For the eighth year in a row Washington has been named the top bicycle-friendly state in the country by the League of American Bicyclists. Cities across the Pacific Northwest have been adding commuter bike lanes to make urban biking safer and to encourage traffic weary commuters to leave the comfort of their car for the exhilaration of the bike seat. So the question is…is this the year you become a Pacific Northwest bike commuter?
Bike commuting in the Northwest is not for the faint of heart. Rain, hills, and heavy traffic can challenge even the most adventurous bike commuter. And what happens if it is sunny on the way to work, but a torrential rain rolls in at quitting time? Or what if you find yourself heading home after the sun has set and the roads are dark and slick. The folding bike may just be the answer to these common Northwest biker blues.
Crazy you say? Well many of the big manufacturers and retailers are betting that the folding bike’s time has come and expect North American sales to reach $1 billion. This year retailing giants Target and Sports Authority started carrying the Brazilian bike brand Durban, signaling that the foldable has moved into the mainstream. With the market taking off, there are a variety of styles, sizes, and prices ranges to consider. Quality mid-range bikes from Dahon and Durban cost around $400 – $600, while a full-size Montague 30 speed mountain bike will cost over $2,500.
The key feature in cost is how compact the bike is and the performance capabilities – both of which are largely determined by tire size. Folding bike tires generally come in sizes from 16 to 26 inches. The smaller the tire size, the smaller the bike folds, while larger tires offer better performance. Recently I borrowed my friend’s new Durban Bay-Pro bike and took it for a test commute around Seattle to see what all the folding bike hoopla was about. Is the foldable the future of urban bike commuting? Maybe.
Starting with the advantages; the folding bike’s biggest selling point is the compact storage size. The bike I tested had 20-inch tires and when folded and put in its bag could fit comfortably in your cubicle or micro-apartment. Also, if you are living your Sleepless in Seattle dream on a cozy houseboat or crashing couch-bum style on your buddy’s sailboat your bike can go where you go. Another advantage is that on those days when it is sunny in the morning and showers in the evening, you can easily fold and tuck your bike into the trunk of a car and avoid the puddles.
I found the bike’s design comfortable for a short 30-45 minute commute and the seven speeds were adequate for most terrain encountered. The carry rack was sturdy enough for a gym bag, groceries, or whatever you may need to haul. I normally commute on a full-size mountain bike so the smaller tires on the folding bike took a few minutes to master. However, once I got used to the smaller wheels the bike easily navigated the many potholes and other hazards found on the commute.
Any bike test in the Pacific Northwest has to include a hill test. I decided to finish my test commute with a climb up Seattle’s notorious Queen Anne Hill and its thigh cramping, lung crushing 18.5 percent grade. The bike performed well on the gentle slope leading to the steepest part of the hill. However, when I had to stand up to pedal on the toughest parts of the hill the bike was harder to control and my knees actually hit the handle bars several times. The front wheel would also tend to pull off the pavement as I powered up the hill. I don’t ride a unicycle, but that is the image that came to mind as I struggled to make the top. More gear options may have helped, but the bike was definitely operating on the edge of its performance range. Tall and heavier bikers may have additional issues with the compact design. I did make it up the hill, a challenging pedal that most commuters can choose to avoid by walking the bike or hopping a bus.
Kyle Fisher, owner of the Alpine Hut ski and bike shop in Seattle, thinks the folding bike occupies a small niche market of boaters and college students. Fisher says that if you ride a bike to work you are probably going to lock it in the company’s bike rack and not fold it up and put it in your cubical, especially if the bike is wet and dirty. However, some commuting millennials disagree, saying they like the versatility to incorporate the folding bike into ride-sharing and public transit options, giving them more flexibility. Robin, a 20-something single-speed commuter on the south Lake Union route said that she would ride the bike. “It looks cool and fun,” she said, “and I like that it can be folded up.” While the folding bike might not be for everyone, it is easy to see how many will find the bike convenient to fold and tuck into their increasingly space-challenged, traffic congested urban lives.
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