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Bicycles4u.com remarkably inexpensive folding bikes review
These are Chinese made bikes also sold by other companies. By the time you read this the same model is probably not available anywhere.
In July 2007 we went to the Netherlands on a short trip, house hunting in several cities. In the past we've often used the hire bikes available at railway stations in the Netherlands or we've taken our own bikes on the ferry. This time we were going to several different places over just a few days, so the cost of hire would add up, as would the cost of rail and ferry passes for our own bikes. As with the British railway network, the Dutch railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) allow carrying of a folding bike (vouwfiets) for free. As a result we decided to look around for relatively affordable folding bikes.
We attempted to buy some quite nice folding bicycles from a well-known manufacturer but they turned out not to be available in time. Looking about at various websites of people who sell imported Chinese folding bikes we found www.bicycles4u.com who had a 16" wheel bike for just £80 which was fully equipped, folded to a reasonable size and didn't weigh too much. They also sell a version with rear suspension but we decided we didn't like the weight penalty (weight is especially important for a folding bike which you're going to have to lift regularly) or larger folded size of that version. It wasn't possible for us to try the bike before buying but we decided that as we'd recoup over a quarter of the price of the bikes on our first journey it was worth the risk as in the worst case we'd be able to re-sell them and recoup most of the remainder of the cost after that first trip. I ordered the bikes by telephone on Wednesday and they arrived at our house in Cambridge by 8:30 on Thursday morning.
So, what did we get ? Well, the bikes really are fully equipped. They have (steel) mudguards, 6 derailleur gears, folding pedals, a luggage rack, dynamo lights, a bell, kickstand, and both front and pedal reflectors. Along with the (optional) carrying bag they seem to weigh a little over 13kg each. As you'll see in the photos, they fold pretty small. A longer but narrower bundle than the market leading Brompton. They're also a slightly more awkward shape to carry and they have the chain on the outside of the folded bike so you have to take care what you could make dirty with it. This is a large part of the reason why we bought the bags (two of which are curled into each other and bungied onto the rack in the photos of the bikes).
How about riding ? I had feared that the bikes would be under-geared, and they are a little. The ETRTO 305 size wheels, 48 tooth chainring and 14-28 freewheel offer a gear range of about 26" - 52". 52" is a little too low for a top gear, so a leisurely speed is required. However, the bikes are not for racing and this wasn't so much of a limitation as we had thought it might be. You can't ride really fast with this gear, though on occasion I've got it up to about 33 km/h on the flat, feet spinning with a cadence around 130. I guess I could say it's good for your "supplesse"...
The frame is quite stiff. The stem and handlebars stiffness seems about as compromised as you'd find it to be on any folding bike. I personally found the old Bickerton to be a terrifying ride and I rate these as being very much better than that. I suspect than on side by side comparison with a Brompton they might seem a little worse - but look at the price difference !
It's perhaps worth mentioning that there is a choice of colours.
The wheelbase is quite short, so any luggage carried on the rack must be on the top and not at the sides. You can't fit panniers and still be able to pedal.
Given that the bikes arrived just a couple of days before we left, I found a couple of old handlebar bags to put on the front for light bulky items (e.g. waterproofs, which it turned out we needed rather a lot) and we bungied some luggage directly onto the racks.
I intend to make baskets to fit the rack tops but not interfere with folding which will make carrying luggage a little easier.
The bikes turned out to work very well for our trip. We could mostly get away with not bothering to fold the bikes on the trains and due to their small size they still fitted quite well into the cycle compartment. When we were required to fold, it didn't take very long to do that - a few seconds. Definitely under a minute even before we'd got the hang of it.
I found the best order for folding to be first to undo the catch on the handlebars and fold down beside the wheel, then fold the frame in two and then push the saddle down and fold the pedals. A velcro strap is provided to keep the package together when folded. It is also worth putting the dynamo into the "on" position so that it is less vulnerable.
Given the price, there have to be a few snags. You could pay more than the entire bike price for just about any individual component on the bikes. We had a couple of minor faults. First, the bolts holding such things as mudguards and the rack in place are not fitted with nylock nuts so shook lose on my first test ride. This I solved by tightening them up and then running a little superglue into the threads. I've used this technique on many occasions. It is not as permanent as it sounds as the glue snaps instantly when you want to undo the bolts. Make sure you tighten everything up as well as possible on any new bicycle.
The front dynamo lamps were both broken in the boxes the bikes were sent in. I suggested to the company that it would be better to send them separately in the box (as were the pedals and bell) so that they are not exposed to being bumped in transit. I also told them that I had fixed the lights and that they needn't worry about the problem, but replacements still arrived through the post in a couple of days. That's very good customer service.
You shouldn't be surprised to learn that all components are relatively inexpensive, however they seem to be chosen quite sensibly. For instance, the wheel rims are alloy for good braking while the hubs are cheaper steel. They're not luxury items, but I've had town bikes with steel hubs which have lasted for many years of constant use and I expect these to last quite well too. The wheels are nearly perfectly true and don't seem to have moved in the use we've given the bikes. Such small wheels should be very strong with the 28 spokes they've each got.
The V style brakes use plastic brake levers (which feel quite sturdy) but the brakes themselves are pressed steel. On other cheap bikes I've seen nasty plastic at that point. They seem to adjust quite well and do not rub the wheels.
The gearing suffers from being a little low. One thing I'd like to replace is the chainset with a larger chainwheel. It should then be possible to get up to nearly a 60" gear just by fitting a 52 tooth chainring. The one fitted is a steel single chainring, so it would be easy to save some weight by replacing with an aluminium version. The bottom bracket is a normal square taper sort, not a BMX style single piece, so replacing these parts should be easy. Some similar folding bikes have much worse gearing problems which can't easily be fixed. For instance, one model I looked at sold in Halford has a single piece bottom bracket and a single even lower gear. The derailleur used is the cheapest Shimano, and as expected seems to work very well even indexing correctly.
The tyres are cheap and cheerful. After a puncture, I replaced the rear tyre with a Schwalbe Marathon which though it's designed as a reliable rather than a really fast tyre, also resulted in quite a bit more speed, in part no doubt because they could take more pressure. So one other problem is that the cheap tyres are inefficient.
Perhaps the worst individual part of this package is the saddle, which really is quite uncomfortable. I replaced mine with a sprung comfort saddle. This isn't a racing bike, so a narrow saddle is not what you want. What's more, a sprung saddle lifts you higher, meaning that a correct saddle height was possible for me without having to find an even longer seat post than the original. The suspension offered by such a saddle is also welcome. More worthwhile than spending extra on the heavier version of the bikes with rear suspension.
As with many bikes there is inadequate grease in the bearings. It is worthwhile to open up the wheel hubs, bottom bracket and headset bearings in order that they can be greased, and then adjusting them correctly. This will make all those parts run slightly smoother and last somewhat longer.
In my view, the Brompton sets the gold standard so far as usable small folding bikes are concerned. Let's be clear that these bikes are not really a Brompton on the cheap. No. At the price you have to expect some compromises. However, I feel they offer superb value for money. They did everything we asked of them on our short trip, even atracting a few admiring glances. Nothing really feels cheap except the saddle, which is easy and cheap to replace.
Over time these bikes have easily recouped their purchase price in avoidance of rail ticket charges etc. Great value for money for people who only intermittently need a folding bike.
However, if you intend to commute year round by folding bike, you'll probably want something a bit better.
Update October 2007
A few months later and the bikes have been used a few more times. They're slower than full sized bikes, but they do just what they're supposed to do. I've had to remove and glue in the plastic liners for the frame tubes where the seatpost and handlebars slide up and down. I also found that White Lightning style clean chain lubricant works very well to lubricate the seatpost and handlebar stem so that they slide easily but you can still clamp them tightly.
The bikes have been used several more times, mainly for other trips involving trains. We have replaced the saddles.
And as for our house hunting trip ? We've looked around a lot of the Netherlands over the last few years and have decided to settle in Assen.
An afternoon's ride to Groningen
On the 11th of October 2008, I rode the bike to Groningen and came back on the train. In the past I've only ever ridden the bike for short distances and I was pleased with how well it worked for the 40 km ride. The video shows the ride:
You can also see the video on my blog.
Recommended upgrades and extras
We recommend changing the saddle and fitting better tyres (especially rear tyres first as they are most puncture prone, most difficult to fix, and have most bearing on overall rolling resistance). Some people have had problems with the pedals. You might also consider carrying a pump and toolkit. These are the parts we recommend:
Saddle: Selle Royal Classic.
Tyres: Schwalbe Marathon tyres.
Inner tubes: Schwalbe inner tubes.
Pedals: Wellgo 868 flat pedals.
You might also want to consider a toolkit.
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