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. The growing popularity of Continental cyclo-sportifs and training camps means doing just that, often with a favourite lightweight stowed in some gargantuan case. Such a case can be difficult to transport on its own; a group of cyclists trying to transport several can find it almost impossible.
Life would, in principle, be a lot easier with one of the three bikes on test here. Each can be bought with its own specific case, which is designed to be both smaller and lighter than those needed for a standard bike. They represent, as it were, three stages in the progression from full-on folder to conventional cycle. Before putting them through their paces, it is worth a recap of the various procedures for carrying a 'non-demountable'. The budget option is (depending on the airline's policy) to turn up at the airport armed with a pedal spanner and set of allen keys or spanners, remove the pedals, twist the bars and entrust the bike to the goodwill of the baggage handlers. This technique may not work on rail networks that do not allow complete cycles.
Next up is the padded bag, which is generally easy to pack and, given reasonably careful handling, mostly sufficient. More expense buys a more or less sophisticated hard case, the cost of which largely reflects the degree of work needed to get the bike to fit inside. These cases may hit 25kg packed, even when not stuffed with wine or similar. Some travellers swear by simply obtaining a stout cardboard bike delivery box from the local bike shop, although this can quickly lose its protective effect if left on the runway in wet weather.
All offer the possibility of taking any solo cycle, unlike the portable systems on test here. In fact, it is possible to fit a conventional cycle into a fairly small space by removing every major part, but the frame and fork still form an irregular shape with awkward protrusions. Not so the Ritchey Break-Away which fits snugly into a surprisingly compact case leaving just enough room for clothing, shoes and a few spare inner tubes.
Mtb legend Tom Ritchey's take on the demountable frame looks at first glance like a standard TIG welded steel road frame, built in this case to a uniformly high, though not quite exceptional, standard. Available as a frame only or complete build, the Break-Away is also available in titanium with carbon stays, but we tested an all-steel example. The horrible Break-Away graphic on the frame refers to the way the front triangle parts with the rear, coming off as a whole section rather than simply folding to one side.
At the bottom bracket end of the down tube is an unobtrusive, almost dainty coupling that locates via shallow internal truncated cones. The outside of each tube end is flared, and a hinged collar with V internal profile clamps over the two, pressing the two flared tube ends together. The top tube clamps the seatpost, as does the seat tube just below. By having both clamps grip the seatpost, Ritchey ensures their relative immobility.
Neither component of the system looks especially rigid, but the combined effect is an unqualified success. Even out-of-the-saddle efforts produce no discernible flex.
Ritchey's forged steel rear dropouts are a welcome feature, as are the double bottle cage bosses. The provision of slotted cable housing stops makes life easy during demounting, but the positioning of the rear brake cable stop is less impressive; placed on the seat clamp lug, it is too close to the brake calliper and curves the casing tightly. Since the rear brake cable must be unhooked in any case, the stop could be on the top tube. The Ritchey-branded carbon fork looks distinctly old school, but matches the frame's proportions nicely.
Tom Ritchey's frame may look conventional, but it is as long as a bus. While this makes the lack of flex even more impressive, it does slow the Break- Away's response, making for steady rather than exciting progress. That said, there is nothing this bike couldn't handle, from Flanders-style cobbles to long days in the mountains, thanks to both its low weight, at under 9kg, and the kind of supple ride provided by a long wheelbase and high quality steel tubeset. The Ritchey Pro Carbon fork keeps the front end light and comfortable, and the machine speeds along with minimal fuss and, unlike the other two, a complete absence of visual impact. In fact, there is nothing about the Break-Away to suggest it is anything other than a fine lightweight road bike, apart from the discreet clamps and indiscreet graphics.
The Break-Away is, well, a 10- speed, Ultegra-equipped road bike, and rides as such - it's as much bike as most people need. Super stiff cranks, buttersmooth shifting and massive braking power make for near faultless performance, Shimano's trademark front STI 'trim' function the only aspect failing to get top marks. Our sample lacked the inner cable clips that ease the task of separating the frame parts, but they are part of the kit supplied when buying the Break-Away frame alone. Also supplied with fork, headset, seatpost and case, this option costs £700. The Ritchey ancillaries fitted for the test, including bars, stem and seatpost, are good, reliable aluminium components with no hidden vices.
The Ritchey rolls on decidedly ugly wheels, with those petal-flanged hubs that shout 'budget' laced to semi-deep section rims with flashy graphics. They are tightly built, however, the rear using an offset rim to equalise spoke tensions, and should last well. They come with Ritchey's own Road Logic Race Slick rubber, which feels stodgy but dependable
The Break-Away is a feathery 12.5kg in its case, which is mostly heavy-duty fabric with a stiffener around the circumference. The breakdown process is simple but time consuming, taking about 10 minutes minimum or about the same as a conventional bike and hard case. Essentially, it doesn't fold, but needs separating to a greater degree than the others. The payback is road bikestyle performance on arrival.