Most Modified Raliegh Twenty."
Speaking of competitiveness, while I agree that there may be other cargo/ folders out there and that some of them may be adorable, I'd like to enter my baby for consideration as "cutest cargo bike ever":
Thanks, yer cool!

MzunguEriki said...

I liked seeing sarah chan's shoes, the fact she is wearing what probably is her normal attire.
Bikers don't have to wear specific shoes or clothes.

I am a stealth camper and a stealth commuter. I wear a button down shirt, creased pants, and black shoes at work, hence it is my commute clothes. when I leave my bike in the parking lot I look just like all the other suits going into the building, including briefcase (arkel). Although my briefcase holds stuff like pump, spare tube, rain gear, lights, multi tool and not documents.

LBJ said...

I know some people prefer the smaller wheel, but for me, I think I'll always like to ride full-size. That's why I LOVE my Montague folding bike - gives me the best of both worlds.

Anonymous said...

Just bought my first folding bike, I am 67 years old, female. As I am 4' 11" tall this bike is just perfect for me and I am now able to exercise my arthritic knees everyday during the summer months. I live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and we have some lovely bike paths that I am looking forward to trying. Wish I had bought one years ago.