Pros and Cons to Using a Folding Bike for Touring
Having done some bike touring on road bikes, mountain bikes, and folding bikes, I decided to put together some information about bike touring with a folding bike. Having interviewed a friend of mine who rode a Brompton 5400km throughout Europe and having personally experienced touring with a Bike Friday New World Tourist and a R&M Birdy Mk2, I’ve put together a list of pros and cons to help you decide if folding bike touring is right for you.
The Pros of Touring with a Folding Bike
FREEdom to Fly
One of the best things about touring with a folding bike is that you can pack it down into a suitcase, or small box, and check it in as a piece of luggage. So long as the suitcase fits within typical international measurement of 62 linear inches (158cm) and weigh 23kg or less. On budget airlines you would still need to pay for the checked piece of luggage, but it is definitely (almost always) cheaper than paying for a bike. Things are starting to change and airlines are beginning to realize that by accommodating bikes, they can attract adventure tourists as well. Air Canada has recently begun to allow a full size bike packed in a bike box to be checked as 1 piece of luggage at no additional cost, but this is not the case with most airlines. With a folding bike you have a lot more options and can just get the cheapest airline possible, not having to worry about finding the expensive airline that lets you take the bike for free.
Bus, Train, Boat
Another major advantage of the folding bike is the ability to get off the dangerous road, skip part of a brutal desert, or get to a city quickly by just folding up the bike and loading it into the vehicle. This is especially great in places like Italy, where you can only take a bike on certain trains, or in Japan, where you are not allowed to bring a bike onto a train. Alternatively in the event of a major breakdown, it’s easy to fold up the bike, chuck it into whatever vehicle you can and get to a town with a shop. Having a folding bike also allows you to tour at a faster pace and skip parts you don’t have time for, which takes me to my next point.
Explore Easily on a Foldie
Coming back to the end of my last point, a folding bike is a great way to save some time while bike touring by just going to the places you really want to go. For instance, let’s say you were bike touring and wanted to jump on a bus and boat and hit up an island for a few days, or you are on the outskirts of Tokyo, are hating the traffic and concrete jungle and decide to bus or train into the city centre. Piece of cake on a folding bike.
Because the wheels on a folding bike are smaller, they are also less affected by the weight of a person and all their gear. For this reason and in my experience, folding bike wheels rarely go out of true.
Some people want to bike tour and skip parts or just have the freedom of hitchhiking whenever they feel like it. Folding bikes give you freedom to make this happen.
Easier to Pack Up for Transport
Folding bikes are super easy to pack up for transport. After packing them into a suitcase a couple times, you will have it mastered and easily be able to do it in no time. If you are just packing it in a box, it’s easy to make a homemade bike box by using lots of tape and a few smaller boxes. Unlike full-size bikes which can be a challenge to source bike boxes for. I read many stories of people not being able to get bike boxes from bike shops when they were closed due to Covid-19 in 2020 and trying to figure out how they will get their bike onto the plane. This is also pertinent when landing at an airport, particularly if you just want to get into the city, have a good night’s sleep and put your bike together in the morning. It’s much easier to carry a small folding bike box onto the train and to the hotel than it is to carry a big bike box.
Easy to Get to the Airport
I remember when I was flying to Japan with my old road bike for a holiday and some bike touring. Having to rely on a friend with a wagon, minivan or truck can be bothersome for others, and having to get a large passenger taxi or Uber can be quite expensive. With a folding bike, you can easily fit it in the trunk or back seat.
Big Bikes and Hotels Don't Mix
One major difficulty when bike touring is those occasions when you want to get a hotel. It’s always a difficulty to get them to let you take a dirty bike in the elevator, roll it down the hallway and store it in your room. With a folding bike it’s much easier, as you can just fold it up and carry it to your room.
Easy to Mount and Dismount
Because you don’t have a high crossbar, it’s really easy to step over and get into a start position. Also, because of the lower bottom-bracket, the pedal is situated closer to the ground and it is easy to start riding. For these same reasons it’s also easy to stop and get off the bike.
Folding bikes are great conversation starters and people are always shocked when they see someone roll up on a folding bike decked out in panniers. This not only applied to your average layperson, but also applies to other bike tourers. They are also just as shocked to see someone keeping pace on a little foldie.
Cons of Touring with a Folding Bike
Folding bikes are most expensive than there similarly equipped full-size counterparts. Top of the line folding bikes cost a good chunk of change, but when considering a folding bike for touring I think it’s really important to have a folding bike that you can rely upon to get you through the tour.
Because folding bikes are designed by various means, folding at different areas and in different ways, the various companies and brands have to design some of their own parts to make things happen. Brompton is notorious for having proprietary parts, including the shifting and gearing. They also use 16″ wheels which are not at all common and nearly. This can make it extremely challenging to source parts depending on where you are in the world. Other brands such as Birdy and Bike Friday also have some proprietary parts such as stems, seatposts, forks and hinges. Although Birdy bikes use 18″ wheels, which can be tough to find, they can fit 20″ BMX wheels when the fenders are removed. Bear in mind you might need to modify the brakes. Bike Friday NWT uses 20″ wheels which are easily found all over the world.
The argument about how much weight a bike can haul is kind of dead in the water. Nearly every bike tourer I’ve interviewed has said they started out by carrying way too much weight and slowly, over the course of the tour, they trimmed down their gear weight. By starting out on a folding bike you will automatically have to carry less stuff. You are only helping yourself by carrying less and spending less in the beginning. Honestly though, the Bike Friday NWT with a top-of-the-line rear rack would be able to carry nearly as much weight as any full-size touring bike.
The market for folding bikes is a lot smaller than full-size touring bikes, so if something happens and you decide that your days of bike touring are over and you want to sell you bike, you might have a hard time getting as much money as you would like and may have to settle for less. On that note, I have occasionally seen them for sale online and the price is fair, and they don’t last overly long.
Because the wheels on a folding bike are small and they have to spin so much faster to keep a steady speed, tires and bearings do tend to wear out more quickly. When touring with a folding bike it’s really important to have high quality tires such as Schwalbe Marathon’s.
Folding bikes are a bit more fragile and won’t be able to take a beating in the same way that a steel touring bike would. Because of the single frame bar and the implementation of hinges, they are more likely to break and should be used mainly on paved and gravel roads. However, Birdy makes their bikes with front and rear suspension, and I have taken my wife’s off-roading and it is a lot of fun.
I can say that a folding bike is a bit slower than a full-size touring bike, but it is really maybe only a few percent slower when using identical power. Having toured on a Bike Friday with friend’s riding full-sized touring bikes, I have never had a tough time to keep up. The large chainrings in the front, paired with smaller wheels allows for a very similar ration of gear inches as on a full-size tourer. On top of that the folding touring bike is lighter than the full-size and, in my opinion, climbs up mountains just as well. When touring Northern Thailand on my Bike Friday in 2018, I was riding about 120km per day and climbing up to 3500 meters.
Because of the smaller wheels on folding bikes, the ride is inherently going to be rougher than a bike with 26″ or 29″ wheels. However, companies like Brompton and Birdy have integrated bushings into the rear end of their bikes to provide some level of added comfort. Birdy also has front suspension and in the event that you bike has neither, like my Bike Friday, you can buy suspension seatposts and stems by the likes of RedShift and Cane Creek to help soften the road. I don’t use either on my Bike Friday and have never had an issue.