Hip Folding Bikes Solve Urban Commute Quandary

Portable, hard-to-steal, and excellent for urban commuting, transformer cycles are finally catching on

A competitor cool downs after the Brompton World Championship folding bike race in Chichester, England. The race starts with a Le-Mans style sprint to the rider's bike, which is then assembled and followed by a 15.2km ride. (Matthew Lloyd / Getty)

Design-conscious urban cyclists have a new object of desire, the Pacific Cycles IF Mode bicycle. With an enclosed chain drive, two-speed heel shifter, disc brakes, trispoke wheels, and elegant folding mechanism that takes 20 seconds to operate, it would have been a great Bauhaus thesis project, and the price is museum-grade, too: about $2,200.

But you don't need a Wall Street bonus to buy a good folding bike. You can get one these days for about $500, according to Bert Cebular, owner of NYCeWheels--one of many shops that have sprung up in U.S. cities to cater to folder aficionados. With more than 100 companies now making folders, their share of the global cycling market has expanded. (Even DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that backed the Internet, has gotten into the act, funding a collapsible mountain bike for special forces troops.) Joshua Hon, vice president of Dahon, which has 60 percent of the folder market, estimates that they account for 25 percent of Chinese and 40 percent of Korean bike sales. Before the recession, his own company was posting 20 to 30 percent annual growth, and now sells about half a million folders a year.

Inventors were patenting collapsible bicycles soon after the regular diamond frame emerged from in the 1890s as a mass-market standard. Some of the first folder buyers were European armies drawn, like DARPA, by visions of speedier infantry. But most folders remained too expensive for the masses, and too heavy and too fragile for warfare, let alone racing.

What accounts for today's folder boom is not some technological leap--though, like their standard cousin, folders have benefited from steady improvements in materials and mechanics--but a confluence of societal trends.

First, the energy crisis and green movement drew entrepreneurs from outside the conventional bicycle companies. Dr. Alex Moulton, who popularized fixed small-wheeled bikes in England, was originally an automotive engineer, inspired by the 1956 Suez crisis's threat to Britain's oil supply. Andrew Ritchie, the founder of Brompton and a Cambridge engineering graduate, had worked as a landscaper and software programmer. David Hon, creator of market-leader Dahon, is a solid-state physicist who was developing lasers for Hughes Aircraft when 1970s gasoline queues motivated him to devise a new style folding bike - and ultimately to establish his own Taiwan plant.

Second, conventional bikes became less practical for many commuters. As public transit has become more crowded, even bike-friendly systems have less space for full-size, two-wheeled travelers clutching standard-frame cycles. Meanwhile, more bike owners tired of keeping up with the arms race between lock manufacturers and thieves and opted for a bike that fits in a bag, not to mention their cubicles and apartments.

Third, globalization and the Internet enabled small folder manufacturers to find both components and buyers from around the world.

Fourth, computer-assisted design and manufacturing made it easier to plan and test new models. According to Joshua Hon, in the last few years the 3D design program Solidworks has helpedenabled manufacturers to shrink design and prototyping radically. One of his designers, based in Finland, can shoot a file in the afternoon, and the results can be ready, "printed" in 3D plastic in Taiwan and tested by the time the designer wakes up the next day.

Folding bike design demands tradeoffs among compactness and convenience, pothole resistance, speed, ride comfort, appearance, and price. But folding bike riders need no longer sacrifice performance. (The winner of last year's Brompton World Championship--all riders have to wear a jacket and tie--was one of Lance Armstrong's former teammates.) John Fleckner, a museum archivist and cycling enthusiast in Washington, prefers his folder over his conventional cycles for many local trips, especially on narrow, twisty bike paths where small wheels can make more agile turns.

Bert Cebular and Joshua Hon foresee no radical changes. For example, the steel chain still outperforms alternatives like direct drives and flexible belts, though Dahon offers a continuous plastic chain cover on a few models for the grease-shy.

As Hon sees it, the main challenge is "getting guys who are driving Corollas and Camrys out of their cars and onto bikes." What's next on his drawing table is not so much experimenting with exotic materials as integrating practical features like an electrical system that can power GPS-equipped smartphones. Cycling's once-ugly duckling is spreading its wings.