While working in Fiji I met an Australian couple whose passion was bicycle touring across the globe, with trips lasting a few days to a few months. Their key to quick and easy packing? A folding touring bike.
Their preferred build was from Birdy Bicycle, but considering my height (6'6") they suggested I check into the custom builds that came from the US-based company Bike Friday since most folding bikes won't handle riders over 6'4". But time went by and I mostly forgot their advice - until a particularly heinous experience stuffing my beloved 64cm Surly Long Haul Trucker into a small bike box and shelling out a whopping $150 special bicycle baggage fee (one-way) to American Airlines left me searching for a better way to tour overseas. So I decided to give Bike Friday a chance, specifically their New World Tourist model.
It may be surprising to find that many companies produce folding bicycles, with no shortage of online information debating the merits of each bike. For more information a good place to start is The Best Folding Bike for Touring: Pros and Cons from the website Where the Road Forks. Here, I'll simply describe my experience, including the good, bad, and ugly.
In short, the Bike Friday New World Tourist (NWT) becomes travel-friendly by utilizing 20" wheels, hinges, and removable handlebar post (via a quick-release lever) to compress into a size suitable for an airline-approved suitcase. Bike Friday quotes a fast folding 25 seconds for bus, train, or bus. Not for a suitcase. I'm here to attest to that. More later.
Their steel frame leverages mostly standard components, unlike some manufacturers that rely on custom parts. Bike Friday works with their customers to provide a custom build where measurements are provided and if available, information on a current touring bike you're happy with. You'll make decisions on gearing and other configurations, such as preferred handlebars. Again, more on that later. And you'll be sold a bike with a personal fit.
The unique geometry does mean using Bike Friday's own front rack, and even though they sell a folding rear rack, I instead went with a Tubus Logo Evo rack with optional long stays that were easily bent (still within stated tolerance) to fit the NWT. Absolutely no problem mounting my Arkel handlebar bag and front and rear panniers. The chain stay was long enough to provide ample heel clearance for my size 14 shoes.
The NWT is not built for heavy cyclists, although they do provide a model for those over 220 pounds. I'm at 210, so I'll need to lay off the donuts.
But let's get down to brass tacks - how does a touring bike with 20" wheels perform? Surprisingly well.
Bike Friday New World Tourist with Arkel bags.
Bike Friday boasts that once on the bike, you won't even notice differences in the ride, which I found mostly true. As expected with no top tube and such a long head set and seat stem, there's flex when cornering. But even with my loaded front and rear panniers, it was true that at times I forgot that I was riding a folding touring bike. That is until I caught my reflection in a window and thought--Damn, I look silly. Doesn't help being extra tall on these tiny cycles. I remember a quip from a cyclist comparing riding on 20" wheels to a circus bear peddling a toy bike. Does it matter? Well...maybe.
Tour start in the Netherlands.
Accepting the, uh, "unique" look of a Bike Friday is something you either do or don't. But there are other considerations - primarily the rear derailleur. 20" bikes sit low. With my triple crank configuration (not sure they even sell that option anymore), I'm left with a scant few inches of ground clearance under the derailleur when cycling in the big ring. I had a small stick flip up and jam into the sprocket stopping me dead in my tracks, and you'll want to give wide clearance to street curbs. BF had asked if I would be interested in a Shimano Alfine hub - which I wasn't familiar with. But they didn't provide any compelling reason so I stuck with the traditional drivetrain. Considering the exposed derailleur, an internal hub could be advantageous.
Speaking of triple cranks, the front derailleur is also a problem. No matter how hard I try (and even after watching Bike Friday's video), when folding the bike the chain twists in the front derailleur, pops off, and wedges in the gears. Granted, I am mechanically challenged, but it still seems cumbersome. Fortunately, when touring I rarely fold it except at the beginning and end of the tour. So what's the big deal?
The big deal is that Bike Friday needs to be reminded that they sell folding touring bikes. Not touring bikes. Folding touring bikes. They cost more because they fold. Why would I buy it if it didn't easily fold? I have two bones to pick with Bike Friday over this issue.
One. They used the configuration of my Surly Long Haul Trucker for the NWT. Fair enough. But that meant equipping it with drop-style handlebars. No. No, no, no. Trying to fold my large framed NWT into a suitcase with those stupid wide-spaced rigid handlebars was nearly impossible. It became a perverted game of origami. Only after a massive amount of effort and cursing was I able to get it packed. Did anyone at Bike Friday mention how much of a pain in the arse drop-style handlebars would be? Nope. It wasn't until I bought a used NWT for my wife that I realized Bike Friday also sells a Touring H-Bar with a split design for EASY PACKING. I was not happy. Since my handlebars are equipped with bar end shifters (same as my LHT), changing them out will not be easy or cheap.
Two. And this is minor but annoying. A cool thing with Bike Friday is their travel case that doubles as a trailer. A definite plus for airline travel since you won't have the hassle of tracking down a container to box up your bike for the return trip. At the time of my original purchase, I didn't buy the trailer, thinking I would consider it later on. As it happened, the used NWT I bought for my wife came with a travel case - and that's when I discovered my bike didn't have the required welded-on trailer hitch (I think their trailers now hook to the rear hub). Bummer. Really wished someone at BF would have mentioned that.
I simply expect more from a company that produces a custom product.
Bike Friday New World Tourist packed in a suitcase.
In the end, my Bike Friday New World Tourist is a nice bike that gets the most action when I want something that can be quickly tossed in the trunk of my car. The NWT doesn't even need a full fold - only flipping two quick-release levers provides enough flexibility for the bike to easily slide into the trunk or back seat. In order for this bike to be suitcase-friendly, I'll need to do something about those handlebars.
As a final note, one of the driving factors for considering a folding bike was the draconian fees airlines charged (American Airlines in particular) for checking in a bike. But as of now - subject to change on a whim - most airlines, including American, have softened their stance, allowing a boxed bike weighing less than 50 pounds to be counted as a checked bag without additional charges. Exceed that and you'll be slapped with their typical substantial fees.
If only I could get my Surly LHT packed into a 50-pound hardcase...