Buyer's guide to folding bikes

Small is beautiful for commuters and urbanites

Folding bikes are brilliant for commuters, city dwellers and everyone else short on space. They can be packed down small, so you can fit them into the busiest of trains or the smallest of apartments.

Read on for our buyer's guide and to find out which one's right for you…

First off, let's be clear — not all folding bikes are made equal. There's a huge variety of designs out there, in a range of wheel sizes, and you will see a few turkeys too.

Depending on your budget, compromises have to be made somewhere on foldability, ride, handling or spec. 

However, the best folding bike designs pack down small and quickly, can be easily carried then stored under your office desk, and offer a ride quality not far off most full-sized bikes. They'll also last you a long time if properly cared for, but they don't exactly come cheap.

What will you use it for?

The Brompton folds down small in seconds, perfect for train-tackling commuters
The Brompton folds down small in seconds, perfect for train-tackling commuters

Not all folding bikes aim to pack down as small as possible. It's possible to buy folding bikes with full-size wheels that offer exactly the same riding position as their non-collapsible brethren, but they might not be the best choice if you have to battle busy rail networks twice a day. So consider your specific needs before you buy.

The good news is that many folding bikes come with luggage racks or fixings. Other essentials like mudguards and lights are readily available, and while you might have to forgo that water bottle cage, that’s no great hardship for short urban journeys. 

Some brands, such as Brompton, even have their own range of luggage, accessories and clothing, and want you to think of the brand as a lifestyle rather than 'just' a mode of transport. Folding bikes certainly do cultivate a keen following.

Beware thieves

Thieves love the little fellow though, so hide them out of sight if you can
Thieves love the little fellow though, so hide them out of sight if you can

Folding bikes are very popular with thieves. That said, part of their appeal is that they can be parked under your desk or wheeled into a supermarket, so we can't think of many occasions when you'd need to leave one locked up outside.

But if you must, then please use a good-quality lock, preferably secured around both the frame and wheels, and get the bike insured. Particularly if you're reading this in the UK and buy one on the Cycle to Work scheme — if it's nicked and you're not insured, you'll still have to pay the monthly premiums.

How much do I need to spend?

Folding bikes can be found at nearly every price point, from a couple of hundred pounds up to the multiple thousands.

It's almost certainly a false economy to buy the cheapest one out there: the components will be cheaper and heavier, they'll wear out faster, and your purchase is more likely to end up unloved in the shed or on a skip.

On the other hand, you don't need to buy a carbon-framed wonder bike to get something that's light enough to carry up a flight of stairs, or carry you and your lunch to the office.

Our buying guide will help you to find some effective options for your budget and highlight the features commonly found at each price point.

So which one should I buy?

Folding bikes have come a long way in the past couple of decades, with the best ones capable of becoming a reliable four-season friend. The key to picking the right one is identifying what you'll use it for and how far you plan to ride it, and then spending accordingly.

The smaller-wheeled versions suit shorter journeys best, but that's certainly not to knock them: their ride quality can be very impressive.

The larger-wheeled ones offer a more familiar 'feel', but they can't be easily collapsed into a small package and stowed away on a busy train or bus.

The good news however is that whichever model you go for, there's a folding bike out there that'll keep you cycling no matter how small your apartment is and no matter how packed the train or tube become. And as we've said above, if you're going to leave it outside then please remember to buy a good lock.

So, what will you get for your money...

Folding bikes under £500 / $650 / AU$850

Simplicity is your watchword at this price point. Avoid elaborate folding mechanisms with lots of moving parts that can go wrong and don't be tempted by fancy features like disc brakes, suspension forks or dozens of gears. These will usually mean cost savings have been made elsewhere.

If you live in a hilly city then you can still find models with internal hub gears at this price, which are ideal as they require less maintenance than conventional derailleurs, albeit at the expense of a little more weight.

Rim or hub brakes are fine; they may lack the outright stopping power of disc brakes, but if the right ones are chosen they'll provide many, many miles of hassle-free riding.

Tern Link B7

Tern's Link B7 is a quality affordable folding bike for most
Tern's Link B7 is a quality affordable folding bike for most

Something nice and simple like the Tern Link should do the job. With this alloy-framed model, you basically lower the saddle all the way down, then undo the big main hinge in the middle of the frame. 

The front of the bike swivels round to bring the two wheels together, then you can release a hinge in the stem to drop the handlebars down.

Fold the pedals in and bingo, job done.

Dahon Vybe

Dahon's Vybe D7 is a great starting point if you're looking for an affordable folding bike
Dahon's Vybe D7 is a great starting point if you're looking for an affordable folding bike

Dahon is the world's biggest manufacturer of folding bikes and its website shows an overwhelming amount of choice. Down near the bottom end of its range, the Vybe is a good bet.

The fold works in a similar way to the Tern Link, with a large hinge in the middle of the frame bringing the front wheel round to the rear, and the handlebars then folding down. Bonus features include three-speed SRAM internal hub gearing, full chain guard and mudguards.

Folding bikes under £1,000 / $1,300 / AU$1,700

As you move up in price, folding bikes begin to hit the sweet spot of ride quality, portability and longevity.

If you're using a train on your daily commute, then you'll likely be folding and unfolding it a lot. So the components need to be up to the job and the ride quality should be good enough to give confidence on busy city streets.

Brompton

Brompton is a classic British folding bike design that's changed little in over 30 years
Brompton is a classic British folding bike design that's changed little in over 30 years

At this price point, the made-in-England Brompton is a hugely popular choice. It's won an army of fans thanks to a clever folding mechanism, iconic looks and surprisingly good handling.

It comes in many versions, all based on the same steel frame and 16in wheels. The main differences come down to the handlebar you choose (sporty, classic or touring), the gearing (from singlespeed up to 6-speed), and whether or not you want mudguards or luggage rack. 

You can up the spend further by speccing a lightweight titanium fork and rear triangle. Try out the online bike builder to build the folding bike of your dreams (we like the raw lacquer finish very much).

All versions fold down incredibly small in seconds, and the bike has even spawned its own Brompton World Championships. A true design classic.

Folding bikes over £1,000 / $1,300 / AU$1,700

Now we’re getting into the realm of money-no-object components and materials. So look out for disc brakes, carbon frames, suspension forks and slick gearing. Some even have drop bars like a proper road bike.  

At this price point, folding bikes tend to become more specialised; you’ll see fast, lightweight bikes designed for road riding, chunkier options that can actually be ridden off-road, and touring bikes that don’t leave you swearing in the back of beyond after a few hundred miles.

The fact these bikes fold down can be considered a bonus rather than their primary function. They’re usually aimed more at riders focused on a particular discipline who want to travel often or store their bike more easily, rather than the commuter end of the market.

Tern Verge X18

The Tern Verge X18 is quirky, fun and practical for the daily commute
The Tern Verge X18 is quirky, fun and practical for the daily commute

Another offering from Tern, but this one is much fancier: a drop bar speedster.

The Verge X18 barrels up to speed nicely and has little trouble maintaining its pace. While the 10.8kg weight, 20in wheels and the Schwalbe slick tyres aren't out-of-the-ordinary for a folding bike, the road bike position offered up by the Kinetix Pro X drop bars and adjustable Syntace VRO stem, and the decent range offered by the 18-speed Shimano Capreo drivetrain are a little different.

It takes less than 30 seconds to go from ready-to-ride to fully folded — and back again. The folding mechanism is also reasonably intuitive — we worked it all out in just a couple of minutes without having to resort to the internet for instructions!

That said, the drop bars are harder to hide out of the way than flat bars, so the Verge X18 does have a wider folded footprint than other Terns.

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This article was updated on 15 June, 2017

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