There's a buzz in the air, with an expectation of something a bit different. Maybe it’s the stifling heat and humidity, or maybe it’s the fraught bus ride we've just endured, where the driver took us on a circuitous tour of backstreet Taipei and must have broken every law in the book (except speeding). Either way, there's a feeling of anticipation.
We're ushered into a once-derelict warehouse, now restored internally as a venue and art space. In front of us, there's a giant screen and black stage. We have no idea what's being launched but we know it involves ‘Son of Dahon’ Joshua Hon. We've already spent two days in his company; he looked relaxed, excited and happy.
No-one is giving the game (or the name) away, though one of the European PR crew is sporting a tiny, bird-shaped silver badge. Origami in style, this links into a folding bike brand. He looks sheepish and has been rumbled, though it gets us nowhere – I didn’t bring my Ladybird Book of Birds with me.
The lights darken, and out comes Josh himself, wearing a headset microphone and a big, beaming smile. He talks with confidence about heritage, history and the future, about commuting, sustainable transport and the need to evolve the niche. He almost doesn't say the ‘D’ word (Dahon). He does eventually mention the ‘T’ word, and there's a bold graphic of that 'origami bird’.
Tern, the name of a migratory bird, in fact, the longest flying migratory bird. Tern, now also the latest bike brand out there, only eight months in conception and with a span of 22 models in production, all folders. Then the video kicks in, with a strong bird ident. We see commuters, roads, paths, gorgeous people enjoying an urban lifestyle aboard a Tern, sweeping lines, aesthetics and small wheels. The bikes look amazing, but this is soft focus, aspirational ‘car advert’ fluff. We want bikes, not managed content.
Tern vice-president Joshua Hon with the new Verve
Next up is Matt Davis, the North American director of sales and marketing guy we've got to know over the past few days, equally excited, committed and passionate. He explains some of the technicalities – the hinge manufacturing, the design process – and he too oozes Tern. These guys have had to hold back on the brand name and now their passion spews forth into the world. Apparently it's all in the ride.
So begins the ‘fashion show’, with modern ‘pumping choons’ and deep bass to add to the mix. As the curtains draw back we see bikes ridden by male and female models, stunt riders and the Finnish designer himself Joakim Uimonen, all in 'city slicker' and 'commuter' poses. The look is fantastic: bold colours, simple flowing lines and strong identities.
The first fold we see is a proud one: the designer takes all of three seconds to convert his Verge into its folded form. Obviously he's practised this but it's a slick and efficient operation nonetheless. Impressive. Even more impressive is the fold back to a bike: positive, simple and intuitive – watch out London Nocturne 2012! Then off he rides. No adjustment, cable management or stowing of parts – it's all there.
There's something more than just ‘commuter bikes’ on show here, and Josh Hon sums this up eloquently using the phrase, “Bikes which fold, not folding bikes”. The Tern team appear on stage together, a tight group of passionate, globally sourced people, predominantly from within the Dahon stable, they take the applause but know this is where the hard work begins: turning designs, production samples and an ethos into a global bike company.
Apparently, it's all in the ride. So, enduring the stifling heat and humidity, the gathered journalists mount up and go for a ride, a two-hour mixture of urban, canal towpath and traffic avoidance; a pretty good test. There's a real mixture of Terns to choose from – 20, 24 or 26in wheels, with derailleur gearing or Shimano Alfine/two-speed hub gears, and a choice of V-brakes, discs or coaster brakes.
Tern's bikes have some neat features, like integrated headlights powered by dynamo hubs
Folding bikes tend to have a lazy nature, with a feeling of disconnectedness between the front and rear wheels when you put the power down. To address this, Tern are using the manufacturers behind Syntace to make the hinge mechanisms for them. Bushed and sleeved pivots are used, resulting in tight tolerances. The pivot wear points are replaceable, and the impregnated plastics should stay smooth and wear slowly, keeping long-term costs low and shrugging off bad weather and low maintenance – ideal characteristics for the intended market.
Making products that are reliable and easy to maintain is key to Tern's philosophy. They see convenience for the consumer as the key driver, and don't believe in innovation just for the sake of it. There are still some good ideas on their bikes though, like their integrated headlight – admittedly not a new concept – driven by an HG Hub from Dahon's in-house component brand BioLogic. This delivers power like any dynamo hub, yet the resistance can be turned off when not required, allowing the wheel to spin freely.
Back to the ride. There were lots of short sharp climbs, brake tests, kerb drops and quick direction changes on the route. The three very different models we tried coped well, with a 'snap out of the gate' you wouldn't associate with a folder. There were lots of pleasing little design points like V-brake mounts behind the fork (so that braking forces pull the brake onto the rim, rather than twisting it off), logoed blanking bolts on the rack bosses, and cable routing that didn't flex badly when folding.
Above all this ‘design intelligence’, the bikes were just sorted: no ghost shifting, frame flexing or front wheel wobble. The bikes weren't compromised by having a pivot in the middle, and didn't feel like folders. The ride was responsive and comfortable.
The hinge, with its patented floating link, is designed to be durable and low-maintenance
We were given an opportunity to speak at length with Josh and Matt, to find out more about the brand, the ethos and the products. They described the venture as a collaboration of minds and said it was quite a departure from the past, using modern manufacturing and design principles, and focussing on utility, not just folding bikes.
It's the desire for utility that's spurring on this brand. There are no carbon fibre versions, suspension parts or belt drives. When collapsed, the hinge edges are smooth, with the locking mechanism smoothly protecting the patented floating link from damage and debris. The unlock mechanisms have failure points built in to prevent damage to clothing. None of the component parts is so obscure as to render its failure the end of the bicycle, and Tern aim to have spares available worldwide within three days.
They're keeping things simple, with just two main hinge designs, commonality of spares across the range and only three base colours. Allied with custom graphics this reduces the manufacturing options, while allowing some degree of uniqueness. Tern bikes have an undeniable heritage taken from Dahon, but the approach seems to be more revolutionary than evolutionary.
Passion for bikes goes deep at Tern, with a rider programme for employees: commit to ride to work and you get a Tern to do it on; the more you commit, the better the bike. New employees are asked if they ride as part of the interview. These may be little touches, but they show commitment.
Tern show similar commitment to the end buyer. You don’t want a bike that's obsolete as soon as you buy it, and Josh says the full range will rotate every three years, so that the company have longer design cycles to create better products. This is refreshing in a seasonally driven marketplace, and reflects the ethos and culture of the company.