The only reason to consider a folding bike is if you really need a bike that folds.
For the general cycling public, they are impractical machines. The tiny wheels, odd weight distribution and freaky frame shape all make for an awkward ride filled with huffing and puffing. But for those forced to take a commuter train or subway, they’re a godsend. Fold up your ride, and you can bring it with you on crowded trains and buses. Stash it in the closet at work or in your studio apartment. You can even check a foldie as luggage, so when you land in Beijing or Istanbul, you can pedal yourself around and play hipster tourist.
If you’re looking to buy a folding bike, I’d encourage you to test ride a Tern Link, an entry from the relatively new Taiwanese manufacturer. At around $1,000, they’re well priced, sitting just above the budget Dahon bikes and below the comparable Brompton models. Tern bikes in general are well appointed, and feature some impressive construction that makes for a comfortable ride that rivals more expensive folders.
Tern’s Link platform isn’t as fancy or as swoopy as its performance-minded Verge frame. Instead, it’s set up for commuters — the P7i model we tested came with a very nice rear rack, a BioLogic Joule II dynohub that powers an integrated front light, and a fully enclosed internally geared Shimano Nexus 7 hub. The 20-inch wheels are topped with fenders and have V-brakes. There’s even a bike pump built into the seat post.
With all that trim, the price sits at $1,200. The most basic Link configuration, the C7, is only $450, but the frame and components are not as nice. Most Link models run closer to $800.
The P7i has a one-size-fits-all 6061 aluminum frame with a rather utilitarian shape, cutting a straight line from the head tube back to the main hinge. One unique feature is the double truss construction of the main tube, which splits and wraps around the seat tube on its way back toward the rear hub. This increases the frame’s stiffness (always a problem on folders) and allows for a more efficient power transfer when pedaling.
The folding routine requires practice. You start at the handlebars, which are double-hinged to allow adjustment for bar height and rotation. To fold up the bike, you first undo the handlebar clasp and pull the bars up, so they’re in a straight line with the stem. Then, undo the joint clasp at the base of the handlebar stem and fold the bars down next to the fork. (All of the joints have sturdy safety releases that are easy to work.) Drop the seat post down, fold the pedals up, then unclasp the over-center lock joint above the cranks. The bike swings at the two pivots to collapse into a sort of “N” shape below you. A magnetic clasp keeps everything from swinging apart.
Tern lists the maximum rider weight at 242 pounds, which is very close to my weight (I rarely miss a meal). So I was really pushing the envelope. Still, the bike was stable on all different terrains. I rode it mostly on the flats, commuting to work every day, but I also took it up and over a couple of San Francisco’s hills during my two-week-long testing period. Through some stroke of weird luck, I rode it in the rain almost the whole time.
One note of praise: Tern has made a remarkably stiff frame. The P7i was far less sketchy than other folding bikes I’ve ridden. There was almost no unwanted flexing or creaking happening below me as I was pushing the bike over hills or cooking along at full speed.
Keeping it properly adjusted was an issue. When I first started riding it, things were slipping here and there — the pitch of the handlebars, the seatpost, the position of the rear wheel. (Maybe my weight is to blame.) But the good news is that almost every joint on the Tern can be adjusted roadside using minimal tools. So, I was able to keep loose nuts in check using only a hex wrench multi-tool and a small box wrench.
One thing that did slip on me more often than I liked was the Shimano hub. I’ve experienced the same thing with these hubs before — I felt it slip when under load or while applying a lot of torque. I expected more stability out of it. One other quibble with the drivetrain: The gearing isn’t quite wide enough. I wanted more gear choices on climbs, and craved a higher top speed during cross-city commutes. A 9-speed or better would solve this, so it’s no fault of the manufacturer, just the wrong hub for me. You may feel differently.
And of course, this being a folding bike, I traveled with it. The folded P7i frame can be carried comfortably with one hand (it’s about 30 pounds) using either the seat or the rack as a handle. You can also wheel it along beside you by holding the seat. On the commuter train, it slots into the nooks reserved for luggage and it’s not too much of a hassle to navigate a station platform while carrying one. For longer hauls, the better choice is to pick up one of Tern’s bags or rolling travel cases. There’s a collapsable, wheeled trolley rack ($150) that fits all Link models, and two suitcase-style carriers ($250-300) that work as checked luggage. I should note that the bike is far too large to carry onto an airplane, so you’ll need a case if you’re flying with it.
Beware, though — it’s a bike-nerd magnet. While toting it around, I got a lot of questions and requests for demonstrations. All the talking and explaining was more tiring than carrying around a 30-pound bike.