Narrow they may be, but bicycles take up a surprising amount of space, especially where there isn't much to start with. This makes them unpopular with, for example, the British railway authorities, which responded two decades ago to demands for improved cycle facilities by replacing rolling stock capable of carrying many cycles with thoroughly modern carriages with dedicated space for none.
This alone has probably been enough to sustain the British folding bike market in recent years, but the machines best suited to mixed commuting using bike and rail rarely satisfy the cycling enthusiast.
Folding demands hinges or couplings, which are usually either heavy, or none too rigid, or both. There is also a tendency for folding bikes to have very small wheels, again in the interests of keeping the size of the vehicle to a minimum. A heavy, flexible bicycle with mini wheels is practically the antithesis of the machine most serious cyclists would consider taking abroad by air or rail for a cycling holiday. Life would, in principle, be a lot easier with the Airnimal Chameleon. It can be bought with its own specific case, which is designed to be both smaller and lighter than that needed for a standard bike.
The Airnimal could manage a ride like the Etape du Tour, no worries
Airnimal's Chameleon has been around for ages, but looks as fresh and innovative as if it had been designed yesterday. It is based around a fat oval tubular main spar in 7005 aluminium alloy, to which extruded and machined brackets have been welded. One locates the seat 'tower', the other the rear swingarm pivot. Both parts are also realised in welded aluminium, and the whole frame is finished in a satin grey.
The welding looks entirely reliable, but cosmetically is slightly uneven.
A fat elastomer block provides a measure of rear suspension, and there is a locking clip to prevent the swingarm from dropping. It is equipped with threaded bosses so you can fit a rack, mudguard and bottle cage.
All cables are routed down the underside of the main spar and swingarm pivot, undergoing several sharp curves. The bottom bracket is higher than stated at 295mm. A carbon fork with aluminium steerer takes care of steering duties. Two frame sizes are on offer, equating to a conventional 52cm or 56cm top tube. The difference lies in the length of the main spar; the smaller size uses a one degree shallower head angle.
Lacking front suspension, the Airnimal is a reassuring beast with good high-speed manners. Its steering, carefully matched to the 24in wheels, is rock steady, precise and quick, allowing hard cornering once you've built up confidence in the 23c tyres. The whole plot is torsionally stiff, providing a feeling of effective power transfer albeit with some 'bob' from the rear suspension. Climb out of the saddle, though, and there is a sensation of sideways flex through the swingarm.
Given the acceptable ride of the rigid fork, the need for the rear spring is unclear unless it is to prevent the swingarm from soaking up vibration and shock. The combination of gel saddle, long seatpost and rear suspension may give the rider's rear an easy time, but any two of the three would probably be enough.
Weighing an impressive 9kg, the Airnimal could manage a ride like the Etape du Tour, no worries. Given its powerful braking and good road manners, it might surprise a few conventional riders on fast descents too. A harder rear elastomer would make it even better though.
The Airnimal has a gel Fizik Pave saddle to supplement its rear suspension, and its components mostly work the way any 105 10- speed should - almost as good as Ultegra, only with a slight extra weight penalty. Here though the shifting is let down by the sharp turns of the rear derailleur cable, making for stiff, imprecise shifting, but superb braking compensates.
The Airnimal rolls on decidedly ugly wheels, with those petal-flanged hubs that shout 'budget' laced to semi-deep section rims with flashy graphics. But they are tightly built and should last well. Airnimal's 24in Schwalbe Stelvios have the same sturdy, hobnail feel of their 700c siblings. No complaints, but nothing to write home about. The inner tube valve stems are too short though.
Folding the Airnimal is almost a joy; the instructions are clear and direct, the folding process foolproof and the case perfectly sized to take the machine with space to spare for clothing, shoes and other extras. It has a large pouch to take the quick release skewers, reinforcing rods to prevent crushing, and a total of four clasps around the circumference. The case material and clasps are slightly flimsy, but once secured seem sturdy enough. At 16.5kg all up, the Airnimal is light enough for easy portability, and easily lives up to its name.