Can a folding bicycle with 20in wheels actually be considered cool? Judging by the comments we got from onlookers while we were testing Tern's top-end Verge X10 commuter, apparently the answer is yes. It not only looks good but rides surprisingly nicely, too – and certainly far better than we expected.
Ride & handling: Quick and comfortable but a little darty
The Verge X10 is an awfully quick little rig, scooting forward with each pedal stroke and maintaining a healthy clip in an efficient-feeling manner that's more befitting of a mid-ranged road bike than something intended for commuting. Perhaps most telling is the fact that we often grabbed the Verge X10 if we were running late for something (which was pretty much always).
We attribute much of this eagerness to the bike's 9.8kg (21.6lb) total weight, the laughably minimal rotating mass of the 20in wheels, and the quick roll of the Schwalbe Durano slick tires, although Tern's work on the futuristic-looking TIG-welded aluminum frame deserves mention.
Flex in general isn't a problem, despite appearances, particularly for the intended medium-duty application. No, the single-tube front end won't win any stiffness tests but the frame is still surprisingly stout, with no disconcerting wiggle in the chassis. Though the seatpost and stem tower over the rest of the structure, their enormous diameters feel reassuringly solid.
The monstrous Syntace-made seatpost towers over the frame
The little wheels' tiny size and minimal mass lack much of the inherent stability that comes with full-sized hoops, though, making for a somewhat darty character and creating a major challenge to riding no-handed, especially at lower speeds.
Pedaling out of the saddle feels especially weird as there's almost no resistance to yanking the wheels out of plane, and with the fulcrum point so much closer to the ground than on a full-sized bike there's a sense you can endo easier (although that also means the Verge X10 is an absolute wheelie monster).
On the plus side, that also makes the bike incredibly maneuverable and nimble in tight confines, and helps it feel lighter than it is. You can even safely rail corners at high speed but the bike never returns the level of confidence you'd get from a full-size machine, and it's important not to fall asleep at the wheel as you can easily veer off line.
Comfort-wise we have no complaints at all, as the Verge X10 is an easy place to spend lots of time. The ride quality is impressively firm but muted – even with 90psi in the tires – and the little wheels even do a reasonable job of tackling mid-sized potholes. The moderately upright position is well suited for the task, too.
Frame: Ultra-clever folding mechanism
Tern didn't build the Verge X10 with 20in wheels just for fun, and the bike's claim to fame is certainly its trick folding mechanism. Custom locking hinges at the middle of the frame and base of the stem allow you to collapse the bike into an incredibly compact package for easy transport on a train or bus, or just for stuffing into the back of a vehicle.
All told, it literally takes less than 15 seconds to go from ready-to-ride to fully collapsed – and vice versa – and, even better, the hinges are engineered well enough that there's no clue you're on a folding bike while riding it, either.
Tern has done a good job on sweating the details, too. A rubber strap on the underside of the frame secures the handlebar in place when the bike is folded, magnets cleverly keep the bike from flopping open unexpectedly, the bottom of the seatpost helps hold everything upright when folded, and even the pedals feature quick-release bases to narrow things up.
Tern has seemingly thought of everything…
Aside from the folding trick, the Verge X10's TIG-welded, hydroformed 7005 aluminum frame is fairly standard stuff, although big cross-sections and the heavily triangulated rear end are noteworthy for a folder.
Up front there's a straight 1 1/8in head tube, the crank rotates inside a threaded bottom bracket shell, and quick-release dropouts are used front and rear – with a narrower spacing up front for a tighter fold.
Equipment: Lots of high-end custom bits
Folding bikes seem to have a reputation for being cheap throwaway toys in some circles, but the Verge X10's spec is anything but.
In particular, the wheels are custom designed by Rolf Dietrich, featuring his trademark paired spoke layout, Sapim bladed stainless spokes, special American Classic hubs, and a claimed sub-1kg weight.
We found them to be very well built, too, easily holding up to everyday abuse. Wrapped around the orange anodized aluminum rims are Schwalbe's fast-rolling Durano slick tires.
Syntace also plays a big role, with a custom spec 33.9mm-diameter seatpost, a smooth-operating quick-release seatpost collar, and an integrated stem-and-bar combo built around its adjustable VRO system. We found all three components to be well made and easy to adjust – just like their full-sized brethren.
SRAM handles shifting duties with a single X7 trigger shifter, short cage X9 rear derailleur, and 10-speed PG-1050 11-36T cassette. Shift performance was consistent and precise even with the full-length housing, although, if you want to nitpick, the shift lever action does feel a bit cheap.
Yes, the quick-release skewer is installed this way for a reason
Braking was good but not fantastic, as we expected given the rather average aluminum linear-pull brakes used. Ashima pads help generate reasonable bite but it's still no disc brake. That being said, we found the arrangement to be good enough for the task at hand.
The only other glitch was with the FSA Gossamer crank's 55T single-ring setup. The crank itself has been proven to be solid and reliable, but Tern uses a disappointingly simplistic chain guide that just doesn't work as well as it needs to. It's mostly fine just riding around but we were still able to kick the chain off to the outside on a few occasions. Thankfully, it would be fairly easy to fix, though, and there's also a braze-on tab if you want to run multiple chainrings.
Otherwise, even the contact points are better than we would have expected, with supremely comfortable Ergon GX1 grips and a very supportive Kore Road Performance saddle.
Retail price for the Tern Verge X10 is on the high side. In fairness, though, the company hasn't really cut any corners and it shows in the bike's performance on the road. Keen commuters who regularly mix their trips with stints on the bus or train – or even just riders looking for a capable runabout that will fit easily into a small apartment – could certainly do much worse.