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
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